When Hillary Clinton in a speech last week uttered the phrase “alt-right,” devotees flocked to the internet to celebrate the moment as the legitimization they’d been waiting for.
“The meme is mightier than the sword,” exalted one alt-right Twitter user. “It’s happening!” a user posted to the infamous message board 4chan, with a link to a CNN explainer published within hours of Clinton’s speech. The CNN story began: “Previously confined to darker corners of the internet, the alt-right is moving into the spotlight.”
The term “alt-right” and the people claiming its mantle had already been gaining visibility in the media before Clinton’s speech. They were primarily seen as an amorphous community with an inclination for vicious online trolling, with some roots in fringe-right ideologies. But when Clinton thrust the alt-right into the national spotlight, she did no favors for the media, which has struggled to cover the ragtag coalition that has claimed the term.
First, it’s unclear that the alt-right “movement” even qualifies as one. Because of the nebulous nature of anonymous online communities, nobody’s entirely sure who the alt-righters are and what motivates them. It’s also unclear which among them are true believers and which are smart-ass troublemakers trying to ruffle feathers. Clinton’s speech put a number of disparate phenomena—from online racists who use memes to glorify violence, to the Trump campaign’s defacto merger with Breitbart News, to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan—underneath a single, broad umbrella.
Now when journalists discuss the alt-right, they risk turning a diffuse online subculture into a solid-state political movement.
Simply by reporting on the alt-right, the media itself may not only legitimize them, but play right into their hands.
Second, if the primary purpose of the alt-right is to provoke, then attention is their life force, and media attention their fuel. Which means that simply by reporting on the alt-right, the media itself may not only legitimize them, but play right into their hands.
“Getting a journalist to repeat a racist meme is part of the game,” says Whitney Phillips, the author a book about 4chan and troll subcultures called This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. “It’s part of the goal.”
The nature of such communities is that it is almost impossible to know whether they are actually ideological, or making noise for the thrill of the response. “It makes it really confusing to assess whether it’s amplified by Donald Trump, and what are the mechanisms at play,” says Phillips, “because we don’t know what percentage is genuine.”
When the media first began reporting on the alt-right, the group was primarily described as a bunch of online bullies motivated by a mix of white-nationalism and male-victimhood. One of the first to highlight the alt-right was BuzzFeed in late 2015, describing the fringe group as “4chan-esque racist rhetoric combined with a tinge of Silicon Valley-flavored philosophizing, all riding on the coattails of the Trump boom.” In March 2016, Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari posted a 5,000-word explainer/defense of the alt-right, ascribing to it intellectual roots in the neo-reactionary, human biodiversity and ethno-nationalist movements. Several other outlets like Vice, Vox, and National Review posted their own explainers.
A new round of interest in the alt-right came when news emerged about “the echo,” a type of visual grammar used by alt-righters to draw attention to Jewish names, and thus single them out for attack. The echo encloses a name in three parentheses, and serves as a visual equivalent of an audio-effect used by the podcast The Daily Shoah to make a Jewish name sound sinister.
Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor and current editor in chief of the Daily Wire, says the alt-right movement was a recognizable phenomenon long before the mainstream media paid attention. In fact, an important aspect of the alt-right is their rejection of mainstream conservatism, which they see as selling out, hence their name.
Shapiro, who supported Ted Cruz, left Breitbart in March after openly rejecting Trump. He quickly became a target of the alt-right. “I was in open warfare with them,” he says. After his second son was born, Shapiro received tweets with wishes that “all 4 of you will go to the ovens.” His former colleague Yiannopoulos, who is now considered a figurehead of the alt-right, tweeted a photo of a black baby along with the caption, “Prayers to Ben who had to see his baby come out half-black. And already taller than he is!”
Around the same time, Breitbart began solidifying its relationship with the alt-right, says Shapiro. “As Breitbart became a defacto Trump website, the alt-right start latching on to Breitbart as their outlet of choice,” says Shapiro, “and Breitbart decided to reciprocate.”
In July, Steve Bannon, who was the executive chairman of Breitbart at the time, told a Mother Jones reporter, “We’re the platform of the alt-right.” Earlier this month, Bannon became the “CEO” of the Trump campaign.
Dexter Thomas, a former reporter at the Los Angeles Times who covered online communities, describes the alt-right as “racists with a marketing strategy.” He adds, “They’re making being racist cool again for a certain class of people.”
Some of the group’s moves are downright bizarre, and juvenile. One example occurred during the Republican convention. For those few days in July, Hillary Clinton’s Instagram account was spammed with thousands of comments containing the mysterious term “spicy boi” in several variations. It turned out to be a deliberate “comment raid” spurred by a member of the group who used an image file to spread instructions.
In alt-right speak, the term “spicy boi” is meant to lampoon political correctness. It refers to a Change.org petition to rename fire ants to “spicy boys” because, as the petition helpfully explains, “It’s 2016, we have 36 genders…why aren’t we calling fire ants spicey boys?” As for the spelling of boi, that’s just internet for boy. The petition currently has more than 60,000 signatures.
The vast majority of alt-righters are motivated less by ideology than by an itch to instigate.
Creating mischief online may seem like a benign use of the alt-right’s power, but if 60,000 people (or bots) signed a petition to rename fire ants, what happens when those same users are mobilized to question Hillary’s Clinton’s health or attack journalists unfavorable to Trump?
“There’s a very small ideological core,” says Shapiro, and its fundamental ideology is that “Western civilization is an ethnic and racial feature, not a philosophy that can be extended to all people.”
Nevertheless, Shapiro says the vast majority of alt-righters are motivated less by ideology than by an itch to instigate. They like Trump because of his ability to get away with the kind of speech they revel in. There is a difference between 4channers out to trigger “Social Justice Warriors” and resist political correctness, and ideological ethno-nationalists and white supremacists, but once they’ve been corralled under the same label, each amplifies the influence of the other.
While it’s not always easy to distinguish the meme warriors from the idealogues, it’s important to aim to draw distinctions between them. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League focus the roots of the alt-right around fringe ideologies. Media explainers, however, tend to explain the movement as an outcropping of the 4chan, Gamergate, men’s rights activist types who united under Trump.
David Auerbach, a Slate columnist and fellow at New America who wrote extensively about Gamergate, says the SPLC’s definition, while more rigorous, also has the danger of downplaying the faction. “It arguably minimizes Trump’s nefarious effects,” says Auerbach, “since it makes out the racism he’s encouraging to be confined to this tiny fringe group—when, in reality, Trump has encouraged plenty of racism among large swaths of the populace who have never even heard of the term ‘alt-right.’ ”
On the internet, whoever is loudest or best at animating the Twitter hordes wins for the moment, but it’s pretty obvious that the typical Trump supporter is not creating anime memes or spewing online hate.
The media has to respond to the alt-right’s antics, but by responding we’re playing directly into their hands. “They have us in a checkmate,” says Thomas.
In fact, it’s more like they have us in check. We may have to get off the internet to make our next move.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Ben Shapiro as the editor in chief of the Daily Caller. He edits the Daily Wire.