Propaganda and Presupposition in the Modern Era
The Monstrous Crew
#metoo, GamerGate, 4chan, and misunderstanding formal logical fallacies — what might ordinary people have in common with neo-nazi propagandists?
Hello again! Last week we talked about the basics of fascism, ethnonationalism, and the characteristics of manipulative discourse and propaganda in an effort to understand what are the basic cognitive principles that make propaganda so effective and why things like ethnonationalism, despite being irrational and immoral, can spread rapidly in a speech community. Mostly we focused on how Nazi propaganda of the 1930s and 40s embodied and demonstrated these ideas and principles, and if you haven’t seen that episode, you may want to go watch it, because today we’re going to follow it up by applying the principles we discussed more to the information age and the rise in fringe worldviews we are experiencing in the modern era. The biggest takeaway from that discussion was this: propaganda works when the target already shares some (often unconscious) bias or assumption with the propaganda message. Conversely, it is largely unable to introduce attitudes to a hearer’s mental paradigms if those attitudes are meaningfully contrary to the attitudes the hearer already holds. At some level, propaganda often involves confirmation bias, even as it seeks to integrate new (truth-conditionally defective) propositions and ideas. Furthermore, propaganda’s defining characteristic is its ability to propagate, to spread and saturate a discourse space, its function as a self-reproducing form of collective story-telling, and its emphasis on recruiting people who are willing to repeat it which is often more important than its actual ability to persuade its targets to accept its premises and propositions. Welcome to “where did all these nazis come from?” part 2, I’m Sarah, a humble graduate working and studying linguistics and Germanic studies with a little cog sci on the side at Indiana University and I’m privileged to speak as a guest today on the Monstrous Regiment.
But I’m still not going to blame Antifa for the rise of neo-fascism, nor am I going to back down on the pretty mild statement that anti-miscegenism is immoral and racist and that nazis are bad people. To quote the sage philosopher John Mulaney, I do not care for these new nazis, and you can quote me on that.
PART 2: THE INTERNET, INFORMATION FLOW, AND LANGUAGE: LET’S TALK ABOUT 4CHAN
Let me start with an anecdote. A while ago, a friend of mine told me with great aplomb that “the #Metoo movement is a conspiracy to destroy men.” A little while later, she told me that she had gone on a date and the date had rejected her after she told him that the origins of the term “alt-right,” were perfectly innocent, that it had originally meant nothing more than an alternative right-wing political position that differed from mainstream republicanism. Only later, she said, did the word “get taken over,” by “fringe” elements.
Both of these statements are false, and in slightly different ways, propagandistic: The first one is easy, every one of us either is someone or knows someone who has used the #metoo hashtag, because that’s the point. The more people who are in on a conspiracy, the harder it is to contain, and the faster it falls apart. A conspiracy where a considerable percentage of the entire population is “in” on the secret plan to destroy the menfolk would be dead upon launch. The notion that #metoo is some kind of massive, intentional conspiracy is a faintingly weak story that was born on the internet—among other places, in 4chan threads and subreddits—as a means to discredit the individual testimonies of countless individual persons, male and female by lumping them all together under the single umbrella of an imagined mass act of “false allegations,” the ultimate baba yaga of a culture in which the powerful are valued over the vulnerable, a reactionary protective viral hoax which feeds on the desirability of maintaining the status quo, and is designed to be passed from person to person as a self-sustaining social script. And that is the most striking difference between the spread of “me too” and the spread of “#metoo is a conspiracy.” The first one is a large number of individuals contributing their own narratives, and the grand narrative that emerges from the data emerges is a consequence of the information becoming available and people, encountering the information, formulate a narrative around it: the narrative may be “men are bad” for perhaps a very small number of people, but the actual phenomenon does not imply as much and virtually no one using the hashtag or supporting the spread of the information is actually saying that. The actual #metoo phenomenon is nothing but a mass appearance of data for consideration. Each use of the #metoo hashtag is a data point contributing to a trend in available information. This does not make it a manipulation of availability cascades as discussed in the previous video, though, because the high frequency of #metoo tokens is generated not by over-frequent media reporting—it’s correlated to a measurable frequency of allegations sexual harassment and assault—each #metoo corresponds to an allegation, a frequency which previously was obscured by the conditions of the available information, because the data was not visible to the public eye. #MeToo was and is a mass act of self-reporting.
The second one, the “#metoo is a conspiracy” story is a story. Every iteration of it is the same because it moves horizontally through discourse, it is repeated verbatim as a rebuttal to countless testimonies, a carpet-bombing of mass delegitimization that automatically discredits all victims of sexual violence, full stop. All instances of “This happened to ME,” are simultaneously and preemptively met with “you’re in on the conspiracy.” Every allegation of abuse, true or false, is equally silenced and delegitimized by the same blanket accusation. Individual persons testifying to their own individual experience, I cannot emphasize enough, saying “this happened to me too,” is not a unitary message passed from person to person, but countless individual messages generated in situ and concerning countless individual events. A script passed from hand to hand is horizontal propaganda. Individual testimonies of personal experience aren’t. That’s one way of engaging with an overwhelming flood of information and determining whether your information availability cascade is being manipulated or not: who is generated the data, who is generating the stories, and do those stories represent individual instances of a thing happening or individual instances of a media outlet talking about a thing happening. Does that make sense? Furthermore, look for a script: does the argument come ready-packaged to counter any counterevidence without requiring engagement with the evidence? E.g. the Nazi propaganda story that the Jews control the press is a ready-made script that can counter literally any press story critical of Nazism regardless of what the story actually said or what evidence they had. Similarly, metoo is a conspiracy is a ready-packaged script that does not need to engage with the actual evidence presented by the real people using the hashtag. And finally, most importantly, ask yourself what is the proposition (or propositions) that the speaker is trying to get you to accept. (By the way, in semantics a “proposition” is a type of utterance that can be said to be true or false, hence the term ‘truth-conditional,’ as opposed to other types of utterances like, for example an interjection or a command. I know that seems obvious but sometimes you have to be explicit about obvious things.) The proposition that the #metoo phenomenon is intended (by the men and women who participate) to present is that sexual harassment and violence is widespread and the use of the hashtag is intended to provide actual data demonstrating the truth-conditional validity of that proposition. Each individual usage of the #metoo hashtag is itself a proposition: “I was sexually harassed.” “And I was.” “And I was.” With enough individual propositions, each representing a single datum, the overarching message emerges directly from this growing pool of data. By contrast, the propositions that “#metoo is a conspiracy” is seeking to integrate into the target’s cognitive frames are: you know, metoo is a conspiracy, that’s a truth-conditional utterance, but more important is the other proposition, which is a presupposition. “#metoo is a conspiracy” implies (or perhaps even entails) the presupposition that lying about sexual assault, especially women lying about sexual assault, is widespread. The widespreadness of the hashtag exists either way. It either represents a widespread systemic problem or a widespread systemic lie. Because if #metoo is a conspiracy, then the real-life women and men who actually say “me too,” which, remember, is not a script but a personal witness to their own experiences, are lying. That is implied by the script regardless of whether it is intended by the people who say it.
Meanwhile, the idea that the term “alt-right” was originally a totally innocent self-designation for social and/or fiscal conservatives who were unhappy with mainstream republicanism is a myth. In reality, the term was coined by Richard Spencer, an avowed white nationalist who started the web magazine Alternative Right and is the president of the National Policy Institute, an overtly Neo-Nazi activist group. Spencer is shrewd enough to know that you can’t call your social movement “let’s be Nazis,” (at least not at first) and expect to get many recruits. The bald face of Nazism is too ugly and off-putting: it’s bad optics. So you choose euphemistic terms and veil your rhetoric in reasonable-sounding discourse, you dress nice and talk with an air of education and pseudo-intellectualism. Comb your hair to the side and wear a suit. To this end did he utilize the term ‘alt-right.’ It’s outrightly a propaganda term—a manipulative discourse tool intended to facilitate the spread of specific ideas that would face greater resistance if they were introduced to public discourse with their own true names, a way of spreading ideas without seeming on the surface to be promoting those ideas—and its targets were social and fiscal conservatives unhappy with mainstream rightism. Unhappy conservatives were being asked to consider whether an alternative to the rightism they know—an alternative that includes, whether it admits to it or not, antisemitism, fascism, and white nationalism—might be refreshing after they became rightly unhappy with the mainstream discourse. This is how the toxic ideas inherent to Spencer’s term “alt-right” get slid in under the door. And, if my friend is any evidence, it worked. Importantly, the story about the origins of the term ‘alt-right,’ that my friend believes actually didn’t sound unreasonable to me the first time I heard it. It is a piece of propaganda, one intended to deflect criticism of the alt-right as being extremist at its roots. But unlike the “#metoo is a conspiracy” story, this story is not necessarily instantly identifiable as propaganda because it doesn’t sound like propaganda. Everyone is familiar with instances of pejoration, or the process by which a positively or neutrally connoted word acquires negative connotations through semantic shift, (for example, the word ‘propaganda,’); we have, in other words, a frame of reference, a set of known precedents that inform the (valid) assumption that words sometimes acquire negative connotations over time even if they started out innocent. So the story my friend heard, believed, and repeated to me merely takes advantage of that existing frame and falsely situates “alt-right” in the category of misappropriated and pejorated terms that we all know.
Here’s another anecdote: to this day I still sometimes see people in my social media feed sharing articles and videos from a group called Britain First. In fact, at one time I got into an argument with a person near and dear to me concerning the international refugee crisis, and among other things this near and dear person (henceforth Near-and-Dear) repeatedly private-messaged me Britain First content as “proof” of their argument, until I outrightly said that I refused to even open the links.
Britain First is an extremist group.
To be clear, I’m not “calling people who disagree with me Nazis.” Britain First is a group founded in 2011 by members of the British National Party—aka the literal current nazi party in Britain–and known for its organized paramilitary “muslim patrols” and its targeting of Mosques. The British National Party (or BNP) is itself a splinter of the National Front—more on them in a second. BF founder Jim Dowson has actually departed the group because its Mosque invasion activities became too extreme for him, (or at least he felt the optics were too counterproductive, hard to say). The BNP was also behind the formation of Combat 18, a fascist terrorist group suspected in numerous actual assassinations and deaths of immigrants (link in the comments). The other founder–and present leader–of Britain First is Paul Golding, former member of the BNP and the National Front, who is also leader of the National People’s Party.
The National Front—of which, once again, the British National Party, and by extension Combat 18, Britain First, and another group called National Action whose members have been indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit murder of several (female) pro-immigration MPs and a (female) police officer, are splinter groups—is an openly Neo-Nazi organization founded by A.K. Chesterton, a journalist and a former member of the British Union of Fascists (hard to mistake that one for anything but a fascist party), who was later a member of the Nordic League. The National Front is currently headed up by a man named Tony Martin. Actually, the British Union of Fascists, otherwise known as the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists in case you thought they might still have some amount of plausible deniability, dates all the way back to 1932. That’s right, the BUF was aligned with Nationalsozialismus during, throughout, and after the rise, reign, and fall of Hitler. Oswald Mosley, the guy who founded the British Union of Fascists and apparently palled around with literally Mussolini at least once, coined the phrase “Britain First” as the name of his fascist rally “Britain First” in 1939 which was attended by over 30,000 people.
The National Front is a self-professing white ethno-nationalist group that only allows white members and promotes anti-miscegenism, antisemitism (the “Jews control the world” conspiracy theory), and holocaust denial, among many many other things, including the idea that only white people should be allowed citizenship in Great Britain, i.e. the forced creation of a white British ethnostate. They’re also openly misogynist. Tommy Mair, a white ethno-nationalist who murdered MP Jo Cox in 2016 by shooting and stabbing her repeatedly while screaming “Britain First!” throughout the attack also had connections to the National Front. The murder of Jo Cox was reportedly partly the inspiration for the aforementioned other planned assassinations of Labour MP Rosie Cooper and a (female) police officer—Jack Renshaw, a neo-Nazi pedophile who was planning the murders, was a spokesperson for National Action and a member of the BNP. Thankfully his plans were thwarted thanks to the efforts of a mole within National Action and the journalistic efforts of the anti-fascist group “Hope Not Hate.” A member of National Action also at one time was apparently planning to assassinate Prince Harry for being a race traitor—since his wife Megan Markle is of mixed-race descent. None of this is a secret and what I’m describing isn’t the discovery of a hidden conspiratorial web, it took me a few minutes on google to put all this together and apparently it’s pretty much common knowledge in the UK. This information is public and largely self-professed. And yes, it is just as easy to do the same thing with American equivalents like the National Policy Institute and the America First movement; the America First movement is the cross-Atlantic cousin of Britain First.
>as an aside, I went to the BNP website, and I am pretty sure that at least some of their content may be copy-pasted from essays by Joseph Goebbels. Check the footnotes for details.
Anyway, to conclude, concerning this anecdote about Near-and-Dear:
Britain First is literally and unmistakably an extremist movement with at minimum considerable Neo-Nazi connections including connections to a number of actual and planned murders. But here’s the point of all that: normal people are vulnerable to propaganda, including nazi propaganda. Near-and-Dear, who pm’d me video after video of Britain First content was not a Neo-Nazi, he was a normal person who is able to be reasonable in discussion of other topics, who was being the person who was willing to repeat it. My friend who unknowingly repeated a story fabricated to protect the legitimacy of a term designed to facilitate the spread of quite-literally-Nazism, is a normal person; she’s not a fascist. She is a computer scientist and has an MA. She was being the person who was willing to repeat it.
That story about the term alt-right? I believed it when I first heard it. Thank God it didn’t come up in a conversation again before I learned the real origins, because I might have repeated it. That was before I started working significantly on discourse analysis and especially present-day nazi propaganda, but I still could have applied more pressure to the story and found out it wasn’t true with very little effort. There were factors in my cognitive frames—defined as the various structured sets of beliefs and assumptions that inform my view of the world and which I use to evaluate and integrate new propositions—that made me vulnerable to this particular propaganda narrative. One factor I have already mentioned: like everyone, I am familiar with the concept of pejoration and lots of words change connotation over time. This is a believable story. Another factor is that I knew my friend, or thought I did, reasonably well, and had no reason to think she was telling me something false, and she obviously did not think she was telling me something false. Being wrong about something doesn’t make you automatically a malicious propaganda-loving liar. It’s okay to be wrong about things sometimes and correct yourself, even if it’s a bit embarrassing. Believe me, I am the queen of having to apologize for the beliefs I used to hold. Other factors may have included my conservative up-bringing which was part of the formation of my base assumptions, especially about “rightism” conservativism, and virtue, and it is possible I found the story believable because I was primed to find defenses of terms which “leftists” hate more credible.
Present-day Nazi propaganda, and indeed all propaganda, relies on narrative coherence. Coherence relies on relevance and reference. Reference means frames. Frames means base assumptions. Everyone—EVERYONE—has base assumptions. Base assumptions are cognitive mechanisms that enable you to function in a world that exists outside your mind but which your mind must find a way of efficiently representing, it’s not bad to have base assumptions. But they do make you vulnerable to manipulation and it is bad to be unable or unwilling to reconsider them or interrogate them.
At this point, you may begin to wonder: why did I call this section “let’s talk about 4chan” and then go on about #metoo and follow up with a long digression concerning the history and machinations of a number of interconnected British Fascist groups founded at far back as the 30s, well before the internet even existed? Don’t worry, we’re getting there; that was a preface. Basically, some of the content in your newsfeed is definitely Nazi propaganda even if it does not appear on the surface to be, and normal people sometimes consume, share, and re-produce propaganda narratives without realizing it. What do sites like 4chan, 8chan, Gab, and Reddit have to do with a British fascist party and that party’s internet presence turning up rearing its ugly head in my PMs, even though neither I nor Near-and-Dear are 4chan users, or users of any of those other sites? (Well I sometimes use Reddit to get tips on video game strategies and cupcake recipes.) Here we go: certain corners of subculturally particular internet forums like 4chan and reddit have functioned during the last ten years or so as hubs of discussion and communication for extremist groups, and a number of viral hoaxes and widespread propaganda narratives, including Neo-Nazi propaganda, were formulated there. If you doubt the efficacy of message-boards and imageboards to gain significant mainstream traction to the degree that, say, pandering to those fringe elements to be found in the dark, weird, vaguely uncomfortable internet backwoods could get someone elected to the highest office in the country, well, science, specifically information science, has something to say about that.
A lot of recent research has focused on meme-culture in 4chan’s /pol/ and Reddit’s The_Donald, as well as Gab and other regions of the online alt-right and “manosphere” communities in an effort to track memes, (both in the internet sense of image-macros and in the sociological sense of self-reproducing ideas that spread and mutate throughout human communities) and find out how they travel through information ecosystems and the degree to which some of these ‘memes’ are forms of intentionally manipulative discourse. A couple of those studies are linked below. They find frequently that memes, linguistic rhetorical tokens, and arguments begin inside these web communities and then are pushed into mainstream discourse, with, for example 4chan’s /pol/ generating the largest number of memes, in particular racist memes or otherwise hateful rhetoric, and Reddit’s The_Donald having the most success at pushing racist propagandistic memes into the mainstream. Similarly, the frequency of specifically antisemitic content greatly increases after major political events like the 2016 election or the Unite the Right rally, concomitant with increases in content related to ethnonationalism. The latent networks between individuals are often surprisingly small, i.e. the distance in degrees of separation between people on the internet is very short despite the size of the networks themselves, and researchers have found that social media mechanics can lead to information cascades (we talked about those in the last episode). Check the comments for a couple of interesting sources of these mechanisms. Basically, information or propaganda or memes travels great distances in short paths, and can create cascades where the same bits of information or memes or propaganda narratives repeat themselves enough to skew the available information, or ‘flood’ the ecosystem with repeating false signals, enough to create false impressions of the world. I hope that is a worthy representation, information scientists of the world!
When it comes to things like 4chan it can be tempting to oversimplify, but the relationship between fringe activity on sites like 4chan and trends in broader culture is a bit complicated. if you have shared a meme, you have shared a 4chan meme. Right-wing motivated GamerGate (an antifeminist mob-movement that forced three women to flee their homes) and the left-wing hacker activist (I will not say the word hacktivist!) group Anonymous are both associated with 4chan’s subcommunities. It’s not 4chan itself, really, because honestly that’s just an image-board, nothing too sinister about that—4chan isn’t some evil puppetmaster and I’m not going to assign it some kind of agency–but arguably the near-total anonymity and the valorization of taboo-violation that has flourished in that anonymity form the conditions for various fringe elements to congregate and create self-sustaining information feedback loops and/or begin to self-organize on a scale not previously as easy. Basically, they’re “safe spaces” for people to express the things that they feel they can’t or couldn’t publicly say thanks to “PC-culture,” (a thing they intensely, intensely hate because it is perceived as an imposition of control by an outside force, most egregiously a form of control imposed by women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks.) It’s the combination of broad sociological trends nursing resentment toward those who are perceived to be taking “control” of culture (read: power) away from those who previously enjoyed it pretty exclusively, and the advent of online spaces where these sociological “trends” can crystallize into actual subcultures. As I’ve already said some of these groups date back to the 30s; they’ve been here all along. Even using the internet to spread Neo-Nazi propaganda is basically as old as the internet, nothing new there either—the Stormfront website was founded in the 90s. But the disinhibitory aspects of the internet, combined with a culture of trolling for shock value, and with a fulminating backlash against feminism and multiculturalism, have given them new life. These subcultures and corners of the internet to be found on 4chan and 8chan and some of the darker corners of Reddit, among other places, are known for their insulation, their particular internet-dialect, and ability to self-organize, particularly for their orchestrated and concentrated harassment and/or trolling campaigns, raids on other websites, and hoaxes. Of particular interest is 4chan’s /pol/ or “politically incorrect” thread, a hub of alt-right, neo-nazi, anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigration activity, and 4chan’s /b/ or “random” board, where the already lax moderation rules don’t apply, except the basic rules against illegal activity such as illegal pornography (rules which are often treated as a joke within the community.) Basically /b/ is a hub of all horrors. Since the background radiation of these sociological trends feeds and even more-or-less creates these toxic subcultures, it’s not accurate to say that neo-nazis or related strands of fascists and power-religionists “originate” on 4chan or anything like that. Nonetheless, as already mentioned before, a LOT of rhetoric that is rooted in latent racial and sexual resentment of 20th century fascism has found a home in these online communities and in turn they have done a stunning amount of work in seeding that rhetoric into mainstream discourse. These trends exist, they find a safe space online to self-cultivate and bring in new recruits, then to organize, than to expand and seed the culture, and finally to bring their antics into the physical world as we saw with Charlottesville and the increased fearlessness with which fascist-type rhetoric now shows itself in public discourse. Alt-Right figurehead and editor of the Daily Stormer Andrew Anglin is a good example—according to a profile of him done in 2017, he was already attracting to “trolling” behavior and a bully who slut-shamed his girlfriend for being date-raped, but his radicalization and explicit attraction to neo-nazism developed under the influence of Alex Jones’ conspiracy-theory site Infowars.com and his heavy use of 4chan.
Gamergate is of special interest because in some ways it was a test run for the tactics of the alt-right, a term I might as well mention I am using pretty loosely here to describe a number of interconnected and mutually overlapping but also sometimes mutually hostile movements including literal unironic neo-nazis, Mens Rights Activists, occultists, and self-styled far-right ‘libertarians’, and accordingly, alt-righters overlap with Gaters considerably, and a number of prominent GamerGate figureheads are also alt-righters. For example, Matt Forney, a “white identitarian” and alt-right figurehead gave a speech at the—oh-boy—“Identitarian Ideas IX” conference in which he called GamerGate “the first successful backlash against Cultural Marxism,” in his lifetime complaining about cuckservatives impeding the charge of nationalism, and saying, “the white man of gaming saw leftists trying to subvert their favorite hobby, the one they retreated to after society rejected them, and said, ‘no more. Enough. This line you shall not cross.” (Hahahahahahaha oh no not your *favorite hobby!*) Matt Forney is also a member of the so-called Pick-Up-Artist community and who publishes books and blogs of advice for men on how to succeed sexually with women that are suspiciously similar to the writings of Forney’s colleague, confessed rapist Roosh V, advice that incidentally includes instructions on gaslighting and emotional abuse, like “if she hasn’t done something wrong, make something up, nothing she does can ever be good enough for you.” He also advises his readers to sexually violate their partners as a form of control. NICE GUY. And “Nice Guy,” of course. Forney also appears alongside white nationalist “race realist” / mens rights activist Davis Aurini in the trailer for an apparently Tarantino-inspired “Alt Right Dogs” movie. Matt Forney and Roosh V are together behind the pro-rape blog Return of Kings. Like, they literally have advocated for the legalization of rape. Confessed rapist Roosh V later claimed that was satire, but since it perfectly lines up with his and the website’s philosophy, and since “I was just kidding,” or “it was satire,” are not only a common rhetorical tactics of provocateurs who want to weasel out of something or gaslight and blameshift by accusing those who object to their rhetoric of ‘overreacting,’ or being unable to take a joke, but one of Roosh’s own favorite tactics (see footnotes), we will not be giving them a “satirical” pass today. I’ll talk a bit about ‘satire’ and ‘trolling’ right at the end. Return of Kings focuses mainly on topics related to sex and masculinity and such, but also goes in for racist talking points, like claims that white European men are being “cucked” by governments that promote interracial marriage, claims that white women who have sex with black men are turning their backs on their ***heritage***, etc. As well as platforming white supremacists like Paul Ramsay. And the name of that website? Keep it in mind, and not just because it appropriates the name of a very good book that inspired me to become a linguist and really doesn’t deserve such a horrible association. We’ll come back to that. Anyway, GamerGate also handily demonstrates the increased centrality of misogyny and related complex of sex-and-gender-related ideas relative to the fascism of the 30s and 40s, since the racism and antisemitism that quickly sprung up in the course of GamerGate’s 4chan-orchestrated campaign of harassment slid into the discourse under the banner of combatting feminist encroachment on the perceived last masculine safe space of gaming culture. GamerGate also handily demonstrates one of the key aspects of propaganda, which we’ve already talked about in this episode and the last one: it’s ability to slip truth-conditionally defective propositions into a discourse space by means of “trojan-horsing” them inside other arguments or because they are sufficiently “coherent” with the cognitive frames of the target. In this case, most of the people who participated in the wider GamerGate phenomenon (as opposed to those who actually orchestrated it) probably didn’t consciously hold the type of caustic hostility or entitlement toward women that is observed in open misogynists like Matt Forney and Stefan Molyneux—most of them were normal non-fascist people, including some women! But the anti-feminist rhetoric resonated with them because they already shared at least some base assumptions about male-female relations, women, media, and gender, which is reflected in the strength of their emotional reaction to the not-especially-radical or even new criticism levied at ostensibly male-oriented media by feminists.
Researchers Marwick and Lewis have described the various strategies by which fringe communities “seed the culture” as attention hacking (because it’s the information age and we really like hacking metaphors now.) Strategies include generating outright provably false claims on the bet that their lifetime productivity in the worldwide information ecosystem will outlast or outrun the debunkings that would immediately follow, since, as I said in the previous video, disprovings never have the viral punch that the initial, emotionally-resonant falsehood does. Others include mixing false claims in with “true” facts or framing true facts as if they imply something they don’t really imply, another strategy we talked about before. Information tends to attain attention if it is emotionally resonant (which it will be if it clicks in with a value-laden proposition or base assumption, you recall), if it is sensational, (like a video claiming to show migrants committing outrageous acts of violence,) if it is really novel (for example, a non-propagandistic but still false viral meme just went around the other day claiming to show Beluga whales apparently having knees, hence explaining why old-timey sailors used to mistake them for mermaids. The picture sure looks like knees, but actually it’s just the blubber moving in a way that got caught on camera at the right moment.) Users on alt-right internet hubs are pretty good at knowing just how to get people—right wing people, left wing people, the unaffiliated—to share and talk about their narratives by taking advantage of these features.
Propaganda narratives are constructed in the enclosed information ecosystems of alt-right echo chambers like Gab and 8chan, and then seeded into mainstream information ecosystems. Let’s look at an example.
8chan is a splinter of 4chan that exists because 4chan’s moderators decided to (faintingly) try to enforce some moderation rules. It’s associated with a number of other high-profile controversies, like the use of swatting, or false reports intended to get a target raided by a SWAT team, GamerGate of course, neo-nazism, and of course child pornography. In November of 2015, an 8chan user under the name Gex uploaded a video called “With Gates Wide Open, the forced collective Suicide of European Nations.” Chat logs from 8chan users show them discussing how to frame the video when sending it to people depending on their political alignment, for example, share it with right-wingers while expressing anti-immigration sympathies, but send it to leftists with a comment pretending to be offended at the anti-immigration content. They also talked about sending the video to reporters and other click-generating sources likely to pick it up and get it more traffic, and openly referred to it as “propaganda.”
It didn’t take long for people to start the debunkings—within a few days people like writer Philip Kleinfeld had matched many of the clips purporting to show muslim refugees committing violence in Europe to unrelated, sometimes decades-old episodes of conflicts involving people who were frequently not Muslims, not immigrants, not Syrian. The clips were presented only in each other’s context, and in the context of some real video of migrants during the recent Syrian refugee crisis, but depicted people in unstated situations implied by the video to be immigrants recently arrived to do all kinds of nefarious things to Europeans. At least one clip showed white anti-fascist activists attacking a migrant person by mistake! This is the thing I was talking about: the clips depicted real things (i.e. utilized “facts”) and framed them in a context that implied the clips were showing migrant violence committed by recent Muslim arrivals. As Philip Kleinfeld put it, the video is just a supercut of “people who are not white in situations which are not stated.” It does other things like intentionally miscaption speakers, and repeat easily debunked straight up lies about rape statistics in Norway, claiming that “studies show 100% of rapes between strangers are committed by non-western immigrants” when the study they actually refer to says that the overwhelming majority of rapes were committed by native-born Norwegians. There’s… a lot. Much can be said about how the video uses editing techniques to ramp up heightened emotion, which, in my opinion, is working to create what Jason Stanley called “affective override,” or the moment when a subject’s emotional reaction to something overcomes their ability to think critically about it. I was going to go through this video clip by clip and show how they use the ‘language’ of cinematography to frame and imply things that are often outrightly just lies, but this script is too dang long already, so instead I’ll advise you watch a video by film editor and youtuber Dan Olson, which I’ve linked in the comments, which talks about how film language can be used for propaganda. It’s very accessible and insightful and of course an actual film editor can comment more cogently on that subject than I can anyway.
The Gates Wide Open video features former British National Party (remember them?) leader Nick Griffin, who refers to the holocaust as the ‘holohoax.’ In the clip, he claims that there is an “alliance” of leftists and Zionists to “promote immigration and miscegenation.” (‘Zionists’ being a term for Jews generally in this context.)
It features clips of French politicians discussing interracial marriage in a way that the implies (thanks to the manipulative editing of the video of course) the politicians will “force” interracial marriage on the EU
It shows clips of young children who are not white, as well white women with biracial children, while discussing the “plot” to force interracial marriage on the EU (thereby transferring the fearful tone in which this “plot” is shrouded into the “threat” of non-white children and biracial babies born to white women.)
It promotes the theory, popular among neo-nazis and inherited directly from their 20th century predecessors, of “White Genocide” or the idea that Jews but also immigrants and other non-white people will destroy the white race by out-breeding them
It fixates in more than one clip on the differences in “birth rates” between whites and non-white people. Also inherited directly from the original Nazis.
It ends on a clip of a Jewish woman discussing how “Jews” are at the center of the growth of multiculturalism in the EU. Turns out she is the founding director of the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, so, she’s even a Jewish academic on top of it. Nice. This is another clip where they took something real—she really did say that, of course—but framed it in a video that has already claimed that the Jews are part of a plot to destroy the west with multiculturalism and miscegenation so, I imagine you can see why this is problematic.
Oh. And its final image is the 8chan /pol/ thread logo. Which is very clearly a swastika.
So, did you see what happened? The video taps into the fear of migrants and outsiders by purporting to show migrants committing all kinds of monstrosities, and to this day most of the claims it makes still circulate in the right-wing media sphere. The emotionally powerful “click” the video had with right-winger viewers led them to share it to “spread the truth” about migrant violence. But the video’s actual narrative was, from the first few minutes until the last clip, about a Jewish conspiracy to promote interracial marriage as a means of destroying western civilization. And it ended with a swastika. I know for a fact some or perhaps even most of the people sharing this video weren’t antisemites, because Near-and-Dear, who shared it everywhere he could manage is of Jewish descent and is powerfully upset by antisemitism. Somehow the obvious “Jewish conspiracy” stuff got right past him because all he saw was the alleged migrant violence. Remember in the last episode where I talked about the Monkey Business Illusion and attentional bias? What I said was that you see what you are looking to see, what you expect to see, even when obvious counterclaims on your attention are right in front of you. This video, produced on an alt-right image-board that is flooded with child pornography, a video created for the purpose of fearmongering about interracial marriage and promoting a conspiracy theory according to which the Jews and migrants are trying to take over the world by promoting miscegenation and committing “white genocide” by outbreeding white people, went viral on the right almost immediately when it was released.
Because it fit in with the beliefs and assumptions, (i.e. mental models of the world) that those people already had about migrants and people of color. (Remember, it didn’t actually prove or show migrant violence, that was fakery done by cutting together clips of migrants with clips of unrelated out-of-context episodes of violence involving people of color who mostly weren’t migrants, weren’t refugees, weren’t Muslims, weren’t Syrians, etc.) It didn’t prove anything, but it seemed believable to people who already believed what the video appeared to show about migrants. They shared it, largely (probably) in the frame of mind that Near-and-Dear shared it: their attentional bias made them somehow miss the open neo-nazis narrating antisemitic talking points over the scary video, while framing people of color, but especially immigrants and Jews, as a threat to white people. As, you might say, the threat, the monolithic source of all of white European civilization’s misery. An antisemitic, anti-miscegenist video went viral among rightists by appealing to fear of immigration. The Gates Wide Open Hoax worked not just because it stoked up fear about immigrants, though, but because it blamed immigrants (and Jews, and women having sex with the wrong men) for the decline of society, a blame that can only be laid on anyone when you take it as a given that society is in decline.
That’s horizontal propaganda—propaganda that gets passed around among the propagandized rather than being handed down from a demagogue. And that’s how it happens.
There’s often a difference between levels of nearness to source: for example, my #metoo-hating friend is a redditor, but probably not directly involved in the alt-right subreddits. Near-and-Dear isn’t (as far as I know), but DOES consider certain non-research activities to count as “research.” Information is generated in some online alt-right hub, picked up by members of online-present groups like Britain First, then to mainstream media, and shared into the feeds of the ordinary public, who do not have any way to know at first that they’re looking at a 4chan hoax. (Unless, of course, there is a giant swastika-based 8chan /pol/ logo at the end.)
Even when direct items of specific propaganda, like the Gates Wide Open hoax video do not make it into your feed, the INFLUENCE of propaganda on public DISCOURSE is unmistakable. Keywords, flags, false premises, and “dog whistles” (yes, dog whistles are a real thing) creep into YOUR discourse whether you know it or not. On this point, channels of information like message boards (4chan, 8chan, reddit, etc.) and secondary sources that obscure the propaganda originators by some number of degrees of separation, like my #metoo hating friend or Britain First, become important. These are the modern-day engines by which propaganda narratives spread. And they are extremely efficient. Next we’re going to talk about one of the cultural spaces that has flourished in these parts of the internet and grown out into mainstream discourse:
That’s right! It’s finally time to talk about womenfolk and their proper place in society. (According to Nazis and nazi-sympathizers.)
Yeah. This is going to be a three-parter I guess. It turns out that even generalizing and leaving out a LOT of salient points) there’s just too much to talk about. For now, thanks for listening, and I’ll end with some final comments on the term “alt-right,” the use of “irony/trolling” and on the genetic fallacy, and when it’s appropriate, and when it isn’t. Some people were evidently a little confused.
First, I’m using the term alt-right here to encompass a general somewhat internet-based intersectional sphere of fascist-ish subconstituencies, mostly of ethnonationalists, white supremacists, male supremacists, etc. Some are focused on sex and antifeminist, others are focused on race and antisemitism, sometimes they clash. For example, Daryush “Roosh V” Valizadeh is prolific in terms of anti-feminism and neomasculinity, and dabbles in alt-right racial thinking, but is himself of Iranian-Armenian descent, which means he is viewed with suspicion by the broader racist sphere of the alt-right, because he doesn’t meet the alt-right preferred definition of whiteness–as prominent GamerGate target of Armenian descent Anita Sarkeesian can attest to. Meanwhile Lauren Southern is anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, and peddles the “Great Replacement” antisemitic conspiracy theory (in fact I recognized a graphic she uses in one of her youtube videos also briefly featuring in the Gates Wide Open video, though I don’t know if they got it from her or if both she and 8channer Gex got it from the same third source. It looks a bit visually like a PragerU graphic but I didn’t bother to go hunt it down). But it’s unlikely she would be onboard with Roosh’s positions on rape, despite their shared feelings on other aspects of antifeminism. Davis Aurini, who appeared in the Alt-Right Dogs trailer, nonetheless claims not to be a fan of the alt-right, and was apparently described as a ridiculous fool by far-right website TheRightStuff, though I couldn’t follow the link because I got a 404, so maybe they made up. Religion in the alt-right is kind of all over the place, with Evangelical Kinists, Catholics, Atheists, etc. all forming subgroups. They are united, as Alt-Right figurehead, editor of American Renaissance, and white supremacist Jarod Taylor, says, in their belief that “equality is a dangerous myth.” Anyway, the point is that these ‘different’ stripes of traditionalist authoritarianism belong in the same category and pal around so much for a reason. We’ll talk more in the next episode.
Second, I’m not super interested in picking apart which neo-nazi propaganda items are “sincere” and which are “ironic” edgelord trolling, because the distinction doesn’t matter in practice. As editor of the Daily Stormer, neo-nazi Andrew Anglin describes it: it’s “unironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism.” The “ironic” elements get repeated and discussed sincerely among followers and in mainstream discourse, and the claim of “satire” is just a weaselword. The whole ‘it’s satire’ game is just a thin, thin, thin smokescreen.
Now, for the genetic fallacy:
Imagine you have a tree. Let’s say you pluck the leaves from a particular branch and find that they contain a deadly poison. If afterward you pluck the leaves from another branch, and someone warns you “no, no, those ones are poisonous too; it’s another branch of the same poisonous tree.” This would not be an example of a genetic fallacy. An example of a genetic fallacy might be, say, insisting that the word “propaganda” be treated as positive or neutral merely because it used to be positive or neutral—that’s the etymological fallacy, which is a subtype of genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy, among other things, doesn’t account for context, and it doesn’t account for the model of the world in which a given idea exists. Context and world-models contribute to meaning. For example, the word boy is perfectly innocent of a word, both historically and in the present day, but in the context of calling an adult African American man “boy,” it takes on another character entirely. A fallacious thought process would insist there’s nothing wrong with doing that because there’s nothing wrong with the word boy. The word itself in isolation is treated as the sum total of the meaning, when everyone knows that context contributes to meaning. And yes, part of the reason it is wrong and racially charged to use the word ‘boy’ in that context is because of its history! History is part of context. Saying “genetic fallacy!” does not excuse the speaker from having to think, dare I say, critically about what things mean or from having to think about what models of the world make a specific idea coherent. That was the whole point of the last episode—to explain how frames and models inform meaning. In this case, our poisonous tree is a metaphor for a mental model of the world. Cognitive frames, which you remember from last time, are often called a type of mental model (Johnson-Laird 1980). A mental model is a way of talking about a person’s thought process—a structured mental representation of the outside world, a representation of a person’s intuitions, beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions about relationships between things within the world, like one of those expanding balls you may have had as a kid. When someone points out that the Nazis were misogynists and patriarchal, they’re not trying to transfer the negative association of Nazism from Nazis to patriarchy, they’re pointing out that patriarchy is fully consistent with the base assumptions upon which Nazism builds its worldview. They’re not attempting to discredit a claim that would otherwise merit consideration by transferring a negative association from the source where the claim was heard to the claim itself, like saying “CNN claims Donald Trump referred to immigrants as an infestation, but I don’t believe it because CNN said it,” which would be an example of the genetic fallacy. They’re not saying “patriarchy is wrong BECAUSE Very Bad Man Joseph Goebbels supported it,” they’re saying Joseph Goebbels’ support of patriarchy was part of the same model of the world that all his other beliefs were part of. Joseph Goebbels supported patriarchy BECAUSE Joseph Goebbels was into oppressive hierarchy, BECAUSE Joseph Goebbels had the BASE ASSUMPTIONS on which oppressive hierarchical thinking is built, which is the SAME reason he supported every other wicked hierarchy he supported.
If a given idea is part of a model, or a process of thinking and perceiving, according to which humans, as parts of the world, are ordered along some hierarchical pyramid based on their ontological and/or physiological features, then that idea is a branch of the same tree as every other idea that is part of that mental model, and any worldview based on that model is wrong for the same reason. They are unavoidably codependent. Similarly, any model where one particular feature is chosen as the feature according to which people are hierarchically ordered will naturally be given to creating similar hierarchies based on any other feature, because the basis is the presupposition of power hierarchy as the way things should be because they are that way. If tomorrow everyone woke up with a randomly assigned geometric shape printed on their foreheads, a hierarchical-pyramid model of thinking would sort those people into places on the pyramid based on the shapes, even though they were entirely random, because that’s the only paradigm for human relations available. The parts are all coherent with each other because they all refer to the same structure of assumptions, the same model, and none of them is coherent when separated from the model, because without any frame of reference, individual sub-propositions of a model have no foundation—they refer to nothing. They’re nothing but a collection of non-sequiturs. If you say, “humans have proper places along this axis of hierarchy based on ontological or physiological features, but not along that axis of hierarchy based on ontological or physiological features,” it’s not “genetic fallacy” to point out that one axis is coherent with the other, that neither axis is coherent at all without the fundamental model of the world of which both axes are branches. Such a model is UNABLE to rule out one axis while accepting the other, if it is remotely internally consistent, because the fundamental assumptions are critically the same. When we point out that “the nazis believed or said these things,” what we are pointing to is coherence. Is a specific model of the relations between parts of the world, a model in which some people automatically get to rule over others based on nothing but surface-level ontological features they were born with. A model in which power is its own justification, and social structures are their own justification, and what is right or ethical is secondary to irrelevant circumstantial factors. It’s not genetic fallacy to point to the tree, to say “these are branches of the same tree, so if some of the leaves are poisonous, ALL the leaves are poisonous.” It’s not genetic fallacy to say “these beliefs are interdependent and co-referential; they depend on and refer to the same base assumptions. To deny the one while accepting the other is arbitrary, nonsensical, and at the end of the day futile. The assumptions lead where they lead even if you want to think they only lead to the things you prefer.”
Now undoubtedly someone is going to point out how we talked about information flow, and how certain types of rhetoric flow from specific sources into mainstream discourse without people knowing where they come from, and try to call it genetic fallacy again, but like, well get to that next week, K? The answer is actually the same anyway.
Thanks for listening. Next week’s on to another branch, but remember, the point is to describe the tree.
- (As an aside, I actually went to the BNP website to make absolutely sure I wasn’t taking someone else’s word for it that they’re definitely national socialists, and let me just tell you that to anyone who is familiar with the quality of, for example, Goebbels’ writings, the rhetoric on the BNP is EERILY familiar. It feels like reading a script, right down to the structure of the arguments and the choices of words. For example, here’s a short quote from the BNP page “Stopping All Immigration,” which I genuinely think may be in whole or in part actually copy-pasted from one of Joseph Goebbels’ essays to be found in Aufsatze von der Kampfzeit, not all of which are available on the German Propaganda Archive, one of my fastest and most easily searchable resources, but which I have actually read:
“Each nation has the right to maintain its own identity. The right of India to remain Indian, the right of China to remain Chinese, the right of Pakistan to remain Pakistani and the right of Saudi Arabia to remain Saudi does not mean that any of these nations “hate” anybody else.
All it means is that they wish to preserve their identity and national existence.”
And another one: “Only the British National Party has the reasonable, sensible, fair and just immigration policy which will guarantee that Britain remains British.”
- (just a reminder that the “reasonable, sensible, fair, and just immigration policy” is “stopping all immigration)
And here’s a quote from one of Goebbels’ yearly speeches for Hitler’s birthday:
“While other nations in the world did what was necessary to secure their political and economic security by establishing the necessary military bases and reserves of raw materials, we Germans poured out our blood chasing phantoms. For the first time in this war, Germany is a strong power, defending its interests, which are not the increased profits of a capitalist ruling class, but rather the preservation of its national existence.” (as a further side note, ‘capitalist’ in nazi propaganda is frequently a code-word for Jews.)
here’s a snippet of a speech by literally Hitler before the Reichstag in 1937:
“Thus the Party and the defence forces are now the guarantors sworn to devote themselves to the preservation of our national existence.” – Literally Hitler
And then of course there’s Goebbels’ oft-used slogan “Germany for the Germans!” which rings quite similar to “Britain remains British,” and… just, to a degree you’d have to familiarize yourself with the tone and verbal tics of Nazi propagandists, and I do mean specific ones, like Goebbels and Robert Ley have distinctly different tones and attitudes, in order to get the whole picture but it is amazing the degree to which this BNP page seems to be cribbing Goebbels’ rhetoric. There are other reasons I think this specific text might be partly a literal copy, including how markedly different it is from the quality of writing elsewhere on their website, and more difficult to demonstrate elements like the actual argumentative structure and the order in which points and demands are laid out, and even the typesetting/spacing of the lines, which closely resembles the patterns of Goebbels’ essays. There are also other flag-terms like the use of the term “British Workers” The concept of “the worker” as this kind of sociopolitical icon representing the ordinary man is a distinctly socialist/communist ideal, and you’d think that unmistakably socialist-flavored language would not naturally find its way onto a far-right website, those people are against socialism, right?… Unless they are cribbing from especially pre-1933 rhetoric of the NSDAP, i.e. when the Nazis had not yet seized power, which heavily leaned on socialist-sounding terms like “German Workers”, it is after all called the National Socialist German WORKERS Party, though socialist-sounding language significantly diminishes in the propaganda corpus after the Nazis seized power.
- Return of Kings has been on indefinite hiatus since late 2018. Let’s hope to God it stays that way.
- When I refer to Daryush Valizadeh as a “confessed rapist” I am referring to the numerous times he has bragged on his blog and in his various books about having sex with women who were incapacitated and unable to consent (acknowledging that it was legally rape), coercing women into granting a verbal ‘yes’ even though the sex was violent and painful for the apparently weeping and devastated victim, having sex with women who were saying “no,” and having sex with women who were physically resisting and telling him to stop. Oh and at least once he said of such a victim that he “pounded her like a pedophile,” So. There’s that. Roosh regularly claims that those accounts of his own rapes are “jokes” or “exaggerations” to look more “macho.” He will not be getting a “confess to numerous rapes as satire” pass today. He has more recently claimed to have found Jesus (seemingly without altering his hideous views of women) and removed talk of fornication from his websites.
- “There is rapidly approaching a time when in every White Western city, corpses will be stacked in the streets as high as men can stack them… And you are either going to be stacking or getting stacked.” – Andrew Anglin. Sleep tight!
LINKS, SOURCES, READING RECOMMENDATIONS:
Dan Olson (Folding Ideas): Triumph of the Will and the Cinematic Language of Propaganda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ1Qm1Z_D7w
Linderman, S.W., & Adams, R.P. (2014). Discovering Latent Network Structure in Point Process Data. ICML.
Medvedev, A.N., Lambiotte, R., & Delvenne, J. (2018). The anatomy of Reddit: An overview of academic research. ArXiv, abs/1810.10881.
Zannettou, Savvas et al., On the Origins of Memes by Means of Fringe Web Communities. Cornell University. Obtained from: https://arxiv.org/abs/1805.12512
Hine, G.E., Onaolapo, J., Cristofaro, E.D., Kourtellis, N., Leontiadis, I., Samaras, R., Stringhini, G., & Blackburn, J. (2016). A Longitudinal Measurement Study of 4chan’s Politically Incorrect Forum and its Effect on the Web. ArXiv, abs/1610.03452.
Finkelstein, J., Zannettou, S., Bradlyn, B., & Blackburn, J. (2018). A Quantitative Approach to Understanding Online Antisemitism. ArXiv, abs/1809.01644.
The Auschwits Institute: http://www.auschwitzinstitute.org/publications/
Andrew Anglin profile: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/12/the-making-of-an-american-nazi/544119/
Matt Forney’s Identitarian speech: https://angrywhitemen.org/2017/03/19/matt-forney-says-gamergate-and-the-trump-campaign-were-signs-of-a-white-revolt/
Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental models: Towards a cognitive science of language, inference, and consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
The screenshots that briefly appear in the video are also viewable here: