The Joke’s on UsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Internet, Online culture
Remember when the internet used to be fun? Whitney Phillips does. The digital anthropologist was recently looking through a huge set of images from the late 2000s that had been posted to Reddit. The first comment described the era as “a more simple time,” and sure enough, the pictures were weird, silly, and creative. Talking cows. Cats playing video games. A bear on a golf course. A guy Photoshopped to have mouths for eyes.
Then she noticed something else. Something disturbing. The thread began, she wrote recently, “with a lighthearted meme about Hitler.” After that was “dehumanizing mockery of a child with disabilities. And more sneering mockery of an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank. And date rape. And violence against animals. And fat shaming. And homophobia. And racism. And pedophilia. And how hilarious 9/11 was.”
If you’ve spent any time online, you will have imbibed both the aesthetic and, perhaps, the ethics of “meme culture” or “internet culture.” This is the mashed-up jumble of images, jargon, and folk art that gushed out of sites such as 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr from the late 2000s. The look was lo-fi and absurdist, and the tone was eye-rolling, cynical, self-aware. Blocky white letter captions on pictures of exaggerated facial expressions. “HALP,” “OHRLY,” “KTHXBYE.” Adorable cat GIFs.
In the 2000s and early 2010s, Phillips was one of a group of academics, activists, and intellectuals who studied memes, and promoted the idea of the web as a space of unfettered, anarchic creation. The revolution would be user-generated. (The founders of social networks—primarily young, carefree, middle-class white Americans—agreed.) Okay, the argument went, this outpouring of creativity had its darker elements, but that was part of its countercultural charm. The casual sadism of trolling was just “lulz,” which shouldn’t be taken seriously. Sexism, racism, and other hatreds were being invoked for nothing more than shock value. It was ironic, duh.
Phillips, an assistant communications professor at Syracuse University, now thinks she got it wrong. All that ironic racism doesn’t feel so ironic anymore. “I don’t even know exactly when it totally shifted,” she told me, from her yellow-painted living room in Syracuse, New York, her hands anxiously fluttering around her face as we spoke over Zoom. “What seemed to be fun and funny ended up functioning as a Trojan horse for white-supremacist, violent ideologies to shuffle through the gates and not be recognized.”
The 2010s were the decade when internet culture ate real life; when the boundary between “IRL” and “on the internet” dissolved. By the time the decade ended, a certain kind of liberal was forced to accept that we had been far too complacent about how dark politics could get, and how the ironically awful parts of the internet helped that to happen. Many others have walked down the same path of recognition as Phillips. What was once dismissed as “trolling” is now recognized as harassment and abuse; where flat earthers and 9/11 truthers once seemed laughable, today’s conspiracy theorists commit acts of violence.
The Ku Klux Klan adopted a deliberately ridiculous name, and Klansmen claimed that they came from the moon, the historian Elaine Frantz Parsons writes in Ku-Klux. They endeavored “to portray victims’ entirely rational fear of their physical violence as though it were superstition or gullibility. The victim, tellingly, failed to ‘get the joke,’ allowing himself or herself to be frightened by ‘ghosts’ or ‘devils.’” The pattern repeated itself in the 20th century. “The Nazis were dedicated trolls who weaponized their insincerity to take advantage of liberal societies ill-equipped to confront them,” as my colleague Adam Serwer put it.
That comparison is also made by Robert Evans, a journalist with the investigative website Bellingcat. When I reached him late one night after he’d spent the day covering protests in Portland, Oregon, his tone was apocalyptic and his delivery staccato. He told me the story of Hans Litten, a Jewish lawyer who prosecuted Nazi paramilitaries for an attack on a dance hall in 1931, and therefore had the chance to cross-examine Hitler. At a time when foreign correspondents and diplomats were still joking about the future dictator’s clownishness, vulgarity, and overheated rhetorical style—and arguing that his overt anti-Semitism, disregard for the law, and advocacy of violence were just tactics to whip up his base—Litten took him seriously. He questioned Hitler carefully, exposing his double-faced strategy: street violence to galvanize an army of thugs, overlaid with a veneer of plausible gentility to attract middle-class voters.
Litten embarrassed Hitler, but did not win the case. And as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, the lawyer was arrested. After five years of torture and hard labor, Litten killed himself in Dachau.
Evans saw parallels between the world’s refusal to heed Litten’s warnings and his own quest to report on violent militias in the United States. He was worried that far-right extremists—some of whom he had seen in Portland, when the Trump administration sent armed officers from a ragbag of federal agencies to quell protests in the city—were hiding in plain sight, exploiting the plausible deniability created by irony. Take the “OK” hand gesture. To some self-identified trolls, it has been a good joke to hoax the mainstream media into reporting that something so innocuous is a white-supremacist symbol. (Do you find that funny?) But then a theme-park employee in Orlando, Florida, made the sign while posing for a photograph with a 6-year-old Black girl. (Still funny?) And then a mass shooter made the sign in the dock after killing 49 people in New Zealand with a rifle inscribed with the number 14, having left behind a manifesto about “the great replacement” of the white race. (Still funny?)
Extremists “rile people up by making these symbols and then denying that there’s anything racist about them,” Evans told me. “The goal is to make people who are actually watching out for this shit look like they’re crazy to folks who haven’t been paying enough attention to this.”