The online radicalisation of young men

“THE CRUSADE IS COMING! RACE WAR WHITES AGAINST MUSLIMS”

This message was not shouted during a UKIP meeting, a Le Pen rally, or an English Defence League demonstration. I did not read it in Breitbart News, or Infowars. I did not read it in an alt-right group or blog. I came across this message while I was completing quests in the Warden Island, south Aszuna, Broken Isles, Azeroth. In other words, I read this in the massive multi-player game World of Warcraft.

It might be tempting to dismiss this message if it was an isolated incident, but in the last few years I have noticed a marked increase of openly racist content communicated in common spaces within various games. Just before the US election, I joined a group to tackle the challenging dungeon of Karazhan (it was challenging, I was only 865 ilvl at the time). During the voice discussion, two of the members were talking about Trump, and they were saying just how much they supported everything he stood for, and how they were getting into arguments with “older” people about it.

“They just don’t get it”, one of them said.

Right after Trump won, I had to turn off the Trade chat after the most incredible display of messages shouting to the four winds their support for Trump.

“TRUMP! TRUMP! Build that wall!”
“Trump, Brexit, Le Pen. Race war now!”
“Deport all the Mexicans!”

Casual racist, homophobic, antisemitic and misogynistic messages have become prevalent in games and online spaces where gamers meet. Extreme right-wing political discourse has taken over some erstwhile gaming-only message boards on Reddit. Something is happening online with gaming communities inhabited by young men, and this is finally starting to be covered due to the rise of the alt-right, the casual anti-Semitism displayed by PewDiePie, and the recent demise of Milo Yiannopolous. But this new young brand of neo-nazism has been brewing online for a while, and while it is impossible to give precise numbers, my experience is that the level of indoctrination is reaching worrying proportions.

While most of the messages are harmless, we are seeing a growing number of people who are graduating from online participation into full-blown terrorism. Anders Breivik. Dylan Roof. Alexandre Bissonnette. An online culture links all of these attackers.

What is going on? Here are a few personal notes from the perspective of a gamer who has witnessed the rise of extreme views from within.

There is a combination of elements that make certain sectors of the online community more vulnerable to extremist messages. There is a specific type of person that is being targeted purposefully by extreme right activists, specifically the shy, socially awkward young men who spend large amounts of time online. There is an online tribe of people who understand the shared language of memes, and they tend to use this to communicate their lack of social sophistication offline by emphasising their shared culture, and these seem more likely to respond to extreme right-wing messages.

One of the starting points for this community is their attitude towards women, this informs much of their other interactions, and it is precisely where the community came together as the alt-right that we know today. Interestingly, my first contact with some form of organised  misogyny online did not come from the gaming community, but from a much older scandal in the atheist and skeptic online communities which culminated in the so-called “elevatorgate” in 2011. It would be impossible to describe these events in a short period of time, but suffice it to say that the conflict was about an online community being torn apart because of sexual harassment allegations. This resulted in a split between men-rights advocates, and the “social justice warriors” (SJWs). This community split resulted in growing acrimony and YouTube battles that resemble some of the later cultural conflicts that we see today.

Gamers started getting involved in the fight in 2012 when feminist researcher Anita Sarkeesian launched a crowdfunding campaign for a documentary called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. I have to admit that I personally found Sarkeesian’s video lacked a basic understanding of video games, but some gamers took the proposal more seriously, and she started being the subject of a horrendous and unjustified online abuse campaign that continues to this day.

Over the years, these two communities continued to lock horns in various venues, until all-out war took place with the so-called gamergate, an online conflict about video game reviews that eventually descended into an all-out culture war between various SJW groups and a sector of the gamer community. Gamergate is the birthplace of the alt-right that we see today, it is where various Reddit groups coalesced into political action.

The gamergate controversy is the first place where I noticed that the gamer communities that were at the heart of the controversy were starting to mutate into an extreme right-wing group often espousing openly misogynist views. While not all gamergaters are alt-right, there is a non-negligible intersection between both movements, and gamergate got a lot of coverage at Breitbart from one of their rising members of staff, one Milo Yiannopolous. Furthermore, some gamergate boards have become a hive of extreme right discourse.

What happened next was a combination of perceived grievances that mutated into the alt-right movement. After gamergate, some sectors of the gamer community felt disconnected from the mainstream media. If any news source covered gamergate, they did so in a manner that was understandably favourable to the victims of abuse, and the wider perception of the debate was that gamers were misogynist trolls. This happened while gamergaters continued insisting that it was all about ethics in gaming journalism, a message that never caught on other than to elicit mockery. The only sources covering the movement positively were right-wing sites and blogs, so the idea of an out of touch, biased, and lying press became prevalent in some circles.

This is when extreme right-wing ideologies start becoming more prevalent, as they get communicated to disenfranchised communities in the language that they understood well, that of memes. Racist, anti-semitic and misogynistic messages were made accessible by a series of memes that tried to reach a core audience exploiting their perceived grievances against globalisation, multiculturalism, and feminism. Powerful memes were born, and these were later adopted as dog-whistles in Trump’s campaign (and to a lesser extent by some in the Brexit Leave camp).

Why did young gamers buy into the extremist neo-Nazi messages? This is a more complicated picture. In part, many young people have become sceptical and disillusioned with the establishment, which explains the appeal of outsider figures. Also, the alt-right has been extremely adept at highlighting several perceived hypocrisies in the left and liberal camps. Many see leftists claiming to stand for working people, but at the same time being extremely critical of any working class person with socially conservative leanings. Some liberals are often against body shaming and other similar discriminatory practices, but at the same time Trump is mocked by his looks by many of the very same advocates. Finally, the reliance on identity politics managed to antagonise many people who are not concerned with sport team mascots, or transgender rights (please note that I am not claiming that identity politics are wrong). These and many other arguments are often exploited by meme savvy right-wingers.

Furthermore, I have encountered an appalling level of ignorance that is easily exploited by these neo-Nazi operatives. Whenever I have tried to engage alt-righters in gaming environments, I have been shocked by the level of ignorance on display. When asked about their hatred of Jews, many repeated conspiracy theories with little basis in reality, and many did not realise that Judaism is a religion, and that they worship the same deity as the Christians. One person even thought that it was more like a polytheistic religion with various gods. Some people lacked the most basic knowledge of geography, and I even met someone who thought Mexico was in Africa, hence the need to build a wall. I am perfectly aware that these are outliers, but it seems indicative of an online culture that values memes over knowledge.

Young men, and specifically gaming communities, are often vulnerable to the messages of the alt-right because they feel like someone talks to them directly. I can empathise with this, having always been a socially awkward gamer myself. You go into a game and feel a certain bond with these other people who are doing the same thing as you, and as someone told me in a game recently: “after a shitty day I just want to come here and bond with my mates”. So when another gamer tells them something, and claims to understand their pain, and even talks their own language, then they are more willing to listen to the message.  Moreover, when that message matches your own preconceptions and biases, then its power to persuade is almost irresistible.

These two Twitter threads convey this masterfully:

and

Similarly, the media have been playing right into the hands of astute manipulators who use trolling and controversy to generate clicks and communicate their message to a wider audience. Very often the alt-right make claims or statements that are so outrageous that they generate an amazing amount of social media and news traffic. The alleged boycott of Star Wars Rogue One, the female Ghostbuster controversy, etc. It is clear to many of us that the alt-right are often trying to generate controversy by espousing a patently ludicrous view, and many in the media take the bait. Even Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book about using controversy to generate clicks and view, has been telling the media to stop falling for the same trick over and over. After the mainstream media picks one of their faux controversies, the alt-right trolls go to their meeting spaces to high-five each other and congratulate their mastery over the outdated news sources. Through memes and trolling they feel that they control the conversation.

Then there is the fact that we may be faced with a generational split with regards to online messages. In recent months there have been several reports of groups of teenagers engaging in openly racist incidents. The latest one is a group of students in Texas who were photographed giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Hitler! Heil Trump!” There has also been a reported increase in racist bullying and abuse in schools. I have a theory that some of these incidents may be fuelled by youth rebellion. It is a normal phase of growing up for some people to rebel against their parents and older generations through music, fashion, drugs, etc. In the past if you wanted to rebel you got a tattoo, piercing, listened to loud music, smoked, and/or took other recreational drugs. But these practices tend to shock less and less the modern parents, in most instances they may have a tattoo themselves, or they have taken drugs in the past. With older generations also enjoying loud music and going to festivals and concerts, the possibility to try to shock diminishes. Perhaps I am being generous and naïve with what can be considered as appalling and unforgivable practices, but I think that in some instances some youths have uncovered a perfect way to rebel. In the past if you wanted to shock your parents you got a tattoo. Nowadays if you want to shock your parents, you give a Nazi salute.

Finally, there is something about online communication that makes some of the extreme right positions seem less real to those who inhabit online spaces. Spending time with gamers have made me realise that the main tone of communication is extremely aggressive. In a competitive environment, the crassest and loudest messages often rise to the top, and violent exchanges are common. Gamers tend to be loud and vulgar online, but as Laurie Penny says, some of these kids “don’t have the gumption or street smarts to function outside of a Reddit forum.” The problem is that abuse becomes normal because it is not real. I have talked to people who believe that it is fine to send death and rape threats because these are just jokes and not intended to hurt. Everyone does it online, and whoever gets offended is a “snowflake”. Part of the disconnect with the media that I have described is one where alt-righters get upset by the depiction they receive. They are not really racists, they just use racist memes, Nazi salutes, and share pictures of Pepe the Frog covered in swastikas, but it is all for fun. It is a meme. It is not real. If the media takes it seriously, the joke is on them.

In a recent raid, two-party members were talking about memes. “What’s your favourite meme?” one asked. There was a pause. “Trump!” was the answer. To them the fact that Trump is now the most powerful man in the world is not real, they only see him as a meme that upsets lefties, feminists and other snowflakes.

The lack of real connect has made it possible for racism and misogynist messages to become the norm in many gaming communities. This is evident with the normalisation of anti-semitic narratives that have culminated with the now infamous PewDiePie video. While Felix Kjellberg later apologised (sort of), he has accused the media of missing the point and removing the context of his video. But that is not what is worrying, the fact that he thought that he could get away with this message says a lot about his audience, a generation of video gamers who have become accustomed to jokes, no matter how crass.

Comments 4

    1. Pendulum swing I think, eventually nazism will become uncool again, as Trump becomes the establishment we may see a swing away from this trend.

Leave a Reply