Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sucking on That Lollipop: Pathological White Masculinity, 4chan, and Trolls

This week, sexist and racist trolls have borrowed the tactics of the CIA and Scotland Yard and sent in agents provocateurs to spread disharmony among online activists. Using stock photos and the stolen information of real activists, users of sites such as 4chan started hashtags including #Endfathersday and #whitescantberaped that are deliberately designed to provoke sections of the social justice left into internal arguments. 
Most of these trolls have posed as women of colour, whom they call "black bitches". Other users have falsified racist tweets from prominent feminists and leftists, and created sock-puppet accounts to make sure the fake tweets are seen and condemned. Users including Shafiqah Hudson picked up on the scam, and identified at least 200 such accounts. Someone has gone to considerable effort to pull off a swindle intended to exploit the "weaknesses" of a movement that, despite a tendency to turn on itself, is growing in strength.
I have an ambivalent relationship with Twitter and other forms of social media.

Twitter is a useful tool for building "brand awareness" and for "celebrities" to create a relationship with their public. Twitter is also a fun site for sharing information. However, does Twitter constitute a space for sophisticated and reflective discourse? No. Is Twitter a space for "politics"? I am unsure.

Twitter can be used by political elites and others to monitor, shape, and influence the public mood (or at least that of those people who are "plugged in" to that media). Twitter and other social media can also be a distraction where symbolic politics--"hashtag activism", "Black Twitter" and other online communities, "likes" and "shares"--are a distraction and detour from the types of substantive political work and advocacy which create change in the material and power relationships that govern society.

The retrograde social attitudes and behavior of the "real world" will, of course, be mirrored online. The challenge of online media is that there is little to no accountability for bad behavior. The medium itself by creating a sense of false intimacy, fueled by immediacy, and with the mask of anonymity, encourages racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior.

Trolls are part of the online ecosphere. In their offline relationships, research has demonstrated that they are likely to be pathetic and sadistic misanthropes. The Internet gives them a space for validation. Trolling can also be part of a coordinated campaign to disrupt, distract, and disorient one's political opposition.

Such tactics predate the Internet by thousands of years.

The group "4chan" recently made a concerted effort to disrupt the "feminist" Twitter community through what they labeled as "Operation Lollipop". 4chan used cyber-racism, sexism, and misogyny to game Twitter, and by doing so, created confusion and exhaustion among the latter's members.

The most generous read of Operation Lollipop is that it was a type of political performance art designed to expose the gullibility of self-described "Left" and "Progressive" online "activists".

Spiked Online's James Heartfield suggests that:
Hoaxing is a great and venerable tradition...
The defenders of Twitter’s hashtag activism have reacted angrily to the 4chan hoaxers. Why? The hoaxers’ fake tweets and parody hashtags are all part of the fun, too. The ‘genuine’ hashtaggers complain that Operation Lollipop was sexist in its inspiration – which is no doubt true. But even bad motives can have positive outcomes. And you would have to take into account the recent survey of misogynist trolling that found as many women as men were engaged in it.
In the Guardian yesterday, Laurie Penny reflected on the 4chan hoax, painting a picture of sad men angrily reacting against the growing and successful movement of internet feminists. Well, possibly, but it is just as likely that a lot of people enjoy the vicarious thrill of insulting others and running away. There is something pretty pompous about the rigid etiquette of the Twitter activists’ call-out culture that begs to be mocked.
If hashtag activism is easily parodied, then that shows what is wrong with it.
The more critical read is that Operation Lollipop is a manifestation of white male privilege and supremacy. The paradox of white male power is that for all of its dominance it is easily threatened; white male power's members and owners are forever afraid that their unearned advantages and entitlements will be taken away from them.

One of the friends of WARN, Werner Herzog's Bear who writes at his own site Notes From the Iron Bound (which more folks should be reading by the way), is offering up a series called "The Pathological White Masculinity Files".

Regarding 4chan and "Operation Lollipop", he deftly observes how:
One of the worst things about pathological white American masculinity is that it carries with it white supremacist assumptions. Regardless of anything else, the fact that white men are to be the rulers of society is not to be challenged our questioned. This is a big reason, naturally, why the fact of Barack Obama's presidency has caused unprecedented disrespect for the office and intransigence in Congress. 
The same goes for the Internet. The computer world has long been heavily white and very masculine, and the trolls at 4chan aim to keep it that way. They just don't want black and brown people, and especially black and brown women, to be using "their" space. Their upbringing and this society's assumptions about white masculinity make them feel not as if this is a terrible they are doing, but simply defending their birthright. 
The pathologies of white masculinity are at their worst when white men feel cheated of the privileges they think are rightfully theirs. This leads them to attack others whom they hold responsible, sometimes with words, sometimes with bullets. Hence the actions of Elliott Rodger, who felt he was "owed" the sexual favors of women. This pathology comes out with gunfire, but it also happens every day via rhetorical violence on the Internet.
I have a series of posts on the various methods and strategies used by Right-wing trolls to disrupt, harass, and sow confusion online that I completed but did not post. I will be offering those here on WARN over the next few weeks.

As a beginning, I have some questions.

1. Why are "progressives" and "liberals" apparently (and this claim would make for an interesting puzzle to research) so vulnerable to trolling and online harassment? Is this a function of political personality type and a sincere belief in the abstract value of sincere "dialogue", "discourse", and "free speech" that authoritarian conservatives do not possess?

2. How can we better educate students and the general public to be more "cyber-literate"? What would it take to help the general public to better understand the relationship between trolls, propaganda, disinformation, and more generally, how to be smarter consumers of online information?

3. I believe that comment sections should be moderated. I prefer smart engaged comments that readers can learn from and which advance the conversation as opposed to name-calling, personal barbs, and other detours. On many sites which focus on politics (and especially identity politics) the comment sections are overrun with trolls. This appears to make a site look "full" and generate traffic. However, the site is offering up the metaphorical low quality buffet at a truck stop or strip mall. I prefer to offer up something a bit more healthy. That is my choice; I respect and allow others their own.

I have no use for trolls and as a rule do not engage them. What is the appeal of participating in a "dialogue" with someone (assuming they are not a bot) who is immune to the rules of civil discourse?

4. The American Right-wing is far more coordinated and focused in its efforts to distract and dominate online spaces as a means of shaping public opinion and silencing the opposition. The Left, Centrists, and Progressives are losing that fight...badly. Is this because of resources, naivete, cowardice? What can be done to rectify the situation?


anonymous said...

1. Yes, this is a result of a belief in honest discourse and egalitarian attitudes that the authoritarian conservatives do not possess.

2.By providing information that the general public can use. I think blogs like this one is a good place to start learning.

3. I agree comments section should be moderated, so that meaningful conversations can take place.

4. The Left, Centrist, and Progressives need to become just as coordinated and focused as the conservatives.

Mr. DeVega some of the best information I was ever given: "Learn your enemies propaganda, then use it against him.". The truth will ultimately stand the test of time, a lie will not.

chauncey devega said...

Point number 4 is crucial and one that too many folks not in the Right-wing propaganda machine need to use and meditate on.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks for the shout out and the long quote. I agree with you about moderating comments, but I had an incident where a troll's insulting comment wasn't published, and then he wrote another one accusing me of cowardice. Now I let many troll comments through, but more to illustrate the stupidity of said trolls.

I recently read the new biography about Roger Ailes, and it helped me get into the mind of these people, since Ailes is basically a respectable troll with a whole news network to do his trolling for him. In their little lizard brains they really and truly think that progressives are out to destroy the country, and hence anything is justified in the service of eradicating liberals. By contrast, most progressive types reject "ends justify the means" morality, which sadly gives conservative radicals an advantage, since their lack of scuples means they can mount damaging attacks and strike lower blows.

chauncey devega said...

You know my philosophy. The "Left"--whatever and whoever that is in the U.S.--are bringing squirt guns to a knife fight, pistols to a war, etc.

And then they turn on each other.

I never thought of Ailes as a huge troll. Frightening, it fits. What other bits of wisdom did you gleam on that character?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

He was Nixon's TV man in 1968 and pushed that campaign's dog whistle politics, especially in terms of race. He was also crucial to the negative turn in George HW Bush's 1988 campaign, and according to the author had a hand in the Willie Horton ad.

As far as Fox News goes, Ailes has a great deal of control over content and uses the channel to push his personal agenda. Despite being seriously creepy to many of his female employees, he has also inspired fierce loyalty.

This wasn't in the book, but Fox's recent obsession over the New Black Panthers is reflective of Ailes' desire to use race as a wedge issue. While the book humanized him, I came away from it disliking him even more than before.

SabrinaBee said...

Well, CD there is hardly any left anymore. Chris Hedges explained their demise in his book Death of the Liberal Class. Most have traded principals for bigger paychecks. They now call themselves the "moderate left" which means just left enough of center to not outwardly be called right. They endeavor to keep the status quo in place and so, will not complain too loudly about their cohorts on the other side.

Those that show their behinds are shuffled out at the first opportunity. Anthony Weiner was one of those who was vocal in calling out the right. He was "encouraged" to leave over texting. Alan Grayson, continuously stuck it to them and had to run for re-election after losing his seat, and with little to no support from those that run the DNC. He's tamer now. Most anyone else, do not want to upset the apple cart that makes them able to become millionaires while in office.

There is a smaller community of progressives, or as the "moderate dems" view them, "far left." They are essentially doing what you do, running sites to get the truth out there. But no one in the mainstream party references them, at all. They are on the outskirts; Hartman, Panpantonio, Goodman, and sites like Counter Punch, Common Dreams, etc.

I also think there is an element of fear involved, as well. If democrats were encouraged to act the way republicans are encouraged to, thing would get ugly fast, and there actually would be civil war. Not to mention, whatever medium they were using would be put out of commission, in short order. In my area, there was an R&B station whose early evening host ( Dyson) would have President Obama call in regularly, it is now a sports station.

Finally, these trolls are so unwilling to see logic or reason, as evidenced from those that have actually tried to engage them, you can't help but conclude that this is simply a game for them. That, they are simply there to get a rise out of people. And when those are the stakes for them, engaging them is simply encouraging them. I'm glad you moderate. Others don't because of the backlash of accusations of one-sidedness, censoring, etc. But, then, their sites become clogged with nonsense. Which, I suppose, is the goal.

chauncey devega said...

It is more than a game for the trolls. It is not a conspiracy or even hard to source. Many of them are the employees or tools of Right-wing pr firms. Why more folks aren't talking about this vexes me. Again, politics is pro wrestling. Why do you think so many websites, esp. those that deal with race, don't censor white supremacist trolls? I went to one site which has great content. On one post they had about 100 comments, out of that number I would guess that 90 or so were to and fro with a small number of folks playing the cyber racism game. Why not delete the trash?

D. Wright said...

Even Hedges will tell you that the purpose of the Left isn't to win elections, but to make those that do get elected scared. OWS lacked clear goals, ideology, and leaders, and was so White they were shocked and stunned when Officer Friendly turned out to be not-so-friendly.

joe manning said...

The uptick in trolling has come on the heels of O's putative foreign policy blunders. Righties are euphorically overreacting in a contrived choreographed feeding frenzy. My fb page was over loaded with libertarian trolls and that's never happened before. They proudly declared their racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, religious and market fundamentalism, and xenophobia; as if to celebrate the eclipse of political correctness by political incorrectness. But me and my fb friends were up to the challenge and countered their every stupid jib. Liberals are more than equal to this latest flimsy challenge by the right. Bottom line: the right consist of bullies who can't resist harassing and subjugating folks; and progressives must stand up for themselves as well as everyone else.

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

The irony of the Right is that without the massive infusion of five billion dollars over the past three decades to build their think tank and Internet infrastructure, and the infusion of at least $1 Billion dollars, yes Billion, per year, from their foundation and corporate benefactors, there would not be a right-wing. A really smart writer whose name escapes me right now, I think it is Sam Tanenhaus (but I could be wrong), wrote that the right-wing is about Orthodoxy and the left-wing is about consensus. In the right-wing world, money establishes the orthodoxy--absolute free market ideology, absolute biblical literalism and inerrancy, and absolute gun rights insurrection. Violate those three absolutes and you become, like in the Soviet Union, a non-person.

They believe they are at war with communists, socialists, agents of the devil, gun-grabbers, and anyone who challenges the absolute hegemony of their ideas and the position of white Christian males.

You can do anything in war--as long as you win. Winners write the history and winners prosecute the losers.

Had Germany and Japan won WW II, no doubt Roosevelt and Churchill given their bombing of civilian cities would have been tried and convicted of being war criminals.

But, the fact that the right-wing tends towards absolutism and totalitarianism in beliefs, means they are most vulnerable. The left-wing is open to new ideas and new methods. Thus, the boundary between progressive and liberal and what is or is not acceptable in the left is probably more permeable and elastic and flexible and more open to challenge and dissent. I live in the Berkeley area and it is only when you encounter the hard core radical communists that, at least for me, I see where the progressive boundary ends. But, even then, I'm still open to listening to what they have to say, because they are not always wrong.

The history of the right-wing is to copy what the left-wing did, and then raise it up a few notches and degrees. Why do you think they keep citing Saul Alinksy and Move On? The real leaders probably know more about Lenin than the average left-winger.

Nina Flowers said...

You're certainly right about being weak and the turning on each other part. It really bugs me how so many of my fellow liberals are what Mike Papantonio correctly calls "Birkenstock Liberals". They don't know how to fight back and just want to make friends with the enemy. They go after Rahm Emanuel (no far lefty by any stretch) for using "harsh language". One lefty message board that I belong to had other members scold me for going after Ann Coulter and gay Republican hypocrites.

Nina Flowers said...

There most certainly is a "left" but I dig what you mean in terms of not being so visible. Our 1% on the left are content to stay on the movie set or behind the scenes somewhere. They don't buy radio and TV stations or get heavily politically involved like the wing nuts do.

SabrinaBee said...

Oh sure there are many that are paid but, let's face it, if Koch can get so many to vote against their own self interests, surely they can get them to troll for free. But, yes, they should delete what is clearly trash. It turns people off and discourages real conversation. I mean, who wants to be harassed online for making a point. And who wants to sort through the nonsense to get to the meat? Big turn off.

Cavoyo said...

One reason for racist trolls' success might be the repetition of a simple message. A common thing white nationalists in comment sections do is post "The Mantra," which is an essay on immigration into "white countries." The essay's author argues that immigration from Third World countries into these white countries constitutes a genocide of white people, and then he complains about being called a Nazi for believing this. The essay's simple and direct, and it doesn't take a lot of thinking to spam it to every article about immigration or race.

By the way, the author is a man named Bob Whitaker. Would you have guessed that Bob worked for the federal government as a Senate staffer and Reagan appointee? Surprising, I know. Here's how "NationalSalvation.Net" describes his service:

"Robert worked on Capitol Hill from 1977 to 1982. During that period, two of his most personally gratifying accomplishments enjoyed today by all of us were saving the Hubble Telescopes and preventing the Internal Revenue Service from imposing racial quotas on private schools.

Despite his criticism of Ronald Reagan in A Plague on Both Your Houses, Robert was a Reagan appointee in charge of all civilian security clearances and federal staffing."

Courtney H. said...

There are several left-wing, progressive blogs/websites that I rarely -- if ever -- visit anymore, because they allow too many racist trolls to disrupt, deflect, and derail much-needed sensible conversations. Therefore, they are losing readership to appear "open-minded." However, right-wing, racist websites/blogs won't commentators who disagree with them to say anything. So why should left-wing, progressive websites/blogs do so?

Courtney H. said...

Oops! It should read "won't allow".
Sorry for the typo.

Elle said...

Thank you for posting this. As a young woman of color, I would like to respectfully state that Twitter can be a place for sophisticated discourse. Such discourse is had daily. Twitter (and Tumblr, to a greater extent) are the perfect spaces to amplify the voices of people (specifically: woman of color) who have been shut out of other place (see: media outlets, including and especially left/liberal web spaces). Further, because anyone can post, *everyone* posts. I have learned more about the experience who, say, young Muslim Americans, and Trans* people through these online platforms than I would any other space. I have never felt more affirmed than after spending time on Twitter and Tumblr. Women of color NEED this. We don't ge it elsewhere.

It should be noted that 4Chan fears these women of color. "Hashtag activism" has been coined as such to legitimize the importance of the conversations that we're having, but 4Chan is incensed that we are unabashedly self-loving and loving towards each other. They understand there is power in a people who doesn't buy into the media's false narrative about us. This self-recognition makes them sick. However, their tactics will be ineffective because we are used to being attacked, and frankly, we are more clever than them.

I would invite you and other WARN readers to follow some amazing Twitter users like @so_treu and @sassycrass who advance knowledge about experiences that are not being captured elsewhere.

I'm a longtime reader and a huge fan, Mr. DeVega. No disrespect intended here.

chauncey devega said...

I ain't god. So need to be worried about "disrespect" :) Haven't heard from you in a while. I hope things are going well for you.

Question. How does one translate talking on Twitter to substantive activism that effects real change in the "real world"?

Xopher Halftongue said...

Why are "progressives" and "liberals" apparently (and this claim would make for an interesting puzzle to research) so vulnerable to trolling and online harassment?
For the same reason that 4chan trolls religious fundamentalists (both the Christian and Muslim versions). Holier-Than-Thou types tend to try to out-Holy each other for social status signaling reasons. Thus they run into Poe's Law everytime.

Xopher Halftongue said...

However, their tactics will be ineffective because we are used to being attacked, and frankly, we are more clever than them.
More social status signaling. It's the holier-than-thou attitude of yours that 4chan takes advantage of.

Xopher Halftongue said...

The left-wing is open to new ideas and new methods.
If that was true, the left wouldn't be so vulnerable to Poe's Law like the Young Earth Creationists are.

Justin M. White said...

"Why are "progressives" and "liberals" apparently (and this claim
would make for an interesting puzzle to research) so vulnerable to
trolling and online harassment?"

I wonder if liberally-minded people online really are more vulnerable to trolling online? I suspect the difference is merely volume: just look up the comment sections (on almost any medium) of women targeted for harassment campaigns. You see the same names popping up on every post, many have obviously not even looked at the content they're commenting on (this is particularly obvious on YouTube). If that's the kind of organization that can disrupt a movement, I suspect the progressive crowd is falling behind because most people just find it repulsive. I'm sure there are people on the right who do everything possible to distance themselves from these trolls (particularly the violent ones), but unfortunately for them, these people are incredibly visible, very organized, and can have this kind of focus because they're intent on being bigoted blowhards every waking hour.

I also suspect that some of the lack of blowback from progressives comes from the fact that many (though obviously not all) grew up with very different beliefs than they hold later on in life, and this has some effect on how they engage with people even when they vigorously disagree.

Robin Nichols said...

Progressives are evil and insane. We will have a cleansing war after the coming financial collapse.