The farmhouse sits left of center in the worn, gray image, dated about 1935.1 “This photograph shows an approaching dust storm in Morton County, Kansas,” the Kansas Historical Society caption reads, and does it ever.2 There are a few other objects in the frame, set back about a quarter mile: possibly a car or set of cars, possibly a shed or set of sheds, possibly a tree or set of trees. Otherwise, all that surrounds the house is dirt. Crumbling, dry, dirt on the ground, and darkening, billowing, dirt in the sky, a hundred feet up, maybe higher, like a mountain range roaring toward the farm. For the Morton County homesteader who worked that farm—and indeed for everyone in the Southern Plains region—this looming dust storm, and the other looming dust storms that plagued the Dust Bowl throughout the 1930s, must have felt like divine retribution.
In some ways, it was. Rather than being purely natural phenomena, the storms were the result of terrible meteorological luck combined with social, political, and technological forces all colliding with the Great Depression.3 One of these forces was the influx in the 1920s of “suitcase farmers” lured West by the promise of easy money, then lulled by the yields of an unusually rainy decade. Very often these farmers knew very little, or cared very little, about sustainable agriculture; they just planted and planted and planted and harvested and harvested and harvested. Another prelude to disaster was the widespread adoption of mechanized farming, which allowed farmers to till massive swaths of native grasslands with unprecedented ease and speed. New tools plus a farming boom plus all that rain led to an overproduction of wheat, fueling an inevitable price drop. The less wheat was worth, the more wheat had to be produced to turn a profit. To meet that need, farmers tilled even harder, exposing even more soil to the winds. And then, just as the Great Depression had fully enveloped the region, the rain stopped. Not for one year, not for two. For ten. The plowed lands cracked and fell barren. Into the winds the dry dirt went. Houses filled with it. The sky filled with it. All there was was dirt.
Heading into the 1930s, land conservationists knew full well that the “reckless and haphazard” farming practices of the 1920s, as Kansas representative Clifford Ragsdale Hope described them, were a catastrophe in the making.4 Convincing farmers to prevent the impending ecological disaster was a hard sell, however. For one thing, unless all farmers planted cover crop or roughened exposed soil, erosion relief efforts were of little use. No matter how well you maintained your fields, if your neighbor’s topsoil was loose, their dirt would blow onto your land—making you, suddenly, part of the problem. When strong winds blew, and they always blew, the result was devastating. Crops failed, farms collapsed, and people caught in the storm suffered a host of health problems, from long-term respiratory illness to death by suffocation.
The Dust Bowl illustrates how profoundly human cultivation shapes the environment. Ecological cultivation and digital cultivation unfold, of course, in vastly different contexts. But in both cases, individual choices affect the entire ecosystem.
Online, users with large platforms have a particularly deep footprint, but those with the smallest audiences also shape the landscape. Network climate change makes sure of it. Big pollution is pushed to small places, and small pollution is pushed to big places, sending gusts every which way. In some cases, pollution is introduced through willful destruction, the digital equivalent of someone razing massive plots of native grassland, fully aware of the consequences. In other cases, pollution results from inadvertent harms, the equivalent of learning how to grow crops but not learning how to manage soil. In our hyperconnected online ecosystem, even seemingly helpful actions can contaminate the environment, the equivalent of working the land as hard as you can so that you can grow extra food for your worse-off neighbors. The dust still flies, regardless.
At the heart of this chapter are the dust storms of white supremacy, white nationalism, and broad-spectrum bigotry that, long accumulating in the soil, roared forth anew during the 2016 US presidential election cycle. As these pollutants clouded online platforms, everyday politics, and seemingly the whole country, many citizens expressed shock that such storms were even possible. Many more remained oblivious to the dust they were themselves kicking up.
A basic catalyst for these storms was, of course, the white nationalists and supremacists and broad-spectrum bigots themselves, who trampled through everyone else’s fields, throwing fistfuls of dirt into the air and whooping with delight. But other more well-meaning groups fed those same storms. In particular, journalists, tillers of the land by trade and regularly pressured to overproduce, blanketed the fields with dirt. Uniquely susceptible within these ranks were the mostly young and mostly white reporters raised on internet culture. As far-right reactionaries weaponized internet culture’s lulzy ethos and fetishized sight, reporters raised on those same norms were more likely to dismiss dehumanizing attacks as just trolling as usual, just edgy internet fun. They may not have meant to, but these journalists, along with so many others, tilled the lands and sowed the seeds for bigots. Once the soil was primed and the winds began to blow, it was only a matter of time before the sky went dark.
On August 11, 2017, white nationalists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for the two-day Unite the Right rally, organized in response to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The screaming white men who marched through the streets wore no hoods and made no apologies. Their hateful motives were reflected in torch-lit Nazi chants calling for the eradication of people and perspectives they feared would replace them. Counterprotesters resisted; one, Heather Heyer, was murdered.
For many observers, the Unite the Right rally was synonymous with, or at least was the brainchild of, the “alt-right,” a euphemism for white nationalism and supremacy. Although the term quite literally whitewashed hate, many journalists and everyday citizens had adopted it heading into the 2016 election cycle. Even after the Unite the Right rally’s howling white supremacist violence, national news outlets persisted in using the term, often right in the headline or lede. Sometimes those stories quoted white supremacists who described themselves as “alt-right.” More often, the stories applied the label themselves.
On the one hand, it was true that the Unite the Right rally was an “alt-right” event. On the other hand, the alt-right didn’t exist—at least not in the way it was so often framed. Teasing this point out means identifying what was true, and what was not, about the alt-right.
Here are some true things.
The term alt-right can be traced back to 2008, when white nationalist Richard Spencer first sought to rebrand white nationalism for a more refined audience. As political scientist George Hawley explains, Spencer’s alt-right—however sanitized it pretended to be—drew from the staunchly isolationist, anti-immigrant, and antiglobalist paleoconservatism movement; radical libertarianism; and white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations.5 The term gained some initial traction and then went into a kind of hibernation; it persisted within certain circles but was not widely known otherwise.
This changed in 2015, when, as Hawley notes, the term came in vogue among reactionary conservatives online.6 This reemergence coincided with what Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner, researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, called a “fringe insurgency” of global right-wing extremism.7 While the nationalist and supremacist core of the alt-right remained the same, the nature of its supporters began to shift, and the term broadened with them. Media scholars Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis chronicle this evolution.8 By 2016, the “accommodatingly imprecise” label was embraced by, or at least was being used to describe, a panoply of “conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people.”9 It also became tethered to the candidacy of one Donald J. Trump, who never publicly embraced the term but didn’t outright reject it, either—and certainly didn’t reject the supporters who embraced alt-right ideals, even if those supporters didn’t actively identify as alt-right.
Baked into this Trumpian iteration was a very particular aesthetic predicated on irony and lulz. People operating under the “alt-right” mantle imprinted this aesthetic onto a nonstop deluge of internet memes, which they gleefully described as “pro-Trump shitposting.” Communication scholars Heather Suzanne Woods and Leslie A. Hahner explore how alt-right memes shaped public discourse during the 2016 election cycle.10 While memes were not the only weapon deployed by the alt-right during the election, Woods and Hahner argue, they were particularly effective bludgeons. “Ironic” memes, in which a bigoted position was couched behind a trollish wink, were especially common.
A leaked style guide for the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, illustrates the coordinated strategy behind reactionary meme use.11 The style guide encourages prospective writers to hijack existing memes, whatever their origins, with the rationale that memes are familiar and fun and naturally lower their audience’s critical defenses. Funny memes, the guide’s author explains, are also much easier for mainstream journalists to report on than flat-out bigotry. First, reporters have a compulsion to report on funny memes, and second, funny memes are more digestible for their readers, for whom outright bigotry is almost always, the guide concedes, a turnoff.
The pervasiveness of reactionary memes during the election points to another truth about the alt-right: its relationship, even its interchangeability, with the term “troll”—evidenced by the fact that, during the 2016 election cycle, mainstream articles about trolling frequently used “alt-right” synonymously, and articles about the alt-right very often used “trolling” synonymously. Vox’s Aja Romano wrote an article in 2017—“How the Alt-Right Uses Internet Trolling to Confuse You into Dismissing Its Ideology”—that exactingly diagnosed the problem.12
Like “alt-right,” “troll” was accommodatingly imprecise to the point of nonsense, allowing the term to function as convenient shorthand for a whole host of malignancies. At times, “troll” was used to identify irony-poisoned aggressors associated with sites like 4chan, 8chan (an even more aggressive 4chan spin-off), and parts of Reddit and Twitter forwarding a pro-Trump, anti-PC, anti-“social-justice-warrior” agenda. At other times, “trolling” described the white supremacists and neo-Nazis that populated hate sites like the Daily Stormer. At still others, it labeled the activities of far-right outlets like InfoWars, Ending the Fed, and, most conspicuously, Breitbart, all of which harnessed and commoditized Trump’s MAGA base. “Troll” was also used to label Russian disinformation efforts, and the Internet Research Agency—Russia’s notorious propaganda outlet—was explicitly dubbed a “troll farm.” Additionally, “troll” was used by supporters and detractors alike to characterize media personalities who either self-identified or were otherwise associated with the alt-right, notably Richard Spencer, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, and of course Trump himself, who was often crowned as the biggest troll of them all.
The final, starkest truth about the alt-right is that the people who adopted the term, or at least who were called alt-right by outside observers, committed violence. Some was physical. Some was mediated. All of it—all the racism, all the misogyny, all the transphobia, all the nativism—scarred the landscape and its inhabitants in demonstrable ways.
Layered atop the things that are true about the alt-right are things that are misleading.
The first and most basic misconception is that the term alt-right—and its frequent bedfellow trolling—ever referred to a clear, coherent movement. The accommodating imprecision of both terms meant that neither had to describe a clear coherent anything. In fact, the linguistic ambiguity of both terms was a convenient rhetorical escape hatch. “I’m not alt-right!” was a common sneer among those who had been labeled as alt-right by journalists, particularly after the Unite the Right rally. “I was just trolling!” was another, particularly among those who didn’t like it when their racist messages were accurately described as such.
The second misconception was that the alt-right was a wholly organic, stand-alone movement. As Woods and Hahner highlight, it instead derived strength from the signal-boosting energy of its detractors.13 Alt-right memes, for instance, were used to cohere a knowing, snickering in-group. But they were also used, actively and deliberately, to antagonize liberal and progressive audiences into responding. In so doing, liberals and progressives carried those memes well beyond the circles that created them. Had participants not provoked amplification beyond their own ranks, these memes and their underlying messages would have remained confined solely to reactionary silos. Participants would also have had far less incentive to keep making them, at least for external propaganda and recruitment purposes.
The most consequential misconception of all, however, was the claim, frequently repeated in news articles, on social media, and even within some academic circles, that “alt-right trolls” were central to Trump’s 2016 victory. They were the ones, this story went, who had shifted the Overton window so far to the right. They were the ones, as New York Magazine reporter Jesse Singal argued, who won the election.14 The narrative that alt-right trolls fundamentally rerouted the course of American politics is compelling, even intuitive; it serves as the backbone for a number of books and articles, including Angela Nagle’s bestseller Kill All Normies.15 But just because a narrative is compelling and intuitive doesn’t make it true.
In chapter 1, we discussed how certain beliefs can be real in the sense that they are perceived as real, and therefore really shape the world, without being objectively true. The idea that the alt-right gifted the nation a President Trump walks a similar “real but not true” tightrope. The alt-right was undeniably real in that it was, as a concept, central to 2016 coverage and commentary. As a concept, it was a point of identification for many Trump supporters. As a concept, it benefited Donald Trump’s campaign.
Yet, at its core, the “alt-right” was a meme—a very successful meme, but a meme nonetheless. Its influence on the election thus reflects a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy: the more that people said the alt-right was influencing the election, the larger the idea of the alt-right became. And the larger the idea of the alt-right became, the more that idea shaped news coverage and social media commentary. With visibility begetting participants begetting visibility all the while; reality feeding into truth.
The claim that the alt-right won the election for Trump fails to account for this nuance. To the extent that it ever was one, the alt-right as an entity didn’t do very much—not on its own, anyway. In ways big and small, public and private, the everyday actions of everyone else were just as important to the alt-right cause as the alt-right ever was. This was something that the industrial grade polluters lumped under the “alt-right” label understood and giddily harnessed. Just like Kansas in the 1930s, the 2016 election was an ecological catastrophe in the making.
When considering the polluted fruits of that catastrophe, establishment center-left news outlets warrant particular scrutiny.16 An August 2017 photograph of the street outside the Charlottesville General District Court epitomizes center-left journalism’s signal-boosting power. The picture, taken by Getty photographer Chip Somodevilla, is an aerial shot, likely captured from an upper-story window of a building facing the courthouse.17 It shows a member of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party surrounded by fifty or so clamoring journalists, some extending recording devices for audio, some typing notes on their phones, and some pointing their cameras as close to the center of the fracas as possible. Had the neo-Nazi been speaking into the open air on that sidewalk, his words wouldn’t have carried farther than fifteen feet. Thanks to all the cameras and microphones crammed in his face, those words ended up traveling to national and global audiences.
Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts zero in on the amplification powers of center-left news media.18 They argue that during the 2016 election, far-right media, from small extremist blogs like RedState to larger outlets like Breitbart, unquestionably influenced their sympathetic base. However, these outlets simply didn’t have enough clout to shift the national conversation themselves, and the base they were energizing certainly didn’t have enough votes to win an election. For their ideologies to spread from sea to shining sea, right-wing reactionaries needed establishment outlets. Reckoning with this reality is an essential first step in adopting more effective soil erosion plans.
To assess how journalists themselves felt about the relationship between their reporting and the mainstreaming of far-right reactionaries, Phillips conducted dozens of interviews with staff writers, editors, and freelancers at center-left outlets large and small, legacy and niche, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the Atlantic, Slate, Wired, BuzzFeed News, and Vice.19 The journalists Phillips spoke to affirmed at least the baseline assertion made by Benkler, Faris, and Roberts: during the 2016 election, establishment journalists gave right-wing reactionaries an enormous platform.20 The most emphatic of these reporters asserted, without reservation, that journalists were responsible for helping create the world that white nationalists and supremacists said existed—namely, a world that was theirs. Other reporters were more measured, hypothesizing a chicken-and-egg relationship between coverage of bigotry and acts of bigotry. Coverage gave bigotry a larger platform, these reporters conceded, and that platform ensured there would be more bigotry to cover. But news reporting didn’t cause bigotry to appear out of thin air.
Wherever they may have fallen on the spectrum, a majority of these reporters expressed at least some degree of ambivalence about their role in amplifying the Far Right. Many questioned whether they should cover white nationalist personalities, bigoted harassment campaigns, and dehumanizing propaganda at all. Writing these kinds of stories, after all, gives reactionary ideologies more oxygen, and that oxygen has consequences. It grants legitimacy to false beliefs and harmful ideologies. It encourages retaliatory harassment. It incentivizes future harmful behaviors.
After a pause, the same reporters would often begin listing out the dangers of saying nothing. Not amplifying polluted information risks creating space for worse pollution to take its place. It misses an opportunity to correct the record and educate the public. It allows pollution to flourish. It doesn’t mean that the issue, whatever it is, will go away.
Not all the reporters Phillips spoke to were so reflective. This was a point many of the reporters themselves raised. Individual journalists, these reporters explained, vary greatly in their motives, ethics, and competencies. Many reporters and many newsrooms tried to be careful during the election, but many reporters and many newsrooms did not, either because they didn’t feel the need to be, or because they weren’t in the position to make those decisions. Some newsrooms, for example, couldn’t afford not to publish sensationalist clickbait, and some reporters, particularly freelancers, couldn’t afford to turn down even the most grievous assignment. Regardless of the why, bad reporting made it increasingly difficult for thoughtful reporters to keep the dust out of their own work. If some rival outlet is covering a story, however questionable that story might be, then yours will have to cover it too. You might even feel pressured to preempt bad stories with your own, better stories—an especially pressing concern when those worse stories would be coming from the other side of your newsroom, overseen by editors whose judgment you don’t trust. It’s better to tell a bad story carefully, several of these reporters sighed, than to let someone else screw it up worse.
Right-wing reactionaries were delighted by the resulting debris flying across the news ecosystem. The New York Times’ Alan Rappeport, for example, reported that white supremacists were “thrilled” by the coverage precipitated by Pepe the Frog, a meme strategically adopted as a winking racist dog whistle within pro-Trump circles.21 Gaby Del Valle of the Outline noted Breitbart writers’ glee over BuzzFeed News’ nonstop coverage of “alt-right” personalities.22 The Guardian’s Lois Beckett highlighted just how positively neo-Nazis responded to news reports about resurgent bigotry during the 2016 election.23 As Beckett reported, one white supremacist gushed of center-left reporters, “All the things they’re doing are so good.”
The “good things” were, of course, only good for the reactionaries and chaos agents. Regardless of what reporters hoped to accomplish, their incessant coverage of bigoted messages sandblasted that bigotry far and wide, carving several deep contours into the landscape.
First, center-left coverage stabilized white nationalism and supremacy as a mainstream fixture. It did so, most basically, by lumping disparate personalities, groups, and motivations under the banner of the “alt-right” and then poring over the everyday minutiae and palace intrigue of the people sorted into that camp. This created an illusion of coherence, prominence, and influence, which the “alt-right” was subsequently able to grow into, at least from a PR perspective—certainly with more deftness than the often motley, often fledgling, often fractured groups of white nationalists and supremacists could have accomplished on their own. Relatedly, thanks to the constant use of the otherwise meaningless umbrella term, news coverage helped streamline “alt-right” recruitment efforts. Joining a group is much easier when the group has a name, particularly when the initiation process, including where to go and what to do when you get there, is laid out step by step.
Second, “both-sides” coverage of white nationalists and supremacists helped legitimize their violent ideologies. This “both-sides” impulse reflects the principles enshrined in the Fairness Doctrine, the mid-twentieth century policy requiring broadcasters to cover controversial issues equitably. While the journalistic impulse to provide equal coverage to conflicting perspectives isn’t inherently harmful, it becomes so when one of those sides is destructive, dehumanizing, or steeped in bullshit. The reactionary Right is all three. Consequently, reporting on violent bigotry simply because it was opposed to human rights didn’t make for fair and balanced coverage. That might have been the goal for many journalists, but the result was to elevate and normalize bigots’ false, degrading, and antidemocratic messages. That’s what equal airtime between unequal positions does: it creates a false equivalence in which the moral urgency of addressing an existential threat is reduced to a matter of opinion.
A segment on Jake Tapper’s CNN show in November 2016 illustrates how “evenhanded” coverage of bigotry can legitimize that bigotry.24 During the segment, host and guests were discussing Richard Spencer’s racist rhetoric. One of the guests read a comment in which Spencer asked if Jewish people “are people at all.” The producers of the show subsequently flashed a chyron at the bottom of the screen that read, “Alt-right leader questions if Jews are people,” and the CNN panel took up the debate. Whether Jewish people are people is not a point of discussion. By taking the question seriously enough to discuss it on air and then visually reinforcing it with that chyron, CNN implied that questioning Jews’ humanity was one side of a conversation worth having.
Allowing white nationalists and supremacists to breeze into the public square as the moral equivalent of not being a white supremacist had a third effect: normalizing violence against women and people of color. It did so by reframing bigoted harm in ways that directly benefited attackers. Most conspicuous was taking bigots at face value when they contorted their dehumanizations into defenses of free speech. Ceding this frame—and ignoring the fact that bigots don’t care about the free speech of the people they attack—minimized the impact their dehumanizations had on the people they targeted. It also falsely equated harassment with mere name-calling, or proof of oversensitivity, or an occupational hazard of life online that targets just needed to learn how to deal with. The dust kicked up by all that dehumanization, the dust that scratched at people’s eyes and burned in their lungs, became, over time, an everyday part of life on the farm for far too many.
The contours carved by the center-left’s “alt-right” coverage were unique, reflecting the uniqueness of our current media ecosystem. That doesn’t mean that what happened during the election had never happened before. As unique as these contours might have been—because of digital media, because of who was running for president, because of a host of other factors stemming from the overarching oddity of the 2016 election cycle—they had ample historical precedent. Generations ago, the landscape was ravaged by a similar erosion process, to a similarly devastating effect—a legacy we’re still digging out of.
It’s comforting, in a way—at least it can be for many white people—to imagine that today’s bigotry is both new and marginal, certainly “not who we are.” Unfortunately that’s not the case; bigotry extends deep into the bedrock of US history. The longstanding relationship between mainstream journalism and white supremacists provides a pointed example.
And so back in time we go, to 1860, when public leaders in Charleston, South Carolina, propelled their state toward white supremacist secession from the Union. As journalist Paul Starobin chronicles, Northern outlets saw Charleston’s secessionist frenzy as an exciting opportunity to sell papers.25 Secession was such a hot topic that editors at the New York Tribune sent reporters down to Charleston, secretly embedding them at the offices of the Mercury, a rabidly anti-Union newspaper. Northern readers were enthralled by the coverage. According to Starobin, these stories presented Charleston secessionists, who, it must be emphasized, were deeply committed to owning other people, as “unhinged—but in a benign sort of way.”26 By framing secessionist white supremacy as an amusing curiosity, Northern papers filtered Southern propaganda out to their audiences—not as presaging national catastrophe, but as something entertaining to read.
That national catastrophe could have been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t; white Northern journalists followed a similar template after the Civil War. In particular, Northern reporting on the white terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, which rose to national prominence between 1866 and 1871, loosed an utter deluge of pollution into the mainstream.
As historian Elaine Frantz Parsons argues, two Ku Klux Klans existed during this time: the actual Klan, which comprised thousands of violent racists who sought to destroy the bodies and the resolve of freedpeople and their allies, and the imagined Klan, created largely through white Northern news coverage.27 The origin of both Klans began not with a bang but with the chortles of a group of financially comfortable white men in post–Civil War Pulaski, Tennessee, who created the deliberately silly-sounding social club because they were bored. As they evolved over the next few years, both the actual Klan and the imagined Klan were malignant; both crusaded for white dominance and Black hopelessness. The actual Klan was the most imminently dangerous; it was a physical, roaring-in-the-night manifestation of the cultural psychopathy that is violent white supremacy. But it could not have existed as it did, when it did, and as powerfully as it did, if the Northern press had not told such a compelling story about the imagined Klan.28 This coverage paralleled coverage of Trump-era white nationalists and supremacists in three crucial ways.
First, echoing contemporary coverage of the “alt-right,” national stories responding to the emergence of the Klan stabilized the haphazard, localized white racial terror that had exploded following the Civil War. Those acts of terror were very real, and there had been very many of them. But white vigilantes during those early days, Parsons emphasizes, weren’t communicating across regions, weren’t organized in their efforts, and, other than a broad sense of racist grievance, weren’t acting under any formal banner.29 Northern coverage began tying all those disparate actions together under a coherent organizational umbrella. This allowed the Klan to coalesce not just as a movement but as a national brand. As it did, that brand inspired more and more free-agent vigilantes to take up its moniker. In an act of life imitating news, the newly knighted “Ku Klux,” as individual members of the Klan were then known, began coordinating in earnest.
That they did so hinged on the second parallel to modern coverage of reactionaries: how frequently Northern reporters relied on “both-sides” framings of the Klan. Journalists regularly mined Ku Klux for comment and regularly printed their constant, head-spinning, pathological lies about what they did and what it all meant. The most egregious of these lies was that the Klan didn’t even exist but rather was a hoax created by freedpeople looking for sympathy, politicians looking for votes, and newspapers looking for sales. This position was forwarded as a counterpoint to the verifiable existence of the Klan.30
To be clear: the claim that the Klan was an invention by freedpeople and Northern politicians was racist propaganda. The claim that the Klan was invented by Northern newspapers was more nuanced. It was objectively false in that the actual Klan was all too real, and all too dangerous, to freedpeople and their allies. Ku Klux were domestic terrorists, period. But there were echoes of truth in the claim as well: the imagined Klan was indeed very good for business, prompting newspaper owners to publish story after story. White racial terror certainly would have persisted had the Klan not coalesced. But it wouldn’t have had a national propaganda apparatus to build on—a propaganda apparatus that meant more visibility, more growth, and therefore more danger.
A third parallel to modern news coverage is that Northern coverage of the Klan normalized its white supremacist violence. This coverage did so, most strikingly, by indulging the Ku Klux’s winking irony and self-aware theatricality. From its nonsense name to its cartoonish robes to the carnivalesque elements of its attacks, the Klan had a flair for staging violence as comedy. As they had done when covering the Charleston secessionists, Northern papers covering the Klan took the bait, publishing reams of wry articles chronicling the group’s “grotesque idiosyncrasies” as a perhaps disruptive but ultimately amusing farce.31 The victims of these “farces” were almost never mentioned, and if they were, their political perspectives, violated bodies, and lost lives mattered very little compared to the racist stars of the show. As Parsons chronicles, white Northerners loved these wild and crazy Klan stories. Racist violence made for great copy.
By 1871, however, as the actual Klan bottomed out, the imagined Klan did too. That didn’t mean journalists stopped signal-boosting white supremacy, though. As media historians Juan González and Joseph Torres note, Northern newspaper editors remained “obsessed” with lynchings through the turn of the century.32 Even when coverage in the North was sharply critical (very few papers in the South leveled even the slightest critique), stories published in papers like the New York Times presented every gory, graphic, excruciating detail, sometimes subtly or not so subtly rationalizing the practice and replicating racist tropes about the people who had been murdered. The popularity of lynching stories stemmed from their newsworthiness; and their newsworthiness, communication scholar Richard Perloff argues, stemmed from the fact that they “could be guaranteed to contain information that would arouse prurient interests, engage racist citizens, and uphold a social order that was dependent upon the systematic oppression of Blacks by Whites.”33
Needless to say, the underlying spirit of the Klan hadn’t gone anywhere—for one thing, it had been systematized through Jim Crow segregation laws—and by the 1920s, both the real and imagined Klans had staged a full comeback with the rise of the “second Klan.” Media historian Felix Harcourt chronicles this rise, particularly how white Northern news coverage solidified the second Klan as an “Invisible Empire.” Northern newspapers did so by highlighting the “weird,” “spectacular,” and even “ghostly” elements of Klan activities and also by poring over the workaday details of the Klansmen’s (as they were by then known) extracurricular lives, including their charitable works.34 Once again, white Northerners gobbled up all the Klan coverage they could get their hands on, something the Klan correctly identified as a ripe opportunity for media manipulation. When Klansmen weren’t busy intimidating, attacking, and murdering Black people, Mexicans, and Jewish and Catholic immigrants, they actively played up the “weird” elements of their organization to reporters and staged increasingly elaborate media spectacles. Such displays of strength would simultaneously generate more coverage, make the group seem less threatening, and, of course, pique even more interest.
When the coverage was bad, that was fine too. The media-savvy Klansmen understood that having their name in the paper, regardless of the reason, only served to boost the Klan’s visibility and membership. After a scathing serialized investigation of the Klan by the New York World in September 1921, for example, Klan membership skyrocketed. Exactly how many people were convinced to join the Klan solely because of what they read in the World is an open question. What’s not is the symbiotic relationship between the Klan and the publications that continued gifting it all the publicity it could ever hope for—an outcome Klansmen were quick to brag about.35
Not all journalists played the Klan’s game. Many Black newspapers in the 1920s employed strategic, defiant silence in response to white racial terror.36 If they did publish stories about the Klan, they did so to highlight conflict within the Klan’s organization and other embarrassing information, like canceled rallies and member resignations.37 Many Jewish publications were equally reluctant to afford the Klan any oxygen, a position summed up by the American Jewish Committee’s Louis Marshall, who argued that Jewish coverage of the Klan would only “increase the numbers of the Klan.”38 Jewish community groups reiterated this stance in the 1960s when they successfully convinced many journalists to “quarantine” the violent anti-Semitism of the American Nazi Party by not covering it. Like Klan ideology, Nazi ideology was, for these groups, more dangerous than it was newsworthy. Areas where the American Nazi news quarantine was implemented, in turn, saw lower violence and lower white supremacist recruitment.39
In these cases, hate was deoxygenated, at least within certain communities, by decisive editorial action. The expanding influence of network television in the 1960s also hindered some white supremacist messaging, at least for a time, most basically because television was so beneficial to the civil rights movement. Every night, media scholar Aniko Bodroghkozy chronicles, broadcast news beamed images of racist violence into American homes, spurring many white people to action—or at least increased awareness.40
Recognizing that television was a crucial front in the war for white sympathies, some segregationists did their best to harness the medium for their own purposes. For example, in 1962, Sheriff Laurie Pritchett of Albany, Georgia, decided to use television cameras against civil rights protesters, and against the news media more broadly. Pritchett knew the Northern reporters gathered in Albany were there to film scenes of police brutality. Until that point, most Southern law enforcement had been happy to oblige, either because they couldn’t help themselves or because they didn’t fully grasp the power of those images. Maybe both. Pritchett, however, had his own game to play. So he responded to nonviolent protesters with nonviolent arrests, making sure the cameras were rolling while he did. The resulting images perpetuated the lie of a kinder, gentler segregationist. They also proved to be deeply concerning for civil rights leaders, who immediately recognized the challenge that responses like Pritchett’s posed to the movement.41
Pritchett’s strategy failed to catch on, ensuring that the relationship between segregationists and television cameras remained ambivalent at best. Indeed, shortly after the Albany campaign, more indelible (and accurate) images of the segregationist South were supplied by the likes of Birmingham, Alabama public safety commissioner Bull Connor. In 1963, Connor loosed attack dogs and firehoses on Black protesters, and photojournalists were there to capture the scene. The widespread amplification of the attacks wasn’t a part of the segregationist media kit; they weren’t staging the images, and the journalists covering the story weren’t there at segregationists’ behest. From a segregationist standpoint, the images were a liability.
Even when the journalists were there at the segregationists’ behest—for example, when they staged cross burnings and bombed Black churches42—the resulting images did the Klan few favors, at least with more moderate mainstream white audiences. Those white moderates might have been sympathetic to the gentlemanly segregationist; but explicit violence was something else. During the civil rights movement, the nightly news showed much more of the latter. It’s therefore unsurprising that segregationists came to see center-left, and especially Northern, journalists as enemies. A symposium on media and the civil rights movement held at the University of Mississippi in 1987 foregrounded this dynamic. As the panelists—all of whom had covered the South during the civil rights era—explained, members of the Klan actively intimidated, attacked, and sometimes tried to murder reporters.43
The antipathy and mistrust white supremacists felt toward center-left reporters was often—and also unsurprisingly—mutual. Phillips’s interviews with journalists working in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the efforts some reporters at some newsrooms took to shut white supremacists down. There was no official policy about spiking Klan stories, one reporter explained. But he, and many of the reporters he worked with, lived through the civil rights era and knew what the Klan was capable of. Beyond that, the Holocaust remained omnipresent to many. Fascism wasn’t an abstraction to these reporters; it was something they’d seen with their own eyes, or heard told firsthand. So spike the stories they did.
Local papers were especially wary about publishing Klan stories. Their reporters lived in the communities they covered, and they knew that stories about the Klan would set off a powder keg—one that could potentially result in assaults on or murders of the reporters themselves. If they had to file a story about the Klan, local papers would keep the dust kicking to an absolute minimum. Whenever possible, they would run a national wire service story rather than one with a local journalist’s name attached.
But all these exceptions help prove the rule. Although some reporters, at some papers, have exercised restraint when covering hate, and although some technological change blunted the spread of some supremacist messaging, for generations in the United States, hate-mongers have been handed microphone after microphone. Sometimes this is because those holding the microphone agree with what the racists are saying. Sometimes it’s because the microphone-holders consider what racists do and say to be “just the way things are.” Even the extreme violence of post–Civil War lynchings fell into this category, Richard Perloff explains; for white Northern journalists, coverage was “akin to reporting on unpleasant acts of nature such as earthquakes or floods; the events were unfortunate but necessary aspects of the order of things.”44
The reason most specific to the institution of journalism, however, which is embedded within the very core of the profession, is the knee-jerk impulse to be “fair and balanced.” For stories on white supremacy, this means “both sides-ing” bigots. Again, of course, fairness is a good idea in theory. But in the context of hate, this impulse frequently ends up being neither fair nor balanced, as truth and consequence are obscured by pollution and manipulation.
Sociologist Jessie Daniels describes the pervasiveness—and insidiousness—of the “both-sides” approach to hate groups in an exploration of 1990s talk shows featuring white supremacist guests.45 On these shows, the both-sides-ism was visual; white supremacists would be seated on one side of the stage, civil rights leaders on the other. The white supremacists might have been the hour’s buffoons. But, as Daniels argues, the white supremacists’ very presence legitimized their bigotries as much as CNN’s chyron legitimized Richard Spencer’s anti-Semitism. Worse, their bald-faced, even cartoonish, expressions of hate gave more moderate white viewers a pass for those viewers’ everyday acts of white supremacy. The real racists are the ones in hoods on daytime talk shows, this logic goes. If you’re not in a hood on a daytime talk show, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.
In addition to epitomizing both sides reporting, the 1990s talk show hosts who invited white supremacists onto their stage embodied another tenet of center-left journalism and of liberalism more broadly: the pervasive idea that to counter harms, we have to call attention to harms. In other words, that light disinfects. In the case of the Klan, the assumption is that putting Klansmen up on stage and handing them a microphone will expose their racism, which audiences will reject for the backwards ignorance it is. There’s some intuitive wisdom to this assumption. That wisdom, however, does not account for the persistence of the white racial frame. Nor does it account for our current climate crisis—beginning with the internet’s Dust Bowl conditions.
The actual Dust Bowl resulted from the collision of haphazard and irresponsible farming practices, mechanized equipment, and the strong hot winds of a cataclysmic drought. The 2016 Dust Bowl similarly resulted from the collision of haphazard and irresponsible content-mining, algorithmic amplification, and the strong hot winds of the attention economy. These conditions were exacerbated by the ease of homesteading: that anybody and their mother could go till all the land they wanted, kicking up all the dust they wanted—with white supremacists being some of the most active homesteaders on the prairie.46 This wasn’t an informational free-for-all, however. Despite the grassroots affordances ushered in by social media, there remained across the landscape many formidable establishment gates staffed by many competent, eagle-eyed journalistic gatekeepers.47
The issue heading into the 2016 election—and this is where the climate crisis looms large—was the hair-trigger on all those institutional gates. To this day, they fling open at the slightest provocation, exposing the landscape to all kinds of pollution. Both-sides-ism is a long-standing reason, as is journalism’s “scoop mentality”—which journalism scholar Mike Ananny critiques as “the thrill of being first.”48 Both are worsened by the speed and reach afforded by digital media and the roaring winds of monetization. In such an environment, there must always be new content, and not just any content, but clickable content. That’s the business model.
By scanning the horizon for the latest dustup then opening the gates to let the story through, journalists in 2016 may have been trying to solve a problem by revealing the problem. Or they may just have been harvesting easy clicks. Either way, mountains of dust blew across whole new fields—dust that couldn’t be contained once picked up by the winds. The soil was already taxed, and at many homesteads, already poisoned. But everyone kept planting and planting and panting, and harvesting and harvesting and harvesting. The sky filled with dirt before the gatekeepers knew what happened.
The pervasive narrative that “alt-right trolls” helped elect Donald Trump is, as already noted, inaccurate; that assertion gives too much credit to the trolls and not enough credit to everyone else who enabled, amplified, and incentivized their behavior. There remains, however, some roundabout truth to the claim. Trolling did indeed play a role in the election, just not the trolling ascribed to right-wing reactionaries. Much more influential, though much less conspicuous, was subcultural trolling, the internet culture staple that rose to prominence between 2008 and 2012. The vestiges of subcultural trolling helped shape how online bigotry in 2016 was covered and how audiences responded to it. While the vast majority of journalists at the outset of Trump’s campaign were unaware of, or simply indifferent to, the rhetoric and aesthetic of subcultural trolling, reporters who were aware more than made up for their limited numbers. Not only did they amplify this newest iteration of “trolling,” they translated it for a mainstream audience.
Essential to both this transmission and translation was fetishized sight and the white racial frame. Standing comfortably behind these frames, white reporters in particular shoveled more and more polluted dirt into the landscape, often without realizing what they were flinging so far and so wide. Pay no attention to the dirt in the air, came the call; it’s just internet business as usual.
For years, trolling business had indeed been vast. At the pinnacle of the subculture, trolls’ influence wasn’t limited to shoddy photoshops and lulzy posts. They also garnered increasing attention from journalists, particularly after 2010, when 4chan became a go-to source for internet culture scoops. Trolls embraced the role and, at every possible opportunity, seeded disinformation to reporters. They did so either by lying during interviews or by posting lies to 4chan, which the reporters were sure to find and report on as fact. Trolls were especially eager to sow confusion after mass shootings; they repeatedly spread the same hoaxes about each new shooter’s alleged connections to 4chan, which journalists repeatedly parroted.
During this time, trolls were as likely to target marginalized people and groups as they were to target powerful people and institutions, a point of ambivalence Jessica Beyer, Gabriella Coleman, and Phillips have each explored in their respective studies of early subcultural trolling.49 Throughout it all, the trolls’ pursuit of lulz took precedence; as they constantly crowed, lulz were the only reason to do anything. They may have actually believed that. But whatever they said, however they tried to justify their actions, the trolls’ amusement was always predicated on the seriousness of what they were saying for the people they were saying it to. They knew full well what their racist and sexist statements meant historically and politically, and how those statements would be received; that was quite literally why they used the words. So their actions may have been ambivalent, but they were always also full of shit.
The already fuzzy line between lulzy fun and pointed harm grew even fuzzier as 4chan grew increasingly prominent. For many, 4chan’s point of no return was 2014’s Gamergate hate and harassment campaign. According to feminist scholars Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw, Gamergate’s adherents initially targeted women, with special ire directed at women of color, who spoke out against misogyny in the video game industry. They then began targeting anyone who pushed back against those attacks.50 The campaign originated and was concentrated on 4chan, with supporting energies emanating from cross-pollinating boards on Reddit, as well as other reactionary corners of the internet. As it generated widespread national news coverage, Gamergate helped shine an even brighter cultural spotlight on 4chan. That visibility, in turn, fueled the network misogyny, to borrow a term from social media researchers Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kate Miltner, at the heart of the campaign.51
Gamergate was not the first networked harassment campaign directed at women, particularly women of color. In 2013, Donglegate—in which a Black woman was ruthlessly attacked after highlighting sexism at a Python programming convention—followed a similar script. As Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence against Women, argues, had social platforms taken Donglegate seriously, Gamergate would not have kicked up the dust it did when it did.52 Donglegate and other concurrent attacks against Black women were only the beginning, Joan Donovan stresses.53 The utter failure of social media platforms to respond to the emerging threat in 2013 ensured that all those ugly, violent energies had nothing but time and space to fester throughout the information ecosystem.
As Gamergate roared across the internet, 4chan founder Christopher Poole felt compelled to intervene. In an on-site announcement, he explained that he would be deleting Gamergate threads, which were concentrated on the /pol/, or “politics,” board, because they violated site policies against posting personal information and organizing raids.54 Poole’s move infuriated the site’s free speech absolutists, spurring a mass exodus to 8chan, an unauthorized 4chan spin-off created by a user who thought 4chan had grown too authoritarian. Not everyone left 4chan, however, and over the course of the Gamergate campaign, the site, and especially the /pol/ board, emerged as a safe harbor for self-selecting misogynists and racists. 8chan’s /pol/ mirror was another. For these users, bigotries were something to openly embrace; “lol just joking” justifications were no longer needed.
We can’t know how many new recruits were attracted to 4chan, 8chan, and other trolling hotbeds because of Gamergate or, before that, how many new recruits were attracted to Gamergate because of Donglegate. We can’t know how many existing 4chan users became increasingly amenable to bigoted violence as targeted hate replaced ambivalent lulz. What we do know is that the period between Donglegate in 2013, Gamergate in 2014, and Trump’s campaign announcement in 2015 was one of ideological crystallization. By then, the Daily Stormer was actively recruiting on 4chan and 8chan. Posters on both were more than primed to embrace Trump as their xenophobic “God Emperor.”55
The first instance of physical violence earnestly, rather than trollishly, linked to the chans came shortly thereafter. Less than six months after Trump’s announcement speech, two armed, masked white men streamed a LiveLeak video on their way to a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They gave /pol/ a shout-out. Later that night, those men, along with two others, opened fire at protesters, injuring five. The next chan-connected terror attack took place in Toronto in 2017. A man referenced 4chan and used site-specific lingo in a Facebook post before ramming his van into a crowd, killing ten and injuring fifteen. Two years later, in 2019, a gunman opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing fifty-one. His manifesto contained numerous references to 4chan and 8chan and included a plethora of trolling memes. The Christchurch attacks were quickly followed by a synagogue attack in Poway, California, complete with its own 8chan white supremacist manifesto. Later that same year, a white nationalist posted yet another manifesto to 8chan before murdering twenty people and injuring twenty-six more—several of whom were Mexican citizens—as they shopped at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. April Glazer of Slate published an article encapsulating the trend: “8chan Is a Normal Part of Mass Shootings Now,” the headline read.56
The people who had been targeted by the escalating attacks, who had been raising every alarm bell possible for years—with nothing but rejection or retaliation to show for it—predicted this outcome. It was written in the stars. Everyone else was left scratching their heads, staring at the sky, wondering where all the dust had suddenly come from.
The reactionary turn on 4chan happened right under everyone’s noses, in real time. Ironically, the more familiar someone was with internet culture, and even more pointedly, the more familiar someone was with subcultural trolling, the less likely they were to have noticed. The surrounding land may have withered, the soil may have cracked, the wind may have blown in hot and abrasive. But the fruit looked the same and tasted the same to the people who’d internalized the lol-nothing-matters ethos of trolling and internet culture. So they kept tilling the soil.
One of the first reporters Phillips interviewed saw the problem clearly, in hindsight. She admitted that she “grew up” on early 4chan, and explained that her generation—meaning the mostly white, mostly male, mostly privileged people who defined internet culture—“raised all the kids who are Nazis … because they saw us, and we were like, ‘don’t take anything seriously.’”57
Other reporters made similar, often sheepish, admissions. The more tech reporters in their late twenties and early thirties Phillips talked to, the more unprompted reflections on internet culture and subcultural trolling she encountered. After several of these conversations, Phillips began asking all the reporters she interviewed about their experiences with trolling. A correlation quickly emerged: a reporter’s experience with trolling, and 4chan in particular, strongly influenced how they initially approached stories about the “alt-right.”
Not all these experiences were equivalent; some reporters had been closer to the subculture than others, and some had spent years actively mocking trolls as teenagers (even as they often acted like trolls, talked like trolls, and laughed like trolls). Three traits remained consistent, however. The first was reporters’ overwhelming whiteness. Indeed, of all the reporters with connections to 4chan whom Phillips interviewed, only one was a person of color. The second shared trait was that these reporters were inclined to approach online aggressions as examples of esoteric internet culture weirdness. The internet wasn’t real life; it was the internet. So when bigotry and harassment emerged from places like 4chan, it didn’t really count; learning that was a basic part of learning how to internet. The final shared trait was that they were, as one reporter put it, “troll trained.” They were therefore in a unique position to field the bigotries creeping up from the ground and blowing across the sky as 2016 approached. They were standing right there to watch it all happen.
One reporter on the internet culture beat recounted a Facebook meme page he had joined at the outset of the campaign called “Donald Trump’s Dank Meme Stash.” Because the group so clearly drew from the rhetoric and aesthetics of trolling, and because it featured all the same over-the-top pro-Trump, anti-Clinton content he had seen so many people share ironically, the reporter assumed that the memes and jokes and articles he saw—including a cornucopia of what came to be known as “fake news”—were satirical. Some of the content was satirical, or at least was being shared satirically by other internet culture enthusiasts who encountered the content elsewhere and thought it was funny. Some of it, however, turned out to be the violently racist handiwork of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Maybe they had crafted those memes with a trollish wink. But what those memes perpetuated was straight-up hate. Speaking to his shock upon discovering where all those funny memes and jokes and articles came from, the reporter could hardly believe how much he had missed. “I didn’t see that this was something fundamentally different,” he said. “I really should have.”58
This experience was common among the troll-trained journalists Phillips spoke to. Every day, sometimes every hour, these journalists harvested the fruits of internet culture. Their social lives centered on sharing all that fruit with their friends. Their professional lives centered on making that fruit palatable to a broader audience. Consequently, the lulz, fetishization, and outright bigotry they were seeing on 4chan and Reddit at the outset of the election cycle, which soon blanketed Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and beyond, were entirely par for the internet culture course. These were the things they had been laughing at, and the people they had been laughing with, for years. They knew what to do.
So out came the listicles, the “lol internet” explainers spotlighting the most outrageous and offensive memes ricocheting across social media. Out came the clickbait slideshows affixing a shruggie-shaped question mark over every racist picture shared. Out came the Twitter snark about how “funny and bizarre” it was, as one reporter explained, that people were “using swastikas, using Nazi language to support Trump.”59 Flinging all that fruit and all that dirt around was fun. The election was fun.
Some coverage was less fun, though the basic outcome was the same. Troll-trained reporters with an existing animus against subcultural trolling wrote “dismissively and crusadingly antagonistic” articles, as one reporter described them, calling attention to that old childhood enemy 4chan.60 The attempt to mock the site and its users had a serious side effect: advertising the site and its users.
These reporters might not have realized they were sowing catastrophe, but the white nationalists and supremacists whose rotten fruits they were flinging sure did; the leaked style guide for the Daily Stormer lays out that strategy explicitly.61 In addition to encouraging the disarming use of familiar memes, the guide encourages its writers to lean heavily on humor and to employ the rhetoric of trolling as often as possible. Racist jokes plant the seeds for racist beliefs, the guide explains, and there is no better way to do that than with trolling.
The Daily Stormer wasn’t alone. The style guide echoed many of the shitposts cascading across social media at the time, in which participants—taking a page right out of the first Klan’s playbook—would forward outrageous statements and images, ironically embrace pejorative labels and stereotypes, and frame racism as high camp. These fruits were so similar, even interchangeable, with what troll-trained reporters themselves had been raised on that many simply could not resist the compulsion to point and laugh.
By responding to what they thought were trollish winks with even more winking, troll-trained reporters inadvertently reinforced their own fetishized sight, as well as the fetishized sight of their audiences. The consequences of bigotry, the people who were at that very moment being targeted and terrorized by that bigotry, were not part of the discussion, not in the listicles, and not in the Twitter snark. Same as it ever was.
Instead, these reporters focused on the irony of the memes and the absurdity of the memes and the comfortably familiar aesthetic of the memes. There was no reason—at least not that these reporters could see—to stop, so they kept pointing and laughing and rolling their eyes. Other reporters, particularly those who had covered—and certainly those who had been targeted by—Gamergate, Donglegate, or any other coordinated hate and harassment campaign, may have had the sense that something was happening, something was different. And yet too few center-left journalists during the critical early months of the 2016 election cycle called much attention to the eroding soil and bitter fruit piling up at their feet.
One possible reason they didn’t, floated by several of the reporters Phillips interviewed, is how unlikely a Trump presidency seemed at the time. Like an enormous number of center-left journalists, critics, and pollsters, troll-trained reporters admitted that they never thought Trump would win. His campaign was, to so many people, for so many months, just a lark, just a publicity stunt, just a media circus. There were no stakes; the whole thing was stupid. Might as well get some good tweets out of it.
Another reason so few reporters were ringing the alarm was the overarching prevalence of the white racial frame within establishment, center-left journalism. Trump employed explicitly racist rhetoric throughout his campaign. He surrounded himself with white nationalist advisers and was giddily embraced by neo-Nazis, the Klan, and other reactionary groups. For people targeted by Trump and his followers, the stakes were always high. For those who could hold embodied harm at arm’s length, on the other hand, for those ignorant or dismissive of the threats that others were facing, all the swirling online bigotry got to be just hot air, just internet culture, just trolls being trolls.
The reactionary Right’s professional grade media manipulators exactingly exploited this myopia. In particular, reactionary professionals, many of whom had previously worked within center-left media, leaned heavily into the trolling mystique. Far-right microcelebrity Milo Yiannopoulos was especially shameless. Drawing from a cache of leaked emails, BuzzFeed News’ Joseph Bernstein chronicles the “coy dance” Yiannopoulos performed before and after the election to minimize the white supremacy of right-wing reactionaries and maximize their plausibly deniable trollishness. The endgame was to launder white nationalism into the mainstream.62 Other reactionary influencers did the same. They were on the same page as the Daily Stormer, at least in terms of communications strategies. They knew how distracting the trollish wink can be. They also knew how many people would recognize that wink, or at least think they recognized the wink, and subsequently interpret their bigotry as, say it with us, just trolling.
And so, throughout the election, and even after Trump’s inauguration, people who had the luxury of laughing treated white supremacy like one big joke. Charlottesville was a turning point for many reporters, who at that point looked up from all the fun they’d been having and finally noticed they weren’t in Kansas anymore. Certainly by the time fifty-one souls were taken in Christchurch, reporters saw the Nazis for the trolls. Of course, by then it was too late.
An overwhelming percentage of the journalists Phillips interviewed expressed regret over not seeing the signs earlier, for remaining ensconced in what many described as their own liberal bubbles, and for personally and professionally benefiting from such a dark political turn. But no group was more remorseful than the troll-trained reporters who kicked bigotry into the air, half righteous and half ironic, as they continued covering, and continued laughing at, what they thought was internet culture as usual.
Looking back at the information she had at the time, when it seemed like Trump’s candidacy was a pipe dream infomercial, one technology reporter admitted feeling torn; she wasn’t sure what she could have done differently. And yet, she admitted of the articles she wrote at the time, “Every once in a while I’ll look back and see something that I wrote…and the pit of my stomach falls, because either I was joking about these trolls, or making light of the fact, joking about Trump becoming president. It makes me physically sick to read them now.”63
Another troll-trained reporter experienced a similar emotional reckoning. She noted how, as Trump’s campaign was in full swing, she wrote a series of articles that pointed and laughed at all the swastikas plastered across a particular online game. After Charlottesville, she decided to go on the Daily Stormer, which she had heard referenced many times during the election but had never visited. She never had any reason to; as far as she knew, trolling and neo-Nazism were two totally separate worlds. Upon seeing precisely the imagery she’d thought was a joke a few months earlier and, in the process, realizing just how wrong her assumption had been, she felt “a kind of abject horror.…Because I feel like I’m part of it, because I’ve just been writing about the internet like it was no big deal, for years now.”64
Taken by themselves, the early framings of troll-trained reporters help explain how 2016’s alt-right narrative emerged as it did, when it did. But that was only half the story. In addition to reinforcing fetishized sight, early efforts to surface “funny and bizarre” examples of pro-Trump white supremacy also brought more reporters to the story.
And not just troll-trained reporters, either; running just a few steps behind the (typically) younger, troll-trained reporters were more traditional, (typically) older reporters inclined to approach trollish lulz with much more credulity. They might not have been laughing as they did it, but they still publicized all kinds of conspiracy theories and hoaxes—conspiracy theories and hoaxes that were, very often, first surfaced by troll-trained reporters—as they emphatically debunked them. This was the “both sides” impulse at work, as well as the belief that light disinfects—professional norms that they, as the older guard, had been steeped in for much longer.
There were benefits to being troll-untrained. These reporters were able to see the threat clearly. They knew it wasn’t funny. At the same time, by ascribing an unwavering, stone-faced sincerity to white supremacist messaging, these reporters were nonetheless vulnerable to manipulation, though in a different direction. Because they were not familiar with the rhetorical tactics of trolling, these reporters were often unable to decode and effectively address the aggressive performativity and head-spinning irony that remained a hallmark of even the most explicitly violent white supremacist content. As a result, they still gave the manipulators exactly what they wanted: lulzy attention, recruiting power, and, perhaps most devastating of all, public legitimacy.
The vulnerabilities of reporters who were not troll trained thus complemented the vulnerabilities of those who were. Together they kicked up more dust from more fields, burying entire swaths of farmland. As everyone else staggered against the winds, gasping for air, the bigots just stood there, grinning, as they surveyed the barren landscape.
The polluted information that roared, unchecked, across the landscape during the 2016 election cycle didn’t appear out of nowhere. Nothing appears out of nowhere, whether it’s a dust storm in Kansas or a reactionary on 4chan. As it always does, the spread of polluted information in 2016 stemmed from the choices people made. Those choices stemmed, in turn, from those people’s experiences, their assumptions, and their bodies in the world. All influenced the fruit that grew and dust that blew.
Reporters who laughed at the aesthetics and rhetoric of subcultural trolling, even as they might have wagged a that’s-so-naughty finger at the people propagating it, had the luxury of laughing and the luxury of disapproving without feeling compelled to do much about it. More than anything else, these reporters had the luxury of approaching violent reactionaries as little more than trolls on little more than the internet. One reporter, a woman of color, reflected on how easily white reporters, and particularly white male reporters, were able to frame persistently racist, misogynist abuse as something so abstract, so whitewashed, so funny. “Because the threat isn’t at their front door,” she explained, “because it isn’t going to impact them.”65 That it all got to be an amusing—or at least an interesting—abstraction also helps explain why so many of these reporters ran with bigots’ free speech reframes. Never mind that “free speech” only ever meant free speech for the bigots, who would immediately spin around, tell everyone else to shut their goddamned mouths, then start laughing. Apparently unaware of how they were being used—or simply unconcerned because it made for good copy—these reporters helped gaslight their readers into thinking that “free speech” defenses made by white supremacists were legitimate arguments worth considering.
White reporters were not the only people blinded by the one-two punch of fetishized sight and the white racial frame. Election stories in 2016 that focused on the reactionary Right were wildly popular with white audiences, just as stories about white racial terror had been during the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. Literary scholar Debra Walker King chillingly contextualizes this impulse in her study of Black bodies in pain.66 Stories about broken, dehumanized, and terrorized Black bodies are popular with white audiences, King explains, because too many white people derive, at best, fascinated befuddlement (“how could anyone be a racist?”), and at worst, a dark sort of pleasure, from the stories. A privileged “view from the trees,” as King describes it, allows white folks to see violated nonwhite bodies as plot points, object lessons, or abstract stand-ins for the concept of victimhood. Or worst of all, as entertainment.
And that’s if those bodies are mentioned at all. Often, stories of nonwhite bodies in pain are obscured by stories of the white bodies causing that pain; articles about the first Klan, tellingly, recounted the groups’ racial terrorism while managing somehow not to talk about the freedpeople the Klan had terrorized. The 2016 election was, once again, no exception to this historical rule. As the reporters Phillips spoke with explained, and many outright lamented, white audiences throughout the election cycle were clamoring to read about white nationalism and supremacy. They couldn’t get enough reactionary meme listicles. They couldn’t get enough explainers about alt-right trolling (whatever that was). They couldn’t get enough colorful portraits of neo-Nazis, as if reactionaries were characters in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Journalists knew this because journalists measured this. These were the stories their readers clicked on and shared.
And so, just as they did in response to secession and lynchings and the Klan, journalists gave those white audiences what they wanted, either because it meant another paycheck or because the journalists were similarly rapt, or both. In a way, it didn’t matter why they did it. By spending the entire election cycle profiling bigots and psychoanalyzing bigots and yelling snark at bigots and huddling in a scrum around bigots outside the Charlottesville General District Court, journalists made the bigots the center of everyone’s story. They made the bigots go mainstream.
As it was in chapter 2, this diagnosis is grim. The ecosystem was already strained under generations of racist violence and white obliviousness. Network climate change deepened that strain and overlaid it with a whole new set of environmental stressors. The result has been devastating. Too many people planted too many of the wrong crops, irresponsibly tilled the land, and ignored warnings from those who have always seen the dangers clearly. And yet, again, it doesn’t have to be this way. Kansas after the Great Depression is a case in point. As the US Soil Conservation Service implemented more responsible farming practices, restored native grasslands, and planted hundreds of miles of natural windbreaks, the land began to rebound.67 We can also begin to rebound by reflecting on what we’re harvesting and why, remembering that good intentions can still be dusty as hell, and, most important of all, listening to the people who best understand the threats.
The storms on the prairie aren’t the only storms to consider, however. Larger, more complex storms gather along the coasts, fueled by overlapping social, technological, and economic forces. These storms spread pollution even further, and in so doing, further complicate its prevention and removal. And so, the next mark to make on our map is up.