From Fake News To Fact: How Alt-Right Movements Start With Internet Trolls
It began on a web forum with a college student giving the “OK” hand gesture. It turned into a symbol of hate embraced by White Nationalists.
Recently I was researching some of the most trending anti-LGBT movements to hit social media- the hashtag #DropTheT- a radical feminist effort by right-wing lesbians to exile transgender women and men from beneath the LGBT umbrella. More recently, there was the incredibly alarming uprising of the individuals self-identifying as MAPs (Minor-Attracted People) -or, pedophiles, if, like me you refuse to grant those who pose a threat to children with a sanitized initialism.
I watched MAPs openly discuss their desire to be “Out of the closet” without risking social shame. They compared themselves and their struggles to gay and bisexual folks claiming that they are simply people who have a different sexual orientation, which they have termed “Pedo-sexual.”
With the increased visibility of emboldened bigotry in post-Trump America, which, I confess, always existed, albeit more quietly and begrudgingly, as we pushed back against it, I wondered how all these new, more radical ideas that conservative have latched onto came to the surface.
I was shocked when a fellow writer (An actual journalist- of which I am not, nor do I claim to be.) began sharing with me discoveries of her own. As I listened and made comparisons to my own research, I had one of those mind-blown moments. Most of the propaganda that has reared it’s ugly head in the last two years have been directly linked to internet trolls who introduced concepts and ideas leveraging (I hate to say it) fake news.
No, it’s not Russia. It’s far less sophisticated. It’s legions of people who do things “For the lulz” like spamming the TIME Person of the Year poll in Donald Trump’s favor that organize and inhabit dark corners of the metaverse and deliberately post content out of context, like photos and videos en masse on social media. Since most users don’t fact check and instead simply react, it sometimes catches fire. While I’m sure it began long before now, the current political climate has created something of a perfect storm for things that were once easily dismissed as innocuous to become national symbols for White Nationalists who have come to collectively embrace it and demonstrate it.
The girl had blonde hair, blue eyes and blindingly white teeth. It was her graduation day, and she stood before the backdrop of a theater curtain giving the “OK” symbol. We’re all familiar with the marriage of the thumb and forefinger as a benign gesture to say “All good.” However the image, as it was circulated, had a crude outline of her fingers drawn on top of her hand making the letters WP and a caption that accompanied the image said it was a covert message that White Supremacists use to signal their loyalty to their belief system.
It didn’t take long before everyone who’d ever used the gesture was “Outed” as a racist. It flew around the internet faster than a Kadashian as a new hand-of-hate was born.
Everyone accepted this as real. Everyone who ever took a wedding reception photo, post-childbirth photo, or a sports team celebrating a win found themselves chucking them in the nearest fire to avoid wrongful persecution. Then, they jumped on the bandwagon, joining the growing chorus of voices renouncing the touching of fingers in such a way to show solidarity.
And here is where it becomes more disturbing. True Alt-right, White Nationalists saw this and actually adopted it. Soon, the hand gesture did, in fact, become a way that these people possessing these world views identified themselves with similar respect to the Heil Hitler salute.
Fake news was suddenly thrust into the state of existing as fact.
It was shills who actually began the #DropTheT hashtag that began trending on twitter a few months ago. Not radical lesbian feminists who just loathed transgender people. Shills are people who pose as someone of a specific mindset or interest who attempt to build an army of radicalist-minded individuals from within their own community and turn them against each other in an effort to create chaos and division. Heavily trafficked sites like Reddit and Twitter are full of them, and they prey upon- and influence the opinions of- the actual user base it’s intended for. The most vulnerable being, of course, where minorities and disenfranchised communities congregate. Their interests lay solely in creating outrage by introducing false triggers like hashtags and rejecting real content and social issues that makes users uncomfortable by offering up straw-man arguments or blatant denial. Sometimes, they find support. Sometimes, our own community joins them in shutting down activists who are working to provide information or expose propaganda. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen. A Reddit user claiming to be transgender whose rapid-fire comments of opposition to any Trans-informative posts that point to community issues, was discovered to frequent many controversial forums, some wherein she also claimed to be an INCEL that hated women who refused them sex. Regardless of gender or ideology, they had a goal. Sew contention and discourse. Discredit by matter of loud opinion. Plant seeds of misdirection and accrue support for their agenda.
That is how #DropTheT, which began as a plant by shills in 2015, was finally given a platform thanks to Alt-Right media darling Milo Yiannopoulos. However, it wasn’t until 2018 that it found legitimacy once it caught the attention and generated momentum from enough vocal Radfems who shared that sentiment. Pleased to see someone take the first step in making such a bold, nefarious statement, many followed suit, effectively adopting it as a part of their movement to have Transgender people and trans specific organizations- during Pride month- removed from the events. The internet trolls who most likely weren’t a feminist, nor a member of the LGBT community at all, succeeded in handing bigots a weapon they had been too ashamed to use alone. They were lured into the open, convinced they were one of many, by a shill. A single, hateful hashtag became, over time, a mission statement.
They tried the same thing by targeting the bisexual community.
This is how shills shape our communities, our opposition and turn memes and hashtags into inter-cultural war zones. They light the fuse on a radical minority and step back as they watch us fight those they bring into agreement with their fake propaganda.
So, when my journalist friend said to me “Phaylen, MAPs weren’t real. They were introduced by shills to discredit Transgender people and to validate the arguments that both politicians and evangelists have used to imply we are threats to greater society.” Indeed, she proved to me why she is the journalist, and I am a Cat Lady. I sat with my mouth hanging half-open as I read her words. Let’s be clear, pedophiles exist. But, are they really ingratiating themselves into LGBT culture, making their own pride flags and sharing photos of themselves online bemoaning the trials of “coming out” to an oppressive society? I bought it. In my defense, my President has called Nazis “Good people.” I have accepted that I live in an era where even the most atrocious, unthinkable things are no longer so… unthinkable.
While she was absolutely right, the terrifying reality is this: What didn’t exist once upon a better time- out and proud MAPs with allies and support systems- well, they certainly do now.
Real pedophiles have been delivered sympathy and reassurance by shills, who have encouraged them, by pretending to be one of them, to parallel their deviations of sexualizing children with the ongoing fight for inclusion and equality LGBT people face even today. It’s important to recognize that the sole purpose of incentivising the normalization of MAPs is to weaponize it against the LGBT community. Every preacher behind a pulpit and Republican congressman hoping to reverse our rights will say to their supporters; “See, I warned you what was going to happen next, now they’re LGBT”P”!”
Because of the onslaught of shill manifested antagonists that assume a real space in our orbit, we divide. Some of us fight the pedophiles, and some, shockingly, defend them. “How can you ask for tolerance but offer none?” Those who support them will say, as if there is some moral equivalency to being gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgender to being a pedophile. When we push back, we divide even further, labelled haters, and losing people who were one LGBT supporters. And while we’re focusing on waging that war, our government leaders and Supreme Court Judges are rolling back all the progress it took decades to achieve.
For the trolls and shills? Mission accomplished.