The alt-right’s origin and early media use

When the term alt-right was born in 2008, it was not associated with great innovations in media usage. It was entirely online, but its use of the internet was not immediately novel. For its first few years, the alt-right was not a movement of any sort and was instead simply a term associated with a couple of webzines run by Richard Spencer — Taki’s Magazine, followed by a site simply called Alternative Right. During its earliest days, the phrase alternative right was also not exclusively associated with any specific racial ideas; various right-wing ideologies that dissented from mainstream conservatism fit under the broad umbrella term.

Spencers websites hosted short blog entries, longer articles, and podcasts. Alternative Right was relatively short lived as Spencer ceased editing the site in 2012 to focus on other projects, especially running the National Policy Institute, a small white nationalist think tank. He shut down the site entirely a year later. It appeared that the term was going to disappear entirely. When it reemerged on social media and sites like 4chan (at that point usually shortened to alt-right) a few years later, it gained new popularity from the ground up, rather than due to any kind of top-down strategy.

It was during this short interim period that the far-right online had an important warm-up before its real breakthrough in 2015 and 2016. So-called Gamergate provided an early demonstration that anonymous online trolls with no formal organisation or leadership could make a real-world impact. It further served to introduce several people who would later be influential in the alt-right to a larger audience.

The details of Gamergate are not important for this chapter. It began as a purported controversy about ethics in video-game journalism. It soon became a misogynistic harassment campaign, as gamers organised on platforms such as 4chan, Twitter, and Reddit. Developers, journalists, and activists who sought to promote a more inclusive gaming community and less misogyny in games were subjected to a barrage of insulting and threatening emails, as were their employers (Parker 2014). Gamergaters also targeted the corporate sponsors of major media venues, leading to a withdrawal of advertising revenue. Their attacks were a key reason the webzine Gawker shut down (Read 2014).

Gamergate was mostly unrelated to race as it focused mostly on gender questions in gaming (Hawley 2019). However, it set an important precedent in online discourse. It revealed the high degree of reactionary sentiment among young men on message boards and social media. People congregating at these online venues expressed shocking hatred towards those they deemed ‘social justice warriors’, accusing them of injecting ‘political correctness’ into video games — a form of media that had previously shown little interest in progressive pieties. The alt-right harnessed similar resentments and used similar tactics, on a much larger scale, in the subsequent years.

It was also during this period that websites that eventually became extremely influential within the alt-right were gaining in popularity. There were still sites presenting extreme rightwing arguments in a more traditional manner. After shutting down Alternative Right, Spencer started a new webzine called Radix. The white nationalist publishing company and website Counter Currents had been operating since 2011. Arktos Media began publishing far-right books in 2010 and continues to do so.

The alt-right’s recent media use

Given that the alt-right has existed for barely a decade (at least under that label), it may seem strange to divide its history up into different periods. However, internet culture seems to evolve at a breakneck speed. There was a difference between the alt-rights first iteration, when it was a small ideological project led by a small number of writers, and the alt-right during the 2016 presidential election. This first iteration of the alt-right mostly died out when Spencer, its initial originator, decided to drop the label. The subsequent iteration was largely a grassroots phenomenon, driven by trolls working completely anonymously or under one or more pseudonyms.

Richard Marcy (2020b) has argued that, as a modern vanguard movement, the alt-right has a relatively clear division of labor, despite having no top-down organisational structure. He divides the alt-right into ‘sensebreakers’, ‘sensegivers’, and ‘sensemakers’. Given the fluid and disorganised nature of the alt-right, these are not solid categories, and the same person may perform multiple tasks.

Those in the first category, the sensebreakers, are the face of the movement to the public. They are the ones seeking and gaining significant exposure from the mainstream media. They are the front-line activists leading rallies. They present themselves as uncompromising opponents of the status quo. Marcy argued that Richard Spencer was the most notable person in this category, though he noted that Spencer’s influence has waned in recent years. Although there were a few other figures who have sought to play similar roles in the alt-right (such as Patrick Casey and James Allsup), it is unclear if they will experience long-term success.

The sensegivers are the intellectuals associated with the alt-right. Although they are mostly not anonymous, they are not as eager for mainstream media attention as the sensebreakers. Their aim is to give their movement intellectual coherence, a solid ideological foundation that can support the work of others. More educated readers, listeners, and viewers are their target audience. Marcy identified Jared Taylor of the white nationalist group American Renaissance as the alt-right’s quintessential sensegiver. Taylor has been a leading voice in the white nationalist movement since the 1990s, but he has been considered an important figure in the alt-right since that term was coined. Taylor and others like him prefer to justify their arguments using peer-reviewed studies and academic language. Alt-right intellectuals tend to be especially interested in reviving ‘race science’, the idea that race is a biological category, and races have non-trivial biological differences. Other sensegivers also focus on reviving older varieties of right-wing thought, especially fascistic ideas that were popular in Europe in the inter-war period.

Marcy argued that YouTube has been an especially valuable tool for the sensegiving element of the alt-right. The platform has allowed the alt-right to upload high-quality videos, presenting their arguments on their own terms, for free. These videos can receive millions of views. This represents a major change in the use of video media by the far right. In the past, when television was the primary way people viewed video media, the far right was largely locked out of this medium. Their options were public-access television stations (which had a limited reach), VHS tapes (presumably delivered to people who already agreed with their message), and efforts to get mainstream news media to give them coverage (secure in the knowledge that this coverage would be universally hostile). Thanks to YouTube, this method of outreach became widely available to the far right for the first time. Recent scholarship suggests that YouTube has been an important means of online radicalisation (Ribiero et al. 2020).

Within the sensemaker group, Marcy identified two categories: trolls and lurkers. Trolls engage in the least risky form of activism, sharing alt-right ideas or simply attempting to sow racial discord online. They are the ones posting anonymously on social media platforms like Twitter and on image boards like 4chan. Although people in this category may be nothing more than atomised trolls making racist remarks online in their spare time, they nonetheless served a crucial purpose in the alt-right’s early days. Their relentless activity on social media and elsewhere was largely responsible for bringing attention to the alt-right.

The lurkers are an even larger number and represent the people consuming alt-right content without creating anything of their own. These people are at various stages of radicalisation. Some already fully agree with every one of the alt-right’s major points regarding race, immigration, and Jewish people. Others may lean towards the alt-right but maintain some misgivings. Some lurkers may simply be people who are curious to know what the alt-right or related movements are about and may or may not further engage with its ideas.

The alt-right also demonstrated the importance of podcasts to ideological movements. Most of the major alt-right websites hosted podcasts, on which important figures of the movement conducted interviews and discussed race, gender, popular culture, and current events. Within the alt-right, however, the website The Kight Stuff was unquestionably the most influential in terms of podcasting. Its network included its flagship programme called The Daily Shoah (Shoah is the Hebrew term for holocaust.) This programme presented radical white nationalist content but did so in an entertaining fashion, modelling itself on radio ‘shock jocks’ like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony. The show’s creators were serious ideologues, but they sought to gain listeners by presenting their message in a comedic manner, playing parody songs and flouting all conventions of ‘political correctness’ by infusing their commentary with racist jokes and slurs. This programme, perhaps more than any other, represented the ethos of the alt-right at its peak. The network also included the more serious programme, Fash the Nation. (Fash was short for fascism.) This programme provided commentary on current political events from a white nationalist perspective. Before it was banned from SoundCloud, Fash the Nation was that network’s most popular ‘conservative’ podcast (Wilson 2017b).

 
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