Black Feminists Are USA’s Best Defense Against Meme Warfare, Fake News, Foreign And Domestic Trolls
Shafiqah Hudson is an unapologetic cat lady and freelance writer from the South. On twitter as @sassycrass, she is a bonafide troll hunter. Hudson realized she had a knack for it in June of 2014, when she noticed a bunch of odd tweets denouncing Father’s Day floating across her timeline from self-proclaimed black feminists she didn’t recognize. “They were saying the most outrageous and ridiculous things,” said Hudson in gchat, like “killing of all white men or how fatherhood was actually state-sanctioned sexual violence.”
Hudson, along with other feminists, worked quickly to defrock the trolls under the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing. It wasn’t particularly difficult because the bulk of the troll accounts were created “that same week” explained Hudson and “tweeted in really bad approximation of AAVE (African American Vernacular English).” The trolls did manage to get #EndFathersDay to trend briefly, but “anybody with half the sense God gave a cold bowl of oatmeal could see that these weren’t feminist sentiments” said Hudson. In less than a day the miscreants were routed back to the online crevices they came from. The end!
The trolls would return months later, en masse and with a notorious general, this time targeting mostly white feminists (an easier mark) by masquerading not just as women but men of color too. These trolls would be irate gamers and “fake” Nazis, their sustained harassment campaign successfully wrestling the narrative away from said feminists long enough to draw in confused gamers and conservatives with fake news and fake facts, mostly via memes and low-res jpegs covered in conspiratorial MS paint writing.
Later, in 2016, they would morph into rabid Trump supporters, their numbers swelling with sock puppets and bots sharing links to Daily Stormer and Breitbart, backed up by Russians masquerading as Americans around the time their notorious general moved to Ukraine. Some trolls would even spread photoshops telling people to vote for Hillary Clinton via text messages, a disinformation campaign that could be interpreted as voter suppression.
At least in Russia, the trolls get a base salary of about $500 a month.
Besides #yourslipisshowing, 2014 is an important year in the Meme Wars not only because it saw the start of the still ongoing harassment-campaign-turned-consumer-revolt known as GamerGate, it is also the same year the notorious Neo-Nazi troll, professional liar and hacker known as Andrew “weev” Aurenheimer is released from prison.
Having gone in by some accounts as a “fake” troll Nazi, weev emerged from jail radicalized and angry, intent on punishing the U.S. government and making overtures to domestic terrorists like Oklahoma city bomber Timothy McVeigh. He immediately sought out Andrew Anglin, the creator of the top neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, having become a huge fan while incarcerated. The hate mob activities of GamerGate were old hat for weev, because, as he said in a phone interview last summer, he spent “years before prison making that kind of environment” [where hate mobs against feminists can flourish].
To call weev a top general in the Meme Wars is not an exaggeration. He is an early and influential Encyclopedia Dramatica forum user, was heavily involved in early troll, hacktivist and harassment campaigns through the 2000’s (even on Livejournal) and is a chief architect in what researchers call Digital Influence Operations. Most feminists, no matter the color, have heard of him at one point or another in their online lives.
Weev is also the orchestrator of the first large hate mob targeting a feminist online, of programmer and video game designer Kathy Sierra back in 2007. The 2007 harassment campaign against Sierra included all the usuals that would be seen a decade later during GamerGate: threats, hacks, doxxing, doctored photos, as well as the proliferation of fake facts including that Sierra issued DMCA takedown notices and was somehow pro-Internet censorship.
The growing GamerGate harassment mob and weev’s somewhat successful reintegration into the tech sphere post-prison prompted Sierra to write of her ordeal and the hate mob phenomenon. Sierra noted how normal people had been galvanized to participate in the targeted harassment against her because of an abstract cause:
Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid you’re serving) threatens that cause.”
James Scott, Senior Fellow at the American cybersecurity think tank ICIT, wrote about something similar in his latest book Information Warfare: The Meme is the Embryo of the Narrative Illusion. Scott’s book focuses on how nation states and terrorist groups operate botnets and troll armies to weaponize memes and hashtags on social media platforms — in a phone interview he said including 4chan would be “too obvious” — and how they recruit normal people by appealing to an abstract or “noble” cause. From that book:
Loss aversion or fear of loss is a primary motivator in memetic warfare, because regardless of beliefs, everyone has something that they fear losing… In fact, most psychological studies suggest that the deprival super-reaction in response to supposed loss is twice as powerful as the prospect of gains when influencing the behavior of a subject.”
Internet censorship and feminists organizing to confiscate video games (and later, most of President Trump’s talking points during the campaign) are both vague and noble enough causes to be effective recruitment tools for whatever your hate mob happens to be about.
Unlike the previous coordinated troll operation (unmasked under #yourslipisshowing), GamerGate was a defeat for feminists because they lost control of the narrative. Part of this defeat lay in delayed mobilization: video game journalists actively avoided covering the hate mob for the first few days because they believed coverage would make the harassment worse. (As a digital culture reporter, I was not in this video game journalist listserv, which is why I wrote this post and was subsequently blamed for starting GamerGate.) In comparison, #yourslipisshowing debunked the fake facts right as they were starting to spread, effectively nipping that troll operation in the bud before it could gain traction among the mainstream.
The first GamerGate fake fact pushed by trolls was that a feminist video game designer slept with a reporter for a favorable review. Combined with the leaked gaming journalist listserv chat logs, the narrative became “corruption in video game journalism.” The first troll hashtag was #NotYourShield where 4channers pretended to be POC outraged by a series of articles purposefully misrepresented among the GamerGate mob as characterizing all gamers as disgruntled white men obsessed with first-person-shooters. Most of these articles were think pieces by feminists calling for more diversity in the industry and the 4chan-orchestrated backlash indicated many newcomers to the mob hadn’t actually read the posts, just the headlines that went something along the lines of “Gamers are Dead.”
By January of 2015, after having already left the United States and living in Lebanon, weev helped pro- Gamergate outlet Breitbart run an article that severely damaged the reputation of Silicon Valley feminist Shanley Kane, whom he dated before prison. At the time, Kane was a respected critic of the tech industry and on the up-and-up with her publication Model View Culture. To the anti-feminist trolls, Kane’s voice had become too powerful. When Pax Dickinson was fired from Business Insider, Kane was blamed for it. Weev calls Dickinson a personal friend and felt like he had to “take her out” in retaliation.
Breitbart ran weev’s words about Kane unfiltered and unchallenged while downplaying his racism. This effectively created a safe space for white nationalism and made the conservative outlet another corner of the internet where it is culturally more acceptable to be a neo-Nazi than it is to be a feminist.
“There was a Twitter campaign aimed at getting progressive people to drag Shanley [then]” said Hudson, and “[weev] was repeatedly invoked” as the reason for it. Hudson wrote for Model View Culture before it was shuttered and while weev may like to take credit for forcing Kane’s publication to close and ruining her, Hudson says that is not the case and Kane is “just fine.” (Kane politely declined to be interviewed and has a book coming out later this year.) When confronted with the hypocrisy of his actions, of censoring an activist and supposedly contributing to her magazine’s demise when American trolls are supposed to be all about championing “free speech,” weev insisted that wasn’t censorship and that Model View Culture wasn’t “doing anything new.”
To this day, Kane continues to be badgered with hateful messages from feminists “literally daily” over the Breitbart article she calls “lies,” especially whenever weev makes the news. This is on top of random hate from anti-feminist trolls. Weev, on the other hand, suffered no ill consequences from the Breitbart article. On the contrary, it helped draw new recruits to his American troll army and revealed an outlet eager to spread troll language to the mainstream population by gleefully bashing feminists.
By the summer of 2015, weev is living in Eastern Ukraine. Allegedly. He told one journalist he lives in Dagestan, another Moldova, all three of which are Russia-controlled territories. His connections to Breitbart staff, as noted above and outlined by Buzzfeed, turn his attention to the 2016 presidential campaign. He adds “African American Studies” to his skills section on his LinkedIn profile, from masquerading as various people of color on social media (along with Anglin and other trolls well into 2017). Why weev thought he had this skill is a mystery, as he and his trolls still to this day have yet to fool any black person despite trying for years. “They’re still TERRIBLE” wrote Hudson, in part because there have been “no improvements in implementation.”
It is also around this time weev created a private messaging group with roughly 15 other troll-hacker types whose sole “purpose was manipulating the election,” he said. This group weaponized the Pepe meme with Nazi garb to at first harass Conservative white women on Twitter. The American troll army were, naturally, down with this cause, as they were equally down with promoting Trump the chaos candidate.
“All the GamerGaters now read Daily Stormer” weev boasted in our interview, and this is certainly a lie unless he means his troll army and the bots he liked to brag about. The transition among this group sharing GamerGate memes and fake facts to sharing anti-Clinton, pro-Trump hashtags and Nazi Pepes was seamless. The neo-Nazism and calls for violence pushed by the Daily Stormer is wrapped in memes and irony to make it more digestible for potential recruits and confuse others as to whether or not they are serious or “just trolling.” This ambiguity is intentional and ensures continual mob growth.
In Information Warfare: The Meme Is The Embryo of the Narrative under the chapter “Indoctrination,” Scott described how targets are generally male, under 25, and at a “crisis point” in their lives where they are emotionally vulnerable and/or socially isolated. “Many are lifelong wound collectors searching for purpose,” he wrote, and “lonely and depressed people are especially susceptible to such memetic manipulation, because the small bursts of purpose or enjoyment can develop into a dependency.” In our phone interview about his book, Scott, who consults with various intelligence agencies around the world, mentioned the CIA thought of doing a study on weaponized memes a few years ago but ultimately dropped the project. “We should have been studying this and gearing up for this years ago, because Russia was,” he said.
When presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton wrote of the Nazi Pepe meme and its relation to Donald Trump (who had adopted Pepe as his mascot weeks earlier) in September of 2016, the American trolls and white nationalists were ecstatic. After the initial press wave of Pepe the Nazi, and the Anti-Defamation League weighing in on the matter, Pepe’s creator Matt Furie tried to take it back. His efforts were unsuccessful: see clever brand Twitter accounts like Wendy’s deleting their innocent Pepe memes more than a year later. The narrative of Pepe as a Nazi had become fact. After all, trolls are “masters at manipulating public perception,” wrote Sierra in 2014. (Furie is still trying to #SavePepe to this day, including suing Infowars.)
Tech bros, intellectual skeptics, young Republicans and conservatives, however, saw Clinton’s take on the proliferation of Nazi Pepes as further evidence of her perceived technological ineptitude, when combined with the never-ending narrative of Clinton mishandling classified emails. This thinking, of Clinton and ADL’s “wrong” take on the Pepe meme as indicating liberals not knowing how the Internet works, persisted online among Centrist influencers. While the left, marginalized groups and people of color took the trolls at their Nazi words, the mostly white right brushed them off as just the regular filth that comes from the web. Reasonable discussion became impossible because no one could agree on what was real or even who was being persecuted.
After the tragic events at the neo-Nazi Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year, which killed counter-protester Heather Heyer and maimed more than 30 others, the truth became clear. The assailant chanted a common Daily Stormer meme before driving his vehicle into the crowd.
Weev maintained he is a “true patriot” and “doing the most good for his country by shitposting online.” After an unhinged, racist, expletive-and-slur-filled rant about Hillary Clinton, the evils of feminism, a global conspiracy and the US Federal government “destroying me, destroying my career,” he paused in our phone interview to say “but in a way, they liberated me. I get to have a lot more fun in my current career.”
And what career is that, exactly? Besides harassing feminists and people of color?
On his livejournal he lists his occupation as “political analyst,” but for who? Besides his connections to former Breitbart staff, he was recommended to the late GOP researcher Peter Smith in Smith’s quest to find the missing Hillary Clinton emails. Chuck C Johnson, an alt-right figurehead in President Trump’s circle, calls weev a friend. Besides proximity to Trump, connections to Russia keep surfacing. Before web hosting service GoDaddy suspended the Daily Stormer for its vile post about the Charlottesville victims, a collective of journalism students, IT professionals and translators fighting fake news in Ukraine noted the Daily Stormer email and bulletin board system used a Russian hosting company. The Daily Stormer as a site is also now intensely pro-Russian, including taking a pro-separatist stance on the Ukrainian conflictand coverage supportive of Assad’s forces in Syria. Unprompted in our interview weev declared he is neither MicroChip the American master botter nor Guccifer 2.0 the Russian hacker.
In an NBC report on Russian troll accounts released by the House Intelligence Committee, one example near the bottom of the report stands out because it reeks of the American troll army (a few on the list do, actually). The account in question is a fake black man tweeting neo-Nazi signifiers, with a handle including the numbers 88, 88 being the numerical code among white nationalists for “Heil Hitler.” A Russian fake account that was actively trying to blend in with the black population wouldn’t be this trollsy and try to sneak in Nazi references, let alone subverted ones.
According to Scott’s Mi6 source, “the FSB, they can’t believe all the credit that they’re getting, [we’re] giving them a tremendous demonstration of skill that they didn’t earn.” The trolls, bots and fake news aren’t all from Russia, and the more sophisticated aspects of the various disinformation campaigns attributed to the Russians may very well be coming from Americans. Scott continued: “So what [Russia’s] trying to do is escalate their machine learning and artificial intelligence so they can live up to the online campaigns and influence ops they’re getting credit for.”
Besides waging a disinformation campaign during the 2016 US election, weev also meddled in the last French and German elections. Numerous researchers have determined that the documents known as the “Macron Leaks” can be traced to weev, because he registered for site services with his YouTube and Gab handle “weevlos.” Bots that came out of dormancy and shared the “Macron Leaks” had previously sharedpro-Trump, anti-Hillary memes. Researchers determined these bots and tweets had a limited effect on the French election because they were in English, not French.
Again, just for the lulz?
It is unclear if Russia is paying weev (he refuses to answer any question remotely about who he is working for) or if the same bots were sold on a bot marketplace. It’s entirely plausible too, that the Russians did neither and simply exploited the much larger American troll and bot infrastructure that was already in place.
Not knowing what is real or what is fake is not just a 4chan troll chaos op, it has been the political strategy of Vladimir Putin and his chief propaganda architect Vladislav Surkov for more than a decade, including hiring protesters and funding the opposition party. The name for this tactic, dramaturgia or “theater craft,” was notably used during military action in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in early 2014. Following their victory in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s attentions turned to the United States by April.
“They had to find the vulnerability in the narrative so they could control the American narrative,” said Scott, “and that is the meme, the meme is the vulnerability for the exploit.”
Out of all online communities, Black Twitter and other black feminist spaces have been the most successful in repelling troll infiltration, memetic manipulation and calling out fake news wherever the source, be it from misguided Americans, raging hackers obsessed with Russia or other nations hostile to the US. An impressive feat given their adversary list, and one the community gets absolutely no credit for.
Scholar and writer I’Nasah @so_treu Crockett, who helped with #yourslipisshowing, attributed this success to “cultural cohesion,” knowing what “our language looks like” and already being used to “consuming media with a slightly more critical eye.” Crockett added quickly in our phone interview, “that’s not to say we as a community have inherent bullshit meters.” It’s more to do with families already having discussions at home about being wary of hostilities from others both online and in real life, she explained.
The years of living in this online abusive atmosphere has a price. Various sources describe this unpaid labor, and having to be being forever vigilant, as “exhausting” and “mentally draining.” On top of the fatigue, the harassment has only gotten worse now that the Republican party has embraced 4chan behaviors (like dogpiling), their language (the homosexual slur in the tweet embedded here) and memes like the joy of “liberal tears.”
Crockett calls Trump the “troll president” and admitted to being “way more quieter” on Twitter since his election. She recalled seeing election delegates, senators and congressmen getting harassed on Twitter, including getting death threats and doxxing “by these same people,” and thinking to herself “I don’t stand a chance.”
To combat the abuse in the absence of Twitter’s leadership, feminists have turned to shared blocklists, an imperfect solution. The most popular blocklist — now shared among celebrities, journalists and corporations — is advertised as comprised of the Toxic White Manosphere and other harassers and yet, it includes feminists and researchers the original list creator doesn’t like as well as most of the transcommunity on Twitter.
Actors Taye Diggs, Susan Sarandon, Eric Andre and the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are also on this blocklist of alleged abusers, as is Bill Gates, an insurance company in Missouri, a travel magazine, a reputable writing and film festival in Canada, a supermarket that hasn’t tweeted since 2015, Arby’s, the BBC, Spotify, the bands Gorillaz, Blur and Weezer, rappers Kendrick Lamar and Tyler the Creator, a Playboy playmate with #blockedbytrump in her bio and an alleged retired intelligence officer, among many other inexplicable false positives. The net result of this unvetted blocklist is the partitioning and isolation of a vulnerable community and increased difficulty in policing for bad actors — any data that could have been gleaned from this blocklist is now unusable. How Bill Gates or Kendrick Lamar (or even a local grocery store) use Twitter is not the same as how trolls and neo-Nazis use the platform.
The #yourslipisshowing hashtag, however, is still in use today and has maintained both its integrity and effectiveness at removing abusive accounts. Lately, the hashtag is used for tagging suspected Russian accounts.
“The strength of it,” explained Crockett, “is that the root of the phrase is very much a Southern grandma type thing to say … [it’s] an intercultural thing that is not easily translatable.” It’s not a generic hashtag that can easily be co-opted or weaponized. Crockett, whose parents offered to hang out on her front porch with a shotgun following 4chan’s mob retaliation for her #yourslipisshowing cyber-sleuthing back in 2014, doesn’t buy that Twitter still doesn’t know how to deal with this issue. “If you look through the hashtag, you see their playbook,” she said. “The playbook hasn’t changed, so what’s the problem?”
Other behaviors the community regularly engages in include checking to see who these fake accounts are following, if anyone in the community is following them and if the accounts actually have conversations with other users or only act like information hubs that retweet news and popular tweets (like @TEN_GOP for example). You know, the “interpersonal community stuff” said Crockett. To use @TEN_GOP as an example again, that account was not a colloquial tweeter. Then there was the actual Republican party of Tennessee who repeatedly petitioned Twitter to remove the fraud account, an effort they started in 2015 that went nowhere.
As for follower counts, those are not a meaningful indicator of anything because buying fake followers (and likes), from Twitter to Instagram and Facebook, is both cheap and easy and a practice even American teens utilize.
If @Jack and other social media platforms really are struggling to solve the troll/bot/Fake news/Russian problem, they should consider hiring a bunch of feminists from black twitter. Four years ago. They’ve already proven themselves up to the task.