Alt-right troll communities online are attempting to “claim” symbols (Pepe the frog, the “okay” hand gesture, clowns, etc.) in order to taint them by association with the alt-right and sow dissent among the political left, with the aim of controlling political discourse. The CTG describes this tactic as symbol capture.
The communal think tank of symbol capture exists on the websites 4Chan (in particular the infamous board /pol/, or “politically incorrect”) and 8Chan. The adoption of clowns as a symbol in particular has also spawned pages such as r/ClownWorld and r/ClownWorldWar on Reddit.
Symbol capture usually begins with a few members on 4Chan or 8Chan who create graphics or art to plaster on social media and, occasionally, offline locations such as colleges. The campaigns are memetic; as others start repeating the trend, more trolls jump on the bandwagon, until the trend is noticed by mainstream media or political figures. Coverage is what matters; campaigns which receive more attention often see an explosion in the amount of material produced, while campaigns that are ignored or cannot co-opt a symbol wither.
All symbols targeted have, by design, been innocuous and initially had nothing to do with the alt-right. A major alt-right narrative claims that puritanical liberals - especially young adults, the group to which many online trolls belong and from which they are most frequently ostracized - will attack anything they deem insufficiently “politically correct.” Symbol capture attempts to validate that claim by tricking liberal politicians or mass media into declaring ridiculous things bigoted. A short, non-chronological list includes milk, the “okay” hand sign, Pepe the Frog (a popular internet meme), Bitcoin, Taylor Swift, the word “kek” (an online synonym for “LOL”), clowns, the YouTuber PewDiePie, and the rainbow flag.
The effect of symbol capture has been to delegitimize political opponents and media outlets by baiting them into declaring ridiculous-sounding symbols as racist. Symbol capture turns symbols into what we will hereafter refer to as “landmines”: innocuous symbols not innately affiliated with the alt-right, yet with double meanings that can prompt overreaction by those who see them as dogwhistles. These overreactions cause the public to lose trust in media institutions and political figures, whom they see as taking offense at non-issues, as the headlines below illustrate:
The goal of symbol capture is to control the discourse and validate the alt-right worldview. Alt-right trolls believe that the left is puritanical and will attack anything deemed racist or offensive. Turning symbols into “landmines” allows them to shut down political discourse by making certain symbols taboo and creating controversy from nothing. It also validates their belief that liberals can be “triggered” by anything remotely offensive.
Another cause of symbol capture is that internet trolls enjoy notoriety and provoking overreactions. 4Chan and 8Chan are famous for their communities of trolls who love to “trigger libs.” Humiliating their perceived opponents is often a prize in and of itself. The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, for instance, was loaded with references and memes intended to make the media coverage look foolish, such as a sarcastic claim that the video game Fortnite had trained him to kill. Many news outlets took this at face value and were subsequently mocked online.
As a tactic of the alt-right, symbol capture has the power to provoke knee-jerk responses which shut down discourse. For instance, the Christchurch shooter name-dropping PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) led to widespread accusations and harassment of PewDiePie and his fans. Kjellberg was ultimately forced to drop his slogan after the killer used it during his shooting spree. The idea that an innocent person can be deemed racist or become the subject of a witch hunt for using an innocuous phrase or symbol is a cornerstone of the alt-right narrative that the left will attack anyone they deem insufficiently “politically correct.” Giving groups the power to turn symbols into landmines will validate this belief and potentially make more people susceptible to alt-right narratives.
Symbol capture is also seen as a victory for alt-right trolls. As an online collective, psychological victories are all they have. It is for this reason that the Counterterrorism Group seeks to identify it and build tools with which to avoid or disengage with “landmines.” Take away the power to make headlines or affect change and trolls are more likely to grow disenchanted and give up.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is aware of symbol capture as a tactic of the alt-right and its power to turn innocuous symbols into dogwhistles, humiliate enemies, poison discourse, and validate the narrative of the “politically correct” witch-hunt. As such, our Threat Hunters work to identify symbol capture across social media, detect “landmines,” and provide threat assessments which prevent clients from engaging with them, weakening the ability of online trolls and alt-right groups to leverage discourse in their favor.
1. Image: /Pol/: Thread 210357744
2. Image: /Pol/: Thread 210315207
3. How'd we get here? The unholy crusade against political correctness was all the cover Trump needed, Salon, January 2017, https://www.salon.com/2017/01/03/howd-we-get-here-the-unholy-crusade-against-political-correctness-was-all-the-cover-trump-needed_partner/
4. Free speech at American universities is under threat, The Guardian, October 2017, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2017/10/12/free-speech-at-american-universities-is-under-threat
5. Coast Guard member reprimanded for flashing controversial gesture on MSNBC, Navy Times, January 2019, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/01/13/coast-guard-officer-reprimanded-for-flashing-controversial-gesture-on-msnbc/
6. The Troubling Link Between Milk And Racism, Huffington Post, December 2018, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/milk-white-supremacy-racism_n_5bffad35e4b0864f4f6a3e28
7. Hillary Clinton attacks Donald Trump for posting Pepe the Frog meme, The Independent, September 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-pepe-frog-instagram-breitbart-white-supremacist-alex-jones-milo-a7240581.html?utm_source=reddit.com
8. The Great Replacement, Brendon Tarrant, March 2019
9. Christchurch killer may have 'trained' on Fortnite, Kidspot.com, March 2019, https://www.kidspot.com.au/parenting/real-life/in-the-news/christchurch-killer-used-fortnite-as-online-training-ground/news-story/3b3099d9466045666bf8c3e5407f0807
10. PewDiePie Put in Spotlight After New Zealand Shooting, New York Times, March 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/technology/pewdiepie-new-zealand-shooting.html
11. The New Zealand terrorist shouted ‘Subscribe to PewDiePie’ - What does it mean?, The National, March 2019, https://www.thenational.scot/news/17505466.the-new-zealand-terrorist-shouted-subscribe-to-pewdiepie-what-does-it-mean/
12. Pewdiepie Calls For End To The 'Subscribe To Pewdiepie' Meme, Kotaku, March 2019, https://kotaku.com/pewdiepie-calls-for-end-to-the-subscribe-to-pewdiepie-m-1834365026