Recent Media Round-Up
Every aspect of my life has been busy recently, and so I haven't had time to update this site with all of the things that I've been doing as I normally would (because #brand #narrative #betheselfpublicityyouwanttoseeintheworld). With that in mind, and because I don't want to produce a whole bunch of posts, here's a quick round-up of various media I've written and appeared in.
In this article I use 500 million Reddit comments (from the last 6 months) to explore the construction of the idea of the "alt-left" in the wake of Berkeley and Charlottesville. As with other articles about the alt-right and reddit, the tools I used were primarily centred around Jason Baumgartner's reddit scrapes. This includes using Google's bigquery platform to quickly analyse massive datasets, as well as a tool that Jason is developing that expedites the whole process.
The central point here is that the alt-right (including both those who would actively identify with that label, and those who would eschew the term but nonetheless are usefully described by it) have managed to manufacture controversy by redirecting attention from white supremacist violence towards a made-up plague of anti-fascist "alt-left" violence. They do this through spam, bots, real and fake twitter accounts, collaboration with Russian news networks and operatives, and generally trying to associate the left with violence as much as possible.
From there, the alt-right goes on to try to associate the broader left with this supposedly violent tendency. The aim is to establish and maintain a link between the left, intolerance, and violence, in order to drive a wedge between the hard left and more soft left or centrist political groups, and to create a stigma against being associated with progressive politics and protest.
This article was written in collaboration with Nikhil Sonnad, a journalist at Quartz. The premise is that the alt-right, and communities that one might associate with them, are creating language at a rapid rate. I trawled a bunch of different alt-right and alt-right-adjacent subreddits and pulled out the 50 most-used "unique" words from them (words that appeared there at a much higher rate than the global average). From here, I identified the words that appeared to be "new" and then traced their appearance and frequency over time. A lot of them have only really come into vogue in the last 6 months to a year. Most of them are slurs or insults. It's a movement defined by hate, so that's hardly surprising.
The subreddit that produced the highest volume of words that had to some extent been exported elsewhere was /r/Incels. This sub, which is private at the time of writing, is for "involuntary celibates": men who want to have sexual or romantic relations but are incapable of doing so because women don't want them. They've produced a significant chunk of vocabulary, including the word "femoid", a conglomeration of "female" and "android" or "humanoid", used to imply that women are either robots or sub-human. It's a nice place.
I'm not sure I would necessarily think of this as a "dictionary", as otherwise "cuck" would definitely be in there; rather, it's a set of words that act as identifiers of a particular ideology or tendency.
A lot of the subreddits that I trawled for this piece were quite unhappy to be lumped in either with the other subreddits or with the alt-right label. For example, nobody wanted to be associated with /r/incels, who themselves didn't want to be associated with the alt-right. I think this is in part because of the diversity of people who populate these subreddits: not everyone in them is going to have the same views. Rather, there's a significant commenter and ideology overlap between them, meaning that being in one is a "risk factor" for being in another. The easy movement of users from one subreddit to another, and the way that their ideologies have become mixed and forged in central hubs like The_Donald, is an indication that they should be labelled the same, or fall under the alt-right umbrella.
The other reason they dislike being associated with the alt-right label is because the term has come to mean something quite specific for some people: white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-semitism and neo-Nazism. Whilst I think this is an accurate descriptor and is a useful way of collecting together these far-right identities, there is utility to expanding the label to cover a broader set of movements, communities, ideologies and tendencies including the manosphere, anti-globalists, conspiracy theorists, identity-based libertarians, Trump supporters, GamerGate-type culture warriors and Islamophobes. That utility comes from the tendency I described above for people from one group to quite easily mix with those from others, and to pick up their ideologies in addition to the one they started with. Alt-right is still a contested term, but I think casting the net broadly is probably the best strategy at this point.
After the Quartz article was published, I received an invitation to talk to the World Service's Newsday programme about the language of the alt-right. Unfortunately I believe that the programme is no longer available, but I'll put the link here nonetheless. It's another one off my list of BBC radio programmes to appear on, after I sorted out Analysis. Still waiting for my invite from the Today programme...
Immediately after the mass shooting at Sutherland Springs in Texas, a number of fake news stories were made up and disseminated around the internet. The usual suspects were mostly responsible: 4chan's /pol/, The_Donald, Mike Cernovich and other alt-right mouthpieces, and so on. I was asked to talk to Marco Werman at The World about how and why this happens. You can hear my bit in the last 4 minutes of the show.
The word "antifa" has become well-known over the course of the last year for the reasons I outlined above: it's a useful stalking horse for alt-right and far-right pundits to direct attention and blame towards when right-wing and racist violence is being perpetrated at protests and rallies. I have a small part in this podcast, explaining how the term "alt-left" was created and spread after Charlottesville at around 26:30.