We are young, we are free, we are alt-right

Once the problem of the guilt of the Holocaust perpetrators has been by and large settled . . . the one big remaining question is the innocence of all the rest―not the least the innocence of ourselves. Zigmund Bauman (Modernity and the Holocaust)

Talking about hatred on internet almost always happens in terms of “them” on the other side, those obscure monsters in online communities spreading anonymously or not homophobia, misoginy, racism, xenophobia, antisemitism etc. In this dynamic, and with a little help of our filter bubbles,  “we” occupy often the place of the most righteous, enlightened, correct and “on the right side” of whatever. One month ago, however, an emblematic event connected in a unexpected way those apparently distant worlds. And now many are asking “what do we do with this”?

I’m talking about the case of PewDiePie, the artistic name of the Swedish vlogger Felix Kjellberg, the most popular YouTube celebrity today, which has been dropped both from Disney and from a forthcoming YouTube series after several of his videos were reported as containing antisemitic messages and apologies to nazism. Kjellberg is ​​one of the hundreds of young people who risk themselves in front of home cameras to get popular on the largest video platform on the internet. It is an ordinary and very charismatic young who actually could be the “good” son, nephew or neighbor of any of us, and who, in times of “new media and new idols”, has won millions of followers (and dollars) just by doing what he likes most: playing games and commenting random things in a very particular way.

This regular boy is now also known for having played the Nazi anthem, given a brief Hitler salute, and hired two indians to hold a sign asking for the ”death of all jews” (see pic by The Wall Street Journal) among other ”jokes” that have been watched 13 million times before Youtube took the original videos down. And, as always, hundreds of people quickly dropped in their usual surprised angry comments on the case, until a super shared Buzzfeed article written by Jacob Clifton drew attention to the fact that PewDiePie is nothing than the new face of a phenomenon that has been under our noses for years: young white men exercising “a reciprocal system of validation and a masculine cult personality”, quoting Clifton, with the help of internet freedom of expression. They are in majority boys in online spaces creating and sharing jokes and memes with all sorts of human misery for the sole purpose of competing for popularity, having fun and confirming prejudices. Not new phenomenum in particular, but getting worrying directions as ”neutral”, even mainstreamed media celebrities like PewDiePie, can be helping this toxic culture to get up to the light.

Is PewDiePie case showing that we are entering an era of “cute” young fascist idols with thousands, sometimes millions of fans? I believe so when watching a video where he plays games with the same naturality as he shows a swastika fan art. Just for fun, one could say. And he is just one among many others young digital influencers doing it in even more disturbingly ways. This sensational online behavior in search for more audience has never been stranger to any media, and seminal movies like Networked have been touching this freak side with excellence. In addition, as Kirsty Major reminds, other generations of young before the internet advent used the same formula of “antagonise communist and liberal elites and your parents” by “parading around as their old fascist enemy”[1]  The difference is that, now, we are talking from an open podium to the “people formerly known as the audience”[2] with the potential to influence instantly millions of other young people, namely the so-called millenials. Although Youtube uses to make a good job blocking videos containing hate and harassment, hate speech once practiced only in the obscure corners of communities like Reddit and others seems to keep on getting a more legitimated feature and moved to the entertainment realm. But what can be its consequences for society and human rights struggles?

I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters”. No, in 2017 fascism arrives wearing a suit, a tie and a “Subscribe now” Michael Rosen

Taking into account that “new media has the potential to change how citizens think or act”[3], looking at how young people react to and interpret those messages is a fundamental step in this endeavor, and that goes also for understanding those groups mindsets. As Jacob Clifton pointed, cases like PewDiePie downfall are screaming in our faces how young people are bored, dissatisfied and alienated of the necessary alterity as the “perception of the relationship between consciousness and the world outside”[4]. They do not identify with hate groups directly despite coming from a similar background of privileged whiteness. They cannot even be considered “alternative-right” activists in a strict sense because their shocking memes, videos and performances are made with the “only” apparent purpose to attract followers, likes and shares, and to kill boredom. PewDiePie, his followers and fans are more like Alex´s gang in Kubrick´s Clockwork Orange. Their inconsequent acts are devoid of ideological motivation, and so they serve both as aims to moralistic and correctional practices and as enhancers of a “brotherhood” of haters and hate communities. But, above all, they are embeded in a new reference system for millions of boys and girls whose decisions about everything from purshasing clothes or make-up to engage in social causes or protests go through the voice of a popular youtuber.

 We’re conditioned to distance ourselves from Reddit dorks, anime-avatar trolls, and suddenly Nazi-identifying furries, and so they stay invisible — until they aren’t. They become collectives, at which point it feels like they came from nothing. But they came from somewhere: boredom, loneliness, and the universal feeling (which most of us are lucky enough to overcome in childhood) of being the protagonist of the universe, who is mistreated despite doing one’s best. Jacob Clifton

Besides, digital celebrities like Kjellberg can be very harmful as they are indirect serving organized hate movements as a kind of “accidental critical-periphery”. They are actually providing free and abundant material, references and reinforcement of hate discourses and practices. The logic is: if a guy with Kjellberg appearance and influence can do it, who are us to disagree? In a video explaining the PewDiePie case, The Wall Street Journal, referring to Kjellberg trial to explain his acts and apologize, points out that “apologies can camouflage messages that still can be received and celebrated by hate groups”. The same video shows that Kjellberg has been praised in many hate sites in USA, particularly in one that the Southern Poverty Law Center, a traditional and referential observatorium of hate crime and speech, calls the “top 1 hate site in America”.

Here we have a very a real world consequence that leads also to questions on how the growth of hate communities legitimated by those “new alt-right idols” can mine human rights discourse and legitimacy in a broader way. While the online can be seen as a spaces of the exercise of resistance for marginalized groups throughout a range of different types of activisms, the same goes for hatred and intolerance. Internet has been for a long time the dream place from where hate groups “provided with new capabilities for authoring and distributing information”[5] compete for visibility and legitimacy. What this mean in terms of consequences for the fight against poverty, racism, xenophobia among other social causes is, however, a question that remains open as this kind of “clean and normalized” alt-right culture is a very new issue, and the participation of digital influencers on the spread of racism something even newer.

What is clear is that we are approaching this challenge in a wrong way – sometimes ignoring and diminishing the “haters and trolls”, sometimes “erasing” them from our screens. This attitude serves only to feed this fake sense of distance between us and them. Meanwhile, internet influencers keep scoring and normalizing hate until the point we discover the obvious: they were not out there, but inside our houses. They can be the best “online friends” of your children or students. They can actually be our children and students. As Jacob Clifton suggests, to approach the “new” face of hate speech on the internet – be it presented in organized communities or posed as messages seemingly unpretentious and decontextualized – means to abandon the simplistic ignore-or-demonize attitude and engage deeper in understanding what lays behind this phenomena, its impacts and how to tackle it.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/pewdiepie-antisemitic-jokes-racism-youtube-star-fascism-become-cool-alt-right-young-people-a7579756.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-rosen/the-people-formerly-known_1_b_24113.html

[3] Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace

[4] http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405183123_chunk_g978140518312317_ss1-1

[5] Burrell, J. (2008). Problematic Empowerment: West African Internet Scams as Strategic Misrepresentation. Information Technologies And International Development, 4(4), 15-30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/itid.2008.00024Burrell, J. (2008). pg 2


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