Things have gotten bumpy for the alt-right online movement since the election. It’s facing an identity crisis (what does it mean to be the “alt” if you’re getting what you want?) and grappling with certain fundamental questions like “Are we OK with Nazis?” (Even if its very name was coined by, well, Nazis.) The handful of leaders who emerged over the last year or two are at odds with each other over those and other questions, forcing helpless anime-avatared Twitter trolls caught in the middle to choose sides.
The kerfuffle surrounds the DeploraBall, a black-tie-optional party in DC the night before the inauguration. There has been nasty and public fighting among the organizers. Stick with me here: Mike Cernovich, a lawyer who became an alt-right leader after taking up the GamerGate mantle, feuded with a fellow leader (and former BuzzFeed employee) who goes by “Baked Alaska” and announced that Baked Alaska had been removed from headlining the event because he had said anti-Semitic things on Twitter. Another leader, Bill Mitchell, announced he was no longer part of the alt-right after they started using the racist hashtag #WhiteGenocide. And just recently, Baked Alaska accused (and sources confirmed to BuzzFeed News) one of the DeploraBall organizers of planting a “rape Melania” sign at an anti-Trump protest in an attempt to make protesters look depraved. In the latest surreal twist, a popular alt-right podcaster and founder of the website The Right Stuff was revealed to have a Jewish wife, which sent his fans into a tailspin.
At first, this disarray might seem surprising. After all, the alt-right claims to be an unprecedented political phenomenon that memed a president into office. But if you want to understand what’s happening there, it’s helpful to think about it as an internet-first creature. While it’s possible — and necessary — to view it through the lens of political or social thought that it echoes, the other way of making sense of it is to look at it as a digital community, regardless of its politics. And if you view it as an online community rather than a political movement, its trajectory starts to look very, very familiar.
What we have here is a classic case of “mod drama.”
As someone who has spent a lot of time taxonimizing online communities, from places like Fark to SomethingAwful, 4chan to Facebook groups for moms, I can assure you that one need only look at how other internet groups rise and fall to see what’s happening in the alt-right.
STAGES OF A "MOD DRAMA" MELTDOWN:
1. IRL gone wrong:
The first stage of an online community hive death is the disastrous IRL meetup — for the alt-right this seems to be the DeploraBall. It’s also worth noting that the event does not even need to take place — the disaster can arise simply in the organizing of it. People who spend vast amounts of time on the internet are perhaps not best suited to real-world planning and action. There’s a rich graveyard of notable away-from-keyboard flameouts. Here are just a few examples:
- DashCon: A meetup for Tumblr users that went so poorly it became a punchline of the worst stereotypes of Tumblr users. The organizers ran into money problems, claiming they needed more money from convention attendees (who had already paid for passes in advance) to keep the hotel space. After a speaker canceled, rumors flew that attendees would only receive compensation in the form of a free hour in the world’s saddest ball pit. (Eventually, organizers sent an email offering refunds.)
- Goon Island: In 2009, a group of posters from the message board Something Awful attempted to move to Hawaii and live off the land. To the amusement of users on a different board from the same site, the group of message board posters was not exactly suited to life in the wild jungle. One moment in particular — a photo of one of the “goons” (as Something Awful posters call themselves) trying to shoot a wild pig with a BB gun — encapsulated how underprepared they were for the jungle.
- Celeb Heights: If you’ve ever googled a famous person’s height (which, weirdly, you probably have), chances are you’ve ended up on a celebheights.com, a forum for a small subculture of people obsessed with celebrity sizes. When the owner of the site finally met up with one of the most prolific volunteers, he was shocked to discover the volunteer was shorter than he claimed, thereby throwing off everything he posted. A massive blog post about the drama was made, and the volunteer was permabanned.
2. Metaboard mocking:
Stage two takes place when the community members begin to question their community and leadership within the community itself, using its existing norms and forums to make their points. (On a traditional forum this would take place on the metaboard — a board to talk about the board.) This then forces community leaders to react, and sometimes to overreact. On Reddit, this exists as the /circlejerk board — a board that exists just to make fun of stuff that happens on the other channels, and sometimes to make fun of the admins and leaders.
For the alt-right, Twitter acts as its own form of metaboard — and unlike traditional metaboards, the discussion that happens there takes place in public. Bickering between the leaders like Mike Cernovich, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Baked Alaska over the DeploraBall has created rifts among the loyal. They in turn have begun attacking leadership, often using the same language and tactics previously used by the leadership itself. For example, calling Cernovich "Cuckovich":
3. Splinter board formation:
Phase three, often a sure indicator of imminent online hive death, is the schism of the most devout into two groups, one of which decamps to another forum. This is also known as “the splinter board.” You can think of the splinter board as an inevitable consequence of the metaboard infighting when things really go south. This trajectory typically happens after moderators of the board run afoul of devout users, usually by instituting hardline rules or issuing bans on users.
One of the best examples of a splinter board is 4chan/8chan. In 2013, 4chan’s admin cracked down on GamerGate talk, and that faction fled to another site, 8chan, who promised an uncensored refuge for those deemed literally too nasty for 4chan.
But splinter boards aren’t just for raucous places like 4chan — you see it in all sorts of tamer internet worlds. For Facebook groups, the telltale signs are in the group names, where a group may proudly proclaim its splinter status. Take “Suffolk county thrift without the dumb rules," a group for buy/sell/trade on Long Island. Clearly, some bad shit went down in the regular Suffolk county thrift group and a new, more lawless group was formed. A popular group for “freebirth” (no midwives or even checkups while pregnant) would ban people who mentioned any sort of medical talk — leading to the splinter group “Freebirth/Unassisted birth — NO JUDGEMENT!”
For the alt-right, this splinter board schism is well underway.
Just before the New Year, Bill Mitchell, a prolific tweeter and radio host, announced that he was no longer affiliated with the alt-right after he was shocked — shocked! — to discover that the alt-right *may* be anti-Semitic and racist. He announced he was now going to be #AmericaFirst.
In the world of the alt-right — which has a slew of discussion forums, but its most public one is on Twitter — a hashtag can be its own universe. People follow these tags as much as they do individuals. They use the tags to organize themselves and keep up with the latest discussions. So, when a prominent figure rallies around a new one, that person is basically creating a splinter board. Which leads to….
4. An identity crisis of priorities, complete with censorship and fear of outsiders:
In the Neopets forums, a place for people to discuss an online role-playing game for children, experienced a crisis of censorship when mods had to ban any discussion of the Twilight series, going so far as to ban the keywords “Edward,” “Bella,” and "Jacob."
A community for fans of the parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time had a meltdown and eventually shut down their Facebook group when social justice topics kept coming up and the discussion became too heated.
A Facebook group for women writers to network, called Binders Full of Women, asked members not to talk about the existence of the group — something that became increasingly improbable as it ballooned to tens of thousands of members. When someone wrote about the group for Vogue, the author was instantly banned and mods treated it as the ultimate betrayal. Yet the group splintered and persisted with real-world conventions for female writers called BinderCon. At least until this year, when there was a dustup over breastfeeding mothers not being allowed to bring their infants (see: Phase #1 about IRL meetup disasters).
The central issue the alt-right seems to be struggling with is to what degree they’re willing to either support or tolerate actual white supremacists and white nationalists — either because they disagree with the actual dogma or because they’re just afraid that it looks bad to outsiders.
And those optics to outsiders are starting to matter more now that the alt-right's candidate of choice is in power. Once the goal of getting Trump elected was realized, some of its leaders are experiencing their own swings at mainstream success beyond just “popular poster on the internet.” Bill Mitchell, who gained attention by accurately predicting the election and tweeting A LOT, now appears on Fox News and has ambitions to join the mainstream news media. Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter permanently for writing bad things, is now reportedly being paid $250,000 by Simon & Schuster to write things in book form. For the leaders, real money and careers are at stake over what is acceptable speech within the alt-right.
Having “mod drama” has nothing to do with the political leanings of the alt-right or the fact that it’s mostly male. On the other side of the spectrum, the Facebook pages for people supporting the Women’s March on Washington have become similar epicenters of infighting and mod drama. According to the New York Times, when admins changed the name of one local march page, “many applauded the name change, which was meant to signal the start of a new social justice movement in Nashville, [but] some complained that the event had turned from a march for all women into a march for black women.”
Just as some online dissent about the dogma of a feminist march doesn’t mean the march won’t happen or its goals won’t be achieved, the mod drama of the alt-right doesn’t necessarily diminish its influence. The breakup of the centralized leadership may end up making it more powerful — if the “actual Nazis” cleave to one side, then the “I don’t approve of Nazis” crew like Bill Mitchell will be able to become more mainstream.
It’s impossible to say how the alt-right’s mod drama will ultimately play out. It’s a long way from #MAGA memers to Neopets posters — one is filled with horrible people bent on moving the Overton window of acceptable social norms and the other is lousy with white supremacists. (I kid! I kid!) But while we may not be able to tell the future, the past is often a pretty good precedent. So I would humbly suggest, for the movement’s sake, that they invest in a really good ball pit for the inauguration.
Updated to note that "Baked Alaska" is a former BuzzFeed employee.
The DeploraBall takes place on January 19. An earlier version of this post misstated the date.