Digital Anti-Semitism: From Irony to Ideology

Ever since Robert Bowers murdered 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, American Jews have been trying to make sense of the deadliest act of anti-Jewish violence in American history. Historian Lila Corwin Berman sorrowfully wrote in the Washington Post that American Jews could no longer view their country as an “exceptional place . . . of progress” where they were “steadily inching past old dangers to success.” Yet, as her colleague Jonathan Sarna pointed out in Tablet, the fact that “previous generations of young American Jews . . . [had] . . . experienced the same ‘loss of innocence’ now being witnessed in the wake of Pittsburgh” should reassure us that America’s unique political and religious culture still makes it an exceptionally safe place for Jews.

Now-forgotten synagogue bombings and other terrible incidents notwithstanding, it is certainly the case that Jew-hatred in the United States has always been drastically milder than its European counterparts. For centuries, the latter was expressed in instances of collective violence—often state-led—against Jews by English, French, and Spanish monarchs; medieval Crusaders; and mobs of indebted townspeople and peasants. The death tolls from these paroxysms routinely ran into the thousands and, by the 20th century, the millions. By contrast, violent acts of Jew-hatred in America have generally been perpetrated by individuals who, while often affiliated with fringe groups, have committed acts of violence without the safety of numbers. Although we don’t yet know much about Bowers, he too fits this pattern—albeit with a postmodern or, at any rate, 21st-century difference that is worth understanding.

Whatever his mental state, Bowers was acting on a specific set of anti-Semitic ideas. As has been widely reported, he was furious at the Tree of Life synagogue for allegedly conspiring with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to bring foreign refugees (especially Muslims) to the United States in an effort to undermine the country’s white racial heritage. In so doing, Bowers echoed the anti-Semitic slogan chanted by right-wing activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the summer of 2017—“Jews will not replace us!”—and implicitly endorsed the “Great Replacement” theory of the far-right French thinker Renaud Camus. We know this because Bowers said as much on Gab, a haven for “alt-right” users who have been kicked off of Twitter and other social networks. Shortly before launching his attack, in fact, he publicly announced to the site’s then-800,000 members, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” As the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported, the question of “optics,” meaning how honest members of the alt-right should be, was frequently debated on Gab.

The term “alt-right” was popularized by the right-wing activist Richard Spencer. It encompasses a diverse array of white nationalists, radical right-wing populists, ardent racists, and outright neo-Nazis. In their endless online discussions of the “JQ,” or “Jewish Question,” one faction, made up of hard-core Nazis and white nationalists, such as Daily Stormereditor Andrew Anglin, emeritus academic Kevin MacDonald, and computer hacker Andrew Auernheimer, regards Jews as an alien group that threatens the white race by facilitating the spread of immigration, cosmopolitanism, and multiculturalism. A second faction, led by self-proclaimed “Western chauvinists,” such as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannapoulos, and Jared Taylor, claims to admire Jews for their alleged insularity and Zionist ethno-nationalism. (While writing this piece, I visited Gab to find the third most popular post of the moment was, “All I want for Christmas is for Jared Taylor to acknowledge that Jews aren’t huwhite Merry CHRISTmas GabFam”—“huwhite” being a characteristically alt-right inside-jokey way of saying “the white nation” while making fun of Taylor’s speech pattern.)

The alt-right’s ideas are old, but social media is new, and while early 20th-century anti-Semites adeptly exploited the then-new media of film and radio, present-day Jew-haters have more powerful weapons at their disposal. As everyone knows by now, the Internet and social media in particular have eliminated the elite gatekeepers who once patrolled the boundaries of old media. It isn’t just that anyone can vent an opinion and make it heard by anyone who happens to be online. The selective anonymity and role-playing that social media enable embolden people to air extreme ideas without fear of repercussions.

The Internet has given rise to two new unique forms of expression: memes and trolling. Memes are videos, catchphrases, and images that spread and mutate from user to user through social networking sites. Trolling, by contrast, is a method of online intimidation and harassment, often employing tasteless, hateful, and threatening memes in what amounts to digital assault. Both memes and trolling were pioneered by what writer Angela Nagle has described as a reactionary counterculture of disaffected young men who mocked various targets: women, “social justice warriors,” and mainstream “normies.” The memes they employed in this effort, while often distasteful, were initially characterized by a winking sense of irony and mostly done for laughs (or “lulz”). Before long, however, the medium and the memes lent themselves to escalation. In the process, irony gave way to ideology.

Perhaps the most horrifying example of this process—and one that is directly relevant to Robert Bowers, who proclaimed that “all Jews must die” as he began shooting—is the way Nazism has been represented online over the last decade or so. As irony became a dominant form of online discourse, as transgressive, attention-grabbing clickbait became an easy method of attracting eyeballs, a new phenomenon arose: The more popular the web image, the greater its likelihood of being “Hitlerized”—from memes of Teletubbies with Hitler mustaches to jokey depictions of the führer himself. I have called this the “law of of ironic Hitlerization,” and it is anything but funny. This smirking irony helped to normalize Hitler and Nazism in certain precincts of the Internet.

An illustrated frog in a Nazi officer uniform next to a frog logo for the website Gab
A meme of Pepe the Frog as a Nazi officer. Right: The alt-right social-media site Gab used a frog as its logo.

The insidiousness of this trend is epitomized by the fate of Pepe the Frog. Created by the artist Matt Furie in 2005, the cartoon character was originally a likeable loser who did whatever he felt like (“Feels good, man!” was his slogan). Eventually Pepe became Hitlerized, at first for laughs, then as a coded message or secret handshake, and eventually as the ubiquitous symbol of the alt-right. Among his more subtle uses was the mocking phrase, “Green lives matter.” Significantly, a green frog, known as “Gabby,” was the original symbol of Gab.

The transformation of Pepe the Frog from innocuous Internet icon to de facto swastika highlights the utility of memes for the alt-right. They are the visual counterparts to the idiosyncratic vocabulary and numerology used by the alt-right—for instance, “cucks” for mainstream conservatives and “1488” to signal the 14-word white power pledge together with the salutation “Heil Hitler” (the 8th letter of the alphabet is h). The ostensible irony of these catchphrases provides extremists with plausible deniability. The Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin has made this clear:

Pepe became the mascot . . . because he embodies the goal of couching idealism within irony. A [neo-Nazi] movement . . . using a cartoon frog to represent itself takes on a subversive power to bypass historical stereotypes of such movements, and thus presents [its] . . . ideas . . . in a fun way without the baggage of Schindler’s List.

Put differently, ironic memes are gateway drugs. Various alt-right activists have reported that they were initially attracted to ironic memes as fun ways to troll liberals, and their prolonged exposure eventually led them to become “red-pilled”—in their parlance, “enlightened”—and embrace more overtly anti-Semitic imagery. This explains why some members of the alt-right eventually migrated from Pepe the Frog to “Le Happy Merchant,” a hooked-nosed Jew rubbing his hands together conspiratorially. The image was seen on the 4chan website as early as 2012 and is arguably the most widely used anti-Semitic meme on the web today.

Digital anti-Semitism is dangerous because of its apparent seductiveness and limitless reach. As with pornography, anyone with a smart phone is just a click away from an endless supply of Jew-hatred. The numbers are mind-boggling. A recent quantitative study conducted by Joel Finkelstein, Savvas Zannettou, Barry Bradlyn, and Jeremy Blackburn examined more than 160 million anti-Semitic posts (including more than seven million memes, many of them variations on the “Happy Merchant”) and traced their trajectory from places like 4chan, Gab, and “The_Donald” subreddit out across the web.

Equally worrisome is the fact that alt-right memes have increasingly been making their way into American politics and the traditional media. To take a recent and relevant example, on October 27, 2018, Lou Dobbs had Judicial Watch’s Chris Farrell on his Fox Business show to discuss the migrant caravan making its way toward the U.S. border. In passing, Farrell quickly sketched the outlines of a version of the “the Great Replacement” conspiracy theory: “A lot of these folks also have affiliates or are getting money from the Soros-occupied State Department and that is a great, great concern.” As several commentators noted, the phrase “Soros-occupied State Department” sounded a lot like a variation of a favorite anti-Semitic term of art, the “Zionist-occupied government,” often shortened to ZOG.

More than a few of those 160 million posts collected by Finkelstein and his colleagues were probably from Robert Bowers himself, who spent an enormous amount of time online. He wrote or reposted 767 anti-Semitic messages, many of them about Jews being responsible for the “invasion” of immigrants and “white genocide,” in the nine or so months leading up to the attack. He surely must have read countless more.

We still do not know, and we may never know, what moved Bowers from rabid hate speech to mass murder, but his behavior fits a familiar pattern that is by no means restricted to anti-Semites. Dylann Roof, for instance, frequently visited the Daily Stormer website before shooting nine African American members at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The existence of many other documented cases of violent extremists being radicalized online—from misogynistic “incels” to ISIS supporters—makes it clear that digital forms of hatred are an increasing threat throughout Western society.

As the American Jewish community mourns for the martyrs of the Tree of Life synagogue and assesses the historical significance of their murders, it should be under no illusions about the dangers it faces. The history of domestic lone wolf attacks, the ease of online anti-Semitic self-radicalization, and the ubiquity of firearms in the United States are a toxic combination that must be monitored with unprecedented vigilance.


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