This past Sunday, Horse Meat Disco ran into some difficulties with a Facebook livestream. Instead of a DJ set from London's premier queer disco quadruplet, meant to raise money for the south London LGBTQ institution Eagle London, fans saw nothing.
"It appears we were the target of a far-right group who hacked as soon as we went live," wrote Mark Oakley, owner of the Eagle London bar, on the group's Facebook page the next day. "Having done several dry runs with everything working perfectly well, we ran into immediate difficulties when you all tuned in. The Facebook event simultaneously received high numbers of links to fake donation pages relentlessly posted by bots."
Horse Meat Disco may have been among the first victims of Operation Pridefall, a concerted effort from the alt-right to get corporations to disassociate their brands from LGBTQ rights. To do this, trolls are planning to disrupt Pride month celebrations, which have become uniquely vulnerable this year because of coronavirus, with the vast majority taking place online.
The plan was hatched in May on 4chan's /pol/ (Politically Incorrect) discussion board. "It's quite simple," the organisers wrote in a list of detailed instructions. "Every June, hundreds of massive corporations band together to smother social media with posts in favor of 'Pride Month', a code word for the degeneracy that is LGBT activism."
From the 1st June, when Pride month started, they instructed people to drop a "shitton [sic] of disturbing redpills on homosexuality on the comments", specifically on brand pages promoting Pride on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
To try to drown out Pride content in a sea of homophobic memes and commentary, the organisers encouraged people to target small pages with little engagement: "The bigger pages are ok targets, but posts tend to get unnoticed in the sea of other comments. Commenting on smaller pages (100 likes or so) means anyone who views it will see the posts, and companies will reconsider their posts afterwards."
They also provided participants with a pack of downloadable, viciously hateful memes.
Dr Jeremy Price is the Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at the Indiana University School of Education-Indianapolis at IUPUI. A portion of his research has involved studying online hate crime.
"I've seen a lot of things happen in the past couple of years where explicit hate has become much more prominent on online spaces," he says over Zoom. "4chan is the industrial centre that churns these things out. I have to say that some of it is rather creative in its own sense. They've started thinking, 'How can we think about shifting the norms of discourse so that they align more with our hateful and nihilistic perspective?' They create things in order to try to make that happen.
"I started looking into this [Pridefall]. It was very similar to the [4chan] psy-ops [psychological operations] that happened in late December with respect to the black and Jewish communities, and trying to turn them against each other."
On TikTok, the plan is to trick older siblings and relatives of Gen Z kids – only two-thirds of whom identify as "exclusively heterosexual" – into inadvertently mocking them. Organisers outlined plans to encourage them to perform a "shitty gesture", "whore dance" or "charade", and to add anti-LGBTQ tags to "literally build a puppet army to fuck the shit out of millennials".
In doing so, they are trying to "foment disagreement within the community", Price notes, again drawing parallels with similar attacks on the Jewish community.
On top of all that, the trolls say they are targeting dating apps – Tinder, Grindr and Bumble – "with legit, convincing images" to "criticise LGBT" [people]. To avoid people rumbling them using Google reverse image search, they are using a website called ThisPersonDoesNotExist, which uses AI to create unique, realistic-looking pictures of fake people.
The most efficient way to combat this, says Price, is to report the profiles as either fake or for using hate speech. The former will get faster results: social media platforms care more about fake profiles as they threaten their business model. Doing this will also train the algorithms to be better aware of accounts that match the same activity.
The strategy might appear simple – set up a bunch of fake accounts and demonise queer people in the comments section – but the psychology behind it is more complex. Instead of immediately going in full pelt, organisers plan a more insidious approach, which they hope will gradually turn the tide of opinion against queer people.
As Pride month progresses, the trolls will gather on 4chan and organise an escalation of the frequency and intensity of the campaign. "Think about [it] as waves," the organiser told participants in their induction. "Day 1 is simply questioning homosexuality then as the days go on it will get worse and worse until the end of Pride month.
"This is something that white nationalists have done in recent years," says Price. "They see 'normies' – people who consider themselves to be LGBTQ friendly or neutral – to start imagining, you know, members of this community as something other than benign."
How would they do that exactly? "My sense is that, over the course of the month, they want to get people to think about members of the LGBTQ community as paedophiles. And in order to do that, the way they see it, is by gradually shifting the discussion." As public opinion alters, they hope, brands will distance themselves from the LGBTQ community.
"Keep it normie palatable/friendly," wrote the organiser, indicating that they want trolls to at first appear as reasonable commenters. "This means no Nazi/Hitler shit, the goal is to make them question whether what they are supporting is really the right thing."
Samantha, the woman who brought this to the general public's attention when she tweeted about it, says she thinks 4chan in general is a dark place full of dangerous people. "Remember that the main intent of this was to try to convert people, who might be straight and centrists, into raging homophobes and transphobes," she says. "That's what I think is the most dangerous."
How did she feel when the tweet started gaining traction? "Nervous, because me being a queer Jewish woman puts a huge target on my back. But I didn't take it down because the post was for the betterment and safety of the community, and I'd risk myself for that."
As far as those involved in the Horse Meat Disco incident are concerned, this type of activity will have little effect. "This won't stop us," says Oakley. "We'll be hosting this event very soon, along with other fantastic broadcasts. We'll be back bigger, bolder and bulletproof."