Since Donald Trump won the election, journalists, academics, and various online commentators have speculated wildly about the role that trolling, 4chan, and the alt-right's "meme magic" played in Trump's rise. Across countless news articles, hot takes, and Twitter debates, several recurring assumptions have emerged. First, that members of the alt-right (and even members of the Trump administration) are trolls, and more broadly, that the word "trolling" is the best descriptor for the current political climate. Second (and these are points that tend to be baked into broader stand-alone articles), that this "trolling" is interchangeable with 4chan, with the further assumption that 4chan is interchangeable with Anonymous, itself framed to be the Ur alt-right. Third, that 4chan itself, as a website, radicalized users towards white nationalism. And finally, the coup de grâce: that 4chan—and its alt-right trolls—were a deciding factor in Trump's election.
This all makes for a compelling narrative. But what actually happened—what has been happening for the last several years—isn't so straightforward. Pro-Trump antagonism during the election may have been omnipresent, and may have helped amplify Trump's message. But it cannot and should not be tethered to online communities of the past. It was, instead, symptomatic of much deeper, much more immediate cultural malaise.
We can makes this claim, because we've been studying online communities and subcultures for years; the three of us, Jessica Beyer, Gabriella Coleman, and Whitney Phillips, have each published books on hacking and/or trolling cultures, with a particular focus on 4chan and Anonymous between 2008-2014. We're not alone; ours joins the work of other researchers and journalists also writing about trolling and Anonymous at the time, including David Auerbach, Burcu Bakioğlu, Michael Bernstein et.al., Julian Dibbell, Lee Knuttila, Ryan Milner, Quinn Norton, Parmy Olson, Molly Sauter, Luke Simcoe, and others.
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