Nero, Nazis, and the New Far Right: The Phenomena of the Professional Troll
Call it the Donald Trump effect. It doesn't matter if the trolls believe what they are saying if their followers believe it.
"I'm a homosexual, black Jew, how should I kill myself?" a tweet, sent to Twitter user @Evalion88, reads in what appears to be an attempt at crude trolling. The recipient account, prior to being suspended by Twitter earlier this week (the new account is allegedly a fake), responded: "The good ol' fashion way—hanging."
It's the kind of racist vitriol you'd only expect to see in 4Chan threads or from the anonymous egg users of Twitter, but Veronica Evalion—taking her last name from the dragon dildo fetish community (a popular meme used to ridicule furries on 4Chan)—has an identity, and a face, attached to all of her work.
For those thankfully unaware, Evalion is an 18-year-old Canadian girl (at least, that's who she claims to be) who became an underground phenomenon for her catalogue of YouTube videos dedicated to hate speech and trolling social justice groups. No one actually knows her real identity, although there are tons of conspiracy theories about her, one of which says that she is a paid troll for a group called Firestarter Media, which has a history of being associated with controversial YouTubers.
Most of the focus of her output is about glorifying Hitler, demonizing black and Jewish people, and making fun of "feminazis." Her fans (and there appear to be thousands of them) range from creepy dudes who have fetishized her for her childlike voice and appearance, to legitimate white supremacists who believe she is fighting the good fight.
Evalion isn't the first to build an online presence that blurs the lines between trolling and hate speech. In fact, her approach is textbook for the alt-right movement—a neo-internet take on old-fashioned conservatism, mainly built around offensive memes and hyperbole statements about "Libtards," Obama, Clinton, and Donald Trump. Milo Yiannopoulos, a regular writer for Breitbart and heavyweight in the anti-feminist, anti-immigrant hemisphere of the internet, is a champion in this realm.
Yiannopoulos, whose popularity spiked due to his involvement in the Gamergate debacle, has sold books, hosted speaking events, and recently introduced a "privilege grant" (a university bursary "available exclusively to white men") with the help of his online persona. Despite being openly gay and under fire from traditional, old-school conservatives, @Nero (as he's known on Twitter) has more than a quarter of a million followers and is a centerpiece of the alt-right community on image boards like 4Chan's /pol/ and Donald Trump subreddits. Earlier today, he was banned for hate speech against Muslims following the Orlando shooting, but he had his account reinstated by Twitter only hours later.
There's also Andrew Auernheimer—known currently as @rabite on Twitter, although more familiar to the internet at large as "weev." Auernheimer's been accused of harassment by those in the trans and feminist community, and he likes to use the hashtag #WhiteGenocide excessively. Roosh V is also a character who, despite being accused of advocating for some pretty heinous stuff (particularly that rape should be legalized), defends himself with the pretense that a) he's joking and b) people are overreacting to him exercising his free speech.
The question that many are left wondering, however, is whether these accounts are the real thing, or if they're just professional trolls turning a profit off of idiots.
A few years ago, Jamie Bartlett, a social media analyst and author of The Dark Net, met up with the man behind a popular online white supremacist account in the UK. The meeting took weeks to set up—numerous calls and emails were exchanged before the man (whom Bartlett calls "Paul") agreed to meet him in the small northern English town where he lived. When the two finally linked up, Bartlett said he was surprised to find that the man behind the screen didn't match his online persona at all.
"It's the same with a lot of these people—you find that their online characters are very one-dimensional," he told VICE. "They almost have to be."
"People create personas for themselves that they can't break out of. If you're a rabble-rousing, hardline white supremacist online, that's what your followers expect of you. You can't really break out and start talking about your family, or the football team you like, or why you're frustrated. When you meet somebody in person, the first thing you're probably talking about is the weather."
Bartlett says the hyperbole spawned from social media isn't just limited to far-right movements—the extreme back-and-forths that those on the left or those in social justice circles have with opponents online are "symptoms of the same problem." Bartlett notes, however, that in his experience, the people with the least nuance in their online character tend to have the least options available to them in real life.
"You have to think that somebody who is generally disadvantaged—who doesn't get to travel or see lots of people or are actually upset with their lives—are going to be more extreme and [hyperbolic] online. That's an outlet for them and a place where they can find a space that's their own, but it's generally not reflective of their true character."
To Whitney Phillips, however, it doesn't really matter whether people are being serious or not—the damage is already done.
"When people use the word 'troll' nowadays, they're largely using it improperly," Phillips, a folklorist and professor at Mercer University, told me during a phone interview. Phillips is the author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things—a book that looks at the history of trolling on the internet, in what Phillips says is an "anthropological take" on how our culture sees online bullying and crude humor.
As someone who's been described as a "troll whisperer," Phillips spent years on sites like 4Chan and 8Chan—both as a participant and observer—to get a better grasp behind the meme age of political statements and figure out whether people actually supported the insulting stuff they were saying online. Over the last few years, she has been diving deeper while working on a new book called The Ambivalent Internet (with co-author Ryan Milner), and Phillips says the idea of trolling has become so diluted by mainstream usage that it's become incredibly hard to identify what is and isn't serious rhetoric online.
"It's sort of problematic to talk about it as this catch-all term... A lot of this alt-right stuff falls into this category where you're like, Are these people genuinely making an argument, or are they just trying to fuck around? It's frankly just not that clear."
Like Poe's Law suggests, Phillips says that if there's no clear intention behind someone's sense of expression or "trolling," then it's just going to be mistaken as extremism anyway. In the case of Yiannopoulos or Evalion, the result is a mix of followers who are both genuine racists and salty white boys who are in it just to piss people off.
"It's the Donald Trump effect in many ways—whether he is serious or not as a politician doesn't really matter, because the effect he has is real. You can laugh at him, or you can take him seriously, but it all results in the same thing. That's why he's the [presumptive] GOP nominee—people laughed, and he's here."
Until recently, Evalion had a depressingly large following—boasting millions of views on her YouTube and tens of thousands of followers across her various social media accounts until her main YouTube channel was banned last month after the website found her in violation of its rules on hate speech. She has since started up a backup account that features her most recent stunt—a crowdfunding campaign to make an audiobook version of Mein Kampf.
Like many bad things on the internet, the campaign took flight quickly. Within its first week, Evalion had already surpassed her goal of €707 by three times the amount. As of today, she has currently amassed €1,455 (collected from a total of 54 backers), which she says will be used to purchase recording equipment and a new computer so that she can continue producing content.
A representative from Indiegogo told VICE that while the company received complaints, it will not take down the page. The representative noted that since Evalion is using Indiegogo solely to raise money for recording equipment, and not to directly incite or create hateful rhetoric like she does on her Twitter or YouTube, the company won't intervene.
Ifran Chaudhry, an expert in online hate crimes, told VICE that while the European Union has recently taken action against online hate speech by partnering with IT companies in an effort to shut down bigoted content quickly, neither Canada nor the US has taken the same precaution. For Evalion or Yiannopoulos, Chaudhry says it's unlikely that anything can legally be done—although it would be different if they were disseminating the same content on, let's say, a street corner.
"The way that the laws are currently set up, if she were doing this offline, that's definitely somewhere the police would have some more teeth to arrest her, or take some sort of action," Chaudhry told VICE.
"In the online realm, it becomes a legal gray area because of the identity issue. How can you pinpoint the dissemination and origination of hate speech when it comes from all over?"
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