Or: What Tumblr and 4chan have in common — and how they differ in important ways
Being the internet-addicted person I am, it is inevitable that I stumble across topics relevant to the culture war. Simply put, the culture war is a series of protracted battles over online events where the usual right-left actors have planted a flag and decided to defend their preferred version of history. #Gamergate is a prominent example, wherein self-identified gamers battled feminists over the merits and impact of diversity in games, leading to routine bullying, death threats, and suicide all around.
This is the topic of Angela Nagle’s book “Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right”. It’s an incredibly fascinating bit of internet history, and I noticed some connections to a concept I recently explored — moral grandstanding.
I’ve never added a trigger warning to my posts before, but this merits one. I talk about intense bullying campaigns that have lead to suicide, and reactions to police shootings on Tumblr. I discuss the alt-right, 4chan, and incel communities — all of which have deeply rooted issues with sexism, racism, and contests to see who can be more repugnant. I’ve quoted people who make graphic mentions of sexual assault and suicide, and who freely use racial slurs. I also describe a couple mass murderers that have come out of these online movements —individuals that specifically target women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups. If that’s distressing to you, don’t read this. You won’t enjoy it.
Moral Grandstanding: A Refresher
In case you haven’t read my last article, moral grandstanding can be summarized in two points:
- The grandstander wants others to think they are “morally respectable” — she wants a positive reputation as someone of particular moral character in her social circle
- The grandstander attempts to achieve goal #1 by contributing to the public discourse — be it in speech or word
This does not imply the positions a grandstander advocates for are bad per se, only that their status motivations are the primary goal here, message be damned. Moral grandstanding also comes in various forms, as well (abridged):
- Piling on. “For example, suppose that numerous discussants have already expressed their view that a petition should be started to protestsome injustice and that the matter is no longer up for debate. Yet some-one might add the following: ‘I want to echo what others have said. This petition is vital to the cause of justice and I happily and wholeheartedly support it. We need to show that we are on the right side of history’”
- Ramping up. Moral grandstanders may engage in a sort of one-upping, proposing ever-increasing punishments as proof of their commitment to justice. The perpetrators wrongdoing matters less than the grandstanders having the opportunity to show how punitive — and by extension, just — that they can be.
- Trumping up. Where nothing morally wrong exists, a moral grandstander may make something up. The grandstander accrues status by showing they notice what others miss.
- Excessive emotional displays or reports. Strong emotional reactions are a signal of conviction, and excessive emotional displays serve the function of making the grandstander seem incredibly committed to justice or other pet issues.
- Claims of self evidence. These signal that “one’s moral sensibilities are more ﬁnely tuned than those of others, and thus that one is morally respectable. What is not obvious to others is painfully obvious to the grandstander. Moreover, any suggestion of moral complexity or expression of doubt, uncertainty, or disagreement is often declaimed by the grandstander as revealing a deﬁciency in either sensitivity to moral concerns or commitment to morality itself.”
I’d like to go over some real-world examples from Nagle’s book that I think are representative of the sort of moral grandstanding that Tosi and Warmke talk about.
Something I’d like to note before continuing: the people in a movement aren’t necessarily a reflection of the movement itself. Going overboard (like bullying teenagers to suicide) in a quest to end racial discrimination is not evidence that trying to end racism is bad. Movements are made of people who are, unfortunately, human beings. Until Elon Musk manages to upload our brains to a computer 24/7, we’re stuck dealing with humans who are horrible to each other, regardless of their political or other affiliations.
Tumblr, probably: “grandstanding” is a problematic term because some people can’t stand.
This section title is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but isn’t too far off from the level of discourse that characterized tumblr in its “golden years”, around 2014–2017. I’d like to give examples of Tosi and Warmke’s five categories, primarily centred on tumblr social dynamics, but at times extended to real-world dialogue.
Whenever I discuss internet social dynamics it’s difficult to not cite Scott Alexander. This post is no exception. His excellent article, “the toxoplasma of rage” is where I’ve sourced the majority of my samples from — along with a few from Nagle’s book.
“The trash is taking itself out”
- A tumblr proverb
Tumblr’s weird. It’s a social media site worth less than most Vancouver houses (3 million, to be exact), despite having at least 370 million users. Tumblr’s a home for young people interested in fandoms, memes, art, and social justice. Think of it like reddit but instead of going for the young male nerd demographic, tumblr targets the quirky girl who really got into english lit.
“friends if you are reblogging things that are not about ferguson right now please queue them instead. please pay attention to things that are more important. it’s not the time to talk about fandoms or jokes it’s time to talk about injustices.” [source]
“If you’re uneducated, do not use that as an excuse. Do not say, “I’m not picking sides because I don’t know the full story,” because not picking a side is supporting Wilson. And by supporting him, you are on a racist side…Ignoring this situation will put you in deep shit, and it makes you racist. If you’re not racist, do not just say “but I’m not racist!!” just get educated and reblog anything you can.” [source]
“why are you so disappointing? I used to really like you. you’ve kept totally silent about peshawar, not acknowledging anything but fucking zutara or bellarke or whatever. there are other posts you’ve reblogged too that I wouldn’t expect you to- but those are another topic. I get that you’re 19 but maybe consider becoming a better fucking person?” [source]
Not only do these tumblr users increasingly pile on to an issue, their posts are entirely calculated to encourage piling-on behaviour in others. Like Alexander notes, it’s a reinvention of the old threatening email chain letter — “send this to 5 people or [you will die tonight/you’re a shitling].”
In another disturbing example, a large number of tumblr users bullied a teen artist to the point of suicide. Her crime? She had drawn a picture of a children’s TV show character skinnier than the shows original art.
Tumblr users began following her and creating secondary accounts to archive all of her posts and hunt down any additional examples of fatphobia or racism they could find:
These users’ escalated over a period of three months before she attempted suicide. You’d think after her suicide attempt people might stop piling on. Nah, this is tumblr we’re talking about:
From reading the discussions of anti-zamii users, this was a textbook example of people taking one minor slight and ramping up into a frenzy of hatred, leading to real harm. It started with mean comments, expanded to sock-puppet account harassment, doxxing attempts, and suicide baiting.
All of this done in the name of a worthwhile cause — reducing racism and fatphobia. If there’s one thing you can take from these examples it’s that the people in good movements are human like everyone else, and to be human is to sometimes be incredibly, wildly, gleefully abusive because it makes you look good.
Zamii’s case may also qualify as trumping up — I fail to see how a slightly skinnier version of a children’s TV show character is fatphobic — but I’ll use an example from Nagle’s book.
In the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, where 50 people were killed by an Islamic State supporter, there was an incredible outpouring of support for the queer community in Florida. According to Nagle, this had a curious effect of making virtue scarce. If everyone is being (rightly) supportive of the queer community, then it’s tough to differentiate oneself as a moral person.
A couple examples of trumping up behaviour:
- Twitter users “raged against the use of the term Latina/o instead of Latinx in the reporting” — Latinx being a term that only 3% of hispanics use to describe themselves, far from a media gaffe.
- At a vigil, “a young woman lashed out at the crowd: ‘there are so many white people here. That isn’t a joke… Who are you really here for?’” — Implying, of course, that the white people were there to support the shooter, perhaps on account of their skin colour?
One last example from Nagle’s book: In 2016 a 2 year old was dragged into a lagoon by an alligator and killed. The response? To criticize the father for his white privilege in ignoring a sign that said to beware of alligators. From a minor twitter celebrity ‘Brienne of Snarth’ to her 11,000 followers:
“I’m so finished with this white privilege lately that I’m not even sad about a 2yo beyind eaten by a gator because his daddy ignored signs. You really think there are no fucking consequences to anything. A goddamn sign told you to stay out of the water in Florida. FUCK A SIGN”
… Because that’s a great model of responding appropriately to the death of a toddler.
Excessive Emotional Displays or Reports
Nagle also discusses the Atlantic article “Coddling of the American Mind”, written by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in response to growing trends of what they term safety culture on college campuses.
College students, in Haidt and Lukianoff’s estimation, have embraced and wholeheartedly support emotional reasoning over other strategies for managing conflict. In one example, a university professor edited an essay wherein a student had capitalized “indigenous” when the word wasn’t at the start of a new sentence. The professor correcting this grammar error lead to a sit-in of his class as his behaviour was a gross insult to said student. What should be a simple misunderstanding — the professor not understanding niche internet conventions surrounding capitalization — turned into a passionate protest.
Another example: When Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem, a disturbing number of people lost their minds. Trump commented, suggesting Kaepernick and others joining him should leave the country:
“I think it’s a great lack of respect and appreciation for our country and I really said they should try another country, see if they like it better. See how well they’ll be doing. See if they are going to be making $20 million being a second-string quarterback.” — Donald Trump. Source
The sheer level of vitriol directed towards Kaepernick is a textbook case of excessive emotional displays. A random football player kneeling during the anthem in no way harms anyone — I have yet to see a reasonable justification for the negative reactions he got. I suspect there is none.
Claims of self evidence
For this I turn to another medium article: “Yes My Dear, All White People Are Racists”
Some choice quotes (emphasis mine):
“You are racist love, but it’s okay to admit it. I’m ready for you to admit it so that we can move on to bigger things. You denying the obvious stalls the long road to healing. Take a moment to sit with this new/old revelation. Your racism is a product of nurturing and nature. Own it.
All White people are racist and the fact that you need a special out like a “Not All White People” label is disheartening because it says to me you are racist, but you’re in denial about it. To me this kind of white person is most dangerous kind of White people I know and I just don’t have time to play games with you all anymore. They are so busy dodging responsibility they can’t see the obvious racism in needing an exception to the rule. There are no exceptions to racism and White people. You’re born into that gang.
Own that White people have spent the last 400-years maintaining the status quo by doing the same things their ancestors did to maintain getting the same results the ancestors did. All White people are racists and/or act racistly to maintain their White interests. We all know you do it because we see how you live, work, play, vote, and engage on social media. You’re not fooling anyone but yourselves for denying this.”
While I disagree with her conclusions, my problem isn’t in her advancing an argument to that end — it’s the constant repetition that this point is self evident and not worth discussing. The author is so incredibly certain in her conviction that every single white person is a racist, that a solid half of the article is dedicated to reiterating this point and lamenting that it must be made, all without a coherent argument.
There are countless more articles like this, all of which tend to take the same approach: all white people are racist and this is so painfully obviously I won’t deign to explain it to you. Heck, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo unseated the Hunger Games as one of the best selling books in the world, and it engages in the same form of moral grandstanding.
I hope these examples have provided you with a solid set of examples where moral grandstanding may occur. And now for my paranoid disclaimer:
Please note that calling these incidents a form of moral grandstanding is not a rejection of secondary motivations. Advocating against racism, fatphobia, militarization, mental health stigma, and police violence can all be good things. The takeaway is that the behaviour of some people in communities advancing these points meets the criteria for moral grandstanding, not that engaging in moral grandstanding in any way undermines these important causes.
Like I’ve said in both posts about moral grandstanding, the act’s definition does not require the lack of noble secondary motivations — only that one primary motivation being the accrual of social status. Good people can want good things and pursue them in a way that serves to augment status.
There. Now no one will mischaracterize my position. The internet is far too scrupulous to ignore such an obvious disclaimer.
A Novel Category: Immoral Grandstanding
You may notice that a lot of the examples above were pretty heavy on topics of race. That’s because Nagle focuses pretty heavily on those topics — racism and the reactions to it are a huge factor in internet abuse, along with sexism and other assorted bad -isms. Many examples I used also came from the broad tumblr-liberal category of people. Frankly, that’s what I know best. I was on tumblr in my Youth (TM), and vividly remember a lot of those incidents.
Nagle’s book was a terrifying introduction to right-wing online extremism that I suspect many of my readers haven’t encountered before. The social-justice-type moral grandstanding is — Zamii excepted — relatively benign in that it shies away from direct violence. Not so for some of the communities Nagle covers.
Kill All Normies contains some fascinating — and disgusting — examples of a sort of moral grandstanding that I don’t believe Tosi and Warmke covered in their original paper. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call this alt-right variety immoral grandstanding, which I think is more apt than the original term when describing this group’s behaviour.
I say immoral grandstanding because the incentives are different from would-be grandstanders in alt-right and 4chan-esque communities. In these spaces, one gains status more from excessive displays of abhorrent, disgusting behaviour than the overly-righteous anger so characteristic of the left. When Elliot Rodger — an incel — kills 6 and injures 14 with his car, he rises to legend status, with forum users renaming themselves to handles like ElliotRodgerIsAGod. The incentives are different here.
If moral grandstanding is wanting others to think you’re a good person and is achieved through public discourse, I propose two similar criteria for the immoral grandstander:
- The grandstander wants others to think they are “morally reprehensible” — he wants a reputation as someone of particular immorality within a social circle that venerates such an attribute.
- The grandstander attempts to achieve goal #1 by contributing to the public discourse — be it in speech or word
Tosi and Warmke’s original 5 types then become:
- Piling on. Suppose some people have already expressed abhorrent views on a given topic. A grandstander piling on might add to the discussion with further vitriol in pursuit of status within their own in-group.
- Ramping up. An immoral grandstander may seek to out-do others in the awfulness of the words they say or actions they commit.
- Trumping up. Where nothing worthy of mockery exists, an immoral grandstander may seek out reasons to hate others — they accrue status by finding new ways to hate that others miss.
- Excessive emotional displays or reports. Artificially increasing one’s public emotional reaction to innocuous content can make one look more unstable, which is rewarded in the immoral grandstander’s social sphere.
- Claims of self evidence. The immoral grandstander may claim their nihilistic worldview is inevitable, and that those who disagree with them are simply blind to reality.
Like above, let’s go through examples of each of these categories — primarily drawn from Nagle’s Kill All Normies book.
Before I begin, I’d like to again caution readers if they’re disturbed by graphic content. There’s bad stuff in here. The examples above are a thousand times more mild than what I’ll discuss here.
The online right contains communities with some of the most awful people I’ve ever read about. If I were to include everything in Nagle’s book that shocked me, I’d be sued for copyright violation — Nagle pulls so many examples that at times it felt like I was drowning in them. While these individuals tend to target women and racial minorities, their targeting of a conservative columnist — David French — that stuck with me most. David French was a writer for the National Review and cut across party lines to criticize Trump on a regular basis. Milo Yiannapolous, another right-wing icon of the “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Feminists” variety, sent his fans after him — and others piled on. David French writes:
There is nothing at all rewarding, enjoyable, or satisfying about seeing your beautiful young daughter called a ‘niglet’. There is nothing at all rewarding, enjoyable, or satisfying about seeing man after man brag in graphic terms that he has slept with your wife. It’s unsettling to have a phone call interrupted, watch images of murder flicker across your screen, and read threatening emails. It’s sobering to take your teenage kids out to the farm to make sure they’re both proficient with handguns in case an intruder comes when they’re home alone. The misery is compounded when longtime friends and allies dismiss my experiences and the experiences of my colleagues as nothing more than the cost of public advocacy. It’s not. I have contributed to the National Review for more than ten years now, and have been deeply involved in many of America’s most emotional culture-ware battles for more than 20. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. — David French, of the National Review
Again, David French’s crime was criticizing Trump as a conservative. I’d say the punishment was disproportionate, but no one ever deserves that sort of treatment for any reason. Period.
The people engaged in this targeted harassment campaign were not doing this out of a particular sense of hatred. They were trolls. They wanted to do this to get status within their peer group of other trolls. This is piling on in its most repugnant, disgusting form. As one troll named Weev — a man notable for having tattooed a large swastika on his chest — said: “It’s not bullying, it’s performance art”.
The #Gamergate controversy saw a similar level of harassment directed at Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Brianna Wu for advocating for more feminism in video games. #Gamergate is itself more than any one essay could cover — suffice to say that whatever these women did, it in no way merited the sheer volume of death threats, rape threats, and hatred sent their way. Even writing that sentence feels wrong, as if there are situations that might theoretically merit even a single death or rape threat. Nothing does.
In 2006, a 12 year old boy named Mitchell Henderson shot himself. A classmate posted on his MySpace wall that Mitchell was “an hero [sic] to take the shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back.” Per Nagle’s accounting, the online community known as 4chan found the grammatical error of “an hero” eminently amusing. What followed next was a contest to see who could do the most emotional harm to Mitchell Henderson’s surviving family. Some examples of what they did:
- Another classmate posted that Mitchell had lost his iPod. 4chan users would put iPods on his grave and post the photos online.
- Michell’s face was edited into pornography
- Mitchell’s father was called by strangers that would say “Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod” or “Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Could you come down and let me in.”
Mitchell Henderson is just one case. Nagel outlines other instances where forum users competed to out-do one another in the level of pain they could inflict — all to gain acclaim in their subgroup. Textbook ramping up.
I don’t have much new to add to this category. 4chan’s treatment of Mitchell Henderson is the perfect example; a grammar error and a picture of an iPhone were all it took. The treatment of David French and the women of #Gamergate also count. I’d say this category typifies this style of online right-wing trolling — their behaviour and choice of targets cannot be understood without an understanding that their goals are to hurt others, and there’s no need for them to construct a case for why someone deserves it. They simply want to, and that’s enough.
Excessive emotional displays or reports
One of the best sources I’ve found on this topic is Natalie Wynn, a transgender leftist youtuber who does long-form video essays on topics related to internet culture. She has a fascinating video titles “Incels”, taking a deep dive into the culture of incels — a term describing self-identified “involuntary celibates”. These are young men convinced they will never have sex, despite strongly wanting to, and the culture of incel forums is inextricably linked to rampant misogyny and general nihilism about the value of individuals independent of romantic engagement.
One of the strange dynamics in incel communities is in how they talk about themselves. There seems to be a strong pressure for these young men to be inordinately hard on themselves about how ugly or unlovable they are. These are, at the end of the day, excessively emotional reports of what they call their “sexual market value”. It is the norm for these men to engage in downward spirals of performative self-loathing to gain status on the forums they frequent.
From Wynn’s own recounting of having incel-adjacent experiences:
“She spent many torturous hours online, “intentionally looking for abusive comments, preferably ones that cut to the core of my deepest insecurities and fears.” Some psychologists refer to such behavior as “digital self-harm.” Wynn calls it “masochistic epistemology: whatever hurts is true.” This, she posits, is the pathological urge that drives otherwise normal men to self-identify as incels.” — Source: The New Yorker
While there is certainly real self hatred experience by incels, a substantial component appears to be performative in nature — meant more to prove their bona fides as an incel rather than advance an argument. This seems to meet my new criteria of immoral grandstanding; in this instance, an incel’s peer group is fellow incels, and excessive, public self hatred is how they get status.
Claims of self evidence
To continue on the incel track, Wynn also describes a couple of the dominant social theories in these communities: the Red Pill and the Black Pill. Thankfully, she gives us some pre-made slides with the definition of these concepts:
The Red Pill is a callback to that scene in the Matrix — the one where Neo is asked to choose between two pills. The blue pill lets him fade back into his old life, and the red pill opens his eyes to the truth of the world around him. He takes the red pill. So too do incels.
The red pill is a worldview that many of these individuals claim to be the true underlying fabric of reality, open to those who stop lying to themselves. Hypergamy — women marrying exclusively up the social latter — leaves low-status men behind in the sexual marketplace, which is dominated by a few high value men. Feminism is to blame.
Before I comment, let me show you the Black Pill:
The Black Pill takes the Red Pill’s theories to the extreme. Not only is dating impossible for low status men, it is predestined. Their value as sexual beings is genetic, and because sex is the only way to be happy, the frequenters of incel forums are doomed to a life of misery.
These claims, however the incels might speak about them, are not self evident. There are plenty of physically unattractive men in happy relationships. There are many women who “marry down” — be it in social class, attractiveness, or intelligence. Feminism is a reaction to women as a class having too little power, not a method of domination.
As I mentioned at the start of this section, the Black Pill is what causes incels like Elliot Rodger to go on killing sprees — specifically targeting women for the sin of rejecting his affections. And Rodger certainly got the acclaim he wanted. Countless users idolized him and named their accounts after him, because in their eyes “ElliotRodgerIsAGod”.
I could go on, but this essay is long enough as it is. The point is: these theories are taken to be self evident to anyone willing to “wake up”. In fact, incels have a term for the people who deny this reality: normies.
There does seem to be a very real symmetry break here. With the exception of Zamii, the moral grandstanding of the left seems nowhere near as destructive or nihilistic as the right. Then again, I think it might be reductive to call 4chan and the like “the right” and erase the distinctions between them and institutional republicans like David French. More mainstream right-wingers seem to have their own “normal” form of Moral Grandstanding that does not meet this inverted definition — their reaction to Colin Kaepernick being a prime example.
This was painful to write. I can imagine much of it was painful to read. Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies, is a harrowing account of the worst parts of the online world. I really do think that the status motivations of these communities meet an inverted definition of Tosi and Warmke’s moral grandstanding theory. These online trolls are refreshingly honest in their descriptions of their work as “performance art”. They are, at the end of the day, status-seeking monkeys like the rest of us. The difference is in the ideologies and in-groups they have found that incentivize immoral behaviour rather than moral.
Please let me know if you found this valuable. I’d like to do more posts like these, finding connections between a series of books — though hopefully nowhere near as politically contentious as this one. My next will be on the replication crisis, another on the demarcation problem of pseudoscience, and finally a synthesis of 7 or so books on education that I’ve been writing for over a month now. I’d like to know what works and doesn’t work before I post those.