The Alt-Right as Counterculture: Memes, Video Games and Violence

The Christchurch massacre on March 15 utterly shocked the world with its brutality, devastating a Muslim community which  thought itself safe from the forces of Islamophobia. But it is clear that the shooting is a part of a broader rising tide of white nationalist violence and terrorism. There is more to the shooting, however, than just the reactionary and racist. A simple look at the shooter’s manifesto reveals a collection of ironic statements, tongue-in-cheek in-jokes and other internet memes, a foreign language for some, but classic staples of any internet dialogue.

Titled “The Great Replacement,” a reference to a conspiracy theory that non-white immigration is part of a plot to “replace” white people with people of color, the shooter’s manifesto cites decreasing white birth rates, the prevalence of queer people, and Jewish influence as responsible for western collapse. It argues that immigration is an unarmed invasion and thus the violence of the shooting was justified as self-defense. It calls for the extermination of Muslims and Turks across Europe. And finally, it sarcastically claims that the 1999 kid-friendly platformer video game Spyro the Dragon informed the shooter’s violent ethnonationalism. From Gamergate to 4chan, it is clear that video game culture and obscure memes run through the veins of far-right discourse and organizing.

“Ironic” Memes

One of the most insidious memes the shooter’s manifesto uses is the “remove kebab” meme, which originates from a Serbian propaganda song celebrating Serbian nationalism during the Yugoslav wars. The “kebab” in question being removed refers to the thousands of Bosniak Muslims and Turks exterminated by Serbian forces. A Turkish internet user famously parodied the racist incoherence of Serbian nationalists through a satirical rant that ended by just repeating the phrase. But the meme soon lost its original ironic purpose. Originally popularized by players of Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy video game genre, the meme soon spread to becoming a staple of alt-right discourse, usually connected with notions of removing Muslims from Western societies or restoring Istanbul to Christian rule. This pattern of memes starting out ironically is a common trend among the more sardonic corners of the internet, but by hiding behind a mask of “edgy” or “spicy” memes, content played out for good fun can hide true messaging. While many innocent people have participated in the meme since its original intentions to parody racism, it is clear now that the meme has lost its original intentions.

The Christchurch shooter politically identified himself as a “kebab remover.” The words “remove kebab” was etched onto one of his assault rifles. He dedicates an entire section of his manifesto to demanding the return of Istanbul to Christian control and the extermination of Turkish people. He also played that Serbian propaganda song during the livestream of his shooting. Of course, “remove kebab” falls broadly into a collection of anti-semitic, homophobic or Islamophobic “ironic” memes and  provocative parodies that dog whistle deeper meanings. Consider the common phrase “Deus Vult,” a Latin phrase meaning “God Wills It.” This saying may have been historically associated with the crusades, but today is common discourse among the Alt-Right, originally popularized by video games like For Honor, Kingdom Come Deliverance and Crusader Kings 2. Another example of memes being turned into racist dog whistles is the Christchurch shooter’s playing of the popular Eurobeat Song “Gas Gas Gas” during his livestream. While clearly about racing cars, it is not hard to see the title as a subtle reference to the Holocaust.

Consider the example of the 👌 emoji. Originally started as a prank on 4chan to trick the internet-unsavvy media into associating the harmless emoji with white nationalism, the ironic prank transformed from a “hilarious” bait-and-switch of the “liberal media” into an un-ironic signifier for white nationalism. When the Christchurch shooter flashed the sign in public, it is  clear that the “prank” blurred the line between irony and sincerity. This focus on keeping the discourse ironic allows the racist discussion to continue unchecked as anyone who challenges or calls out the memes as dog whistles are easily labelled as uninformed “normies” who are not in on the joke, while those who genuinely believe in the tenants of the alt-right can seriously debate holocaust denial, ethnic cleansing and racialized hierarchy under the guise of just joking.

Video Games and Radicalization

Memes like “Deus Vult” and “remove kebab” took off as a part of video game culture, and that is no coincidence. Alt-right leaders have long realized the reactionary potential of the hardcore gamer community, a community that is generally white, male, middle class, socially frustrated and perpetually online. Steve Bannon, perhaps the icon of the mainstream alt-right, got his start by radicalizing disgruntled World of Warcraft players. The arena of alt-right congregation include platforms like Reddit, 4chan and Discord, all platforms with significant populations of, if not explicitly aimed at, gamers. Notably, Discord was the main platform used to organize the Unite the Right rally.

The emergence of the “reactionary male gamer” began with the infamous Gamergate controversy in 2014. Much has been said on Gamergate, which started with allegations of unethical behavior in gaming journalism, but soon degenerated into a sexist harassment campaign against women in gaming and game development. Gamergate was a classic culture war that planted the seeds for an alt-right reaction to feminist critiques of video games, especially as the previous vanguard of gamers saw their culture becoming mainstream and their “gamer” identity dissolved. This notion that a ‘pure’ or ‘perfect’ gamer culture and identity must be defended from invading female, non-white and queer people can be easily extended or compared to a broader point about defending “white western civilization” from “invading” immigrants. In this way, there as a parallelism between the fear of the dissolution of the ‘gamer’ identity as it becomes less male and the fear of the dissolution of western national identities as they become less white. The ideological jump between calls for the gamer identity to be restricted to only specific kinds of people to alt-right calls for a white ethnostate is not entirely far-fetched.

That is not to say that all gamers are radical alt-righters, but there is a significant overlap. Perhaps the greatest evidence for this comes from the ever-predictive algorithms that recommend content. Simply browsing harmless Youtube videos on video games can lead users down a rabbit hole of recommended videos that ends with racist conspiracy theories and white-supremacist rants. Even Youtube’s most popular content creator, Pewdiepie, who got his start as a gaming youtuber, has indulged in the overlap between the alt-right and gaming culture. 

This association is not forgotten for the Christchurch shooter, who sarcastically mentioned Spyro the Dragon and Fortnite in his manifesto. His positioning of the camera of his livestream was all too reminiscent of the first-person view in many shooter games. The website that the shooter posted his manifesto to, 8chan, was actually originally created after gamergaters were banned from 4chan for harassment. Perhaps most explicitly and to the applause of his gleeful fans, he shouted “subscribe to Pewdiepie” before he began his massacre.

Alt Right Communities and Strategies

The shooter’s manifesto was first spread on the imageboard 8chan, sister site to the infamous 4chan. 4chan has an illustrious history as the birthplace of classic internet memes, but around the election of Barack Obama, 4chan became  known for its most famous board, the politically incorrect /pol/ board. While /pol/ is very much the icon of alt-right organizing, it is certainly not the brain behind the operation. The alt-right is not a coherent movement but a spectrum of communities, all vaguely allied or opposed, across tens of websites. The core alt-right exists, but the alt-right has pretty clear connections with a whole spattering of groups such as the manosphere, incels, identitarians, white supremacists and neo-nazis. There are also groups vaguely affiliated with the alt-right such as anarcho-capitalists, TERFs, the Tea-Party movement, Asian identitarians and the Alt-Lite, not to mention the dangerous libertarian-to-Alt-Right pipeline. In summation, there are a plethora of far-right radical groups on the internet who are all somewhat connected to each other, some of them racist, some of them misogynist, some of them explicitly alt-right but all of them fundamentally reactionary and opposed to mainstream liberal values.

The confusion inside and outside of the alt-right movement has confounded corporations and governments who seek to halt communities that violate their policies on hate speech or inciting violence. For example, the administration of the popular website Reddit has attempted to quarantine or outright ban various violent subreddits, such as /r/incels, /r/physicalremoval and, most recently, alt-right meme subreddit /r/cringeanarchy. 

Studies seem to indicate that banning dangerous communities is actually an effective way of dealing with problematic users, but the line between hate speech and free speech is always up for debate, often allowing different websites to have different standards for what is allowed and what is not. For instance, a group of reddit communities that I help moderate based around the aforementioned Paradox Games decided to ban the ‘remove kebab’ meme after the Christchurch shooting. As an American Muslim involved in the community where the ‘remove kebab’ meme was most popular, it was shocking to see a phrase I myself had used be associated in acts of violence. While many internet communities took similar steps, decision-making tends to be less sensitive on less mainstream websites. Sites like 4chan, voat, gab and 8chan are very much part of the ‘wild west’ of the internet where essentially anything goes, so it is no surprise that these website quickly become the gathering ground of the alt-right who would otherwise be banned.

Ultimately it is possible that the confluence of ironic meme culture and video game culture has contributed to the horrors of the Christchurch shooting. But there is value in analyzing their strategy. The alt-right fundamentally takes nothing as sacred and hides behind a veil of irony unlike liberals and leftists, who prefer to hide behind the veil of moralization. Characters like Milo Yiannopoulos say racist and transphobic things with a wry smile as though they’re having the time of their life. By attacking mainstream culture and values all through the lens of ironic memes, the alt-right has become the new counter-culture of our generation, presenting themselves as an underdog that daringly offends the politically correct ‘liberal elites,’ censored by mainstream internet platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube, which to them are a stand-in for broader liberal institutions that they seek to dismantle. Liberals may have won the culture wars, but it appears that as long as this faceless, decentralized culture of reaction continues to fester, we will have to get more familiar with the language of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Alex Haney

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