IN JULY 2017, AN ANGRY COMMENTER TO THE far-right Facebook page “This is Europa” fulminated that “(((Inbred psychopaths))) are trying to destroy Europe.” While expressions of xenophobic vitriol in the course of political discussion have become increasingly normalized with the rise of the “populist radical right in Europe” (Mudde 2007), what stands out in this particular case is use of three parentheses—an internet meme with an antisemitic history. It began in 2014 as an audio “echo” effect used on an antisemitic podcast whenever a Jewish-sounding surname was mentioned. In 2016, the same concept was used by antisemitic and “alt-right trolls” on Twitter, who sought to draw attention to the apparently Jewish ancestry of journalists by placing their surnames within triple parentheses (Weisman 2018). Considered by historians of American conservatism as a “genuinely new” movement (Hawley 2017), the alt-right became notorious during the 2016 US presidential election period for its strategic promotion of slang expressions, such as “cuckservative,” as a means to supposedly promote an antiliberal and “white nationalist” agenda (Heikkilä 2017). While many of the alt-right’s ideas were not necessarily new, what was novel was the way in which their ideas became entangled with the abstract dynamics of internet memes and subcultural practices of internet “trolls,” both of which arguably find their home in the notorious anonymous “imageboard” 4chan.
Although internet memes may have different meanings and uses in different online contexts, they frequently originate on subcultural or fringe corners of the web (Zannettou et al. 2018). Exemplary of the latter is the imageboard 4chan, a rather obscure website dedicated to the discussion of various topics. It is argued that 4chan’s high volume of posts functions as a “powerful selection machine” for the production of attention-grabbing internet memes (Bernstein et al. 2011, 56). In the absence of the persistent markers of identity and reputation that are present on social media platforms like Facebook, participants in the anonymous and ephemeral conversations on 4chan must continually demonstrate their subcultural status and reformulate the boundaries of their community (Nissenbaum and Shifman 2017). Focusing specifically on how these dynamics play out on 4chan/pol/, a board or subforum explicitly dedicated to political discussion, we argue that this milieu produces innovations in forms of imitated expressions (in this case, bigoted ones) that may subsequently spread elsewhere—as the opening anecdote illustrates.
For the sake of focus, this chapter does not directly concern this diffusion of vernacular, nor does it directly tackle the important question of why it is that antisemitic speech is so ubiquitous in these online spaces at this particular historical juncture. Rather, in the chapter, we consider how internet memes can function as “floating signifiers,” bringing together a cross-section of actors who may not necessarily share a common agenda but who are nevertheless united in their ritual opposition to a nebulous “other.” In particular, we study 4chan as a site for what we refer to as memetic antagonism, whereby its anonymous users, or “anons,” use internet memes to create a sense of community based around the construction of a common enemy. This animosity is salient considering internet memes’ earlier framing in the field of new media as affording a means of progressive dissent for otherwise marginalized voices. In developing this concept, our objective is to offer a framework for assessing internet memes—an online visual cultural form usually characterized by a supposedly humorous tone (Knobel and Lankshear 2007; Shifman 2013)—as instances of “extreme speech” (Pohjonen and Udupa 2017). Acknowledging how such “humor operates as a cloak concealing racist nationalism” and in line with emerging scholarship on the topic, our approach may be described as a “critical tracing” of “politically incorrect participatory media” (Topinka 2018, 2052)—in this case, of the dynamics of the subcultural milieu of 4chan, from which new expressions of memetic antagonism frequently tend to emerge. We specifically consider the case of triple parentheses on 4chan/pol/, as it illustrates the process by which an antisemitic slur became reworked as a vehicle for expressing populist-style antagonism against a nebulous elite, most commonly referred to as (((them))).
In the first section, we present a brief historical account of how political internet memes were initially received optimistically, as lowering the barrier for progressive dissent. We relate this optimism to the conceptual framework of “postpolitics” associated with Chantal Mouffe. In the second section, we introduce 4chan as the site of a new style of online political activism. Although studies of 4chan had earlier framed its activism as broadly consistent with the aforementioned postpolitics framework, with the increasing popularity of 4chan’s /pol/ board, we observe that 4chan underwent a rightward shift alongside the emergence of the alt-right. However, rather than considering 4chan/pol/’s documented connections to extremist violence, our approach looks at instances of extreme speech that stop just short of overt expressions of hatred. Without minimizing the implicit potential danger in such speech, as recent events have made painfully clear, our aim in this chapter is to describe the contextual ambiguity of the different “situational features including technology, online agency, and political cultures” (Pohjonen and Udupa 2017, 1176) that may help to account for why its speakers might not consider their use of these expressions as hateful—at least not in the conventional legalistic sense.
Memes as Political Dissent
Derived from evolutionary biology, memes were initially hypothesized as “viruses of the mind,” “informational parasite[s],” and “units of cultural transmission” subject to the competitive mechanisms of evolutionary biology (Dawkins 1976, 206). Following Richard Dawkins’s infamous selfish gene hypothesis, the success of a given meme was to be measured based on its longevity, its widespread appeal, its copying fidelity, or its capacity to maintain a core meaning through the process of imitation. Having long been a form of vernacular expression within internet subcultures, it is argued that internet memes (hereafter “memes”) started to go mainstream at around the same moment political events started to become “memetic” during the 2012 US election (Shifman 2013), as iconographies from the campaigns were avidly transformed, repurposed, and diffused online (Phillips and Milner 2017). The new category of the political meme arguably emerged at this point, although it would only go on to receive widespread international recognition in the news media with the notoriety of the Pepe the Frog meme during the subsequent 2016 election—to which we will return later. In the context of movements and events from Anonymous and Wikileaks to Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, political memes were initially interpreted in progressive terms as lowering the threshold for engaging in online activism. Following a framing established by media scholar Ethan Zuckerman’s (2007) “Cute Cat Theory” of digital activism, which prophesied a new golden era for media activism in the era of visual social media, political memes were discussed in terms of a new kind of subaltern discourse. Within this dominant framing, political memes were theorized as expanding the broader spectrum of political debate to include otherwise marginalized viewpoints (Shifman 2013). Authors have championed memes, for instance, as an “enjoyable route for expressing political opinions” (Shifman 2013, 123) through which “democracy benefits” because “more people . . . engage in political discussion from more perspectives” (Milner 2013, 2361). While authors like Ryan Milner (2016) later also emphasized the exclusionary and antagonistic dynamics of “memetic logic,” political memes were theorized in terms of offering democratizing and progressive “dissensus” against the dominant order.
In terms of political theory, the outlook on memes as vehicles for progressive dissent may be identified with Chantal Mouffe’s concept of “agonistic pluralism.” Mouffe developed her idea of agonistic pluralism as a remedy to a broader diagnosis concerning the relative absence of real political alternatives in the post–Cold War period of neoliberal hegemony, in what has been referred to as the postpolitics critique of liberalism (Dean 2009). In the postpolitical critique, “real” politics take place outside of the sphere of phony liberal consensus. From this perspective, it is on the ground and in the margins of activism that the important ideological struggles take place. Mouffe’s particular contribution to this debate has been to advocate a foundational theory of political activism capable of challenging this dominant liberal hegemony, premised on the idea of grassroots collectives uniting in opposition to a clear adversary. Mouffe’s theory of agonism is based on the simple idea that democratic politics are reducible to an existential struggle between the polis (us) and its adversaries (them), a concept whose essence she borrows from the political theorist and one-time Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, whom she claims “highlights the fact that democracy always entails relations of inclusion/exclusion . . . a vital insight that democrats would be ill-advised to dismiss because they dislike its author” (Mouffe 1998, 164). While she follows Schmitt’s antiliberalism to a point, Mouffe rejects what she correctly diagnoses as his essentially atavistic and essentialist view of “political and social identities as empirically given,” arguing instead that they “must be seen as the result of the political process of hegemonic articulation,” a process of homogeneity that paradoxically must remain open to “certain forms of pluralism” (171–172).
Citing Ludwig Wittgenstein’s communitarian theory of language use, Mouffe (2018) argues it is through an “inscription in ‘language games’ . . . that social agents form specific beliefs and desires and acquire their subjectivity” (75). It is thus not always rational argumentation but rather the libidinal engagement in an “ensemble of language games that construct democratic forms of individuality” (75–76). Moreover, Mouffe emphasizes “the decisive role played by affective libidinal bonds in processes of collective identification” (73), a dimension that she argues is completely overlooked in the public sphere theory of communicative rationality. The corollary to Mouffe’s hegemonic, discursive, and affective articulations of an “us” is the construction of a “them.” For theorists of postpolitics, the problem becomes one of how to expand the scope of “the political” so as to include a much broader range of otherwise excluded and marginalized actors while avoiding a fatal descent into a state of unalloyed antagonism that Schmitt referred to as “the abyss of total devaluation” (2004, 67). Postpolitics theorists put forth the normative argument that symbolic dissent should exhibit a sense of propriety—what has been referred to as a “reasonable hostility” (Tracy 2008)—such that political memes, for example, should “remain sensitive to the socially rooted contextual standards of judgment” (Phillips and Milner 2017, 172), limiting their forms of symbolic dissent exclusively to responding to existing injustices as opposed to initiating any type of active attacks.
As a particularly influential voice in these debates, Mouffe developed her anti-essentialist political theory through an analysis of on-the-ground organization by social movements. Although Mouffe recently raised the alarm about right-wing populisms potentially leading to “nationalistic authoritarian forms of neoliberalism” (2018, 24), nowhere does she appear to seriously consider the problem of how political subjectivity is constructed in online environments—spaces with their own history of various idiosyncratic types of antagonisms, including “flame wars,” bullying, “doxing,” “trolling,” and so forth (see Reagle 2015). In enabling dissent, political memes can also empower processes of “othering” based on the formulation of an organic and classless people bound together by existential antagonisms, considered as key elements in the overall “anatomy of fascism” (Paxton 2004). Dissent becomes othering when memetic antagonism falls into Schmitt’s abyss of total devaluation. As we will see, due in part to its subculture and technical affordances, 4chan encourages a form of distancing and deniability in the exercise of what Sahana Udupa refers to in chapter 6 as “fun as a metapractice.” Often expressed in a supposedly ironic manner, these instances of memetic antagonism function as affective “language games” for reactionary political projects, such as the alt-right, to build new “hegemonic articulations” often held together by vague floating signifiers. In light of this larger sociological problem, we look at how 4chan/pol/ may serve a kind of petri dish in which to concoct extreme and extremely virulent forms of right-wing populist antagonism.
4chan’s Reactionary Turn
Over the past decade, the web has seen a trend toward “platformization,” through which the infrastructures of a handful of social networking sites have become the dominant spaces for online social interaction (Helmond 2015). The prevalence of “profiles” and “friends” within these platforms is said to have eclipsed a culture of anonymity of an “older” internet of forums and message boards (Auerbach 2011). Arguably, the most notorious region of this anonymous “other” web is 4chan. With one million daily posts, 4chan is a so-called imageboard with subsections, or boards, dedicated to the discussion of specific topics, usually accompanied by the posting of images.1 4chan has two crucial affordances. First, it is anonymous: a lack of user accounts means everybody appears more or less the same. Second, it is ephemeral: posts are deleted after a few days or even minutes (Bernstein et al. 2011; Knuttila 2011). In the relatively limited academic literature on the topic, 4chan has been scrutinized in relation to its anonymous activism, unique subculture of memes, and trolling ethos (Coleman 2014; Phillips 2015; Nissenbaum and Shifman 2017). This literature mostly concerns the /b/ “Random” board, considered the birthplace of many of the web’s most successful internet memes such as Rickrolling, Rage Faces, and LOLcats. This text, however, focuses on a different board, /pol/ “Politically Incorrect.” The /pol/ board started in 2011 to siphon political extremist discussion from other areas of 4chan but has since become the most popular of all seventy boards.2 Despite this popularity, /pol/ has received a limited amount of original academic research (see Hine et al. 2016; Zannettou et al. 2018; Hagen 2018b). It has, however, received a substantial amount of journalistic attention over the course of the past few years. It was identified as a far-right recruitment zone (Wendling 2018), it was connected to various acts of extreme violence (Hankes and Amend 2018), and it was claimed to have played a significant role in the 2016 US elections (Beran 2017; Shreckinger 2017)—although the latter claim is disputed (Phillips, Beyer, and Coleman 2017).
Given its subcultural status in relation to the mainstream web of platforms and apps, 4chan has a track record of innovating with vernacular web culture, whether those be memes, slang expressions, or some other subcultural ephemera. As such, chances are that edgy memes will have either started on 4chan or its users, “anons,” are likely to be at the forefront of the most novel use. This avant garde status is particularly significant when considering that memes have no standardizing authority (e.g., unlike emojis). Their “meaning” can be understood as being constantly in flux. Indeed, when conceptualized as instances of multimodal speech acts, memes can be pragmatically theorized as “relevant to and also activated by the context of the utterance” (Grundlingh 2018, 153), such that memes can mean something different to different recipients in different contexts. This approach offers a frame through which to consider how anons may imagine themselves as participants in a kind of noninstitutional vernacular discourse standing in opposition to the mainstream (Howard 2008). Following Wittgenstein, if a meme’s meaning may be understood as a function of its use, then we may observe different uses of memes in different regions of the web, with 4chan anons imagining their particular use as being the most up-to-date (see Miltner 2014; Milner 2016; Nissenbaum and Shifman 2017). When a meme like triple parentheses gets picked up by the “normies” of mainstream social media, as in the opening anecdote, anons will likely shift their own use of the vernacular expression or simply stop using it altogether.3 Whereas such dynamics may be common in nonstandard dialects, they take on particular significance when it comes to the expression of seemingly hateful ideas.
Scholarship has identified 4chan as the preeminent venue for trolling as a subcultural practice. Although the term now more broadly refers to any number of “bad actors” online, historically, it refers specifically to an antagonistic rhetorical practice that aims at eliciting emotional responses from unwitting or unwilling targets (Phillips 2015). Although its subcultural origins predate the World Wide Web itself (see Donath 1999), Whitney Phillips (2015) argues that trolling experienced a proverbial “golden age” on 4chan in the late 2000s and early 2010s. In her account, trolling on 4chan sought to mock the sensationalism of American corporate media—for example, by baiting Fox News into labeling the imageboard as an “Internet Hate Machine” in 2007. In roughly this same period, 4chan was host to the Anonymous movement, described by the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman as “a wellspring of hackers and geeks who were taking political matters into their own hands and making their voices heard” (2014, 107)—a characterization arguably in line with the aforementioned Cute Cat Theory of digital activism. Among the many instances of coordinated online action from this period, anons would, for example, engage in trolling Time’s 2008 Most Influential Person poll so as to place 4chan’s founder at the top of its list (see Deseriis 2015, 166). However, as meme culture went mainstream, post-2012 trolling seemed to turn darker. An example of this was the successful trolling of an online contest to name a new Mountain Dew soft drink flavor, a contest that anons won with the name “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
Having moved past its golden age, it was not clear what 4chan had become or would be in the future. In its grotesquery, 4chan appeared like the babbling corpse of participatory culture, mocking the cyberutopian eschatology that had framed so much of the social media activism of the early 2010s. In the space of a few years, how could activists’ activity on 4chan, which scholars had described in terms of an “ethical and political turn” (Deseriis 2015, 197), become so manifestly and self-evidently reactionary? One answer is that 4chan was always a reactionary site and that it had simply been misconstrued through the distorted lens of cyberutopian eschatology (Cramer 2017)—for example, in the case of playing with Nazi imagery, some incisive observers had indeed long viewed 4chan’s subculture as fundamentally reactionary (Dibbell 2008). Another answer may simply lie in the emergence of /pol/, whose initially limited infamy might have drawn in various extremists. Indeed, in eclipsing other boards including /b/ in terms of overall popularity, /pol/ has broadly come to define 4chan in the public mind as a place of hate. What seems remarkable in retrospect is how, within the space of a few years, supposedly ironic 4chan in-jokes would provide an opening for a new style of white supremacist humor also appearing in the comment sections of websites like The Right Stuff with its podcast “The Daily Shoah”—where the triple-parentheses meme first emerged—and The Daily Stormer, whose founder memorably described this new philosophy as “non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism” (O’Brien 2017).
In addition to 4chan’s aforementioned status as the native domain of the internet troll, anons have long cultivated a mythos of the site as the source of subcultural meme innovation. Given this track record, the particularly antagonistic manner in which in-group slang and memes are typically used on /pol/ seems to problematize the progressive agonistic theories outlined earlier. Whether expressed in the form of visual memes or textual expressions, the tendency toward antagonistic speech on 4chan may be understood as shaped by both its subcultural norms and its technical affordances. Since 4chan is effectively anonymous, it affords no persistent reputational capital, as opposed to social media. Instead of connected networks of user accounts, memes allow otherwise complete strangers to identify themselves as members of a community by employing them to demonstrate and negotiate in-group belonging. Accordingly, meme use on 4chan has been theorized through Pierre Bourdieu’s lens of cultural capital (Nissenbaum and Shifman 2017). Extending this framework may also allow for consideration of 4chan as what Bourdieu referred to as a “linguistic market” (1991, 94) in which language use bestows a kind of wealth and authority on those who master the language, especially in the case of in-group slang, which Bourdieu considered as a quasi-aristocratic expression of distinction. Like all other forms of capital, Bourdieu conceptualized linguistic capital as being unevenly distributed, such that in licensing some to speak, it also has the effect of silencing others. In the struggle for this linguistic capital, actors on 4chan engage in “ritual opposition” (Tannen 1995, 140), in which language is used to negotiate relationships of superiority. Within 4chan, this opposition exists as attempts at outsmarting opponents with provocations, wit, or insults (Phillips 2015), a gendered form of discourse with currency in the contemporary web culture of “toxic geek masculinity” (Salter and Blodgett 2017). Returning to Mouffe, one is led to question the extent to which a progressive theory of agonism can be usefully generalized to discuss forms of activism that emerge from these particularly antagonistic online spaces.
Apart from subcultural norms, the formal characteristics of “memetic logic” (Milner 2016) may also construct in- and out-group distinctions—not through political opposition but rather through the implicit formation of an “us” and “them” of, respectively, those aware and unaware of a meme’s references. Independent of questions of their relative tastelessness, from a formal perspective, memes tend to engage in games of intertextuality (Knobel and Lankshear 2007; Shifman 2013). On 4chan especially, the use of memes operates according to a set of broader dynamics that tend toward abstraction and ironic subcultural style so that only those on the “inside” will “get” the latest innovation in the meme. This requires community members to stay up to speed with its changing meaning—or multiple meanings—in terms of various proliferating subgenres and the intertextuality between them. Scholars of meme subcultures argue that these formal exercises can thus form “subcultural bat signals” (Phillips and Milner 2017, 112). Anons may identify the presence of these formal and stylistic qualities by deeming a given meme as “dank,” which is to say that it engages with—or, better yet, innovates within—what scholars of 4chan have referred to as “the magical world of [4chan’s] play frame” (Phillips and Milner 2017, 112). Given these dynamics of memetic innovation, the use of memes on 4chan can become so arcane as to exceed the boundaries of comprehension, at least so far as the normies are concerned.4
In what may be referred to as a dynamic of abstraction, the minimal elements of a given memetic grammar can be isolated and reduced, often to the point that these memes become totally incomprehensible to outsiders. Since such exercises occur at the level of grammar, they are just as likely to occur in the case of “harmless” memes as with what we would call extreme memes. Figure 5.1, for example, shows memetic abstraction for both a harmless meme (left) and one with antisemitic connotations (right). These exercises of formal abstraction hinge on the reader’s degree of meme literacy—indeed, an instance of the antisemitic meme posted to /pol/ was accompanied by the following post: “I’m actually impressed with how ingrained that image is in my head that I can identify it almost instantly even in this minimalist form.”5 This game of memetic abstraction may thus be seen as a demonstration of Mouffe’s aforementioned emphasis: “the role played by affective libidinal bonds in processes of collective identification” (2018, 73).
To provide a tangible example of the interplay of these memes’ formal characteristics with subcultural language games on 4chan/pol/, we briefly turn here to Pepe the Frog. Of all the memes used on/pol/, none is more popular than Pepe. Often used on /pol/ as a “reaction face” to accompany a textual post with a particular emotional state, the extreme adaptability of this meme—what we might refer to as memetic versatility (fig. 5.2)—makes it a nearly perfect example of what semioticians refer to as a floating signifier, which is to say a sign or symbol whose open-ended qualities render it broadly available to express practically anything. Given the fact that Pepe was embraced as a mascot by a variety of actors during the 2016 US election, including by the future US president himself (BBC 2017), it should be noted that this concept of the floating signifier was influentially developed by Mouffe’s long-time collaborator Ernesto Laclau (2005) as a central concept in his influential analysis of populist politics. In Laclau’s analysis, floating signifiers are indispensable to populism, as their very emptiness allows them to be invested with significance by a diverse variety of political constituencies. In this analysis, it is the very nebulousness of these signifiers that allows them to create what Laclau referred to as a “chain of equivalence” across various otherwise disparate publics. Like Mouffe, Laclau seems to have intended for this theory to benefit the left. In the case of the 2016 US election, however, it was actors on the right who managed to mobilize Pepe as floating signifier to temporarily hold together their loose alt-right network, which influential analysts described as including “conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people” (Marwick and Lewis 2017, 3).
Although Pepe had been used in essentially apolitical contexts for many years on 4chan and other platforms like Tumblr, in summer 2016, the Anti-Defamation League, a US-based hate speech watchdog, put the frog into its database of hate symbols in recognition of the new trend of combining him with Nazi imagery (BBC 2017). Despite categorizing Pepe as a hate symbol, the Anti-Defamation League recognized that the meme had other uses. But even in the case of Nazi Pepe, while there is evidence of instances of violent neo-Nazis frequenting /pol/ (Thompson 2018), many /pol/ anons likely had other explanations for how to interpret the meme’s apparently hateful intent—for example, that it is a case of an incongruous juxtaposition of something innocent together with the worst thing ever; that it is a legitimate example of subcultural expression, akin to the use of swastika insignias by the mid-1970s UK punk subculture (Hebdige 1979); that it is an attempt to, in a sense, inoculate their style against the dynamics of commodification; or that it is an instance of the trolling tactic of “triggering normies.” As it has been used on /pol/, Pepe exemplifies how extreme speech can unify a disparate and ephemeral community through disproval of others or, as we will discuss, through a shared object of antagonism.
Figure 5.2 Instances of the “Pepe” meme grammar posted to 4chan/pol/ on January 7, 2018 (Hagen 2018a).
(((Them))) as Nebulous Othering
This penultimate section returns to the triple-parentheses meme, introduced at the outset, to provide some empirical insights into a case of memetic antagonism on 4chan/pol/ and how the meme is used specifically as a vehicle for nebulous othering. In terms of methods, we use the 4plebs archive imported into 4CAT (Peeters and Hagen 2018), a tool to capture and analyze thread-based data, to visualize the posts per month of the triple parentheses on 4chan/pol/. From a semiotic perspective, what is unique about the triple parentheses is how, quite literally, the sign contains the signified. At the level of the corpus, this peculiar format offers a convenient marker to trace patterns in its dominant use. As such, we visualize the dominant contents within the three parentheses overall (using a word cloud) and per month (using RankFlow; Rieder 2016) from the start of its widespread use (June 2016) to the time of research (January 2019).
While the ultimate meaning of the triple-parentheses meme inevitably occurs in the local and multiple contexts of its reception, tracing thousands of instances of the triple-parentheses meme can arguably provide a macro overview of how the meme is commonly used. Moreover, when drawing from Wittgenstein’s claim that the “meaning of words lies in their use” (1953, 80), it may also be argued that such tracing of the meme’s dominant use will offer a perspective on its common meaning within 4chan/pol/. In response to the call to “critically trace politically incorrect participatory media” (Topinka 2018), we thus draw on this communitarian theory of language as the basis of an inductive method for determining the triple parentheses’ dominant meaning and use in the service of ritual opposition (Tannen 1995).
As discussed at the outset of this chapter, triple parentheses began as an explicitly antisemitic meme on an alt-right podcast. Indeed, when the meme first appeared on 4chan/pol/, it was clearly antisemitic, accompanied by a version of the aforementioned “Happy Merchant” meme and posted in a discussion concerning Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus,” with the brackets encapsulating her surname (fig. 5.3). This first use is thus similar to the manner in which the triple parentheses were first used to “name” specific institutions and individuals. However, it was another year before that the meme became commonly used on /pol/, rapidly rising to roughly thirty-five thousand occurrences in almost 1 percent of all posts after June 2016 and remaining consistently popular thereafter (fig. 5.4). Compared with posts mentioning, for instance, Pepe, we see that the triple parentheses are remarkably consistently used (fig. 5.5).6 Instead of a being meme appearing as part of incidental events or controversies, we can already say the triple parentheses form a consistent and common part of the vernacular of /pol/—implying a continued and fixed need for grammars with which to construct an outgroup within the ephemeral environment of 4chan.
Nevertheless, this “naming” seems to play a granular role only when looking at the dominant uses of the triple-parentheses meme on /pol/. Figure 5.4 shows a word cloud of the most-used words within three parentheses on 4chan/pol/ from May 2016 to March 2019, and figure 5.6 shows the same data but separated per month. We see specific names of individuals and institutions appearing—for instance, “cnn” is the second-most used word within the parentheses in September 2016 and “kushner” the fourth-most in April 2017, referring to Jared Kushner, who is the husband of Ivanka Trump and a senior advisor to Trump and who is also Jewish. However, what is most apparent is that the content of the parentheses is consistently dominated by a few words: “they” (used 84,303 times) and “them” (43,664), followed by “their” (16,516), “you” (14,065), and “media” (13,093).7 What is noteworthy is how the dominant uses of triple parentheses mark an out-group, which, with the possible exception of “you,” is figured in terms of a nebulous other.
Figure 5.7 offers a typical and mundane example of a post on /pol/ that employs this nebulous use. In this case, the poster uses “(((them)))” to refer to those responsible for suppressing an esoteric “truth”—in this case, the archaic notion, once again popular in certain parts of the web, that the Earth is flat.8 This use of triple parentheses resembles the vague and clichéd countercultural grievances against “the System.” Although the meme is still occasionally used to target specific “jews” (appendix), its dominant function appears to be a means for anons to demonstrate their insider status by ferreting out an all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Similar to Pepe, on /pol/, the triple-parentheses meme seems to be used predominantly as a floating signifier whose nebulous significance offers a vehicle unifying multiple political constituencies in a common antagonism. Although the original use remains, what comes to the fore is a mode of use that, while consistent with antisemitic tropes, could also be interpreted as conspiratorial and vaguely populist.
Figure 5.3 The first appearance of the triple parentheses used around a name (September 2, 2015). Captured from 4plebs.org, November 20, 2018.
Figure 5.4 The 100 most used words within triple parentheses on 4chan/pol/ (June 2016-January 2019). Data derived from 4CAT (Peeters and Hagen 2018), word cloud made with Andreas Mueller’s (2018) word_cloud library.
Figure 5.5 Posts containing “(((“ and “)))” on 4chan/pol/, contrasted to posts containing “pepe” (July 2015 – January 2019). Pre- and suffixes allowed. Data derived with 4CAT (Peeters and Hagen 2018).
Figure 5.6 The five most used words within the triple parentheses per month on 4chan/pol/ (June 2016 to January 2019). Data derived from 4CAT (Peeters and Hagen 2018). Made with RankFlow (Rieder 2016).
Figure 5.7 A typical instance of a 4chan/pol/ post referencing “(((they)))” from November 20, 2018.
While the subcultural practices and technical affordances underpinning this memetic antagonism are novel, as a form ritual opposition, it can be read as continuous with the “paranoid style of American politics” whose “spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms” (Hofstadter 1964, 82). Typical of the “ironic” mode of speech on 4chan, the question of the intended meaning is left somewhat open, blurring distinctions between humor and seriousness, suspicion and hate. At the same time, the appeal of the meme derives from this nebulousness—that is, “real” anons will know who “(((they)))” really are. By this means, the triple-parentheses meme comes to serve as a floating signifier; it “absorbs rather than emits meaning” and is “susceptible to multiple or even contradictory interpretations” (Buchanan 2010, 173). Through this process, it becomes transformed into a vernacular marker for the us/them antagonism that, as generally agreed, is the fundamental characteristic of the “thin ideology” of populism (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017).
If we are to determine the meaning of a floating signifier by its use, can we then say that on 4chan/pol/, triple parentheses have transformed from an antisemitic slur into a technique of nebulous othering? While arguing that the term’s meaning lies in its origins as opposed to its current use would be a genetic fallacy, one can still find instances in which the meme is used as an explicit antisemitic slur (appendix). Moreover, it can be argued that its current use as a marker for a nebulous other associated with the elite powers-that-be is also entirely in keeping with the long history of modern antisemitic canards extending back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Renton and Gidley 2017). With its clearly antisemitic underpinnings, the memetic versatility of triple parentheses thus demonstrates how extreme antagonism can be obfuscated under the surface of a cartoonish version of populist rhetoric that appears to distance itself from its antisemitic origins by self-consciously and ironically aping the tropes of conspiracy theory.
In the face of what has been described as 4chan’s “maze of irony” (Nagle 2017, 6), it is crucial to appreciate how contemporary forms of political ideology manage to persist even in the absence of self-conscious belief—an argument that philosophers of postmodernism have long asserted (Sloterdijk 1988; Žižek 1989). In contemporary speech, irony is often signaled through the use of “ironic quotation,” which suggests that the full significance of the contents of the quotes is somehow suspect or even that the true meaning is contrary to what would otherwise be expected. Triple parentheses can, at least in part, be understood as a derivation of this particular language game. For those using triple parentheses—at least on /pol/—it beggars belief that they are unaware of the meme’s antisemitic association. While they may not necessarily believe in antisemitic conspiracy theory, it is fair to say that in playing along with the meme, they assent to the broader narrative (see Rosenblum and Muirhead 2019).9 But while this ironic and nihilistic type of extreme speech may seem quite new, antisemitism itself arguably has a long track record of using humor as a kind of rhetorical camouflage. As Jean-Paul Sartre noted, “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert” (1948, 13).
Political memes have been theorized as modes of postpolitical dissent in which a collective project arises through a “political process of hegemonic articulation” (Mouffe 1998, 172) that relies, above all, on the identification of a common opponent. This article has observed such a dynamic at work in the case of the triple-parentheses meme on 4chan/pol/, which, at least from a macroperspective, seems to have developed into a technique for nebulous othering resonant with the vague antagonisms of national populist xenophobic rhetoric. By juxtaposing an anecdotal instance of triple parentheses from Facebook as opposed to the meme’s overt antisemitic origin, this chapter’s initial intent was to speculate on the normalization of antisemitic discourse. In conclusion, we may thus ask how symptomatic this particular anecdote is of the mainstreaming of antisemitic rhetoric online in the current American context. Our analysis of the use of triple parentheses on 4chan/pol/ revealed its most common use as marker for a conspiratorial “them”—a discursively constructed enemy so vague it could have easily been misread, or rather, repurposed by the Facebook user.
In spite of its supposedly humorous valence in 4chan’s discourse, the nebulous othering of triple parentheses marks an existential enemy opposed to a political adversary. This extreme form of memetic antagonism may be said to violate an implicit rule set that underpins the theory of agonistic pluralism—that there are particular lines that should not be crossed and rules that should not be broken in the expression of political dissent. Observing the dynamics of memetic antagonism may, however, bring us to legitimately question the extent to which Mouffe’s nuanced distinctions remain useful in a digitized era in which national populist politicians like Donald Trump adopt a no-holds-barred style of antiliberalism that arguably flirts with antisemitic sentiment (Lipstadt 2019, 49) and whose campaign messaging has been observed to incorporate elements of memetic antagonism as developed on message boards (Lagorio-Chafkin 2018, 381–394).
What we hope to have made clear is that, although marginal, subcultural and vernacular web culture may nevertheless be considered as a site of innovation for new and extreme modes of political speech. These types of speech may resonate in the current antiliberal nationalist populist climate. It should be axiomatic in the study of internet memes that there is no transport without translation (Latour 2005); however, the greatest concern in this case involves the normalization of 4chan’s memetic antagonism beyond its relatively circumscribed boundaries. Our argument has thus been that political memes as protest against the apparent hegemony of liberalism take on a different valence when used in this style of memetic antagonism—that is, the use of memes as vehicles for antagonistically articulating an out-group, unbound by civility. These articulations can explicitly name and shame, but we highlighted how memetic antagonism can collectivize online strangers through floating signifiers that allow formats for nebulous othering. An assessment of whether or not the collective identity of /pol/ is “dangerously” right-wing because of these dynamics has not been our objective. However, in the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting in March 2019, whose perpetrator was connected to 4chan’s sibling forum 8chan (Knaus 2019), such an assessment would not appear to be in question. Concerning the pressing need to understand the relationship between these fringe internet communities and extremist ideologies, our contribution has sought to show the dynamics by which memes can be used to express forms of antagonism that are abstracted and thereby rendered nebulous.
Appendix. Most Used Words within Triple Parentheses
* This chapter is an adapted version of Marc Tuters and Sal Hagen, “(((They))) Rule: Memetic Antagonism and Nebulous Othering on 4chan,” New Media and Society 22, no. 12 (2019): 2218–2237, doi:10.1177/1461444819888746. Thanks to Sahana Udupa, Iginio Gagliardone, Peter Hervik, and unnamed reviewers for their feedback on this work.
2. See 4stats.io for live activity metrics. At the time of writing, /pol/ receives 115,560 posts per day, above /v/ (114,586), /vg/ (98,593), and /b/ (84,217).
3. As many scholars of internet memes have noted, meme subcultures have a history of acting with hostility to the recuperation of their artefacts by mainstream culture, especially when they are commodified by parties with monetary interests (Douglas 2014; Phillips 2015; Milner 2016).
4. “Normies” is a popular internet term to denote “regular” people, that is, those not up to speed with current internet culture.
6. Although Pepe is usually communicated visually, making the comparison not entirely fair, the point still stands that Pepe seems more more event- and controversy-bound than the triple parentheses.
7. Specific names are less common, with “trump” (3,409), “stein” (3,409), and “soros” (1,841) being used considerably less. Note that as of late 2017, it was common to see posts professing Trump to be a “jewish puppet” (Hagen 2018b). See the appendix for a more expansive table.
8. Also note the reference here to the “red pill,” another slang expression for esoteric awakening, which also developed on /pol/ before it trended in the mainstream (Wendling 2018).
9. Rosenblum and Muirhead (2019) argue that this distinction between “believe in” and “assent to” is a feature that differentiates the logic of the classical conspiracy theorist from that of what they call “the new conspiracism,” the latter which seeks above all the delegitimation of established forms of institutional authority without necessarily proposing any coherent ideological project in its stead.
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