In November of 2016, a group of internet trolls became convinced that they had caused the election of Donald Trump through “meme magic.”
Meme magic isn’t real; but, critically, it’s also not not real. It’s the half-ironic superstition, never fully disregarded, that online trolling can affect real-world events—that trolling, also called shitposting, can manipulate the forces that govern the real world.
The meme magic of 2016 could be found on 4chan, a message board wildly popular with gamers, anime fans, shitposters, pornographers, and numerous others. This is the place where some of the millennium’s most absurd memes were popularized, from lolcats (pictures of cats talking, captioned in nonsensical English) to Rickrolling (deceiving people into clicking on links to a video of the 1987 Rick Astley hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up”).
4chan is anonymous. Posts are identified by just strings of numbers. Some number patterns, widely considered lucky, are known as “gets.” Sometime in summer 2016, posters on TheDonald, a Trump-themed 4chan subforum, noticed that Trump posts were particularly likely to result in “gets.” One June 16 post, reading simply, “Trump will win,” ended in 77777777, seemingly the luckiest of all.
It became a meme: Donald Trump, who had been widely seen as almost certain to lose the presidential election, was in fact going to win, just as 4chan’s shitposters had prophesied. The idea expanded to involve the chaos god Kek—an encryption of “LOL” in World of Warcraft’s chat engine and a reference to Pepe the Frog, a cartoon used in reactionary spaces online—and the fictional country of Kekistan, complete with its own flag. Enthusiasts claimed that meme magic had turned “sick Hillary” (the idea that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was secretly ill) into a reality. In seeming confirmation, Clinton collapsed at a 9/11 memorial service on September 11, 2016.
By the time Trump won the presidency, the cult of Kek was a troll religion. A year later, Kekistani flags flew at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. Online trolling had become real-life violence.
Jumping the Fence
Four years later, meme magic seems a harbinger: The line between online trolling and real-world politics has been blurred. In April of 2018, the self-identified “involuntary celibate”—aka incel—Alek Minassian, a participant in the r/TheRedPill incel subforum of the Reddit message board, killed ten people in Toronto by driving a van into a crowd. He left behind a Facebook post announcing that an “incel rebellion” had begun.
An online supporter of his treated the attack as something like a prank-cum-video game triumph, celebrating Minassian’s position atop the leaderboard of history: “Wonder who is going to do a mass acid attack. He will have zero kills to his high score but in my book he’d have beaten all the high scores by virtue of lives ruined.”
Perpetrators of racially and religiously motivated attacks—on a mosque in New Zealand; at synagogues in Pittsburgh, and in Poway, California—have also couched their manifestos in the language of internet trolling, including the video game references. The document left by the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter named video blogger PewDiePie as an influence and said he had been radicalized partly by the video game Fortnite.
Tactics like targeted harassment and doxing, which most people first saw in the 2014 Gamergate controversy, are now integral parts of far-right online organizing. The January 6 attack on the Capitol included Baked Alaska, a neo-Nazi internet troll who first became prominent for his self-published book about meme magic. The cult of Kek has given way to the religious fervor of QAnon. At least two Republican members of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, made their affiliation with Q a part of their campaigns.
In many arenas, there are now few obvious distinctions among online trolling, video game fantasy, and contemporary politics. We might argue that video games, like the shooting game Doom played by the 1998 Columbine shooters, have desensitized people to violence. We might conclude that screen culture more generally is rewiring the way our brains work so that our formative cognitive stimuli are more likely to be digital. With Ross Douthat, we might agree that the purpose of internet trolling is to participate in something like political engagement without, in most cases, incurring real-world bodily risk. We might also note, like Francis Fukuyama, the extent to which strongmen across the globe have promoted a “politics of aesthetics.” All these phenomena reflect the collapse of the distinction between politics and entertainment.
Less discussed but no less vital is the way in which our shared sense of meaning, animating both fantasy and real life, has been hollowed out. We experience a denatured vision of heroism, a psychologized version in which the good of the community is subordinate to the hero’s self-actualization.
In such a story, politics, or some aesthetic replacement for it, is the occasion for the individualistic creation of a particular kind of heroic identity. The effects of identifying ourselves as heroes are sold to us by politicians, corporations, and pop-culture creators. This is the narrative promised by online reactionary groups, by heroic narratives like Star Wars, and by games like Bioshock Infinite (yet another “redemption story” where world salvation is subordinate to personal epiphany): that of self-actualization as an inherent good.
As Joseph Campbell describes it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Each of us is, or can be, this hero.
The Anodyne Hero
The idea has its roots in late-19th-century anthropology, inheritor of Romantic assumptions about the power of the self and the fundamental unity of humanity and nature. Before Campbell, colonial-minded anthropologists like Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazier sought to reduce the complexity of world mythology to a single underlying narrative, a kind of lowest common denominator of theological truth claims. Within this idea, one could speak of a “true” self and a “true” narrative, shorn of cultural, political, and social context and understood through the hero’s own private journey.
Today, as traditional religious narratives become no more than a remote part of American life, Campbellianism is the closest we come to a shared cultural mythos, a grounding narrative against which we can form our own life narratives.
We find the same denatured tropes in the original Star Wars films, the Harry Potter book series, and the Marvel Universe: an anodyne vision of heroism divorced from complex metaphysics. These make up a mythologization of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have termed “moralistic therapeutic deism:” the vague sense that God exists but one that doesn’t mind too much about the specifics of what you do with the information. There is something called good and something called evil; and, generally speaking, we want good to win. Love—an anodyne generic force, not a specific or complicated ethical directive—triumphs over all. Goodness is just an evanescent force or a team identity-marker: It’s the side our heroes are on.
In this telling, goodness has some, albeit not many, discernible qualities. It tends to be associated with originality, scrappiness, and a willingness to buck the status quo (cf: Gryffindors or the Rebel Alliance), whereas evil is conflated with sclerotic institutions or implicit aristocracy (cf: Slytherins or the Empire). At most, heroism and goodness are conflated with individualism and, in particular, the individual’s triumph over the dragon of the establishment. The hero is the one who blows corrupt society sky-high.
In modern Campbellianism, the hero is inevitably scrappy, or even—if he or she is a seductive antihero—actively, abrasively countercultural. The dragon, literal or metaphorical, is meant to be faced alone. In more contemporary, “edgier” versions of the story (think Mad Max or Grand Theft Auto), counterculturalism is not just one feature of heroism but its center: the heroism is defined precisely by the hero’s willingness to blow things up. Catharsis is brought about by apocalypse: The destruction of the system is the point. Every institution is a Death Star.
Meanwhile, the hero’s psychological journey—his sense of himself as a hero, with a heroic destiny before him—stands in for any investigation of what heroism actually entails. It’s telling that some of the most popular “hero” franchises turn on surprise discoveries of parentage or of relationships with one’s children (e.g., the parental sacrifice at the beginning of Harry Potter or the reveal of Luke Skywalker’s paternity). The heroic journey is, at its core, a story of psychological fulfillment. The world may be saved, but the trauma being healed is always personal.
That is not to say, of course, that all pop culture shows this tendency or even that all superhero movies or video games do. Nevertheless, in our increasingly fractured age, modern Campbellianism is as close as we get to a shared cultural narrative. Still, it is only a simulacrum of meaningfulness: an idea of transcendence designed to hit our pleasure centers, a hit of significance without reference to a wider moral, ethical, or metaphysical structure.
Its promise of heroism—the idea that we matter, that our psychological journeys have cosmic significance, that we are the main characters in the stories we tell about our lives and our world—is a cultural commodity. Certainly it is the idea embodied in the great majority of video games, whose missions tend to involve vast swathes of destruction in the service of a nebulous good. But it is also the promise of our wider “politics of aesthetics” of the Trump and post-Trump age, in which political will is primarily harnessed via spectacle. It is the idea that, whether through the apocalyptic “Storm” promised by QAnon or more conventional forms of protest and political action, we are participating in our own private heroic journeys. Once heroism has been “psychologized” in this way, it becomes easy to package and sell as entertainment—as the frisson of excitement from killing the final boss in the video game, the identification with the gruffly Byronic anti-hero in the franchise, or the sense of gleeful transgression in posting offensive content on an internet message board.
This is also the promise, in its most nihilistic form, behind some of the past few years’ most atrocious acts of violence: from alienated young men who, by blowing up the system, seek their own vision of heroic glory, even as their actions are untethered from any ideology beyond that of destruction. They take on the role of hero in their own internal narration. To say that video games, or even our technological culture of alienation as a whole, causes this to happen is to ignore the fact that our aesthetics and our political lives exist profoundly downstream of our shared hunger to think of ourselves as heroes, and the further fact of the economic and cultural systems designed to capitalize on this desire. Our sense of meaning has become divorced from any claims about actual truth in the world. The problem isn’t that people can’t tell the difference between video games and reality; it is that we don’t have a sense of reality at all.
Tara Isabella Burton, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a columnist on millennial religion for Religion News Service. She is author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020). Her debut novel, Social Creature, was published in 2018.
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