This morning, Wired published an excellent piece by Nitasha Tiku about the white supremacist guerrilla war going on at Google. You should read it, not only because it’s good and interesting, but because it’s important in understanding the modern white supremacist movement known as the alt-right.
When the alt-right first came to national attention during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, many (including me) argued that the media should avoid the term, and stick with more traditional — and accurate — terms like “Nazi’ and “White Nationalist.” There is, however, a specific trait that sets the alt-right apart from other hate groups: Their philosophy of life as a game or program, that can be hacked or “beaten” if one learns the rules.
The white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, did not wear white sheets or Confederate uniforms. They wore polo shirts and khaki pants, a uniform of respectability. This modern trend of the “dapper” white supremacist comes from leaders like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, who rose to prominence online. It’s a hack, a specific attempt to deceive the public by manipulating their perception. This is from The Cut, in 2016:
“We have to look good,” Spencer told Salon…explaining that middle-class whites are less likely to join a movement that appears “crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid,” and that stereotypes of “redneck, tattooed, illiterate, no-teeth” are an impediment to achieving his goals.
Klansmen in white sheets are evil, everyone knows that. Skinheads in studded leather will scare people. But put on a polo and a neatly-creased pair of khakis, and maybe the media will debate your Confederate flag and the true meaning of your antisemitic chant, instead of ignoring you. Congratulations, you just beat the game.
A movement born online
The alt-right has roots firmly in the Internet and online culture. Though it first came to mass attention in 2016, it festered for years prior on 4chan and various subreddits. Alt-right leaders expanded their influence through platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Amazon, often gaming algorithms to gain exposure. But the views and tactics of the alt-right go back even further, to the pre-web days of Usenet message boards. Even the name takes a cue from Usenet: “alt” was the prefix for ‘alternative’ boards, where no one was moderating and users could find (among many more benign topics) nude photos of celebrities, recipes for explosives, and child pornography. A common belief in the early days of the Internet was that “alt” stood for “Anarchists, Lunatics, and Terrorists.”
It’s no surprise that a movement born on the Internet would attract “brogrammers” and similarly tech-oriented members. The alt-right grew as a conglomeration of online communities of disaffected young men. What’s important to recognize is that their programmer tactics extends to the real world — and as the real world becomes more interconnected and reliant on the Internet, their tactics sometimes work.
So-called “lifehacks” are common and generally harmless. Here, for example, is a bot that understands Comcast’s internal policies and employs machine learning to get you a lower price on your cable bill. But the alt-right’s approach can be traced to one of the earliest and most nefarious lifehacks: so-called “seduction techniques,” first developed on the Usenet board alt.seduction.fast and later published by reporter Neil Strauss in his book, “The Game.”
Hacking goes IRL: The Seduction Community
Disciples of the seduction community, self-designated “pickup artists,” bring a hacker’s mindset to dating and conversation. By employing the right sequence of interactions — “negging,” or complimenting a woman in a way that’s actually a put-down, feigning disinterest, and initiating physical contact in the right way at the right time, a pickup artist believes he can unlock a sexual encounter as if it were the secret boss level of a video game.
Usenet’s seduction board was founded in 1994, but its teachings are alive and well on 4chan and Reddit, where so-called incels (short for “involuntarily celibate,” men who aren’t having the sex they want) were banned in November for preaching violence against women. More than one prominent alt-right leader came directly from the seduction world: Daryush Valizadeh, alias “Roosh V,” has written extensively on seduction and published more than a dozen of his own guides. Mike Cernovich, promoter of the false Pizzagate scandal and the idea that “date rape does not exist,” is the author and self-publisher of Gorilla Mindset: How to Control Your Thoughts and Emotions and Live Life on Your Terms, a guidebook for men who want to “improve [their] health and fitness, earn more money, and have stronger relationships….[and] live a life others don’t even dare dream of.”
Cernovich is divorced, incidentally (which he blames on “feminist indoctrination”) and was once charged with rape. But since we’re on the topic of books, it’s a good time to talk about Theodore Beale.
It’s notable that Theodore Beale appears in Tiku’s Wired piece. A former WorldNetDaily contributor and alt-right thought-leader writing under the alias “Vox Day,” Beale plays various roles in Google’s racist guerilla force. Perhaps most importantly, he is the author of a “manual for fighting advocates of social justice,” which Beale believes James Damore is using. An excerpt:
Whatever you do, do not agree to any gag orders or sign any confidentiality agreements that will handicap your ability to use the documentation you have acquired to prevent them from spinning a Narrative about what happened.
Beale’s manual is a chapter from his self-published 2015 book, “SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police,” which sold thousands of copies on Amazon and includes a foreword from Yiannopoulos. And here we have to dive…a little bit deep.
2015: Theodore Beale hacks the Hugos
Beale, an author of self-published science fiction and a well-known troll in the SciFi community, is also the self-appointed nemesis of best-selling author John Scalzi. Scalzi is a prominent voice for progressive thought and inclusion, particularly through his blog, Whatever. From 2007 to 2013, Scalzi served three terms as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), a prominent membership organization for authors in those genres). When Scalzi’s last term ended, Beale attempted to run for president. He lost, drawing only 10% of the vote, and shortly thereafter was expelled entirely from SFWA after calling fellow member (and African-American) N.K. Jemisin an “ignorant half-savage.”
Are you with me so far?
The Hugo Awards, one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards (if not the most prestigious) are presented annually by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) at Worldcon. Nominations and winners are determined by a vote of WSFS members. In 2013, conservative-leaning authors Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen (who, not incidentally, has a background in computer programming) engineered a scheme to rig the Hugo Award nomination and voting process. Claiming the awards were biased in favor of progressive authors and diversity, they arranged a block-voting scheme that would advantage conservative and libertarian authors. Voters who joined this block called themselves the “Sad Puppies.” The scheme repeated in 2014 and 2015, though it generated no awards and only a scant few nominations. Enter Theodore Beale.
In 2015, Beale engineered his own Hugo voting scheme, which he called the “Rabid Puppies.” Unlike the Sad Puppies, the Rabid Puppies were wildly successful, owing in large part to Beale’s sizable audience and bylaws that allow any person to join WSFS and vote, as long as they pay a fee. Nominations went to 51 of 60 Sad Puppy books, and 58 of 67 Rabid Puppy books. The ensuing response at WSFS is best summarized as “bedlam,” with nominees refusing their nominations and presenters withdrawing from the ceremony. Authors as prominent as George R. R. Martin condemned the Puppies for ruining the Hugos, and within two years the rules for voting were changed.
Beale, for his part, referred to the Rabid Puppies effort as “a giant Fuck You — one massive gesture of contempt.” None of the Puppy nominees won an actual award, except one: the Marvel Studios film Guardians of the Galaxy.
The complicated saga of the Hugo Awards and their “Puppy” schemes perfectly illustrates the defining attribute of the alt-right. Unlike past generations of white supremacists, they are not content to declare their position and recruit those who agree. Like the Rabid Puppies, the Pickup Artists, and the polo-shirt clad Charlottesville marchers, the alt-right approaches the real world like a piece of software, learning the rules so they can hack them.
Beale built his popularity by espousing white supremacy, but he’s made money using his large following to game Amazon’s algorithm, which gives preferential position to top-selling books. When “SJWs Always Lie” debuted in 2015 (in the midst of the Rabid Puppies uproar), it became the center of a Kindle self-publishing war. A pseudonymous author countered with a parody, “John Scalzi Is Not A Very Popular Author And I Myself Am Quite Popular: How SJWs Always Lie About Our Comparative Popularity Levels,” to which alt-right authors responded with parodies of their own. Within days, a half-dozen parodies, parodies-of-parodies, and parodies-of-parodies-of-parodies were sitting on Amazon’s various genre best-seller lists. Breitbart, where plenty of Beale’s friends and fans still write, gleefully reported that he had “turned Amazon’s Kindle Store into a Battlefield.”
Beale’s most recent gambit, again centering on his obsession with Scalzi, was to debut a pseudonymous self-published book, The Corroding Empire, on Amazon the day before Tor released Scalzi’s novel, The Collapsing Empire. The two books have almost identical covers, right down to the font in which Beale’s chosen pseudonym — Johan Kalsi — is printed. When a person searches Amazon for Scalzi’s book, guess what the algorithm presents right beside it?
A “Dirty War” against guerrilla hackers
I am genuinely sorry to fill your head with the saga of Theodore Beale, but again, it’s important to understand how the alt-right operates. When a senior engineer at Google describes the actions of white supremacist employees as “a denial-of-service attack on human resources,” that is not a mistake and hardly a metaphor. The alt-right’s guerrilla tactics are a specific carry-over from its members’ approach to programming and video games: Learn the rules, and you learn how to hack them.
When James Damore’s internal memo leaked and became a nationwide scandal, he and many media outlets portrayed himself as a naive savant just asking innocent questions. This was by design. A white supremacist openly calling women and people of color inferior can be neatly discarded by the mainstream. A naive programmer, asking honest questions about what science says, is not so easily dismissed — and he might just have a shot atwinning a discrimination lawsuit.
It’s not far from Damore’s act to the tactics employed by Yiannopoulos — generate controversy, stir up the hate of the “Social Justice Warriors,” and you are rewarded with (a) publicity in the mainstream media, and (b) the adulation of your alt-right sympathizers. When Yiannopoulos books controversial speaking gigs, like his notorious appearance at Berkeley last September, the gig itself takes a back-seat to the controversy. By stirring up protests (and dozens, if not hundreds, of think-pieces about so-called “attacks on free speech,”) Yiannopoulos builds his brand. It doesn’t matter if he even gets to take the stage — in fact it’s often better if it doesn’t. We know this for sure because we’ve heard it from the man who developed Yiannopoulos’s strategies — although he originally developed them for someone else: Tucker Max, the author and provocateur who first rose to fame from the Seduction Community.
In December, Ashley Feinberg at the Huffington Post exposed the styleguide used by Andrew Anglin, founder and editor of the white-supremacist web site Daily Stormer (piieces of that styleguide had previously been leaked by — guess who — Theodore Beale). While any casual visitor would likely recognize the Daily Stormer immediately as racist and antisemitic (prominent use of the “Happy Merchant” meme is a big clue), in Anglin’s rules we still see an intentional and deliberate effort to manipulate readers and platform algorithms:
“By simply commenting on existing news items…we can never be accused of fake news — or delisted by Facebook as such.”
The guidebook urges writers to block-quote from mainstream news outlets, “to co-opt the perceived authority…and not look like one of those sites we are all familiar with where you are never certain if what they are saying has been confirmed.”
The Daily Stormer even encourages doxxing and harassment, if it leads to pageviews:
“If you’re writing about some enemy Jew/feminist/etc., link their social media accounts. Twitter especially. We’ve gotten press attention before when I didn’t even call for someone to be trolled but just linked them and people went and did it.” [Emphasis mine]
In today’s Wired piece, Tiku quotes Google site reliability engineer and diversity advocate Liz Fong Jones on the moment she realized some of her fellow employees, who had been discussing the potential negative impact of diversity initiatives, weren’t acting in good faith. It came when excerpts from her private conversations were leaked to, and published by, Theodore Beale.
The resulting deluge of threatening comments, messages, and DMs, woke Fong Jones up to an ugly reality: “We didn’t realize that there was a dirty war going on, and weren’t aware of the tactics being used against us.”
It’s a lesson we all must learn, sooner rather than later. The alt-right isn’t participating in a good faith discussion about the accepted premises of progressivism and diversity. They aren’t marching in polo shirts and khakis because they are clean-cut and honest members of polite society. They are hackers, seeking to use written and unwritten rules we all observe— social mores, etiquette, and electronic algorithms that shape our daily experiences — to spread their views, make money, and eventually engineer a white ethnostate.
This is what sets the alt-right apart from other white supremacist movements, and what makes them far more dangerous than what came before.