“Watch the Failson:” How the Internet is Radicalizing the Alt-Right
In the wake of the election, I took some time to read a few pieces of conservative commentary, and came across an interesting essay by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative comparing modern America to Weimar Germany. Iâ€™m donâ€™t agree with all of Dreherâ€™s points, especially as a queer atheist Liberal socialist, but a part of it caught my attention, and it makes the essay worth your time. Namely, Dreher links to a piece in The New Yorker on a podcast called â€œChapo Trap Houseâ€ that describes a phenomenon the podcast hosts call â€œfailsons.â€
The Chapo Trap House hosts describe a failson as â€œtwenty-six,â€ in Community College, and more interested â€œgaming and masturbatingâ€ than spending time with their family at Thanksgiving. Or, more compassionately as â€œnonessential human beings who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborersâ€¦ Some of them turn into Nazisâ€¦ Others become aware of the consequences of capitalism.â€ [Emphasis mine.]
Reading this frightened me, because it rings true. As an example, Dreher identifies Dylann Roof, who committed a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston in 2015, as a failson and notes that:
â€œSooner or later, somebody is going to find a way to radicalize those failsons. Some of the middle class failsons will gravitate to the Weimar Brooklyn worldview of the Chapo Trap House. Many other middle class white failsons, I suspect, will gravitate to the intellectualized neo-Nazism of Richard Spencer, highly educated and articulate son of Dallasâ€™s posh Park Cities. The point is: watch the failson.â€
What Dreher misses is that the failsons are already being radicalized. What are the meme squads and troll armies of the alt-right but failsons turned into radicalized digital shock troops for a modern fascist regime?
If you havenâ€™t closed this essay already, let me explain by linking to a great Twitter thread by Siyanda Mohutsiwa. She draws a direct link between the racist alt-right, and menâ€™s self-help spaces online. Jules Evans at Philosophy for Life goes into more detail on the same links. In particular, Evans notes how alt-right figureheads Mike Cernovich, Jack Donovan, and Roosh V wrote self-help books and pick-up artist guides before moving towards promoting the racist and sexist ideology that underpins the alt-right. Anyone who came to these men looking for a way to improve their lot likely ended up suckered into their hateful message.
Itâ€™s not all failsons in the alt-right, of course. Thereâ€™s people with STEM degrees, and jobs who wouldnâ€™t fit the failson stereotype, but theyâ€™re not usually the ones spending their days harassing people on social media or running disinformation campaigns. Theyâ€™re more likely to operate like Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, away from the digital front lines. Itâ€™s also worth noting here that of all groups more likely to join terrorist groups, engineers are the most likely to become extremists. You canâ€™t blame radicalization on being stupid.
But when you have a mass of under-employed and unemployed, poorly educated, white men who canâ€™t get laid, theyâ€™re going to be very susceptible to anything that makes them forget their positionâ€”anything that gives them a target for their anger. Women, minorities, the LGBTQ community, and the progressives who promote their issues are the easy and obvious targets. And so the demagogues mobilize the failsons, point them to the target, and stand back as the horror unfolds. Because they never gave a direct order, they can keep their hands clean, whether itâ€™s Milo Yiannopoulos using his Twitter followers to harass Leslie Jones, or Donald Trump saying he â€œdisavowsâ€ the white supremacists using his election victory as an excuse for public hate.
All you need to do to see this phenomenon first-hand is take a peek into some of the various 4chan boards where it happens. Boards like /adv/, /r9k/, and /soc/, have built a support structure for young men who describe themselves as â€œNEETsâ€â€”â€œNot in Education, Employment or Trainingâ€. These are the failsons the Chapo Trap House hosts refer to. So much of the process occurs in public, from the initial steps into seeking a community of support, advice on love and life, and the slow redirection into alt-right radicalism. And it works. ISIS recruitment propaganda follows the same basic process. The only difference is that the alt-right is radicalizing white men, not Muslims.
Of course, one can hardly be blamed for not wanting to stick their nose into the cesspool of the various chan boards. But if anything is going to disrupt the radicalization of the failsons is disrupting that process. Thereâ€™s already research under way to disrupt ISIS recruitment practices, but whoâ€™s taking up this mantle against white supremacy? The best weâ€™ve seen is Twitter adding â€œhate speechâ€ to their reporting process and banning several alt-right accounts, but this is too little, too late. Itâ€™s a band-aid on a plague sore.
This is a personal concern, not just because the people I love are at risk from what the radicalized failsons can do, but because it wasnâ€™t that long ago when I too could have become a failson. Not long after I graduated college in 2008, I was unemployed, and struggling with my personal life and self-worth. I was lucky in that I had both a positive support network of family and friends, both online and off, that saved me from potential radicalization. I was also lucky in that this was before the toxic spaces of the internet like 4chan had fully mutated into their current form. But I know quite well the misery I was in, and how I longed for easy answers.
So, yes, I am watching the failsons. You should be too, because theyâ€™re going to play a major role in the next four years. Theyâ€™re not the only cause or symptom of the new political climate, but they are motivated, they are inspired, and they are dangerous. Whether you are a Liberal or a Conservative, a new fascist movement is a danger to all of us. Even if the footsoldiers are hiding behind keyboards and seven proxies, what happens on the internet can and does bleed over into â€œreal life.â€ Weâ€™ve seen it happen, before and itâ€™ll happen again. Itâ€™s too late to stop the damage, but with luck and work, perhaps we can keep it contained.