The Evil of Neutrality

David Clayman
Nov 7 · 7 min read

On a recent sleepy Monday morning I started my day as I did every morning about a decade ago: by watching the launch trailer for Mass Effect 2. Arguably one of the best role playing games ever made, the trailer is narrated by Martin Sheen and set to Heart of Courage, a go-to track in Hollywood for evoking emotional build-up. Obviously I’m a huge nerd, but I’m also a sucker for basic, inspirational, pump-up music and videos. I’m the kind of person that would have purchased Jock Jams. Those movie montages that they play at sporting events when the game gets close? Those get me on my feet. It’s a little embarrassing, but as they say, “whatever gets you out of bed in the morning.”I hadn’t watched the trailer in a while, long enough that I had to google it. The results of the search had the opposite effect I was looking for, which was now becoming a standard for any internet interaction. Instead of a temporary boost of dopamine, I a stumbled into a sideshow of hatred and idiocy, accelerating the tailspin of existential dread that comes with the start of every work week. At some point in 2016 the Trump campaign had ripped off the trailer to create a bit of propaganda. Now most of the search results either linked back to that shitty video, or the resultant fallout.

I missed the original controversy because it took place in April of 2016, months before the November election when Trump still felt like a bad joke that would soon sink back into the muck he from which he crawled. Most of the coverage was from game -focused news outlets who pegged the appropriated video as a toxic distortion of something they loved — but at the same time, broadcast and signal boosted the propaganda to the exact audience for which it was created. The coverage even bled into the mainstream with an article in The USA Today, which treated the video as a silly oddity, linked the bastardized trailer, and boldly quoted its most offensive tidbits. It’s a textbook example of how not to play into an offensive meme, a lesson that you’d think we would have a much better handle on today. Instead, things have gotten much, much worse.

A known tactic of the internet’s worst alt-right factions is to absorb pop culture memes and twist them into propaganda. It’s been happening on message boards for years, where a familiar bit of multi-media gets co-opted and spit back out with a different meaning, almost always under the guise of a “joke,” but the context hardly matters. As we’ve learned from Trump, the subtext is the text. The dog whistle is the clarion call.

The mainstream media got their first look at this with Pepe the Frog, a cartoon image that was absorbed as a symbol of the alt- right. It was seen as a pin worn by Richard Spencer as he was punched in the face in the now infamous video. Its creator complained and had it removed from certain sites, but it was too late- the imagery was already co-opted and spread around the internet in a million nooks and crannies. Because the creator didn’t have a voice as metaphorically large as the image itself, the damage was done and Pepe’s meaning was permanently twisted.

With this success the tactics of the internet’s troll armies evolved. If an image could be co-opted, surely human beings could be as well using the exact same tactics: take something in pop culture, claim it as your own and piggyback its fame to spread your own message. You would think this technique would backfire against a target that has the ability to issue its own opinions, to lash out against a perversion of their brand, but the structural incentives of social media and the modern internet weigh heavily against the victim.

At this very moment we’re seeing the same tactic in action with presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard’s politics are difficult to classify, and her position within the Democratic party feels counter to the rise of the left and the platforms established by Sanders and carried forth by AOC and Elizabeth Warren. Gabbard probably wouldn’t feel as out of place pre-Trump, she’d be a hawkish Democrat with populist leanings. She’s unwilling (or unable) to nail down exactly what her politics are, but this is extremely common in the primaries, giving the candidate the option to “pivot” in the general election. However, in the current environment of conspiracy theories and online counter-messaging, Gabbard is the perfect patsy.

The playbook is simple, an online troll army identifies her as an outlier with views that maybe aren’t sympathetic to their cause but could be construed that way with a little tweaking. They generate the memes and then obtain official endorsements from alt-right leaders, on which the mainstream media is compelled to report. This news coverage, even when it acknowledges the playbook, signal boosts the troll message. The noise has become the signal, the subtext has become the text.

But there’s an additional knock-on effect that has become part of the pattern of alt-right appropriation — the target is incentivized not to fight back. In Gabbard’s case the signal boost from the alt-right is directly beneficial to her campaign. Every time the trolls make her trend there will be a measurable bump in social media support metrics and undoubtedly campaign contributions and poll numbers.

Just to be clear, I’m not making a philosophical argument, this can be broken down into hard currency and KPI (key performance indicators) in any marketing or political campaign. In advertising the first step is to generate “awareness.” This used to be a squishy term that referred to whether potential consumers had heard of your product. Today, awareness is measurable across social networks because they track people’s search data, their follows, and their likes. This is what it means when we talk about “targeted ads,”: we already know the person we are advertising to has awareness of the product.

When using the tools within a social network like Facebook’s Ad Manager, if you can identify a targeted audience you can lower your cost per click. This is a gross simplification, but basically if your product already has high awareness, your targeted ads cost less. This allows you to run more ads to a larger audience, which means you have a much higher chance of “conversion,” a term that means getting your target to act, in the case of politics, to donate or to vote.

So, while Gabbard’s soft denial of her alt-right supporters seems fishy, its easily explained. The signal boost is beneficial to her overall campaign in terms of dollars and in terms of making each successive debate, in which participation invitations are based on support thresholds and performance metrics established by the DNC. In a way, the DNC itself has played into a system where popular exposure is the only metric worth chasing.

We’ve watched this phenomenon play out before involving other pop culture icons. Taylor Swift’s apolitical stance early in her career designated her as a ripe target to be used as an unwilling white nationalist icon. Her position as an occasional country music star made striking out against groups that also associated with the rural south a risky tactic. Also, as a pop star, she didn’t have a strict obligation to broadcast her political views. However, over time the realization set in that remaining apolitical can make you an accomplice. What’s worse, is that even if you abstain from the argument, as a public figure you reap the monetary rewards of increased online awareness.

Taylor Swift has since taken sides, and tried to combat this attempt to co-opt her image. Her debut as an ally may have been clumsy, and rejected by some of the people with whom she was hoping to align, but it was an important step in shedding the trolls that had latched on during her silent years. Compared to the next largest example of alt-right appropriation her actions look downright brave.

Too much has been written about YouTube personality PewDiePie, but we recently reached the stage in his alt-right co-opting where the mainstream media has chimed in with the standard “What does he really believe?” article. As a pop culture icon that is wholly controlled by the metrics of social media networks he didn’t just abstain from siding with the darker factions of his supporters, he goaded them on and made subtle indications of support. This tactic frequently ignited controversy, backpedaling, and an attempt by the star to abstain from fighting. It hasn’t worked, and his conversion to an alt-right meme is solidified. Regardless of what he really believes, you can’t spell PewDiePie without Pepe.

At this moment there’s an increasing pressure for all people, especially public figures and politicians, to define and defend their beliefs. When follower size translates directly to hard currency allowing your worst followers to appropriate your image rather than dislodge them from your base is the same as taking a bribe. In politics, if your platform is ambiguous enough to be co-opted, the public has every right to doubt your strength as a candidate and your underlying motives. Either way, if you sit back and allow the dark forces of the internet to co-opt your image for nefarious purposes, you’ve joined them whether you like it or not.

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David Clayman

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The Startup

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