Irony Politics & Gen Z (part 2)
generational differences in social media use
Read part 1: Irony Politics & Gen Z (part 1). If these online communities are unfamiliar, this may be a useful primer: Politigram & the Post-left. This text was originally published on.
Near Future Struggle
That the edgy teens of TikTok are now enlisted in the culture war is self-evident. But what is often less clear—or opportunistically overlooked by partisan pundits—is that they are seldom properly politicized. For the time being, they are still frustrated teenagers expressing a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the current order. Much of the content they produce is stylistically similar to the early-2016 use of Pepe; more intent on antagonizing and demonstrating their power to speak than proposing a clearly strategized political project.
At this moment, the edgy teens of TikTok are deeply susceptible to new narratives. They are open to lines of thinking that fall at the limits of general acceptance, which is to say potentially outside the boundaries of capitalist realism.  American culture already places young people on an incline tilted toward the Right. If left to marinate in this skeptic space, many of them will likely become radicalized. 
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Rather than prematurely deplatforming these users or amplifying their message through outrage, as the media did frequently in 2016, we should understand this content as the first inklings of political dissent and target these users for counter narratives. Ultimately they should be recruited into leftist political projects. Before entering this skeptic space, many teens do not know of progressive options outside the mainstream Democratic Party. Without further frame of reference, leftist critiques of the center often register just as strongly as the Right with these soon-to-be politicized teens. (Perhaps this is why Watson knows that he can safely smuggle in contradictory ideas because most of his audience is not yet able to discern the difference.) 
Pushback is important. Left-wing counter-narrative YouTubers like Shaun, Contrapoints, Zero Books and others, as well as Twitch streamers like Destiny and Hasan Piker are on the front line in this battle for young people’s hearts and minds.  The Right did this extraordinarily well leading up to 2016 and the cascading effects were felt throughout all of social media and mainstream culture. Members of this generation are the primary producers of online content. They also do it for free. Over the past four years of closely observing this space, I have observed innumerable users undergo radical transformations in their beliefs provided they are exposed to new ideas. At the center, one finds teenagers shuffling between Left and Right on issues like guns and abortion; at the far edges, transgender fascists unironically supporting animal rights and global genocide. Some of the same teenagers who ran Pepe meme accounts in 2016, are now young Marxist scholars who spend their evenings gaming and chatting about Hegel in Discord servers with PhD students. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t met them. The Overton window for Gen Z online political spaces is infinite.
The cultural nichification of the internet is producing communities so polarized that they have almost no concept of a shared reality or grand narrative. Political projects generally recruit from the one-third of Americans at the apolitical center. But as the internet culture wars now politicize more people at increasingly younger ages, this strategy must be re-examined. Most members of Gen Z are first exposed to the far-reaching and robust propaganda infrastructure of right-wing social media as children. By the time they reach middle school (around age 13), they are already fully familiar with it. The key for this proposal would be to find those young users who have properly identified their generational grievance, are currently mired in existential irony, and are now receptive to a narrative intervention.
The rise of the new online Right is the downstream effect of neoliberalism. In the long run, there is no solution without political change. At this moment, the best tactic for mitigating the surge of rightward radicalization is to algorithmically prioritize leftist counter narratives on social media.
Plugging Holes in a Sinking Ship
To be sure, moderation will stem the flow but cannot prevent the slow creep of reactionary content. Under close moderation, the small circle of deep alt-right TikTok has mostly stopped producing original content. In their new videos, they hide their faces behind ski masks and disapprovingly stare into the camera, “bearing witness.” Yet despite even the best efforts, dog whistles and evasive signals are inevitably constructed. For example, TikTok banned videos of firearms only to have the use of Nerf guns emerge as one of the platform’s most popular trends; and where swastikas are not allowed, fascists will post the iron cross or the black sun. Loopholes such as these exist on every platform. On TikTok, the “Crusader” functions alternatively as Skyrim cosplay and a tacit sign for Islamophobia. It conjures an image of Christian Europeans engaged in a war against Muslim foreigners. Numerous crusader cosplay accounts exist (the most popular is named after conservative pundit and apartheid apologist Ben Shapiro). Their mantra and most common hashtag is “Deus Vult.”
The hazard begins when these memes begin to circulate among users who do not have earnestly held political beliefs. Catchy aesthetics can transmit ideas that make you laugh first and radicalize later. Along these gradients of politicization, many of the users on the early side of this spectrum do not yet fully understand the implicit messaging of the content they reproduce. But other users do. These evasive tactics, combined with an uncertainty over the intentions of specific users, have created an arms race between meme makers and platforms. Fascist content producers now attempt to poison ever more benign symbols and force platforms to flag increasingly more content as they attempt to stay ahead. Their goal is to accelerate this process and bait platforms to take down more and more posts until they inevitably remove content that has no political orientation. This ill-use of deplatforming is then cited by far-right groups as confirmation that young conservatives are indeed under attack. The trajectory of this conflict points to an inevitable rate of slippage between implicit and explicit messaging, where the whack-a-mole strategy of content moderation serves as a recruiting tactic for the far Right.
As one TikTok crusader put it:
This app has gone unchecked for too long. It is a breeding ground and a cesspool for the worst shit. You fuccbois just staring at the camera aren’t doing enough. It's time for someone to come in here and fix this shit. Enough of this bullshit. ENOUGH! Furries, [inaudible], gays, straights, anything, it's all CRINGE! And now it's time to pay. Now it's time to fucking collect on this bullshit. Too long. Too fucking long. I’m here. Follow me to cleanse this app.
The Politics of Cringe
Cringe compilations are hard to watch. You feel terribly embarrassed for the person in the video.
There has been much debate over whether the rise of the new online Right is “real” or some kind of elaborate LARP. It’s worth pointing out that actual politics is already incredibly larpy and cringe AF. And it is precisely this suspension of disbelief that makes it powerful. It allows us to envision another world, even if just for the duration of a party meeting or a D&D game. Taking political action feels unbelievably embarrassing to Millennials (again, which I am) who were raised in a culture that only really believed in “not believing in anything.” Choosing a symbol for our political movement feels strangely similar to designing a tabard for our guild in World of Warcraft. If we can understand irony as masking our true intentions and recognize LARP as the process of world building essential to any radical movement, the Venn diagram of IRL and URL politics becomes a circle.
Perhaps cringe compilations are a new form of therapy intended to rehabilitate our political imagination. These videos generally consist of conventionally unattractive people (often with craniofacial deformities) embarrassing themselves through a lack of sophistication. These videos cater to the misanthropic gaze of ironic detachment and almost always revolve around distinctions of taste level (i.e., class). What begins as awkward embarrassment, eventually gives way to reveal striking moments of deep connection with these users. Millennials will be awed by these performers’ willingness to be unironically vulnerable. Maybe the revolution isn’t going to be cool. Maybe it's just a human connection with an off-duty bus driver unglamorously belting out their favorite pop song.
Continued exposure to cringe content might allow us to recapture our lost humanist values. As a culture, we are now attempting to work through irony and arrive again at a place of real beliefs. We now systematically increase our tolerance to cringe so that we can join the political movement without fear or shame. Cringe is the antidote for late capitalist nihilism. That's why the ironic crusaders want to stomp it out.
Memes are mental viruses. They create positive feedback loops. Unlike most other forms of media, memes do not tend to fatigue or oversaturate their viewers. Instead, the more one sees a meme, the more one wants to see that meme more. In this way, memes function as a type of exploit in today's attention economy. Potent memes will get stuck in your head for days. Once the concept takes hold, it becomes difficult to mentally steer out of. Memes nudge our way of thinking. They become a type of augmented reality, overlaying the world and social relationships.
TikTok is a place where young users are actively forming their politics. TikTok resonates with Gen Z for various reasons, among them the duet chain (“I relate to your post by building on it with mine”) resembles the Marxist dialectic of individual autonomy within collectivity. In the crisis handed to them, young people have already realized that their own political interests are more aligned with collectivities than the type of California Ideology and libertarian individualism built into networks like Facebook or Instagram.  If channeled correctly, youth frustration has the potential to become a revolutionary political force.
A youth movement signaling away from liberalism is significant because it reveals the center establishment’s lack of a real vision for the future. Under the mantra of demographic change (an ever increasing population of young people and growing racial diversity), liberal Democrats have assumed they can wait out the inevitable victory over aging white conservatives. This faulty assumption has prevented much of the liberal Left from considering the true appeal of their message. Failure to present a compelling political option will lose increasing numbers of young people to nihilism, to the Right, and ultimately to fascism. Public wealth is the only real solution to our crisis.
In 2019, the murder of 50 muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand was accompanied by a manifesto that advocates for “edgy humor and memes in the vanguard stage.” The manifesto shares its name with a YouTube video by Lauren Southern (shown earlier in the Deus Vult sweatshirt). Southern borrowed this title and argument from the white nationalist organization Generation Identitaire who had appropriated it from French theorist Renaud Camus. The aforementioned YouTuber Shaun has a well researched video response, "The Great Replacement Isn’t Real." In the Christchurch killer’s manifesto, the word “crusade” is used in reference to a race war. Three days before the attack, the killer posted a meme to his Facebook page that depicted a crusader strangling a muslim woman with the line, “The weak should fear the strong.” Previous to publishing this text, I wrote to TikTok and alerted them to this content.
⚙️Appendix: Notes on Deplatforming
Deplatforming is ultimately a necessary tool (and it is often best practice for public institutions to not engage in debate with the far Right). In regard to social media, the risk for blowback is widely discussed and generally well understood. The question of free speech on social media, and more precisely the coordination between the state and privately owned monopolies, will undoubtedly become a major issue in the next few years, and very likely one that will be tried on the level of the supreme court. Looming questions of Antitrust regulations or nationalization are inevitable but for now remain relatively distant priorities.
In writing about TikTok, Vice/Motherboard fell for what 4chan troll communities call “journo bait.” As shown in the article’s screenshot, the video had been posted by an account with less than 50 followers and had only six likes. Moreover, the video had been given several conspicuous hashtags in a seeming attempt to attract journalists looking for this very content, incite outrage and, in doing so, be broadcast at scale. Part of an on-going cross-platform propaganda campaign that began in 2017, this very same video is still up on YouTube and has ~24,000 views. Its obscurity on TikTok compared to the enormous traffic of a site like Motherboard Vice is a near perfect example of the Streisand Effect.
To understand how content moderation has had a seemingly net-neutral effect on far-right political speech, we must zoom out and view the question within a larger ideological framework. The concept of deplatforming is rooted in the liberal notion that people’s political opinions are solely the result of ‘bad ideas in their head.’ Yet for every right-wing influencer that gets banned, another one seems to pop up taking their place. Deplatforming has thus far not achieved its intended effects because the desire for this content is political (or material) in origin and not the result of individual bad actors on social media. The mass appeal of far-right ideas arises from historically predictable conditions (i.e., Golden Dawn) that are now accelerated by technology and the internet. We can’t ‘solve’ the rise of the Alt-right through content moderation. The best defense against identitarian populism is a thriving middle class.
As we set precedents for deplatforming, we might first run through the following thought exercise: When a Left political movement looks to redistribute the trillions of wealth hoarded by Silicon Valley tech companies, will these these social media platforms still be on our side? Or might they instead use their power to deboost or deplatform us?
This text was originally published on New Models.
7 See: Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009) or check out Zero Books on YouTube
8 Irony posting opens a gap of cognitive dissonance. Radicalization is often discussed as being motivated by a desire for cognitive closure through the adoption of clear narratives.
9 It is also likely that Paul Thomas Watson is tactically lifting arguments from left-wing thinkers, especially those who have come under fire from the social justice Left, such as Mark Fisher. Watson’s recent video "Has Our Culture Hit a Dead End?" (Mar. 2019) is nearly a shot for shot remake of Fisher’s essay and lecture "Slow Cancellation of the Future" (May 2014).
10 See: Faraday Speaks’s "My Descent into the Alt-Right Pipeline" (YouTube, Mar. 2019). In online spaces where RW extremism has become the norm, these content producers offer one of the few ways out.
11 See: Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The California Ideology” (1995), and Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (U. Chicago, 2006).
Your writing on cringe content here has completely changed my mind about it. I mostly thought it was embarrassing for those in it, and I viewed them with the same detached irony you described here. I see now the earnestness (I'm generalizing) in what they're doing and realize as an aspiring writer myself, I have far more in common with them than the creators of the content I typically consume.