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Ben Robinson

How obscure corners of the internet influence the mainstream

Integrity Initiative Op-Ed

The internet is a vast, eternally shifting and changing space. There are many locations, cultures, interest forums and ‘regions’ of the web. There is a tendency for most people to think of the giant platforms when envisaging the web – Facebook, Twitter, Google, reddit and Tumblr, to name but a few. This view barely scratches the surface of the wider internet. Each of these websites can be further subdivided down into an almost infinite number of smaller communities, each simultaneously distinct and indistinct, cohesive and yet not.

Many communities mirror offline ones, based around friendship groups or otherwise centred on some aspect of the real world, such as student societies, and clusters of friends and acquaintances from the real world. These are not online communities, but rather normal communities partially interacting via the online medium.

But take a step beyond this and you enter another realm. Communities here are uninhibited by geographical limitations. It’s inaccurate to picture the internet as any sort of 3D world, with the large platforms being somehow analogous to large geographical regions, and the smaller subcommunities being represented by townships, villages, and other distinct entities. While this analogy does give some idea of how distinct communities exist within the larger platforms, it hides perhaps the greatest distinguishing aspect between the internet and the real world: that an individual can move between any point across the internet at an instant, and exist in many points at once, and can essentially shapeshift themselves to suit whichever community they join. 

It is common for a user to be identified only by a handle – a screen name that may be completely unrelated to their real identity. This is the name that is, for the most part, all that most other members of a virtual community will know the individual by, occasionally accompanied by an avatar – a relatively consistent image or other representation of the user that is recognisable as the individual to other members of the community. These representations and screen names can be changed or discarded with ease, and rarely fit the reality of the individual. Revealing one’s true identity is a fairly intimate gesture of trust – unlike on some of the more mainstream social media sites such as Facebook, privacy and secrecy are fiercely guarded aspects of online life. Many forums and communities take this to the extreme, such as the ‘chan’ (a devolution of the word ‘channel’ used by many somewhat notorious sites) forums where the vast majority of users post using the default ‘anonymous’ handle, and utilising a handle is a somewhat taboo practice known as ‘namefagging’.

The communities themselves vary greatly in their nature. Some are hyperfocused around a point, such as a specific clique of the fandom of a franchise, or gamers from a certain clan in an online role-playing game, or individuals bonding over some other niche interest, which can be anything from a shared love of boardgames, fanatical devotion to a sport or athlete, or to a rarefied sexual fetish.

Frequently they can define themselves against another interest, or have a ‘negative interest’ where rather than bonding over a shared enjoyment, the bond is one of shared antipathy. Some of these communities exist on their own websites, many in their own corner of a larger platform. Rarely is there any sort of barrier to entry for new users, generally only a short registration process, if anything.  A consequence of these features is that many of these communities are hugely creative. With the freedom that comes with the layer of anonymity also comes a lack of inhibition about what is created and said. In many cases, the humour is full of in-jokes, references to obscure games, events, shows and the community itself that for some reason particular to that community have become critical to the shared culture. It frequently seems crass, illogical, vulgar, and outright offensive to the outsider – it often is. The constant in-jokes and the unique mannerisms in communications are often as abrasive to each other as to any outsider, with insults coming to be almost a term of endearment.

Within tightknit communities, many of the most active and popular users are well known, and friends frequently interact with a flurry of friendly insults and banter, akin to many real life friendship groups, albeit taken to the extremes. The creativity and in-jokes extend to creating their own unique memes, and also tailoring archetypes that are shared between many communities, but also specifically adapted to the communities’ humour – such as Pepe the frog, which gained mainstream notoriety during the 2016 US presidential election.

Huge amounts of new content and quirks are created or evolve, the vast majority failing or being overtaken and forgotten, like a rapidly moving Darwinian system. The constant use of community specific quirks is one of the primary ways that users identify each other as fellow members of the community. It is the adoption of these traits that distinguishes an individual as a fellow member of the community from an outsider. The crassness, vitriol, constant in-jokes and hostility to outsiders all also serve as the communities’ primary defence – lacking geographical separation or persistent, immutable identifying features – against outsiders entering without at least partially integrating to the culture of the community. They are an instinctual attempt to preserve the aspects of the community that defined and made it enjoyable in the first place. 

Essentially, for these communities, the only thing that truly defines them is the culture the members share. In many cases, a consequence is tremendous hostility to any perceived threat to said culture.  Where these communities take on a strategic aspect is their previously mentioned creativity. The vast majority of individuals on the internet do not contribute meaningfully to the wider internet community, with the extent of their reach mostly limited to their own immediate friendship group. But the more creative of the online communities produce a disproportionate amount of the internet’s memes, jokes, and content – and this rapidly spreads between various internet communities, adapting and evolving until it bursts into the mainstream and reaches a much wider population - at which point the meme will often ‘die’ and fade out. If there is messaging, political or otherwise, woven into the meme, then that too is spread.

These memes are spread through various means, but the three principle vectors are:

  • Spread by members of online communities sharing ideas between their various friendship groups
  • Taken automatically for meme sites that then repost the material in an effort to get an audience on their site for the ad revenue
  • Deliberately manufactured and propagated by the community in an act of ‘meme warfare’

The first two vectors are largely self-explanatory, but the third requires a more in-depth review. In the years leading up to the US election and the attention to memes it brought, many online communities had been aware of the reach of their content. Initially, this was often resented, as communities tended to be possessive of their creations and were irate when others adopted them. But some began to realise that this could be utilised, and soon communities were harnessing their creative energy to broadcast their messages. Content with messages deliberately, and with varying degrees of subtlety, woven into it was produced and deliberately spread across the web. Easily produced, functioning as the IED of information warfare, memes are the weapons of choice in an insurgent information war. Meme warfare was developed in parallel by various collectives of wildly differing individuals.

Two important principles to understand here are the 1% rule and the concept of tipping points. These communities (the 1%) are collectively responsible for a huge amount of the general content consumed on the internet. Additionally, within societies, sociologists believe that once an idea or concept is accepted by more than 10% of the population , humans are much more predisposed to accept it. But these communities can use their wide reach and influence to easily cross that threshold in the perceptions of many users. So one of the instinctually adopted principles of meme warfare is to create the impression that it is accepted amongst a larger proportion of the population than it actually is. Many of the online meme warfare tactics and styles utilised by these uncoordinated online communities are nearly identical to those used and refined by state actors over the last decade as part of information warfare.

The nature of the communities influenced the style of content they produced. While online communities are not uniform by any measure, it is common to find that counterculture is strong within them, and whilst spread over most of the political spectrum, they tend towards the extremities. As a result, much of the messaging is at its core anti-establishment. As the boom in social media and internet usage drew more attention, clumsy attempts by mainstream media (MSM) to cover online communities drew the ire and mistrust of said communities, who viewed it as an intrusion and somewhat of an attack. The mistakes in the MSM coverage also went a long way in convincing many that the MSM was either incompetent and had no clue what they were talking about, or out to misrepresent them, and provided ammunition for discrediting their coverage in the future. This suspicion can sometimes extend to most other aspects of the mainstream establishment, whether that be political institutions, large tech companies, movie studios, games companies, banks and pretty much every organisation over a certain size. In general, the view of any sort of establishment figure or organisation is deeply cynical and harshly critical.

These conflicts – between the mainstream and online communities, and between various online communities themselves – have earned the moniker ‘Internet Culture Wars,’ or ‘meme wars.’ During the US election (occasionally referred to as the Great Meme War), and to a lesser extent Brexit, these Culture Wars were elevated to a fever pitch and have not subsided. The weapons of this war are memes, brigading (flooding a site with a semi-synchronised infiltration, attempting to appear as members of the target community), and raiding (co-ordinated waves of aggression and vitriol). ‘Trolling’ is another tactic, though the term itself is used within online communities to refer to a more harmless if irritating practice, rather than sustained and targeted harassment. The Culture Wars flair up frequently, in response to various flashpoints that attract the attention of various communities who clash. Occasionally it may be over a political issue, but just as frequently it is over what could be described as trivial. Yet the debates over romantic pairs on a TV show can become just as heated as the most lofty and weighty political divides. It must be noted that behind the abrasive vitriol, the sentiment can be relatively benign. But to the uninitiated, it can be easily taken at face value and perceived as a torrent of genuine abuse, and the interaction between the ‘civilised’ world and the online one is frequently mired in this clash of cultures.

All of the factors above combine to make these groups influential but volatile. If these groups are influenced, by other online communities or by an outside force – such as a state actor or political entity – they can be steered into producing a huge amount of content to push a certain worldview. Despite the influence of these communities, they remain largely ignored and misunderstood, perhaps as a result of their defensive nature and the fact that they are generally perceived as distasteful. Whatever the reason, the result is a blind spot in the coverage and discussion of the information space, as the temptation is to focus on the largest social media platforms.

Until more effort is put into understanding the darker, but infinitely creative, corners of the internet then a wider understanding will elude those studying information warfare in the current age. 

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