How memes, lulz, and ironic bigotry won the Internet

Evans saw parallels between the world’s refusal to heed Litten’s warnings and his own quest to report on violent militias in the United States. He was worried that far-right extremists—some of whom he had seen in Portland, when the Trump administration sent armed officers from a ragbag of federal agencies to quell protests in the city—were hiding in plain sight, exploiting the plausible deniability created by irony. Take the “OK” hand gesture. To some self-identified trolls, it has been a good joke to hoax the mainstream media into reporting that something so innocuous is a white-supremacist symbol. (Do you find that funny?) But then a theme-park employee in Orlando, Florida, made the sign while posing for a photograph with a 6-year-old Black girl. (Still funny?) And then a mass shooter made the sign in the dock after killing 49 people in New Zealand with a rifle inscribed with the number 14, having left behind a manifesto about “the great replacement” of the white race. (Still funny?)

Extremists “rile people up by making these symbols and then denying that there’s anything racist about them,” Evans told me. “The goal is to make people who are actually watching out for this shit look like they’re crazy to folks who haven’t been paying enough attention to this.”

In other words, don’t be distracted by the silly cartoon frog that extremists have appropriated; worry about the existence of so many extremists posting Pepe memes. Don’t look at the gaudy aloha shirts the militiamen are wearing; look at the serious weapons they’re carrying. Don’t focus on the fact that QAnon asks supporters to believe that Donald Trump is our only defense against cannibalistic satanists; focus on how they will react if he loses in November.