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AP Photo/Steve Helber
On the left, the alt-right. On the right, the alt-left?
INVENTING THE ENEMY

Analysis of 500 million Reddit comments shows how the alt-right made the alt-left a thing

Tim Squirrell
By Tim Squirrell

PhD researcher

At the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August, a man suspected of being a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one person and injuring 19 others. In the aftermath of right-wing violence, US president Donald Trump chose not to condemn the white supremacists marching at the rally, instead calling out the “alt-left” who came “charging with clubs in hands.”

Unless you are an avid reader of /r/The_Donald, the Reddit-based Trump fan forum, you might not have heard the term “alt-left” before then. But when Trump used the term, the broader alt-right took up the opportunity to popularize it with gusto.

By taking a deep-dive into the data, we can see the different ways in which the alt-right have attempted to capitalize on Trump’s speech and the opportunity to turn the “alt-left” into a mainstream political concept. Through examining the last six months of Reddit comments—all half a billion of them—we can see the intensity with which /r/The_Donald has attempted to push the focus of public conversation toward condemnation of the left, not the right.

Constructing the violent, intolerant left

The alt-right have been trying to make “alt-left” happen for a while now. Trump pushed the concept into the mainstream with a single tweet, but the tenacity of his most rabid followers made it stick.

In the first week of August, “alt-left” only appeared 1,400 times on Reddit, and the vast majority of those instances were non-political, coming up primarily in gaming subreddits. Following Trump’s speech in Charlottesville, it was used nearly 30,000 times the week beginning Aug. 14, and another 9,000 times the week after. The most common occurrence was in /r/politics, which is unsurprising given its 3.5 million subscribers, and then in /r/The_Donald, with 8,701 comments mentioning “alt-left”—more than every smaller subreddit combined.

The alt-right hijack news arcs featuring white-nationalist and white-supremacist violence by focusing on isolated violence or property damage that may have been committed by liberal, leftist counter-protestors. They work in tandem with Russian and pro-Russian Twitter accounts to distort external perceptions of events, pushing the narrative that there is violence “on all sides” or that there is a “violent left.”

Whenever there are instances of left-wing violence in response to right-wing protests, /r/The_Donald and its allies spring into action.

This is exemplified by the “antifa” movement, or anti-fascists, who are not a cohesive organization and could better be described as a loose association of left-wing activists who go to protests and occasionally become violent (including the now infamous incident in which white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer was punched in the face by a black-bloc protestor). Whenever there are instances of left-wing violence in response to right-wing protests, /r/The_Donald and its allies spring into action to paint the antifa movement as an organized, consistently violent, coherent segment of the left, who have at least the tacit support of progressive activists.

It is therefore not surprising that the use of the terms “alt-left” and “antifa” on Reddit exploded after a number of right-wing protestors were injured in Charlottesville. This was aided by the uptick in the use of “antifa” during the Berkeley protests in late August, where self-proclaimed antifa activists turned violent.

Tim Squirrell
Frequency of “antifa” by subreddit, March—August 2017

Using a word-association algorithm, I found that “alt-left” appeared in nearly a quarter of comments with the word “violent” in August, and over an eighth of those using the word “hate.” “Antifa” fares even worse, appearing in over half of all comments using the words “violence” and “nazis.” The implication is clear: Alt-right groups want their followers to associate the alt-left—and the antifa movement in particular—with violence and hatred. Moderators have even created a “VIOLENT LEFT” tag on posts that push this kind of narrative.

Building a violent leftist history

To support this notion with “facts,” the alt-right have rebranded past examples of violence against the state and the police as the work of the alt-left. One of the top posts on /r/The_Donald for August was the image below, titled “Alt-Left Terrorist. Micah Johnson was an Alt-Left Terrorist, who assassinated 5 cops on behalf of BLM.”

This incident, they allege, is part of an overarching theme of violence in the history of the political left. They post pictures of former chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong as proof that the “extreme left” is violent, and “the alt-left is an equal threat to American democracy.” This perpetuates the idea that communism is the most violent of all ideologies and, by extension, current left-wing views pose a serious threat to civic society.

With that in mind, they attempt to rebrand antifa as “alt-left extremists,” a clever marketing move that recognizes that positioning themselves in opposition to anti-fascists potentially involves a tacit admission that they themselves might be fascists.

Painting the left as the real Nazis

This effort to paint leftist politics as toxic is bolstered by posts that appeal to the idea of a decadent, intolerant, illiberal left. Redditors argue that the left is hypocritical in calling out violence on the right while failing to attend to its own violent tendencies.

Diving a little deeper into these threads reveals a disturbing set of comments that have received a large number of upvotes, including comments insinuating that leftist violence is orchestrated by a vast conspiracy to bring down the US and “Christian principles,” as well as quoting apocalyptic verses from the Bible. This open advocacy is seen as proof of the alt right’s professed virtues of tolerance and campaigning for freedom of expression, compared with “liberal amorality” and its attempts to suppress discussion of religion.

Trolling the left

Every article on the alt-left inadvertently grants it the oxygen of publicity and spawns more thinkpieces that declare there is an alt-left.

The term “alt-left”—and the general idea that there is a fringe of left-wing activists who are engaged in a campaign of political violence—has been incredibly useful to the alt-right. Every popular article on the subject that claims “there is no such thing as the alt-left” inadvertently grants it the oxygen of publicity and spawns more thinkpieces that declare there is an alt-left—and that it’s a real problem. The mountain of articles and news headlines from heritage news organizations condemning antifa as a violent hate movement are a direct product of this campaign. These articles effectively push the eye of the media away from the white supremacists by giving air to their adversaries.

In this way, attempts to popularize “alt-left” are only bolstered by the left’s reaction to them. Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent alt-right commentator, tweeted “They really hate it when we use the term ‘alt-left’. It would be a shame if this got 10,000 retweets”—which was then retweeted over 65,000 times.

This herculean effort to create the idea of the alt-left—to paint it as violent, to equivocate its views with those of the alt-right and neo-Nazis, and to smear progressive activists as tacitly or explicitly condoning political violence—has been remarkably successful. Of course, it’s been met with incredulity on many sides.

People with progressive politics have often reacted with disbelief that anyone could be taken in by what seems like obvious lies and distortions. It’s only by pulling the data and looking behind the internet’s curtain that we can see just how much work has gone into the turning the alt-left from the boogeymen of Breitbart readers’ nightmares into concepts and groups that are recognized, feared, loathed and smeared by even the most moderate mainstream press.

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