Illustration by The Daily Beast.
How does one navigate a world where “alternative facts” abound, evidence and logic can be scorned, and people with immovable opinions live in political echo chambers divorced from reality? In this world, efforts to construct robust and factually supported arguments are mocked and people are far too receptive to bullshit—attempts to debunk misinformation only widen its reach.
What can one do in a world where, at times, nothing seems to matter? Shitpost.
“Shitposting” encompasses internet humor that is unpredictable, surreal, devoid of context, or a mix of the three. It is often used to provoke other users and derail serious discussions.
For some time, right-wing trolls have claimed a monopoly on political shitposting. Congregating on niche platforms like 4chan and 8kun as well as the mainstream YouTube and Facebook, they often post racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, and ultimately dangerous memes and viral content under the guise of harmless humor.
These users will tell you their inflammatory and discriminatory content is all a joke. Some will say the posts are ironic and that they don’t endorse the ideas behind them, deflecting alt-right affiliation with talking points about paleoconservatism or classical liberalism. Alt-right trolls have ingeniously weaponized a trend known as “New Sincerity,” in which genuine belief in an idea is hidden under a veneer of irony. A person who believes in a White ethnostate or that women shouldn’t be in the workplace will claim irony when called out for making jokes like “back to the kitchen.” Their dog whistles function similarly, giving them room for plausible deniability and obfuscation of their true beliefs that will be understood by members of their ingroups.
The rise of such reactionary content has dangerous impacts on the body politic, as deranged conspiracies and extremism creep into the political mainstream––on and offline. For a while, the left-wing internet culture’s answer was insufficient, partially fueled by the false belief that the sympathy of younger generations is in the bag. With the increasing radicalization of youth by the Right, that notion is both false and concerning.
To combat these threats, one must contend with a force that has won the attention and laughter game. Right-wing ideologues have taken advantage of a general distaste for “political correctness” and shocked the online peruser with their open flaunting of it. They present the Left as the stiff, unfunny suits, while the Right champions raunchy, offensive comedy that enraptures audiences.
Additionally, right-wing trolls and conspiracy theorists scorn academia and the “coastal elitism” (a dog whistle as loud as an echopost) within it. Attempts to reason with these users are often rejected, as far-right anti-establishment counterculture intrinsically sees intelligentsia as representing the enemy. Fact-checking is derided. And perhaps the worst thing one could do in an attempt to combat the fearmongering invoked by such trolls is to make an impassioned plea to humanity. To do that is to provide the currency that backs the economy of the right-wing alternative media: liberal tears.
While the online medium is new, the tactic is not. Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the leading existentialists of the twentieth century, telegraphed this sort of behavior in his 1944 essay “Anti-Semite and the Jew.”
“Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words . . . They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”
Going high when they go low doesn’t work. Neither does getting in the mud with the pig through debate. The solution? Ridicule them. Beat them at their own absurdist game.
Arising alongside existentialism in the twentieth century, absurdism is a philosophy that showcases the tension in searching for meaning in a meaningless world. From this tension rises absurdity, which, while not providing resolution, produces at least temporary value. French author Albert Camus detailed this idea in his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, comparing absurdism to the ancient Greek figure doomed to push a boulder up a hill for eternity as it inevitably tumbles down. This can represent the human condition, as we toil for no end in life only to be met with inevitable death.
But while Camus entertains death as a release for the absurd man, a different conclusion can be reached. Camus’s character Meursault in The Stranger finds relief in the prospect of execution: “for the first time . . . I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” “The Myth of Sisyphus” culminates in the assertion that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The takeaway from this essay should not be nihilism, but an absurd way to live life in its shadow.
Absurdism is no less prevalent online and in modern politics. The Right’s subversive irony politics, effective though they are, are too calculated to fit this bill. In fact, they are not absurd at all. Having an object––the commandeering of the political narrative––they lack absurdity. Let’s focus instead on the Left’s usage of this “political absurdism.”
Jeb! (Is a Mess)
Political absurdism on the internet first sought to ridicule establishment politics, which later morphed into taking aim at the Right’s online machine.
At the 2015 Republican primary debates, Donald Trump strafed every candidate with unrelenting attacks that seemed pulled out of a Saturday Night Live sketch. The more he insulted, the more the crowd loved it. Try as they might, “low energy” Jeb Bush, “lyin” Ted Cruz, and “little” Marco Rubio had no rebuttals. And their losses to the man who broke neoconservative taboos at every turn indicated how little the Republican establishment was resonating with the public. Trump criticized the Iraq war, defended his donations to Hillary Clinton’s foundation, and praised Planned Parenthood for its work with women’s health, things that left the party’s old guard clutching its pearls.
The internet picked up on this as well, with memes capitalizing on Trump’s ridicule of Jeb Bush. Memes ironically voicing support for Bush highlighted the absurdity of his lackluster campaign––the fall from grace of the last Republican president’s brother presenting opportune comedy. Insignificant incidents at campaign events added fuel to the fire, like when an exasperated Bush beseeched his audience to “please clap.”
It’s important to note the demographics that spread these memes—young people on the Left and Right who are in some way disaffected with the status quo. Trump supporters relished the opportunity to trash the Republican old guard whose failure was being showcased in Trump’s thrashing of Bush. Leftists who reviled Trump’s faux populism also circulated the memes, delighting in the public ridicule of Bush-era conservatives (as 4channers would say, “cuckservatives”).
Many comedians, like Vic Berger, compiled videos showcasing the worst examples of Bush’s floundering gaffes.
The chaos is the point. Unlike the political satire of late-night hosts and Saturday Night Live—which attempts to make humor out of the most memorable moments—Berger’s humor lies in the inherent absurdity of the mundane. He doesn’t deliver classic one-liners or puns. Rather, his tools are sharp edits, push-ins, slowdowns, and the liberal use of air horns. Notably, his source material comes directly from whatever he is satirizing. And that’s what makes it so comical. Its surreality derives from its unbending realism.
And as with many memes of the last decade (particularly “OK Boomer”), the blissful oblivion of the older generation to the Jeb memes made them all the more popular.
Berger later tweeted that if he received a million views on a Vine mocking Bush’s awkwardness, he’d get a #Jeb4Prez tattoo. Not only did the video eventually receive eleven million loops, Bush himself retweeted Berger’s pledge. While he did not end up getting the tattoo, the absurdity of the stunt speaks to the popularity of this new form of political comedy.
The Trump Era
After Trump’s victory, the Left faced more pressing issues than harmlessly mocking awkward early GOP front runners. The Right had been building an online apparatus focused not simply on churning out laughs, but on turning young minds toward its tenets. Left-wing political absurdism was forced to counteract growing right-wing alternative media. With the popularity of Turning Point USA, PragerU, and internet personalities like Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk who receive funding from right-wing oligarchs, the challenge was massive.
Fortunately, like Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries, the content provided itself. Widespread right-wing memes inveighing against familiar conservative boogeymen like socialism were turned into farcical, empty shitposts. Take this popular template from Turning Point USA:
Rather than craft a thousand-word response to someone who will inevitably call you a “triggered liberal” who should run to a safe space, you’re better off replying with something like this.
By all accounts, this approach is far more successful and satisfying. It is politically incorrect and counteracts the notion that the Left would not dare mention a conspiracy like “White genocide,” much less joke about it. Such scorn has forced Turning Point USA into staging some questionable responses.
In October 2017, their organizers staged a devastating attack on liberals at Kent State. Their methods? Protesting “politically correct” (PC) culture and safe spaces by dressing as toddlers with diapers and sitting in playpens.
The Left hasn’t been the same since.
Since right-wing groups like Turning Point have decided to stage an artificial counterculture on college campuses centered on the notion that conservatives are victimized by PC culture, left-leaning students have reacted by creating their own weird responses mocking the melodramatic self martyrdom of the “oppressed college conservative.”
Kaitlyn Bennett, the infamous former president of the Kent State chapter of Turning Point, resigned after the diaper debacle and went on to work for her husband’s pro-monarchy, Holocaust-denying Liberty Hangout.
Bennett attempted to forge her legacy “owning liberals” in interviews on college campuses, but students were well prepared. Instead of engaging with her loaded questions, many gave absurd responses, or simply showed total apathy to her tirades about transgender rights and other issues. Bennett would still post these videos believing she was the victor, unaware of the new life her interview subjects had obtained.
Subversion has served the Left well in its delayed response to the rise of Ben Shapiro, the right-wing provocateur who founded The Daily Wire. A master of Gish gallop, Shapiro’s auctioneer style of “debating” does not invite real discussion, but has proven to be incredibly popular on the internet. Shapiro has made a name for himself fighting the culture war, railing against everything from Islam to Black pathology to the threats to “Western civilization.”
While it may seem innocuous to his right-wing defenders, this sort of rhetoric has dire consequences. The 2017 Quebec mosque shooter visited Shapiro’s Twitter page ninety-three times in the month before the slaughter, and was quoted as saying “I had to do something.” When someone expresses views like the ones below, is it really asking much of a radical xenophobe to take the next logical step, to “do something?”
Shapiro thrives in controversy, delights in bad-faith arguments, and portrays himself as a cool, collected speaker of “uncomfortable” truths. But while he may have provided the signature “facts don’t care about your feelings” line, he’s also given the Left plenty of ammunition to redefine political absurdism. When Shapiro set his sights on the Cardi B song “WAP” for a cliché tirade about the evils of rap, sexual liberation, and modern feminism, few opted to simply critique his disingenuous argument. Instead, they started splicing audio.
In response, Shapiro engaged in a form of self-immolation that rivaled Turning Point’s diaper stunt.
What did this memeifying action accomplish? Nothing, of course. Shapiro did not lose any money and the episode garnered him attention. From a tangible perspective, it was pointless. But pointlessness is the essence of absurdity, and every moment people laughed about his sexual prudishness and prowess was one less moment spent legitimizing his argument. And in that fashion, meaning was created—even if for just a moment.
Political absurdism has also been used to tackle the more openly radical sides of the internet. Comedian Vic Berger may have received some unknowing support from Jeb Bush, but his satirization of alt-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich and the neofascist Proud Boys led to more nasty outcomes.
Mike Cernovich is a male supremacist who played a key role in the propagation of some of the far-right’s most insidious narratives. He spread the #HillaryHealth theory—which claimed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign hid a serious illness—Pizzagate, which held that a DC-area pizza shop was being used for a Clinton-run sex-trafficking ring, and other pedophile-related lies that foreshadowed QAnon. The words and actions of Cernovich had serious consequences; Cernovich was referenced in tweets by Donald Trump Jr. and Kellyanne Conway, and the Pizzagate conspiracy he promoted led to a gunman firing shots in the Comet Ping Pong pizza shop, believing he was liberating children from the building’s basement (it didn’t have one). At the height of Cernovich’s popularity, Republican Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward campaigned with him.
Traditional media, which failed to understand the nature of the conspiracy, bungled its response to Cernovich. CBS’ 60 Minutes interviewed him in an episode regarding fake news, and interviewer Scott Pelley was clearly outmatched; not through being factually unprepared, but through being unready to enter a Twilight Zone reality where fair is foul and foul is fair.
1 site that spread Clinton stories is helmed by Michael Cernovich, a magnet for readers with a taste for stories with no basis in fact. pic.twitter.com/b9Ezk9N5EK
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) March 27, 2017
That story got so much traction, it had to be denied not only by Clinton’s doctor, but by the National Parkinson’s Foundation. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/SLu19bN6Gr
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) March 27, 2017
Cernovich was entirely unbothered. The total cynicism he pushed flummoxed Pelley, and Pelley’s serious pursuit of Cernovich’s lies only elevated the troll. Cernovich was the living embodiment of Sartre’s antisemite.
But again, if traditional methods fail to get under the skin of trolls, it is fitting that those playing the same game––but better––managed to rattle provocateurs like Cernovich. Though he may have felt vindicated by Pelley, Cernovich flew into a rage when Berger simply presented Cernovich’s own words in disturbingly hilarious edited videos.
Suddenly, the alt-right figure who defended all of his heinous statements was offended by simply being shown his own tweets and being called “Weird Mike” (a tame phrase for a man who has doxxed journalists and been convicted of misdemeanor battery).
Engaging in the internet’s newest form of McCarthyism, Cernovich proclaimed that Berger was a pedophile, and that his denials of it only served as more evidence. He called upon his followers to “investigate” Berger, something that, on the internet, means things are about to get ugly.
And in the case of Berger’s satire of the Proud Boys, that ugliness spilled into real life. Members of the Proud Boys, a male chauvinist group that has thrived off the violence instigated by founder Gavin McInnes, were not happy with videos Berger made showcasing their behavior. Their animus for Berger stemmed from the group’s efforts to distance itself from overt white supremacy and portray itself as champions of “Western civilization.” As such, they were angered when Berger’s videos destroyed this lie quite simply.
In fact, they took it so harshly that one member, egged on by the group, went to Berger’s house to threaten him. Though Berger was unharmed, the incident was clearly intended to become violent, and showcases the danger of taking on such grifters and provocateurs.
Despite the danger, shining a light on unscrupulous actors in a way that doesn’t normalize them has benefits beyond providing laughs. Although there is a great deal of political polarization online, there are also many people driven by the same alienation who consider themselves apolitical. When far-right ideas are presented as memes, these people are given a conduit to radicalization.
This has been the case with seemingly “nonpartisan” theories like #savethechildren and “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself.” At face value, proponents of these theories don’t seem to favor a particular ideology or party; they’re just disaffected and anti-establishment. But these conspiracies often serve as gateways to far-right conclusions, as right-wing ideologues capitalize on and promote anti-establishment sentiment. QAnon’s “save the children” campaign suggests that it must be Democrats who are running a global cabal of child sex trafficking, and the “Epstein skeptics” often hyper focus on his involvement with the Clintons but not Donald Trump . By the time the political aim becomes apparent, you’re already sucked in.
But all is not lost. As the objects of discontent on both the Left and Right often start in similar places, “apolitical” social media users can easily be swayed. It is important for the Left to revitalize its tactics in affairs of state. But it’s equally necessary to do so online.
This solution, in the long run, is not enough. Diminishing the reach of trolls and provocateurs has little impact while the conditions that create and amplify them remain. Many of these figures have a relatively short life span, but their impact on the body politic is long lasting. Norms of civility and political correctness should not dictate that the Left cede the field of humor.
And to that end, hit the post button.