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First they came for Pepe: How “ironic” Nazism is taking over the internet

Over the last year, various internet subcultures have embraced Nazi iconography while simultaneously claiming to hold no Nazi beliefs. Why?

There is a scene in Roman Polanski’s critically-acclaimed World War Two film The Pianist in which the Jewish protagonist, played by Adrien Brody, puts on a German soldier’s coat to keep warm.

“Don’t shoot!” he tells the Polish troops who have come to liberate Warsaw. “I’m Polish!” A soldier, realising his mistake, lowers his gun. With disdain on his face, he asks: “Why the fucking coat?”

The chilly hero might not have been acting unreasonably, but neither was the soldier. It's safe to say that in normal circumstances, "Nazi coat" can be used as shorthand for "Nazi person". I found myself asking a similar question last month when I interviewed a “Nazi furry”. The furry (ie. person who dresses as an animal, often for sexual reasons) likes to wear a red armband reminiscent of those worn by the Nazi party. “It’s just a piece of cloth,” he said at the time, insisting he held no far-right views. Then why not choose another piece of cloth? I wondered to myself.

This furry is just one of hundreds of people online who flaunt the iconography of National Socialism whilst denying they hold any Nazi views. If that doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t. “Ironic” Nazism, “satirical” Nazism, and “just joking” Nazism have taken over the internet. Who is behind it, what are they doing, and how did it begin?

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Unfortunately, it is probably Hillary Clinton’s fault. In September 2016, the presidential hopeful’s website declared popular internet meme Pepe the Frog to be a white supremacist symbol. If we ignore that this has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy (racists embraced Pepe after the Anti-Defamation League chimed in and officially declared the meme a hate symbol), this was a frankly ridiculous assertion.

“We've won folks... My God ...We've won,” read a post on r/TheDonald – the Reddit hub for Donald Trump supporters – after the news. They didn't hold back with their disdain. “This makes her look absolutely retarded to anyone young enough to be on the internet,” read the top comment. Why? White supremacists were undoubtedly already using the meme – many on the notoriously politically incorrect 4Chan board /pol/ had emblazoned the frog with swastikas. So why wasn’t it, in turn, a white supremacist symbol?

The answer to this is irony. Layers and layers of it slathered with thick, glutinous nonsense that form a Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake that is impossible to digest. You and I are what 4Chan would pejoratively call “normies”, i.e. normal people. We can’t possibly hope to understand the difference between someone on 4Chan who holds sincere Nazi beliefs and someone who is shouting “Death to all Jews” for the keks (see glossary), like a toddler who has just learnt the word “poo”.

This doesn’t normally matter – we can just ignore them – but Clinton’s post gave them the legitimacy and media attention that they craved.

It also, I would argue, set off a new internet trend. Angry at liberals labelling everything (most notably, the alt-right) “Nazis”, fringe internet communities decided to fight back. The logic – if it can be called that – went like this:

“Let’s dress like Nazis and act like Nazis so that liberals call us Nazis when we’re not! That will show just how stupid these liberals are!”

***

“The press, the media, does not deserve to have a consistent picture of reality presented to them.”

These are the words of Qu Qu, a man in his late twenties who considers himself the leader of the “alt furry” movement, who is speaking to me over Twitter. Alt furries are furries who have embraced far-right messages and Nazi iconography on the social network. Some wear armbands, others write erotic Nazi literature, some tweet anti-Semitic jokes. When I spoke to some last month, I was shocked when only one of them actually admitted to holding Nazi views. Many claimed they were being “ironic” or fighting back at what they consider to be left-wing intolerance.

“If the press becomes obsessed with a moral panic, such as the one about the resurgence of National Socialism, it is the duty of every subculture to feed that paranoia until its absurdity becomes plain for all to see.”

***

Earlier this week, the king of this logic died.

PewDiePie – the most subscribed content creator on YouTube – was dropped by Disney after the Wall Street Journal exposed an array of anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In the past, he has spoken out against the media for misrepresenting his “jokes”, but this time he wrote a blog post in which he admitted: “I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.” What changed?

What changed is that PewDiePie was confronted with a reality that anti-hate campaigners have long since known to be true. After his anti-Semitic videos, PewDiePie was embraced by the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which is now calling itself “The world’s #1 PewDiePie Fansite.” PewDiePie has learnt a truth that many of the “just joking” brigade frequently try to deny – that satire, irony, and jokes can validate and legitimise hate speech in a way that helps it to spread.

“Pushing out anti-Semitic tropes has consequences in the real world,” says a spokesperson for anti-racism organisation Hope Not Hate. “PewDiePie may or may not believe this stuff himself, but he does need to understand that he has an effect on the world, and that racists and haters can sometimes act on the words and memes that are shared so readily on social channels, and – with soaring hate crime rates – already have.”

***

Then they came for Trash Dove.

The head-banging purple pigeon is a Facebook sticker (a picture users can post in the social network’s comment sections) that went viral this week. In response, 4Chan started “Operation Nazi Bird”, a satirical campaign to turn the meme into a Nazi symbol. The aim was to trick the left.

This started to work when a self-described philosopher known as Quincy Frey wrote a satirical Medium post (which has since been removed after a copyright claim) declaring Trash Dove to be an “alt-right” symbol. When people began to fall for this, 4Chan won. Yet so too – as Hope Not Hate argue – did actual white supremacists.

“What started as irony will now actually spread and this will become a ‘Nazi hate’ symbol whether we like it or not,” Quincy Frey tells me. “The alt-righters from 4Chan work in a funny way; it always starts ironic but they seem to take irony to the next level and then these idiots become brainwashed… eventually their sickness will spread.”

***

Which leaves us with a question that regrettably summarises today’s state of affairs: are ironic Nazis as dangerous as real Nazis?

Simon Johnson, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, seems to think so. “It is difficult to understand how people can use Holocaust language, imagery or comments and think that it is a joke,” he says. “The French comedian Dieudonne uses the Quenelle gesture and other supposedly humorous Holocaust imagery, as well as dressing cast members in concentration camp uniforms, as part of his act." The Quenelle gesture was an originally jokey gesture which has grown to be considered anti-Semitic after individuals posed in front of Jewish institutions holding the stance. In December 2013, French President François Hollande reacted to the gesture, saying: "We will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”

Johnson agrees it is important to tackle this alleged comedy. "For many this demeans the Holocaust and would be considered anti-Semitism. Allowing these acts to continue perpetuates myths and often leads prejudice against the Jewish community.”

It is also important to note that many who claim to be “satirical” Nazis are simply hiding behind a thin veil of plausible deniability. The word “irony” – however incorrectly it’s being used – allows them to spread Nazi messages and iconography whilst denying culpability. It also leaves many on the left unsure where they stand. What’s more important: combatting hate speech or protecting free speech?

Kassie is a 31-year-old graduate student who reached out to me after being mocked for taking Trash Dove seriously as an alt-right symbol - proving that online trends can have real-world consequences. “My friend is liberal but thinks I'm overreacting and don't understand satire,” she tells me. “But I don't get why I have to call Nazi jokes satire.

“The most frustrating part is that my concern is immediately written off as stupid because I don't belong to the community. If we get past that part, then I'm overreacting or dumb because I don't get that it's ironic or I don't understand that it's a joke. But I get that on some level people are saying that it's a joke, and some are ‘just joking’ and I still think that a joke can be racist and misogynist and alt-right or whatever.

“I'm just left with feeling like I've fallen down a hole of ironic devils advocates who use that as an excuse to say ‘funny’ racist and misogynistic things.”

***

When Prince Harry donned a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party in 2005, no one thought he was actually a fan of Hitler. If ironic Nazis had emerged twelve years ago, they might have been given the same benefit of the doubt by being considered poor taste but not ultimately racist. Yet context is key. In an era when the President of the United States wants a registry of Muslim citizens, and fascism appears to be on the rise across Europe, no one who is “just joking” – not furries, YouTubers, or 4Channers – can be annoyed if the media labels them Nazis.

I do agree that fundamentally it is important to combat the left’s tendency to label everything right-wing “Nazi” or “racist”. Internet subcultures are not wrong to attempt to challenge this and other examples of left-wing extremes. Yet if this is what they really want, then one - very pressing - question remains. Why the fucking coat? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit