How Extremists Like ‘Proud Boys’ Weaponize Irony to Spread Hate
By Tom Dreisbach
On a recent episode of his livestreamed show, the 22-year-old extremist Nick Fuentes repeated a formula that has won him a following with some of the youngest members of the far right. He went on an extended, violent and misogynistic rant, only to turn to the camera and add with a smirk, “Just joking!”
In this case, from the April 22 edition of Fuentes’ show, America First, a viewer wrote in to ask Fuentes for advice on how to “punish” his wife for “getting out of line.”
Fuentes responded, “Why don’t you smack her across the face?”
The rant continued for minutes.
“Why don’t you give her a vicious and forceful backhanded slap with your knuckles right across her face — disrespectfully — and make it hurt?” Fuentes went on. At one point, he pantomimed punching a woman in the face.
He then added, “No, I’m kidding, of course. Just kidding. Just a joke.”
Fuentes was following a playbook popular among domestic extremists: using irony and claims of “just joking” to spread their message, while deflecting criticism.
Researchers who track domestic extremism say the tactic, while not new, has helped several groups mask their danger, avoid consequences and draw younger people into their movements.
Irony as “cover” for extremism
Fuentes is best known for using cartoonish memes to spread white supremacist propaganda. His followers refer to themselves as “Groypers” — a reference to a mutated version of the Pepe the Frog cartoon that was co-opted by the far right. Though Fuentes exists on the fringes of the extreme right, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., spoke at a political conference that Fuentes hosted, drawing widespread criticism.
But Fuentes has said himself that he uses irony and “jokes” to communicate his message without consequences.
“Irony is so important for giving a lot of cover and plausible deniability for our views,” Fuentes said in a 2020 video. He specifically cited Holocaust denial — or what he termed Holocaust “revision” — as a topic that is too fraught to discuss earnestly, even on the far right.
“When it comes to a lot of these issues, you need a little bit of maneuverability that irony gives you,” Fuentes said.
And, in fact, after Fuentes questioned the death toll from the Holocaust in one rant, he later claimed to The Washington Post that it was just a “lampoon.”
Researchers who track domestic extremism say Fuentes is not the only figure to adopt these tactics, particularly among far-right content creators, who encourage their audiences to follow suit.
“A lot of these content creators will tell the audience explicitly, ‘When people say you’re racist for liking this or thinking this, just laugh at them. They can’t handle it — they’re sensitive babies,’ ” said Jared Holt, a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Concern on campus
In early 2020, Oona Flood started getting more and more worried about a classmate at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The classmate, a 22-year-old named Christian Secor, was already well-known for his self-proclaimed “love” of guns. Around that time, he was also posting racist and antisemitic memes and tweets, attacking immigrants online and publicly supporting Fuentes. Often, Secor adopted the kind of “trolling” style that’s prevalent on the internet.
When one student called Secor out for a tweet that the student found offensive, Secor responded that he was using “post irony.”
“It’s called a joke and the fact that you think that these posts are anything more than that is telling,” added Secor.
Flood, who is Japanese American, said they wanted to speak up.
“I definitely felt that sense of threat,” Flood told NPR recently. “And, like, I really hate to say, [because] it sounds so much like, overblown, ‘snowflake,’ that we’re just overreacting, you know?”
And throughout 2020, students told NPR, UCLA took no action against Secor despite his escalating rhetoric, likely because of free speech concerns. (As a public university, UCLA is legally bound to follow the First Amendment, which protects hate speech.)
In retrospect, Flood’s concern does not seem like an overreaction.
Secor is currently facing federal criminal charges for allegedly storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Prosecutors have cited his support for Fuentes in charging documents. Secor has pleaded not guilty.
In addition to Fuentes and his followers, other experts point to the extremist group known as the Proud Boys, which has embraced outlandish rituals. The group’s name was inspired by a song from the Broadway version of Disney’s Aladdin, and one of the group’s initiation rites involves members listing breakfast cereals while they get lightly punched in the stomach. Yet that same group is known for its involvement in violent street fights. At least 25 members of the group are facing federal criminal charges related to the Capitol riot, including, in some cases, conspiracy.
Gavin McInnes, the group’s founder, said in an email that the media, including NPR, “willfully ignores” jokes to paint the group in a more negative light. The Proud Boys are “funny dudes, not Nazis,” McInnes wrote.
But Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the group’s use of “jokes” is strategic. “It distracts from what their actual political ideology is and from their violence,” said Miller. “Because if you point it out, it’s, like, ‘well, they’re so goofy.’ “
Similarly, the far-right, pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is often so over the top on his InfoWars broadcasts that his own attorney likened him to a “performance artist” during a court hearing about Jones’ divorce.
The appeal to young people
Humor has always been crucial to building social movements, experts say, because it serves to define the people who are “in on the joke” and those who “just don’t get it.”
And online extremists have adopted irony because it is, in many ways, the native language of the internet.
“I’m speaking the language of other zoomers,” said Fuentes in 2020. “If you’re a young person online, I mean, this is the language of our generation.”
“Every kid naturally wants to push away from their parents,” said Joanna Schroeder, a writer based in California.
Schroeder was troubled when she saw a pro-Hitler meme pop up in one of her kids’ Instagram feeds. Memes that merely pushed boundaries were mixed in alongside outright racist and antisemitic content.
“The problem is that all of this kind of trolling behavior, some of it is harmless and goofy,” said Schroeder, “and others of it is designed to look harmless and goofy but will drive our kids’ social media and YouTube algorithms toward alt-right and even more extremist content.”
Schroeder has since collaborated with the Western States Center to develop a guide for parents who see their kids share online extremist content.
Violent domestic extremism in America long predates the internet, however, and so does the tactical use of irony.
Historians have documented how the early iterations of the Ku Klux Klan were portrayed by group members and their allies as outlandish, rather than as a dangerous terrorist group. The KKK put on racist minstrel shows and created its own songs.
Descriptions of attacks by men in hoods, who had titles like “dragon,” “ghoul,” and “wizard,” were often seen by white Americans as tall tales and ghost stories. Newspapers that supported the KKK played up those aspects of the group and mocked their opponents for supposedly taking the KKK too seriously, said Elaine Frantz, a historian at Kent State University.
Pro-KKK newspaper editors would often “talk jokingly about what the klan has done,” said Frantz, “in order to be deniable.”
And at first it seemed to work. Frantz cites the testimony of a Georgia congressman who tried to play down klan murders and other racist atrocities.
“Sometimes, mischievous boys who want to have some fun go on a masquerading frolic to scare the negroes,” testified U.S. Rep. John H. Christy of Georgia in the early 1870s. Christy insisted that stories of klan attacks were “exaggerated.” In fact, he claimed, the group did not exist at all. Frantz said there were also documented instances in the Reconstruction era of white Northerners dressing up in klan robes as a supposedly boundary-pushing “joke.”
But eventually, Frantz said, the testimony of Black Americans who witnessed these atrocities — published widely by newspaper reporters and in government investigations — so thoroughly demonstrated the KKK’s campaign of lynchings and assassinations that it became undeniable. They pulled back the klan hood to see the terrorism and violence it masked.
Originally published by NPR, 04.26.2021, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.