From Memes to Infowars: How 75 Fascist Activists Were “Red-Pilled”
The vast majority of domestic terror attacks in the U.S. are carried out by white supremacist organizations. Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi death squad with five killings to their name, is probably the deadliest fascist group to have arisen since 2016. One member of Atomwaffen, Vasillios Pistolis, was an active duty U.S. marine when he marched at the first Unite the Right rally. Pistolis also posted regularly on a series of fascist and white supremacist Discord servers, prior to and after joining Atomwaffen.
The media collective Unicorn Riot has archived hundreds of thousands of posts from these Discord servers. Their database includes dozens of conversations where fascists discuss how they were converted to their extremist beliefs. In an effort to understand that process, Bellingcat collected “red-pilling” stories from seventy-five fascist activists. The analysis is below, details on the activists we studied can be found here.
What is red-pilling?
An online community develops its own lingo over time. Among fascist activists “red-pilling” means converting someone to fascist, racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. The term originates with “The Matrix,” a popular 1999 film. The protagonist is offered the choice between a red pill, which will open his eyes to the reality of a machine-dominated world, and a blue pill, which will return him to ignorance and safety. The definition of “red pill,” as used by fascists, is rather elastic. Films and songs are described as “red pilled” if they reinforce a far-right worldview. At least one poster referred to amphetamines as red-pilled.
There appears to be no agreed-upon standard for when a human being is red-pilled. Most fascist activists agree that acknowledgement of the Jewish Question, or JQ, is critical. This means believing that Jewish people are at the center of a vast global conspiracy. The end goal of this conspiracy is usually described as “white genocide”, but there are numerous variations.
Red pilling is described as a gradual process. Individual people can be red-pilled on certain issues and not others. Stefan Molyneux, a popular author and far-right YouTube personality, is seen as being red-pilled on race and “the future of the west” even though he is not considered as a fascist. Prominent YouTuber PewPewDie is also often considered red-pilled. It is accepted that media personalities need to hide their outright fascist beliefs, or “power level”, in order to have a chance at red-pilling the general population (usually called “normies”).
How to red-pill others is a constant topic of conversation. In this thread one user talks about how he “skirted the jew question” in order to red-pill a co-worker. Instead, he claims to have exploited his co-worker’s hatred of “SJW”s, a.k.a. social justice warriors. Other users advise starting the red-pilling process with the JQ. Disagreements mainly center around which techniques are most effective. The overall goal is quite clear.
The “normie” to fascist pipeline
President Donald Trump is seen as having red-pilled many Americans. A number of fascist activists credit his candidacy as the start of their awakening. This conversation between users Buddy Hobbs and ecce_lux is a useful breakdown of how that looks.
“The great meme war” is a reference to time this user spent on 4chan and possibly 8chan, creating far-right memes in order to red-pill other people during the election. The whole exchange paints a picture of a man who was initially ensnared by candidate Trump’s rhetoric and then driven towards far-right media and, eventually, extremist communities on 4chan. There his commitment to fascist ideology crystalized.
The vast majority of fascist activists are male. Some of these men even doubt that women can be red-pilled. The few users who identify themselves as female tend to be quite extreme in their beliefs. This is consistent with research into the demographics of the far-right done by the Institute for Family Studies. Fascist and white nationalist organizations are “overwhelmingly male,” yet women are more likely to identify with such beliefs.
The American fascist movement has been male-dominated since at least the aftermath of the Vietnam war. The role of veterans in founding many early far-right organizations may be one explanation as to why. It is also likely that the demographics of certain online communities plays a role. 70% of 4chan users are male, and 4chan is the second most frequently credited website in red-pilling stories.
Thirty-nine of the 75 fascist activists we studied credit the Internet with their red-pilling. YouTube seems to be the single most frequently discussed website. The specific videos credited, however, span a multitude of creators, from British YouTuber Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin) to Infowars founder Alex Jones.
Many fascist activists cite a multitude of red-pills which were all integral to them arriving at their current beliefs. User barD’s 18 March, 2017 post is a great example of this. Here’s how he traces his journey:
“Get redpilled on Feminism after reading some crazy SJW posts about MLP [My Little Pony] being racist and sexist and anti-lesbian, get redpilled on islam after getting intruiged [sic] by some islamisists [sic] taking in a youtube comments section. Get redpilled on GG (Gamergate) from sargon.”
From there his evolution continues:
We see a steady spiral, from arguments in comment sections to far-right YouTube personalities to “the_donald” subreddit to 4chan’s /pol/ board and eventually to fascist Discord servers. This user singles out Sargon of Akkad (British Youtuber Carl Benjamin) for special praise and considers him a major influence. One of Sargon’s most popular video series’ is, “Why Do Men Hate #Feminism?” (Episode #1 is titled “Feminists Hate Women.”)
In later posts barD claims the “gradual red-pilling” of Sargon’s videos stopped him from being a feminist. He also praises Sargon as an “easier step” away from liberal views than outright Nazism. Once he’d taken that step and gotten used to Sargon’s rhetoric, it was easier for him to get used to the more extreme atmosphere of /pol/.
It’s not uncommon for white supremacist, fascist and anti-Semitic beliefs to arise initially as the result of humor. Four of the seventy-five activists we studied mentioned ironic memes as major red-pills. In this thread, a user recalls how his first red-pill came during an argument over an anti-Semitic tweet posted to Facebook.
Another user asks FucknOathMate if he was “only doing it ironically at first,” and he replies: “Well sort of.” He says he knew Jewish people were “weird” and “ran everything,” but he wasn’t yet a Holocaust denier or a fascist. Again, we see someone sliding gradually into extremist beliefs. Ironic memes gave this individual a chance to get used to the temperature before diving in.
Thirty-six fascist activists traced the start of their red-pilling process to an event that occurred offline. Five of these people credited their families with red-pilling them. For the other thirty-one, methods ran a rather wide gamut.
Four fascists say they were red-pilled while tripping on LSD. User Europa is a typical example of this trend. He claims his interest in Nazism started in childhood, with his dad watching Hitler documentaries “every day.” Europa carried this interest into adulthood, watching Hitler documentaries and speeches while taking LSD. This convinced him to start “researching” Nazism which, eventually, inspired him to become an activist.
Other activists cite living in a diverse area, reading a copy of Mein Kampf, mass-shooter Anders Brevik’s manifesto and numerous other factors as their first red-pills. Since our study of these activists is based on messages they exchanged with each other online, we can conclude that even when indoctrination begins offline new converts inevitably go online to deepen their beliefs.
Internet communities and social media services have been integral to the recent growth of the fascist right. The rest of this article will focus on the major online sources of fascist red-pilling.
Ten of our seventy-five fascists credited 4chan with red-pilling them. Many other activists have referenced it as a place that was critical in their radicalization. The /pol/ board is generally seen as a breeding ground for young fascists. Anticom founder Haupsturmfuhrer Pepe credits 4chan as the site that has “redpilled the most” people. For a number of activists, 4chan is the last “mainstream” website they frequent before getting involved with explicitly fascist media.
In this post, Auralevels claims that 4chan led him to The Right Stuff (referred to as “TRS”) and The Daily Stormer (“stormer”), two neo-Nazi news and culture sites (a recent Daily Stormer article was titled, “Disney’s Jew CEO Admits They Kiked the Goyim with Too Many Star Wars Movies,” to give an example of the kind of materials they publish).
4chan and its descendant 8chan make up a large chunk of what is commonly known as the alt-right. These places are considered fairly moderate by fascist activists in the Discord conversations presented. The alt-right is often referred to as the “alt-light.” The intent seems to be halfway between a term of endearment and an insult. Fascist activists view the alt-right as silly, but also as a crucial recruiting ground.
This view is common but not universal. Some activists accuse the so-called alt-light of “paralyzing the supply chain”. They accuse them of allowing “normies” to feel radical for reading sites like Breitbart, while meanwhile “[they] don’t realize that those are quite literally (((controlled op)))…” The use of parentheses here is meant to convey the belief that such websites are secretly run by Jewish elites in order to split the right.
Despite these doubts, it’s clear that 4chan’s /pol/ and other alt-right communities provided a great deal of the fascist right’s manpower. Three of the fascists we studied praised the so-called “the Kekosphere.” “kekism” and “kek” with their red-pilling.
I should note that one of the more frustrating elements about covering the fascist right is that much of what they say sounds ridiculous and makes them appear less than serious. This is why it is important to remember that these groups have a body count and represent a real threat. Their absurdity does not negate their danger.
Kek is a term that first appeared in the MMORPG World of Warcraft. The two sides in that game, Horde and Alliance, were not supposed to communicate with one another. So when a member of one side chatted at another, their words were run through a filter to make it sound like a foreign language. When Horde players would type “lol,” it was translated as “kek”. Over time “kek” became another way of expressing laughter online. On 4chan’s /pol/ board kek took on a grander meaning and came to embody the essence of the “meme magic” that first made the alt-right so prominent. The cultural rock tumbler of /pol/ eventually transmuted kek into Kekistan, a fictional ethno-state for “shitposters.”
Kekistan first became prominent with the enthusiastic endorsement of YouTuber Sargon of Akkad. And for many people, including Sargon, Kekistan is just a dumb Internet joke. In 2017 Sargon of Akkad announced that he would try to register “Kekistani” as an official ethnic group for the 2020 U.K. census. This all unraveled into a parody of the refugee crisis.
And over time Kekistan came to be used as something of a Trojan horse by the fascist right. One good example is the flag of Kekistan.
This design of the flag, benign at first glance, is just a color-inverted variant of the German Kriegsflagge (battle flag) from the Nazi era.
Kekistan is a common topic of discussion on fascist Discord servers. Opinions vary from calling it a “forced meme” to expressing serious devotion to the idea. Kekistan flags and other regalia are often seen at Patriot Prayer rallies and other far-right protests. Some fascists lament that many people who fly the flag don’t understand the Nazi origins of its design. But many know exactly what they are signaling when they put one on a flagpole, or their helmet:
You can see the whole USAF video here. It’s frustratingly light on details. The contractor wearing this flag may just be a channer who finds Kekistan funny. He may be a committed fascist signaling to his comrades. Or he may be somewhere in between, finding himself pulled further and further towards extremism as time goes on. When this footage went viral, the contractor was fired by his employer, MAG Aerospace.
While 4chan’s /pol/ board is the most common source of Internet-based red-pills, a close second appears to be the Infowars media network of famed American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The influence of Infowars
Six of our fascist activists credit Alex Jones with red-pilling them. Jones has been a prominent radio and Internet conspiracy theorist since the mid-1990s and is the founder of the media organization Infowars. Jones first rose to prominence when he served as executive producer on Loose Change, a series of films that began in 2005 and which helped ignite the “9/11 Truther” movement.
Two more activists on our list credit Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson with their red-pilling. Conspiracy theories appear to be one of the more well-trodden roads into fascist nationalism. This may have something to do with the fact that lack of interpersonal trust and employment insecurity are heavily correlated with belief in conspiracy theories. In 1995 Umberto Eco wrote that at the center of fascist psychology was, “…the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.” He believed that this was because fascist believers needed to feel “besieged”.
Whatever the “why,” numerous Discord posts reveal the “how.” User Harleen Kekzel claims to have identified as a “polyamorous genderqueer masculine leaning pansexual” at age 16. She claims her red-pilling process started with Alex Jones.
She explains later that she was “was conspiracy pilled,” but also says she and her husband weren’t red-pilled until the Pulse nightclub massacre. A number of other fascist activists say their journey to the far right started with conspiracy theories. Kombat-Unit, one of the most prominent posters in these Discord conversations, at one point notes his approval of this source of new converts; “if you can get some guys through UFO stuff I’m not complaining.” In response, another user says:
Alex Jones and Infowars are also viewed with skepticism by many fascist activists. Some disregard them as “controlled opposition.” The general opinion seems to be that Jones is useful, but far too milquetoast for people who cheerfully support National Socialism.
Most episodes of Alex Jones’s popular streaming and radio shows center on him exposing aspects of a grand “globalist” conspiracy to take over the world. Everything from mass shootings to terrorist attacks is accused of being staged at the behest of these globalists. A number of fascist activists use the term “globalist” as a synonym for “Jewish.” It is not hard to find people who have interpreted Jones’ work this way:
Infowars reached the height of its influence as a result of sites like Facebook and YouTube. By the time they were kicked off of YouTube, Infowars had more than 2.4 million followers and 1.6 billion page views across 36,000 videos. It is likely that banning Infowars will reduce the flow of recruits to far right groups. But even without Infowars, YouTube still provides a pathway for those interested in the American fascist movement.
The importance of YouTube
15 out of 75 fascist activists we studied credited YouTube videos with their red-pilling. In this thread, a group of white supremacists debate with a “civic nationalist” who says he won’t judge an entire race by the actions of a few. It is suggested that he watch a video by American Renaissance, a white supremacist publication. The video, “What the Founders Really Thought About Race,” is essentially a history lesson about why the U.S. founding fathers thought race-mixing was bad. It endorses genocide, via the bearded face of James Garfield:
Fascists who become red-pilled through YouTube often start with comparatively less extreme right-wing personalities, like Ben Shapiro or Milo Yiannopolous.
One user explained that he was a “moderate republican” before “Steven Crowder, Paul Joseph Watson, Milo Yiannopolos, Black Pidgeon Speaks,” and other far-right YouTubers slowly red-pilled him. Over time he “moved further and further right until [he] could no longer stand them. That’s why [he likes] those groups even still, because if we just had the Fascists, we’d never convert anyone.”
Other YouTubers like JonTron also come up in red-pilling discussions. At least three fascists credit Sargon of Akkad with starting their journey. An equal number credit Milo Yiannopoulos. Steven Crowder is referenced as a great red-piller. The users who talk about these creators appear to have watched a great number of their videos. Creators are referenced more often than specific videos.
Producer Dennis Wise intended The Greatest Story Never Told to present a “more balanced and truthful” depiction of World War II. The documentary is almost six hours long and clunkily edited. It completely leaves out the Holocaust. It is a surprising candidate for the most influential single piece of modern fascist propaganda, but it may in fact be that. Or it may just be the most memorable piece of propaganda consumed by several young men on their long and twisted roads to radicalization.
Human beings are not simple creatures, and so no person’s journey to such an extremist belief system can be boiled down to just “YouTube did it” or “4chan did it.” Millions of people have been exposed to ironic racism and /pol/ without going on to don a swastika armband. Radicalization is a process, and the goal of this study is to reveal several of the factors that can act to prime and nudge a young mind from laughing at Holocaust jokes to truly believing that Hitler did nothing wrong.