Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave a major speech in Reno Thursday that aimed to reset the 2016 campaign conversation with a focus on Donald Trump’s ties to the Alt-Right, a collection of right-wing political groups that have ascended in the digital age and been vocal advocates for Trump online.
Clinton devoted a sizeable portion of her speech to defining the Alt-Right. The group is indeed not easily identified, but anyone who has spent any significant time on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit is probably familiar with their behavior and tactics.
“The ‘Alt-Right’ is kind of a new description applied to a number of groups,” says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups in the United States. “It began as an anti-Muslim movement in Europe and has been spreading in this country since about 2008. Fundamentally, it is a movement based on the idea that race is foundational. They talk a lot about white identity and protecting white society.”
“The Alt-Right is dominated by younger whites and relies heavily on the use of social media,” Potok added. “They spread their message through hashtags and memes.”
Oddly, the Alt-Right has been noted for having a significant role in the online attacks of comedian Leslie Jones in recent weeks -- harassment that has elicited support from across the Internet, including from Hillary Clinton via Twitter.
“Clinton’s choice to publicly lend support to Jones wasn’t a simple gesture of solidarity. The tweet came just hours after Clinton gave a campaign speech that called out the internet’s growing alt-right movement — the primarily online community of conservatives and right-wing extremists that has spent weeks harassing Jones,” explained Aja Romano in a report for Vox.
Indeed, Jones has experienced weeks of harassment online following her breakout role in the all-female Ghostbusters. Those attacks accelerated when Milo Yiannopoulos, a leader in the Alt-Right movement, encouraged his Twitter followers to launch a campaign of misogynistic and racist harassment against Jones. The result was Jones taking a sustained break from Twitter and the company permanently banning Yiannopoulos.
If banning Yiannopoulos was a warning shot in Twitter’s battle with the Alt-Right, what came next was perhaps the opening salvo. Last week, Twitter quietly announced a new Quality Filter feature that seeks to make ignoring trolls, including ones on the Alt-Right, a lot easier.
According to Twitter’s official description, “Quality filtering aims to remove all Tweets from your notifications timeline that contain threats, offensive or abusive language, duplicate content, or are sent from suspicious accounts.” There are no direct mentions of the Alt-Right. Still, news of the feature had the members of the group nervous.
“When Twitter uses phrases like ‘anti-harassment’ and ‘quality filter,’ it usually means someone is going to get censored, and that someone is usually a conservative. Twitter’s attempt to sneak in a new ‘quality filter’ is part of the site’s tactics to marginalize and suppress conservative and libertarian voices on the platform,” wrote a Breitbart staffer in a post instructing readers on how to remove the Quality Filter from their own Twitter profiles.
Twitter representatives declined to comment on whether or not the behavior of the Alt-Right had any impact on the decision to release the Quality Filter or its design. A spokesperson did, however, offer Complex the following statement in part:
“This year we have invested heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it's happening and prevent repeat offenders. We are reviewing our policies to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted.”
Twitter isn’t alone in thinking of new ways to block the Alt-Right’s nastiest content. In June, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced in a town hall post on Reddit that the site was changing its algorithm, in part, to keep the Alt-Right trolls in a pro-Trump subReddit from dominating the platform.
“Many people will ask if this is related to r/the_donald. The short answer is no, we have been working on this change for a while,” Huffman wrote, “but I cannot deny their behavior hastened its deployment. We have seen many communities like r/the_donald over the years—ones that attempt to dominate the conversation on Reddit at the expense of everyone else. This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it.”
Time will tell whether or not siloing the Alt-Right on platforms like Twitter and Reddit will work. For the meantime, social media users are just combating members the old-fashioned way.
When the Alt-Right tried to launch a Twitter campaign Thursday, for example, users flooded their #AltRightMeans hashtag with memes and jokes that drowned out much of the group’s messaging.