Cyberwar (2016) s02e01 Episode Script

The Great Meme War

1 N: It's a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the American people.
Ultimately it's a war, a cyberwar.
Who's gonna dictate the news cycle? An online army using subversive techniques to push extreme ideas It's not "right versus left" even anymore.
It's like "establishment versus anti-establishment".
and now with direct access to the administration.
I think I'm supposed to officially say, "No comment," on this, but yes, people know that I know Trump, and Trump knows me.
They're having a profound impact on American culture.
We have effectively taken a generation and shifted them one step over to the Right.
When most people think of memes, they think of these.
But with the rise of ISIS, the once harmless meme was weaponized and became an effective recruitment tool.
Since then, memes bubbling up from message boards like 4Chan, 8Chan and Reddit have come to include hashtags, videos and slogans.
The Left and the Right are now using memes in an all-out war of ideas that's transforming the political and cultural landscape.
(Shouting) Some of the most savvy meme-makers and trolls now have influence on the White House, and their work is being blamed for the disturbing increase of alt-right and nationalist sentiment erupting across the country.
Hate crimes continuing to increase.
White supremacists and the alt-right feel empowered and connected to the White House.
I'm in Southern California to meet the generals of this memeonic war, and to figure out why they're so good at influencing large swaths of the American population.
Jesus was a troll, Socrates was a troll.
- Jesus was a troll? - Jesus was a troll.
And of course, he got punished.
He got He would've been banned from Twitter, probably.
This is Chuck Johnson, one of the first to recognize the power of the meme.
He's also one of the first to be permanently banned from Twitter after tweeting for donations to, quote, "take out" a Black Lives Matter activist.
Like a lot of the alt-right memeonic warriors, Johnson believes the establishment institutions are broken and is determined to tear them down.
He describes himself as a "citizen troll", and leads a troll army of several thousand cyber soldiers who will research, crowdfund or tweet en masse at his command.
With their help, Johnson is responsible for bringing Bill Clinton's sexual assault accusers to the presidential debate, and says he IDed the 15-year-old girl who Anthony Weiner was sexting with.
One of the things that people like to do is copy ideas that they agree with and spread them, and memes are sort of perfectly adapted for that.
You've been able to kind of disrupt American society and the American presidential election, right? That's true, yeah.
The Democratic Party having lost the election, they're trying to figure out why they lost, and so they blame Russia, or they blame Comey.
And really they should be blaming the trolls and, you know, the 16-year-olds who are part of Trump nation, who are sharing things, making memes, making jokes.
I have to imagine that there are some intelligence agencies that are interested in what you do.
I don't know if I'm allowed to say which ones, but yeah, I've talked to intelligence agencies.
And what are they asking you about? Asking me how it works.
I've sort of tried to keep an arm's length distance from them, because I think the use of some of these tools with the government could be quite dangerous.
Do you think that these Western militaries are starting to figure out what you've figured out, and then they're now wielding it? Not just the militaries, the intelligence agencies as well? No, they're not capable enough.
No? I mean, I tried to explain to them, "Stop jailing your computer programming talent.
Bring them and try to co-opt them.
" And how about you and your connections to Trump? I think I'm supposed to officially say, "No comment," on this, but yes, people know that I know Trump and Trump knows me.
So you're a pretty famous troll.
I mean, I used to rebuff it.
I was an investigative journalist, won a number of awards.
But you know, a lot of journalism now is indistinguishable from trolling.
Johnson says journalism and trolling are one and the same.
He might be right, but a lot of people would take issue with Johnson describing himself as an investigative journalist altogether.
Is trolling your enemies online really journalism? Or is it just an effective way to communicate your message? So I'm in Orange Country right now, which is the fictional home of The OC and Laguna Beach, and is also the home of right-wing and famous blogger Mike Cernovich, who's gonna show me what gaming and memeing social media is really about.
Cernovich believes he's at information war with the mainstream media.
He's a master at leveraging his hundreds of thousands of followers to spread his message.
But why are his memes so effective? People think in terms of stories, and they think in terms of archetypes.
An archetype would be masculine, feminine, strength, weakness, those universal themes about people.
So the image has to be viscerally impactful, but then the messaging also has to be clear? 'Cause for a meme to spread, you want it to catch hold like that.
And then you wanna make it easy to share, and you want it to be compelling, and of course you want it to be fun too.
So people who try to understand what I do in a literal term, they can't understand it.
They're gonna think in terms of words, and really you wanna think in terms of image.
How does a meme travel through a network? You learn that a hashtag is a rallying point for people.
You learn this by following Black Lives Matter, by following the Arab Spring.
Twitter, that's why it's so powerful, is you can get a hashtag online and then you can do things with that.
If you get enough people talking about a subject, that becomes newsworthy in itself because it's oh wow, look at all these people talking about that subject.
And then you create a news cycle, and now other people have to respond to your stories.
So can you show me what you do exactly on Periscope? Yeah, for sure.
We'll do it in real time.
Periscope is a live-streaming video platform that allows users to broadcast directly to their followers, and get feedback in real time.
I have fancy equipment.
I have a green screen, I have lightboxes, I have the big camera, but really the power here is just the smartphone.
So I'll show you how I'm gonna take a hashtag that we never created, and I'll show you how we get people involved.
And we're back! Mike Cernovich, dangerandplay.
com, Gorilla Mindset, how ya doing? A lot of you wanna know what is next.
So what is going on? What's going on is there are so many of us, and we gotta meet more in real life.
So we're announcing a brand new project.
Here's the next idea, tell me what you think: regional meet-ups all across the country, and we're gonna call it MAGAMeetups.
And by the way, while you're doing this, post to the hashtag on Twitter, M-A-G-A-M-E-E-T-U-P-S.
Twenty minutes later, he had about 500 people ready to spread his message.
I'll talk to you soon.
So do you just do that every single day? Yeah.
- You don't prep? - Nothing.
- You just riff? - Exactly.
But also you do you do quite a good job of speaking to people personally, as if they know you.
Well, it's eye contact.
Like we're talking, I'm making eye contact with you.
If people believe you're listening to them, even if they don't agree with you, they're like, "Ah, you know" But ultimately, who's the arbiter of truth? In January 2017, four black teenagers in Chicago kidnapped and tortured a white 18-year-old, and broadcast the whole thing on Facebook Live.
It was a deeply disturbing act, but two days later a hashtag started trending on Twitter linking the kidnapping to the activist group Black Lives Matter, even though there was no evidence of any connection between BLM and the kidnappers.
Mike Cernovich was the architect of that hashtag.
You're accusing CNN and elsewhere of being fake news.
Fine, you have that perspective, yours to have.
However, if you're gonna spread a hashtag "BLMKidnapping", and it's not based in fact It's the culture of hatred.
But were these people involved with BLM? They were part of the culture of hatred.
But is being black part of BLM? They were part of the culture of identity politics and resentment fed by the media.
Now, what you can say, you can say, "Mike, that's unfair.
You shouldn't" I mean, I think it's a reach at the very best on your in your perspective.
It's okay to use the culture and the power structures and these structural-type arguments to blame anything possible on Trump.
But when I use that same justification, then suddenly there's skepticism, and, "Where's your real evidence?" and, "You need to connect the dots.
" I've seen this kind of argument on MSNBC, I've seen it on CNN, I've seen it on FOX News, I'm seeing it right now.
The idea that well, they did it, we can do it too, and they're all calling each other fake news.
Yeah, it's hilarious.
All the research surveys show that trust in media is at an all-time low.
In the world of fake news, truth may have taken a back seat to spectacle.
But if right-wing meme-makers aren't always using facts to win hearts and minds, what are they using? on the Right accuse the mainstream media of creating fake news and inciting a culture of hate.
They may have a point, but it's hard to see how the anti-establishment meme-makers are any better.
What they are better at is telling stories; using memes across online platforms.
I want to find out why memes can be more effective at influencing people than facts, so I'm meeting up with Jonas Kaplan, a professor who uses fMRis to examine the neuropsychology of belief.
- Nice to meet you.
- We're gonna go upstairs? We're gonna go inside, we're gonna get you set up, and then stick you into a big magnet.
Yeah, apparently.
The US military has long since known the power of stories to influence people.
In 2009, DARPA, the military's research wing, began funding studies on the role narratives play in shaping our values.
Much of Kaplan's research has been funded by DARPA.
After sliding into the machine, I'm instructed to respond to questions that assess my position on stuff like abortion and military spending, then I'm faced with statements that directly contradict that position.
The machine monitors which parts of my brain become active when my beliefs are challenged.
That was extremely uncomfortable.
(Laughing) And you can see here this is showing the data, the correlation between how much people change their minds inside the scanner and how much these brain regions were activated.
So the people who activated the amygdala and the insula more were much less likely to change their minds.
So why is DARPA, which is affiliated with the military, interested in this kind of research? The DARPA study that we did was on narratives and processing narratives, and I think one of the reasons DARPA was interested in that is because the Defense Department has an interest in messaging and communicating with various people they come across in the course of their work.
Does that mean that these kinds of this kind of research anyways could be weaponized in some way? I suppose any power can be used for good or evil, right? And I think if we can understand how to bridge those gaps between our values and someone else's values, that's a tremendously powerful thing to be used for positive purposes.
I mean, I think one of the things that we've learned is that these kind of direct attacks on people's beliefs, they just really don't work very well.
So what's an easier way to do that then? I think that one of the ways that is more effective is through other forms of communication like narrative.
You know, when you tell somebody a story that has a point of view and has values embedded in it, people kind of soften their defenses a little bit because they don't treat it as an assault, where when people are challenged about these beliefs, they go into their head, they reach back into their memory for arguments that shore up their own beliefs, they do things like figuring out how I can discredit the person who's telling me the information.
So then are you describing that narrative in some way is sort of a Trojan horse for ideas? Yeah, I think it can work that way.
So as opposed to a sort of full frontal assault, a story can kind of worm its way in through the defenses there, and doesn't seem like an actual attack.
In that way, it is like a Trojan horse, and you don't necessarily even recognize that you're being influenced by a story.
(Singing) If a fun meme can be a Trojan horse for radical ideas, then this guy is a memeonic Odysseus.
(Singing) Formally a staffer and contributor for BuzzFeed, he left the organization in 2016 after he says he was ostracized for his pro-Trump politics.
Since then, Baked Alaska has been an influential proponent for the alt-right, venturing into extremist territory with pro-white nationalism and what some construe as anti-Semitic tweets.
We want America first, and we want to stop taking care of all these other countries before our country, and that seems to be a difficult subject for people to swallow.
I met Baked Alaska at an LA bar to find out what drives him to be such a passionate memeonic soldier, and who he's fighting against.
It's not "right versus left" even anymore.
It's like "establishment versus anti-establishment".
That's what it really comes down to.
So if there's people on the Left that want to take the establishment down, you know, we're all for that.
So what is it? What's the game plan? 'Cause you obviously understand Twitter, you understand hashtags, you understand all this stuff.
I mean, walk me through it.
How do you do it? I could never give away my secrets, because a magician never shows his cards.
You know, that'd be stupid.
But back in the day, to get across a political point, you would use an article, you would maybe even use a video.
But if we can pack an article's worth of information in merely an image, and then make it funny, when you make it funny, their guard goes down.
And all of a sudden you're influencing hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, with one tweet.
Now, would you say that these social justice warriors as you call them, political correctness, are they the enemy? Is this the target of your wrath? No.
The people that are being used, the social justice warriors, they are merely pawns in a bigger game.
You know, the real enemies are the people that are feeding narratives to these pawns.
Would you say that the US is in an online and offline real world civil war, or we're on the cusp of it? Oh, we are in a civil war, and we have been for a long time.
It is a war for the collective consciousness, who can control the hive.
in New York tracking down intel on memeonic cyber-propaganda and its relationship to right-wing politics.
What's the connection between racist memes and the increase in white nationalist sentiment? Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News.
Bernstein's been covering the alt-right's online counterculture and its growing use of memes since 2015.
And what about memes? Like when did you start seeing them being used by this alt-right troll army? I do work for BuzzFeed, so I kind of have a contact high for memes whether I want to or not.
But you know, it's become kinda the cultural unit of the internet, for better or worse.
So it's kind of natural that people who grew up with the internet would use them as a way of transmitting information, whether that information is about a hungry cat or about, you know, Nazi a Nazi preoccupation.
So how about these memeotic warfare rooms essentially that the alt-right has? Right, so I used to kind of squat or lurk in a Discord chat run by the Daily Stormer, which is a neo-Nazi website, and I'm comfortable calling that a neo-Nazi website.
BEN: Oh, that's neo-Nazi.
JOE: And they had their sort of main general chat, and then beneath that in one of the sub-chats, it was called something like Meme Warfare.
And it's essentially a place for people who are very good at doing memes in Photoshop and in other ways to teach, like, meme recruits how to do better memes.
And actually, do you want to make a distinction there? Like people call this alt-right online troll army.
To what extent is this kind of online neo-Nazism? That's a really hard, good question.
I do think the sort of symbology of Nazism is a big part of the alt-right.
I mean, certainly they love Hitler and they love the swastika, and a big part of online trolling is to shock and offend.
And that draws in both disaffected 18 year olds, people who are just looking for laughs, and people who have genuinely disturbing beliefs.
Bernstein mentioned memeonic recruiters.
Do these people actually hang out on message boards like The Daily Stormer, 8Chan and Reddit? I needed to find out.
After some serious digging, we managed to get an interview with an anti-establishment meme recruiter who calls himself Major Grubert.
Grubert believes the media is a mass-manipulative mind control tool that's been weaponized against human dignity.
He describes himself as an alt-right Rasputin who uses memes to bioengineer culture, and has built up his own troll army of meme-makers by training untapped talent from the unknown recesses of the web.
He agreed to speak with us on the condition his identity wouldn't be revealed, and things are about to get weird.
So you got these young kids right now who are talented.
Yeah.
I see in them this level of nihilism, that they don't have a ing future, the way things are going.
Are you talking from an employment standpoint? They have no economic future, they have no romantic future, there's no families waiting for them in the future.
There's nothing, and they feel it.
You see, we live in an age where everything we do, we say, we think is filtered and monitored.
So how do we exchange information freely? Well, we use art, we use pictures.
We take an image, we infuse it with our intention, and we slide it under the door of censorship, of algorithmic suppression.
The mistake they made was moving our culture and our information online, and then engaging in an information and cultural war with the generation that grew up waging war online.
They look at their systems like programs.
We look at their systems like video games.
That's why we're winning.
We have effectively taken a generation and shifted them one step over to the Right.
A growing army of anti-establishment, cyber-savvy meme-makers could be a real problem.
To find out what the establishment is doing about it, I'm heading to Washington to talk to one of its rising stars.
ngton, D.
C.
to find out how the establishment is responding to an alt-right army of cyber meme-makers that might have helped fuel an increase of racist sentiment across the country.
(Yelling) CROWD: USA! USA! I stand up and I defend white people.
And in this country, you're not supposed to do that.
(Booing) One of the politicians keeping a close eye on the rise of white nationalism is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
So, you're one of the rare politicians that not only knows what a meme is, but you understand the power of a meme.
How did that happen? In the early 2000s, I started seeing this social media revolution going on, and saw the power and the potential in using these platforms.
But clearly in a world of terrorism and bigotry and hatred and purposeful misinformation, these platforms can be used for negativity as well.
I mean, how do you stop this stuff, and can you? I think it's important for us to govern ourselves and be delicate there, especially when you're getting into First Amendment rights.
And I think there's a corporate responsibility too, you know, where you create these forums, whether you're Twitter or Facebook or Instagram.
They do have standards.
When you are over that line, I'm all for shutting down dangerous activities inciting people to violence.
Something's going on in the climate we have right now.
And if we are taking our eye off of that, it's gonna be very dangerous for this country.
But will monitoring social media platforms be enough to stop the meme revolution? Or does the establishment need to accept it's losing a civil war of ideas against an enemy that was literally raised on the online battlefield? We're going to expand our networks.
We're going to teach our younglings, the next generation of mes, people like me.
They need to move forward.
They get that.
It's a video game.
Get new gear, get new weapons, get new armour.
It's a good way to think about it, actually.
That's the only way they think about it.
And they're better at the system than we are.
They grew up online.
We beat one boss, we have much bigger bosses.
Level up.
The right wing keeps winning and winning and winning and winning because the left side of things, they haven't even accepted reality.
So, you know, you can't solve the problem unless you define the problem.
And they're just stuck in disillusion, and they're not even accepting reality.
If your objective is to get rid of Donald Trump Your first point is to admit that he won.
(Laughing) Exactly.
I mean, to face reality.
And they can't do that.
People cannot face reality right now.
Trump was sort of a hostile takeover of our political process, and that will probably happen with other industries as well.
You know, it's probably gonna happen in tech, Silicon Valley, the banking sector.
You know, there's a lot of craziness that goes on.
And I certainly wouldn't invest in media properties anytime soon.
If all I do in one day is expose a media hoax, then that is a great day.
So do you feel like you're at information war, so to speak, with the Left? Ultimately it's a war, a cyberwar.
Who's gonna dictate the news cycle? And do you think that this is just an extension of kinetic war? Well, it's a prelude to other kinds of war, yeah.
And I would rather that's why I'm pro-free speech.
Because as long as we're talking to each other, even if it's with some vitriol, we're not shooting each other.
And so I'm anti-political violence, and I'm pro-free speech, and we're battling for the hearts and minds of people, for sure.
Memes have become the powerful weapon of choice in an escalating war of ideas.
I've seen firsthand the forces taking aim on mainstream culture, helping fuel the political rivalry that's engulfing the nation, and the stakes couldn't be higher.
Yet while the liberal progressives struggle for a way to counter their attack, I can't help but wonder what the cultural landscape will look like if the trolls keep winning.