How irony functions in the Information Age.
In November 2018, a bunch of Internet trolls banded together to combat their greatest existential threat to date―"thots."
They united beneath the banner of #ThotAudit ("thot" stands for "that ho over there") with the stated goal of reporting girls with premium Snapchats to the IRS, based on their assumption that online sex workers don't pay taxes. Their "movement" picked up steam on Facebook, then 4chan and various corners of Reddit. Proponents delighted in sending "thots" harassing DMs and sharing screenshots of completed IRS tip forms.
Even infamous pick-up artist Roosh got in on the campaign, encouraging reports with a tweet highlighting a 30% cut of any profits retrieved from IRS tax dodgers as the result of whistleblowing.
All of this ultimately culminated in absolutely nothing. There wasn't a single confirmed case of a #ThotAudit tip leading to an IRS takedown of a sex worker. All the outrage simply ended up being yet another excuse for angry right-wing men to harass women, much like #Gamergate.
But perhaps this shouldn't have been a surprise, considering the entire effort started as a cruel joke. While David Wu, the conservative Facebook user who started the whole thing, definitely believed in the ideology behind #ThotAudit. He never thought anything would actually be reported to the IRS. In essence, it was just a "troll idea" until someone actually did it, at which point it became a legitimate form of harassment and everyone who was "just trolling" was still entirely on board.
At the same time, subreddits dedicated to making fun of right-wing reactionaries had already started making their ironic memes. But in many of the related threads, something strange happened––some people were responding to the satirical memes unironically. For example, in this thread from r/gamersriseup, a subreddit predicated on users roleplaying as "gamers" who think they're being oppressed by society, one person responded to a presumably ironic post about #ThotAudit by asking, "why is this subreddit unironic now" and received over 40 upvotes.
While the entire debacle played out through small spats on niche corners of the internet, it nicely illustrated a much larger point playing out all across society: the decontextualization of ironic media.
Irony Is Not Dead
Despite the phrase's commonality, "irony is dead" is an incorrect assessment of a complex phenomenon.
If irony truly were dead, that would mean people were no longer utilizing ironic humor or interest in ironic culture. That, of course, is patently untrue. Everything from the existence of ironic meme subcultures to the prolific status of bad movies stands as evidence to the contrary. People still love ironic media, especially in more niche parts of the internet. The problem is that due to the nature of the internet and the unfettered access it gives to people from all walks of life, ironic media can no longer be trusted to remain in its ironic context. Instead, we get "post-ironic media"––press that may or might not have initially been ironic, but functions as genuine regardless.
Take r/gamersriseup for instance. While the subreddit is explicitly intended to make fun of right-wing "gamer" reactionaries, at least 40 people saw one such "ironic" post about #ThotAudit and genuinely thought, "yeah, that makes perfect sense." In that capacity, to those 40 people, r/gamersriseup was unironic in spite of its intent. In other words, an ironic sub unintentionally pushed the exact sentiment it was making fun of due to certain users earnestly believing said sentiment.
This begs the question: does the intent behind content creation matter if people are going to interpret it seriously anyway?
Does Intent Matter?
"Ironic media" exists purely within the context of its consumption. For instance, a poorly made movie can be viewed either ironically or unironically. An unironic viewing might point out the ways the movie fails and deem it "bad." Whereas an ironic viewing would specifically relish in the movie's failures through the lens of "so bad it's good." Ultimately, the enjoyment and appreciation for the movie doesn't derive from whether or not the director intended the movie to be "good" or "bad," but rather how the viewer approaches it.
That same sentiment can be applied to any form of "ironic media." If a non-racist person makes a racist meme ironically to show how stupid racists are, there's a good chance that their non-racist friends will view the meme as similarly ironic. There's also a good chance that an actual racist would see the meme, agree with it, and reshare it unironically with other people who would agree. The result, regardless of the original poster's intent, would still be spreading racism.
The Internet's greatest benefit is also its most significant drawback––everyone has access to everything. This means that even when something is posted in a community meant entirely as a joke, such as r/gamersriseup, someone will always approach it sans context. Short of completely closed and controlled environments, creating and sharing ironic content still runs the risk of genuinely spreading ideas you disagree with.
The Larger Context
On 4chan, Donald Trump was always a joke. That's not to say many people on the forum didn't support him––they did, rabidly––but these users weren't in quite the same boat as the middle-aged Christian conservative boomers who voted for Trump. 4Chan users were generally younger and more internet savvy. It's not that they didn't support Trump genuinely––again, they did––but rather they enjoyed the entire Trump presidency through a layer of irony. It's similar to how someone else might view a "bad" movie in a positive light because of how funny they found it. To be clear, the users' racism, sexism, and homophobia were absolutely real, but Trump was a meme, a big joke intended to piss off liberals and "globalists."
That's why when Trump won the election in 2016, they bragged about memeing a president into office. In this capacity, many Trump memes were created ironically, at least in the sense that the person making them didn't necessarily believe the content. Instead, the intent was twofold. Within the 4chan community, a solid Trump meme would inspire laughs from like-minded people who "got it." Outside the 4chan community, the meme could be targeted at and shared by "normies" (4chan's catch-all term for normal people functioning with ease in mainstream society) who either agreed with them and believed the content genuinely or disagreed with them and were therefore "triggered."
So while the number of eligible voters on 4chan might have been largely insignificant, (or at least too insignificant to matter in a national election), their understanding of the internet and its many subcultures gave them extensive reach––enough that they really might have influenced the election by targeting "ironic" memes at people with no barometer for irony.
So how do we approach "ironic media" in a post-ironic culture where everything can be shared and re-shared far beyond its point of origin?
Ultimately, ironic media isn't going anywhere. Ironic jokes and memes and communities are an inherent part of online culture. Ironically, however, irony doesn't translate well online. The sheer number of people coming into contact with any given piece of public content ensures that someone somewhere will decontextualize it and take it at face value. Knowing this, how can we ensure our irony functions as intended? How do we dismantle ideas we dislike, fully understanding that our action spreads those very ideas? There might not be a correct answer. Even when we limit ironic content to isolated communities where it's most likely to be understood, certain people always find a way to miss the point.
As such, we should always approach ironic media through the lens of skepticism. Just because you find something funny doesn't mean it was intended to be ironic, and it also doesn't mean that others will interpret it similarly. On the other hand, something automatically offensive might have been intended as a joke, so before dedicating your time and energy to a response, try to assess whether or not you're reading it correctly.
Finally, consider the effects of sharing ironic content should it be interpreted genuinely. In certain dedicated communities (ironic meme forums, for instance), the chances are high that most people engaging with the content will be in the same mindset as you. But if not, if people take the material you're putting out at face value, is that something you're okay with? Is that content worth the possibility of spreading ideas and sentiments that might be at odds with the ones you actually hold? Maybe it is. Only you can decide.
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