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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The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.
Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.
"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."
This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality
Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.
But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?
Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?
When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.
After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.
Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.
Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.
Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.
For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.
We're glad they're on our side.
The world is up against a seemingly insurmountable threat, but luckily, we've got a crack team of heroes on the case.
Sure, there's already the girl with super strength, the guy who can fly, and the anthropomorphic, trash-talking animal tailor-made for merchandise. But this is a threat of intergalactic proportions, and we're going to need all the help we can get if we want to survive.
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