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Lonely, angry, eager to make history: Online mobs are likely to remain a dangerous reality


Straining for an Internet signal inside a warehouse where he often felt like a “nobody,” Jake dashed out an order on his iPhone’s Robinhood app, feeling like he’d made history. GameStop’s share price has since plunged to half of what Jake paid, but he still feels like he’s formed a special bond with online strangers he’ll never meet: Together, they’d staged a rebellion against the people who’d looked down on him his entire life.

“It was palpable, this energy: We were an Internet forum taking on Wall Street,” said Jake, who spoke on the condition he’d be identified only by his first name for fear it could affect his job. “There was definitely this feeling of: Let’s see how much we can do. How far can this be taken? How much power do we really have?”

The GameStop stock rally marked a crystallizing moment for the online mob. Distrustful of major institutions, angry at the powers that be, a faceless crowd brought together by a single website had, in a time of great loneliness, coordinated a strategy forceful enough to move markets and reshape the world.

That same power was on violent display a few weeks earlier in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, as a swarm of Trump supporters and believers in the extremist ideology QAnon stormed the heart of American democracy. Many of them had found each other online in the days ahead of the siege, marshaling an army from home that went from voicing its grievances in online forums to overrunning the U.S. Capitol and chanting for lawmakers’ deaths.

With the Trump impeachment and the WallStreetBets fervor now in the past, those who study the effect of online collective action are wondering where newly emboldened online communities might aim their armies next. They say the message boards and websites where like-minded people gather do little to intervene — and, in Reddit’s case, have often celebrated them as reflections of their growing power.

That hands-off approach could allow other chaotic movements to spiral out of control, and experts are calling for more corporate accountability, public regulation and industry oversight to keep potentially problematic communities in line.

Reddit’s former interim chief executive Ellen Pao echoed that concern, noting that the private companies that shape and shelter these movements benefit financially from viral distribution and user devotion.

“How do you encourage humanity and authenticity in an environment where you’re rewarding engagement based on outrage and extremism?” she said.

In the gargantuan shadow of the Internet, these smaller groups have gained incredible influence: Brought together by shared values and subcultures, they’ve fueled social movements with real-world impact, from Black Lives Matter protests to the Arab Spring.

Online communities have long fostered a team spirit and thrilled at what they can accomplish when they act in a focused and unstoppable way. Reddit and other forums are infamous for “brigading” — coordinating hordes to move at once to make their mark on the real world.

That crowd action has often played out for laughs: Nearly 15 years ago, an anonymous army on Reddit, 4chan and other online boards famously rallied to dominate an international Greenpeace naming contest for a humpback whale it christened “Mister Splashy Pants.”

But the WallStreetBets blitz and the Capitol riot marked a coming of age for the Internet’s power — not just as a viral joke, but as a way to bend reality, politics and billions of dollars in real-world cash to its own ends.

In interviews with The Washington Post over the past month, WallStreetBets regulars and QAnon believers — found via Reddit, the group-chat service Telegram and other digital meeting places — voiced wildly different ambitions but similar rationales for joining the communities that drove them to mass action.

The online communities offered a sense of belonging and intimacy in a pandemic era of mind-numbing tedium, anxiety and solitude, they said. They described feeling energized by anger at common enemies — including doubters and perceived “traitors” — and fueled by grievance at a corrupt establishment they said had worked against them all along.

Some said they were hungry for emotional connection and eager to participate in an insular culture with its own language, customs and rules, which seemed to promise them a special truth that outsiders wouldn’t understand. And when their plans began to take hold, they were thrilled by the grand impact of their collective action, feeling like they had taken part in a revolution.

They fostered cohesion by styling their actions as countercultural uprisings. QAnon adherents call themselves “digital soldiers,” using memes to fight on behalf of former president Donald Trump. WallStreetBets subscribers used more self-deprecating names — including offensive terms for people with developmental disabilities — as a nod to their ethos of recklessness: scrappy, irreverent, irrational daredevils, proudly low on the social hierarchy.

Both movements also developed defense mechanisms for when reality threatened to intrude, echoing conspiracy theories about political and financial elites and chanting slogans: “Hold the line” and “To the moon,” when GameStop’s stock started to collapse, and “Trust the plan,” when President Biden’s swearing-in didn’t trigger mass arrests.

WallStreetBets’ popularity is particularly fascinating, said three researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studied the subreddit last year, because it is practically designed to be off-putting.

Its followers constantly trolled and insulted one another with crude meme-filled lingo, and members joked about how poorly the board was managed and how stupid everyone else was. Moderators actively purged newcomers, and posts about money-losing bets were so commonplace and popular that they became a subgenre: “Loss porn.”

Yet its members loved it, the researchers found. Followers said they felt a cozy “sense of camaraderie” there that they compared to a fraternity or neighborhood bar. One 22-year-old follower told the researchers that the place was a “cesspool of half idiot, half geniuses, all trying to get rich,” adding, “I felt like I was home.”

To the researchers, what made the group so unwelcoming — the abuse of the newbie, the public shaming, the in-group slang — was also what helped drive people together. The board’s anonymity and ephemerality forced users to signal their status and identity to one another to gain respect, to constantly prove that they were one of the team and in on the joke.

A common trait for the subreddit’s user base — and for devotees of QAnon on anything-goes forums such as 4chan and 8kun — was a “pathological distrust of institutions in power,” said one of the researchers, Christian Boylston. “A post on an anonymous message board carries more weight than anything a mainstream publication could say.”

QAnon believers have faced their own struggles in following the ideology’s rambling set of false claims, which assert that Trump is fighting a secret war against an elite child-trafficking cabal. QAnon’s anonymous online prophet, known as Q, posted only in cryptic gibberish on a single ramshackle message board at random intervals — most recently, to believers’ dismay, on Dec. 8. Followers communicate through an ever-shifting patchwork of strange code words and in-group memes.

And yet, in interviews since Biden’s election victory swept the radicalized movement into an identity crisis, several QAnon loyalists have said that the challenge actually helped bring believers together, by proving their extreme commitment to the ideology and to one another. Those who speak the secret language get it, and they belong to a special group that outsiders cannot possibly understand.

“It’s a tribal loyalty — a statement that I am so loyal that I am willing to signal my belief in this crazy idea,” said Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a longtime researcher of cults. “They are doubling down on their beliefs … as a way of social signaling that they are devotees of the cause.”

Conspiracy theories were around long before the Internet, rooted in the same kinds of social anxiety and distrust that play out in the real world every day. But before the Internet, their spread was limited to mimeographed newsletters and small gatherings in hotel meeting rooms, Shermer said. Social media has changed all that.

“Now anyone can create their own webpage or blog or podcast, and people don’t naturally have any way to filter it out,” he said. “You ask them where they saw it, and they don’t even know: ‘It was this webpage; it’s everywhere.’”

In a survey last week by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, more than a quarter of both Republicans and White evangelicals said they believed QAnon — with its militant fiction about the Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run the world — was completely or mostly accurate.

Reddit boasts more than 50 million active users on a typical day, the company said in December, and its daily usage is growing faster than Facebook. WallStreetBets alone has tripled its audience in the past few weeks — 9.1 million “degenerates” now subscribe, the subreddit says — and in just two days last month, the subreddit was visited 500 million times, a moderator told The Post.

“There’s no such thing as ‘just online’ anymore. These are real communities,” said Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University in New York. “They have their own in-group mechanics, they have fun together, and when they organize like this … the whole point is, ‘Oh my gosh, guys, we’re causing something to happen.’”

But Reddit’s popularity has raised questions as to how any one company can tame such a freewheeling hive. Reddit’s leaders have “quarantined” or banned some forums devoted to extremism and harassment, but most subreddits are overseen by their own volunteer moderators, who largely set their own rules. The company has traditionally adopted a laissez-faire attitude for its largest movements, though chief executive Steve Huffman has said the company has an internal term for users who need constant supervision: “Daily Active S—heads.”

That leniency, Pao said, has led the company to tolerate some problematic boards, allowing ongoing violations and muddying what policies are truly enforced. She pointed to TheDonald, a chaotic pro-Trump forum that regularly broke Reddit’s rules in hopes of boosting its “meme president” to the site’s front page. It was ultimately banned last year. Pao said Reddit’s leadership spent too much time “coddling” the board after months of hate speech and extreme posts, instead of banning it when problems first arose.

Pao said she had her own wake-up call about the danger of an online mob when, in 2013, a huge group of Redditors hastily convened to try to find the Boston Marathon bomber and wrongly accused a college student. After implementing new anti-harassment guidelines and banning several racist, homophobic and hateful subreddits in 2015, Pao herself was targeted by a wave of death threats and personal attacks, which led her to resign.

Pao said she is encouraged by how the site is used creatively to lift people up, including through charity fundraisers and support groups, but she also worries that the site’s incentives could drive people further into edginess, hostility and hate.

“This structure of getting ‘karma points’ — the need for attention, for validation — eventually overwhelmed the positive dynamics,” she said, “and some of these communities became manipulated with fake content, with people trying to groom them into white supremacy. It became much more sinister and toxic, and yet people behaved as if it was still all about good things.”

Reddit has celebrated WallStreetBets’ rally as a triumph for “Joe and Jane America,” saying in a Super Bowl ad this month that “underdogs can accomplish just about anything when they come together around a common idea.”

But the “meme stock” rally has brought its own serious consequences for small-time investors who threw cash into GameStop at its $483 peak, only to see its price nosedive to about $50. One college student who compared WallStreetBets to a religion told The Post that he spent thousands of dollars from his college savings fund and is now eyeing a heavy loss.

The mob mentality also carries with it the threat of mass manipulation. Because virtually everyone on Reddit uses a pseudonym, users don’t really know who they’re following to the brink — whether their fellow traders are really backing them up or just performing for laughs.

All that exuberance can lead members to miss what’s happening before their eyes. As the subreddit was overrun with rocket emoji and zany “diamond hands” memes calling on users to hold their shares as the stock tumbled, hedge funds were earning hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by selling. Fidelity Investments, the Wall Street behemoth that was GameStop’s biggest shareholder, sold virtually all of its 9.3 million shares last month.

Some members said the gamble had nevertheless highlighted the absurdity of the stock market — a performance-art parody of capitalism come to life. That sense of nihilism has long played a role in edgy message boards such as 4chan: One WallStreetBets member told researchers last year that the community was “not just memes,” but a “finger in the eye of this fake meritocracy that we live in.”

Building effective guardrails for Internet crowd power will not be easy: Online groups have become one of the most prominent ways people communicate, and their foundations in free speech and assembly are core to the American way of life.

Sinan Aral, director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of “The Hype Machine,” said tech companies must rethink their business models, codes and rules if they hope to steer movements away from real-world harm.

The sites, he said, should measure and incentivize positive action, not just raw virality, and they should more closely monitor the recommendation algorithms that steer people to explosively popular or controversial content.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have traditionally approached such enforcement in a piecemeal way, muting problematic hashtags, suspending out-of-control groups or deleting accounts en masse, as Twitter did recently with 70,000 QAnon-boosting profiles, as well as Trump’s account.

Federal lawmakers have traditionally stayed out of these debates, fearful of stepping on Americans’ First Amendment rights. But that has effectively shunted the responsibility for moderating free expression to a batch of private companies, with competing incentives and ideals.

In the United States, “we chose not to restrict speech, but what we ended up doing was ceding the power to make decisions about speech to corporations,” said Amy Bruckman, a professor at Georgia Tech who studies online communities. “The right thing is for some transparent and democratic process to make the decision,” she said, not a business whose main “imperative is maximizing shareholder value.”

For Jake, the Redditor in Des Moines, WallStreetBets’ time in the spotlight felt like a moment of empowerment. So much of America today, he said, feels like living in separate realities: close to each other but never coming together, like “two bodies of liquid in Ziploc bags.”

With the stock frenzy, he said, it felt like people were finally united around something: their common-man fury at financial elites. Sitting in his car after he had bought the GameStop shares, on break from a 10-hour shift, he wrote a post on the forum addressed to Wall Street in which he talked about growing up poor and becoming “somebody with nothing to lose.”

“I’m not here to get rich overnight. … I’m here to say f— you and to be a part of this moment, this movement,” he wrote. “Power to the people. I will not sell.”

The post went viral, and a crowd of thousands cheered him on. “This isn’t about making a few hundred. It’s about winning a fight we’ve lost our entire lives before,” one Redditor wrote.

“Take my hand, pal!” wrote another. “Let’s fly together to the moon!”

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