A Prelude to Insurrection: How a 4chan Refrain Anticipated the Capitol Riot

Marc Tuters


This paper looks at how vernacular practices associated with fringe web communities seem to have found their way into reactionary American politics in recent years. Combining concepts from political communication (Bennett and Segerberg 2013) and from assemblage theory (Samson 2020), the paper looks at how key elements of the Capitol insurrection narrative initially emerged on 4chan as meme about a second civil war (called “the Boogaloo”), then spreading to social media and amplified by President Trump. In an effort to make sense of this relationship between the fringe the mainstream, the paper offers both original empirical analysis as well as conceptual innovation.

Keywords: Internet memes, post-digital far-right, assemblage theory, connective action, entryism, memetic antagonism, obfuscation, bottom-up agenda setting

In the Trump era a new kind of post-digital far-right activism emerged that spread from fringe regions of the web into corporate social media through the medium of memes. The most notable and widely reported of these was QAnon, the notorious deep state conspiracy theory that made its way into the core of Republican party politics under Trump (Levin 2021) and which seemed to take the form of a real-world game (Thompson 2020). Having started out in late 2017 from a series of anonymous posts the the notorious 4chan imageboard (Tuters 2020), over the course of the next few years QAnon developed into a “super conspiracy” (Barkun 2013) incorporating a wide variety of different communities ranging from Tea Party libertarians to New Age anti-vaxxers (Argentino 2020), as it spread from the fringe into the mainstream of public attention (Zeeuw et al. 2020). Part of what drew these different constituencies in and held them together was a sense of collaborative participation in the construction of a narrative—whose subcultural origins made it seem more authentic. Across various social media, the growth of QAnon went largely unchecked over the course of Trump’s presidency, and is widely considered to have been a significant contributing factor in galvanizing the motley crew of protestors that stormed the Capitol on January 6th 2021, leading social media platforms to subsequent ban much related content (Conger 2021). As reports of that day later noted, iconography and sloganeering from the fringes of the Internet were a ubiquitous sight on that day (Rosenberg & Tiefenthäler 2020).

Beyond its shocking violence, a striking aspect of Capitol insurrection was its subcultural pageantry, most notably the infamous “QAnon shaman”. A bare chested man with a painted face carrying a spear with an American flag tied below the blade and wearing a fur hat with buffalo horns, this man was photographed standing on the raised platform on the site where the Vice President Mike Pence was supposed to ratify Biden as the new president—while other insurgents wandered through the halls of the Capitol building chanting “hang Mike Pence”, some wearing full military body armour. While the events of that day came as a surprise to many Americans, the narrative of a second civil war, had in fact been floated by Trump on Twitter over a year prior and it had been developing online since the spring of 2019 in posts to 4chan by online gun enthusiasts on 4chan whom referred to it coded ironic Internetspeak as the Boogaloo. As described below, 4chan’s vernacular conception for a second civil war in turn inspired an entire anti-state insurrectionist movement whom referred to themselves as “the Boogaloo Bois” and used vernacular “dissimulation” techniques, adapted from 4chan’s subculture (Zeeuw and Tuters 2020), both to create a “playful” movement identity as well as to avoid detection in the context of corporate social media efforts at “deplatforming” (Rogers 2021). As in the cases of QAnon and Pizzagate before it, 4chan provided the nascent movement with a ready-made format for political activism, in the form of an Internet meme. As these far-right memes served Trump’s agenda, in political communication terms we may consider them as instances of bottom-up agenda setting. Combining concepts from political communication (Bennett and Segerberg 2013) and from assemblage theory (Samson 2020), this paper analyzes the constitutive role of antagonism in the construction of precarious political movements that connects the fringe with the mainstream—as was so clearly on display on the day of the Capitol insurrection.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.32855/fcapital.202101.006


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Copyright (c) 2021 Marc Tuters

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ISSN: 1930-014X