Online abuse and bullying have existed as long as the internet has, but it's gone mainstream in a big way over the past few years. Perhaps not coincidentally, we've also spent the past year-plus subjected to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, an outing built on lies, harassment, intimidation and a whole host of other behavior not befitting a candidate for the country's highest office.
These two trends collided late last week when it was revealed that Oculus VR founder and Facebook employee Palmer Luckey donated $10,000 to a pro-Trump group called Nimble America. The group's stated purpose is to prove that "shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real." Thus far, there's no evidence that Nimble America has been able to do anything aside from put up one insulting but fairly mild anti-Hillary Clinton billboard outside of Pittsburgh. Despite the group's lack of impact thus far, the fact that Luckey found Nimble America worth supporting shows just how widespread trolling has become.
Luckey is, of course, well within his rights to support any group he sees fit. But the fact that he thinks that bringing Reddit's worst garbage to billboards for the world to see is, as he says in a Facebook post confirming his donation, a "fresh idea" speaks to just how ugly things have become in 2016 -- both online and in the "real world." In fact, there's barely any distinction between the two at this point. Hate speech, whether offline or online, is becoming the best way to get what you want. It got Trump to the doorstep of the presidency, when everyone assumed he was a reality TV joke that would get bounced in the primaries.
If you haven't been paying attention to the Nimble America controversy, here's a quick recap. Last week, The Daily Beast reported that a Reddit poster under the pseudonym "NimbleRichMan" was providing funds for Nimble America, and Luckey confirmed that he wrote some of the posts published by that handle. Shortly after The Daily Beast published its report, the handle and posts were deleted.
The following day, Luckey apologized on his Facebook page for his actions "negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners." He also confirmed that he had donated $10,000 to Nimble America, said he was a Gary Johnson supporter and claimed that he had not written the NimbleRichMan Reddit posts. But emails between Daily Beast reporter Gideon Resnick and Luckey make it sound as if he wrote the posts and wanted them posted under that handle, even if it wasn't technically "his" Reddit account. The account may have been under the control of one of the Nimble America founders, but all evidence points to Luckey having written the posts in question.
"A generous understanding of the situation is that in other instances, besides the donation one, he was given a password and used the account occasionally," Resnick told Motherboard. "So is there wiggle room in the sense that it's not clear if he wrote each and every post? Perhaps. But he's not telling the whole truth in terms of his involvement."
Whether or not we ever hear of Nimble America again is beside the point -- the intent of Luckey's actions is far more significant. A contribution by a prominent employee at one of the world's largest and most important companies adds an air of legitimacy that is entirely undeserved. The group isn't interested in debating the issues or even releasing more traditional attack ads that go after a candidate's background, temperament, behavior or policy positions. They're trying to turn insulting, racist, sexist, politically incorrect memes into mass media. For now, these memes have been limited to the internet, but Nimble America wants them to go mainstream.
The one billboard sign that has thus far been attributed to Nimble America says that Clinton is "too big to jail," alongside a grossly distorted image of her face. It's possibly a reference to her considerable political stature insulating her from prosecution for misuse of a personal email server -- but the picture makes it an attack on her looks as well. Nimble America's desire to push "shitposts" into the public consciousness makes it clear that this group is more interested in trolling than having any sort of informed debate, and apparently Luckey is on the same page.
It's a position that has Oculus fans and developers alike shaking their heads. There's a thread on the Oculus Reddit with more than 4,000 posts discussing the subject, and a number of developers have come out against Luckey's statements. "Finding out last night that the founder of one of the main platforms for [virtual reality] basically thinks white supremacy is funny was a crystallizing moment," one unnamed developer told Adi Robertson at The Verge.
That sums up why Luckey's actions were so disturbing to me. He's welcome to use his considerable wealth to support any candidate he chooses, but a quick search of the FEC database shows no donations by Luckey directly to any campaign. This would indicate that he believes his money is better spent plastering shitty memes on billboards than it is directly supporting a candidate. That he dropped $10,000 on an organization that seems bent on lowering the level of political discourse even further -- when the bar for that is already horrifyingly low as it is -- says a lot about Luckey's judgement. It also highlights how concentrated abuse has become an effective strategy at silencing those you disagree with.
Most recently, actor Leslie Jones was harassed and had her personal information hacked and released; gold medal Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas faced a disproportionate and abusive backlash this summer for transgressions that should barely be on anyone's radar. Feminist writer and Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti quit social media altogether after receiving death and rape threats directed at her child, and superstar singer Adele quit Twitter temporarily back in 2012 after receiving death threats focused on her newborn son. And these are just a handful of high-profile cases; plenty of average internet users have dealt with similar things but had no platform from which to really make them known. (Charlie Warzel at Buzzfeed wrote an excellent feature on Twitter's abuse problem that has plenty more examples of this behavior.)
Combine this behavior with the hate and anger that Trump has been stoking throughout his presidential campaign (we won't recount all his horrible statements, but Politico has a comprehensive roundup here) and it's not surprising to see someone like Luckey putting money toward Nimble America. Their "plan" is the logical outcome of internet abuse and political hate speech becoming normalized. The first presidential debate of the 2016 election is happening in just a few hours. From now until Election Day, all the hate planted over the past year will be on display for all to see. Here's hoping calmer, more peaceful minds win out -- and that Luckey's foolish donation ends up being a footnote to a turbulent election year.
Images: Getty (Palmer Luckey, lead); AP Photo/ Evan Vucci (Trump closeup)