Last week, The New York Times published a piece about an insular 4chan meme that had started to bleed over into political Twitter. At the time, NPC — an acronym for the gaming term “non-playable character” — had been weaponized by trolls in an attempt to “own the libs” by calling them automatons, but it was still a relatively niche meme very few outlets had touched.
Along with a couple of stories before it, the Times’ article kicked off a domino effect: its publication prompted popular members of the alt-right — including Paul Joseph Watson and Infowars — to amplify the meme to their audiences through YouTube videos, articles, and tweets. Search results for “NPC” increased, according to Google Trends. The second most looked-up term: 4chan, the notorious forum where the meme originated. A quick search on YouTube for “NPC meme” returns a cascade of videos, most, if not all, uploaded within the last week.
Suddenly, a meme that had been hyper-localized to one fetid corner of the internet has been telegraphed to a massive audience in a jarringly forced display of virality that highlights just how quickly an inside joke from an insular community can spread with the oxygen of press coverage.
Reporting on hyper-niche memes, even when they’re attached to more newsworthy events, inevitably carries a cost in terms of amplification. To report necessarily means giving new symbols to wider audiences, which gives bad actors more power in a self-proclaimed fight against censorship. The paradox reporters are often faced with is finding a responsible way to report on harmful memes spreading without amplifying hate.
The NPC meme has existed for a while. It dates back to July 2016 when a member of 4chan’s video game-dedicated /v/ board posed a question about whether people considered themselves an NPC, referring to the preprogrammed characters in a video game that can only engage with the player through a limited number of catchphrases. As the meme progressed, it started being applied to people who reiterated the same set of sentiments over and over again, like “Trump is Hitler,” or “Lock her up.” NPC types can’t hold regular conversations, the meme suggests, and they rely on robotic rhetoric to function.
Don Caldwell, Know Your Meme’s managing editor, says he’s perplexed by the rise of the NPC meme. It was born in the gaming community, like so many are, but it’s so run-of-the-mill that Caldwell can’t believe it picked up traction the way it did.
“It was pretty insular and limited to the 4chan boards,” Caldwell tells The Verge. “In the beginning, a lot of them were kind of inspired by a Psychology Today article about people that don’t have internal monologues. Then [the memes] started being used to knock on progressives: we saw some computer code ones that were captioned with mock computer scripts to depict them as mindless automatons. It was relatively small up until earlier this month.”
That was right around the time Kotaku published one of the earliest pieces on the NPC meme, which it describes as an attempt to “dehumanize SJWs.” The story, published on October 5th, led to an incremental increase in search traffic for the meme on Know Your Meme, says Caldwell. Interest peaked 10 days later when The New York Times piece was published. The Times’ explanation of the meme — “the Pro-Trump Internet’s New Favorite Insult” — compounded by news that Twitter’s Trust and Safety team had recently banned 1,500 accounts created using the NPC formula, only heightened interest.
It’s a double-edged sword that news organizations have contended with over the past few years: is it possible to explain a seemingly cryptic meme, especially one as insular and niche as this, to your readership without broadening its reach?
Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University whose research focuses on internet culture, published a report earlier this year on the effect of media coverage on bad actors and harmful memes. For “The Oxygen of Amplification,” Phillips uses interviews with a number of journalists about covering trolls and dangerous content to parse the delicate line between explaining a particular trend to your audience, which often provides necessary contextual insight, and bringing more attention to a possibly harmful movement that can increase hate speech and harassment online.
In some cases, like the NPC meme, it can also lead to misinformation and fabricated facts spreading across popular conversational platforms like Twitter. The New York Times reports that after people on Reddit’s r/The_Donald subreddit decided to create fake NPC accounts to troll liberals, “a few of the accounts started posting misleading information about the midterm elections, including encouraging liberals to vote on Nov. 7.” (Election Day is November 6th.) This violated Twitter’s guidelines concerning “intentionally misleading election-related content.” Although the Times also notes it’s unlikely trolls behind the meme on Twitter were anything other than “attention-starved gamers looking to impress one another by ‘triggering the libs’ with edgy memes,” misinformation still spread.
The combination of Twitter culling 1,500-plus NPC accounts and the evidence that the meme was spreading misinformation suggests that the NPC meme has crossed the threshold from “just another meme going through its life cycle” into an important discussion about how that life cycle can produce real-life effects.
The irony, says Caldwell, is that when it first started circulating, NPC Wojak was also deployed as an anti-Trump meme that used to dunk on conservatives.
“There were NPCs wearing MAGA hats, and the captions were captcha codes of typical Trump-supporting talking points that were cliché,” he explains. “It was being used by both sides, and those were both trending on our site [at the time]. Clearly, this was a push [more] by people on the right than those on the left, but it was starting to get used by different parts of the web.”
Though people within 4chan also used the meme to make fun of right-wing tropes, its push to r/The_Donald and subsequently to Twitter came from self-identified right-leaning users, which is how it ultimately caught the attention of reporters and critics.
This is how a meme that starts off as harmless fun is easily and quickly weaponized. News organizations paying serious attention to forums like 4chan and Reddit make it easy for politically motivated, otherwise insular memes to accrue power at astonishing speeds. It’s why, when it comes to reporting on memes — and Twitter taking action against over a thousand NPC accounts is indeed newsworthy — context has never been more important.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism, leads a team that spends its time trying to determine when a popular meme becomes a hate symbol.
Pepe the Frog is touted as the best recent example of a meme that went from being a harmless cartoon to an avatar for hate, both on and offline. Matt Furie’s frog character was politicized and became a symbol for the alt-right and white supremacists. Segal says his organization is aware of the NPC meme, but he doesn’t think it’s breached into harmful territory just yet. Context, Segal argued, is key to understanding when a meme is just a meme, and when it could become something more important.
“We mostly focus on circulating content. And certainly, once we saw this meme circulating, it [had] gained some popularity,” Segal tells The Verge. “We saw white supremacists and others were tracking and [catching] on to the meme and creating their own. [But] I don’t think it’s necessarily an extremist meme. It’s … being used by a lot of people, and it certainly seems to be a meme that’s politically motivated, but it’s not entirely politically motivated. It just so happens that young, white supremacists are very much in-tune with what’s happening on social media and pop culture, so they’ve [caught] on to it as well.”
Trolling, according to Phillips, has one purpose: to become bigger than what it started as. That’s why 4chan’s insular activity always seems to be kicking up a new storm, slowly gathering attention from more and more people until it spills over into the mainstream. 4chan trolling behavior is how we got Pedobear and LOLcats and the best Spider-Man meme. “Trolling on and around 4chan was the most influential cultural force most people didn’t realize they were actually quite familiar with,” reads Phillips’ report.
By the time the 2016 presidential election rolled around, that stealth pipeline was primed for maximum impact.
“The fact that 4chan’s participants could be funny and creative and profoundly (if stealthily) influential on the broader popular culture cannot, should not, and must not be separated out from the grotesque bigotries, targeted antagonisms, and glaring instances of myopia that were equally characteristic of the young subculture,” Phillips writes. “Trolls did real damage, and could be — often were — extremely dangerous.”
The election dramatically shifted the way the media covers memes, not to mention how the general population interacts with them. Because many journalists failed to take memes seriously at first, hypersensitivity has now made many susceptible to overcorrection, which supercharges that aforementioned pipeline. Niche memes that wouldn’t have caught the attention of internet-centric blogs five or six years ago now appear on The New York Times’ website. Segal isn’t surprised.
“For those who are creating memes on Reddit and 4chan and these more secretive places away from the mass public, their goal is that one of the papers and the media pick up on it because that helps amplify the meme and more people understand it, perhaps even engage [with] it,” he says. “Mainstream media is trying to explain to a broader audience things that they may not be aware of. The intent isn’t to harm, per se, but with specific memes, like the OK symbol, it’s almost part of the creation and development of a meme to have someone like The New York Times report on it.”
The OK symbol is a perfect example of finding the right balance between reporting while trying not to amplify an obvious 4chan troll. Launched on 4chan as “Operation O-KKK,” the OK symbol’s goal was simple: spread it enough as an anti-Semitic gesture, both online and offline, and hope the media picked up on the campaign. A document was posted on 4chan, as reported by The Boston Globe, instructing members to effectively troll the mainstream public until it became a thing people couldn’t ignore.
“[W]e must flood Twitter and other social media websites . . . claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy,” the document reads. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy. We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that [expletive].”
The issue, according to Segal, is that it’s impossible to prove intent. Reporting it as a blatant anti-Semitic symbol plays into the 4chan trolls’ game, but ignoring that some self-identified white nationalists are using the gesture is equally harmful. The answer is still unclear, but it helps explain why niche memes and radicalization attempts are on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Boston Globe.
“When the volume of use includes much hateful content, when it’s being used as a tool to harass, when the meme itself is being embraced by extremists, at that point, we consider the data and function of it and decide whether or not to include it in our list of hate symbols,” Segal said. “It’s very important, whether we’re talking about Pepe the Frog, the OK symbol, or this new meme today, to remember context is key.”
Some used the NPC meme to spread false information. Others embraced it as a way to make fun of people. There’s a good reason why Kotaku and The New York Times decided to report on it. It’s slightly confusing, but knowing its meaning helps explain larger narratives in American political culture. But even within this context, the NPC meme isn’t on the same level as Pepe the Frog. To parse the rate trolls cycle through memes requires the context Segal stresses: what they mean, yes, but also when their use can’t be avoided.
“I’ve seen instances where it’s being used as a hateful meme, but that doesn’t automatically make it a hate symbol,” Segal said. “Even if there’s a huge volume and some of the criteria is met, it doesn’t mean that every use of it is a hate symbol.”
The NPC meme became a story not because it was worth explaining why a bunch of 4chan trolls were comparing liberals to sub-humanoid beings, but because a major social media platform took action to stop a meme that was spreading misinformation. That difference is crucial for both journalists and readers to understand: when memes are explained, they will also be amplified. By engaging with toxicity, we risk increasing that toxicity.