The Rise of the NPC

Over the weekend of October 14-15, 2018 Twitter suspended over 1,500 “NPC” accounts. As Kevin Roose of the New York Times explained:

Last week, a trolling campaign organized by right-wing internet users spilled over onto Twitter. The campaign, which was born in the fever swamps of 4chan and Reddit message boards, involved creating hundreds of fictional personas with gray cartoon avatars, known as NPCs. These accounts posed as liberal activists and were used to spread — among other things — false information about November’s midterm elections…

Late last week, a group of users on r/the_donald, Reddit’s largest pro-Trump forum, decided to take the NPC meme to a wider audience. They created dozens of Twitter accounts using fictional NPC personalities, the NPC Wojak avatar and bios like “fighting against Nazi Racist Drumpf Fascist Cheetofinger.” They used these accounts to follow and tweet at one another, as well as at liberals, creating the semblance of an army of resisters mindlessly repeating anti-Trump talking points.

The campaign began as a joke. But a few of the accounts started posting misleading information about the midterm elections, including encouraging liberals to vote on Nov. 7. (Election Day is Nov. 6.)

While Twitter has certainly been at the center of controversies, this “election” claim appears a bit disingenuous.  A week earlier the popular gaming site Kotaku featured an article complaining about “How the ‘NPC’ Meme Tries to Dehumanize ‘SJWs’” And while Twitter officially bans “dehumanizing” speech, they refused to remove a recent video post from the Rev. Louis Farrakhan wherein he said “I’m not anti-Semite, I’m anti-termite.”  As with Pepe the Frog and lactose tolerance, the fine minds of 4chan and /r/the_donald have made their opponents find monstrosity in the most seemingly innocuous things.

Or is there something more going on here?

For most of human history identity has been the least of our concerns.  We hunted and gathered as part of a clan; we farmed ancestral land alongside our brothers and sisters; we carried on our family trade in the village where our great-grandfathers lived.  Peasants and nobles alike had their roles: barring the occasional famine or invasion, our lives were by and large a well-ordered affair.  Within those roles there was room for both vice and virtue: we could disappoint our kin or do them proud.  But the sins and graces open to them, and the horizons of their expectations, were well delineated.

While these identities were stable, they were not unchanging.  Trade routes brought cultural as well as material exchange: the rise and fall of empires brought new rulers and new political and social expectations.  The Colonial Era brought new horizons and new lands to conquer — and conquer we did.  Like our Ancestors from the steppes descended on our hunter-gatherer and farmer Ancestors, we turned the Inca and Aztec kingdoms into our New World: later our pioneers turned a wilderness into a mighty country.


But as the Colonial Era opened many doors, the Industrial Revolution was busy closing them.  Where once they tilled the land and fished the sea, peasants now toiled in filthy, dangerous factories.  In Germany a rabbi’s grandson formulated new identities which would echo through the coming centuries — “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” — and described their engagements with those who controlled the means of production.  No longer tied to their soil, these dispossessed masses were now united by their shared oppression and anger. Banded together, they could finish the job the French Revolution started and create a world where the people, not priests and lords, ruled.  We would be identified not by who and where we came from but by what we did.z

Once traveling from Vienna to Berlin meant arduous days on bumpy roads in uncomfortable carriages. Today we can wake up in New York and eat supper in London: chat rooms regularly welcome participants from multiple continents.  The world is simultaneously a bigger and a smaller place than it ever was.  And old identities like “White” and “Christian” suddenly seem decidedly old-fashioned, a reminder of the bad old days when we hated each other over silly things like skin tone and consubstantiation versus transubstantiation.  Why would anybody want to identify with tools of oppression and subjugation when they can be part of a brave new world where everybody can be whatever they want to be?

But in all this striving toward a new Utopia, we have forgotten Sartre’s warning that we are condemned to be free.  As Rob Harle explains:

Sartre sees “anguish” as an experience rather than an emotional state caused by: the realization of total freedom and responsibility, and when I choose, I choose for myself and others. Most people would rather not carry this burden so they experience “anguish” (Images (b) 1986. p.32).

“Abandonment” is that which is experienced after a person realises they are totally responsible and can find no, “guide in their nature” (it does not exist), nor in God’s revelations (they do not exist) as to how they should act. People are not only responsible for what they do, they also have to ‘invent’ their own moral code so as to know what they should do (ibid.).

A wolf with no pack is not a romantic loner bucking the herd: it is an animal which will soon die in a hostile environment.  Humans are pack primates who seek the companionship and approval of their peers and who are instinctively suspicious of those outside their circle.  When you take away their pack, they will seek another: when you take away the principles which govern their social interactions, they will seek new guides which tell them what to do and when to do it.  This is not a weakness and overcoming it is not a strength.  It is what allows us to function as cohesive groups working toward desired ends.

Many of the angriest people on all sides of the political spectrum are acting not out of belief but out of a deep desire to belong.  Calling them “Hasbara trolls” or “Russian bots” is ineffective: they may not know exactly why they are angry, but they know they’re not working for Israeli or Russian intelligence.  Implying that they are soulless automatons mouthing the words of their programmers touches upon a deep existential angst.  It might lead them to question their commitment to their chosen cause and to ask themselves whose ends they are working toward.  And that is something that many people seem to find very threatening indeed.

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