Autism is on the rise — but it’s no epidemic. That the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now pegs the U.S. rate of autism spectrum disorder—a developmental disability of poorly understood cause and wide-ranging effects—at 1 in every 68 children says more about “a growing awareness of autism and changes to the condition’s diagnostic criteria,” according to Scientific American. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ criteria are indeed wide-ranging, but when it comes to a popular understanding of autism, a couple of key indicators overshadow the rest: deficits in social communication and repetitive, ritualized, hyperfocused behaviors.
The same criteria tend to apply to internet trolls, and this fact hasn’t been lost on the trolls themselves, particularly in the trenches of 4chan, where the term “autist” occupies a strange middle ground between insult and honorary title. “Autism” itself, in their reflexively un-PC jargon, can describe either a cringeworthy failure to comport oneself in a normal (or “normie”) fashion or a harnessing of spectrum-style fixation in the service of some concrete objective. Consider the “bored” anon who saw a photo of a young woman and quickly deduced which train station she was standing in:
“First I figured out the country,” he wrote.
“Since the station is old looking and the signs are in English I figured it’s Britain. Then I figured out which company the train belongs to. Once I had that I went to their website and found their route map. Since the station has at least three platforms, I figured it’s probably an interchange. Then I used the route map to pick out the interchange stations and used trial and error until I got the right one. Took me about five minutes from start to finish.”
The next post featured a man peering through a monocle. “Holy shit this is some rainman tier autism, sir,” the user wrote.
If tracking the general whereabouts of a stranger sounds like a creepy way to kill five minutes, well, that’s part and parcel of 4chan’s “autism” brand: awkwardly unaware of, or indifferent to, accepted manners. Despite the forum’s anonymizing format, prevalent examples of “autism” usually do correspond to invasions of privacy; a legendary instance saw one user obsessively cyberstalk another, seeking out his personal information, even publicly planning the poor guy’s abduction and funeral. When the harassment came to an end at last, “the archiver” posted a 97-page dossier of everything he had collected on his target, leading a stunned observer to remark that his relentlessness “transcends all levels of autism into some new dimension of psychotic.”
In this were hints of a dark meme that was destined to become a tactic: “weaponized autism,” the notion that the irregular rhythms and affect of autistic consciousness could deliver political gain if set loose on a specific problem or enemy.
The 2016 election was a watershed moment for the internet’s troll armies, who for once proved able to corral their scattered energies — often wasted on arcane infighting — and turn them toward a consequential goal: They threw their hive mind into the chaotic momentum behind Donald Trump, a troll candidate likened to a living YouTube comments section. The result was the alt-right, a messy coalition of plugged-in 4chan types who have long enjoyed making edgy shitposts about the Holocaust and authentic neo-Nazis who want to see Hitler’s vision fulfilled. The sincerity gap between various factions of the alt-right has made for clumsy real-world interactions, but white supremacy’s social media renaissance also gave us the mass murder at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in the summer of 2015, long before Trump’s ascendance.
Although he strongly resisted the label, Charleston shooter Dylan Roof was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the midst of his trial. GQ’s recent profile on him was for many the first exposure to the idea of “weaponized autism” — the atypical brain of an outsider bent toward militant purpose. In Roof’s case, that objective was to spark a race war with the murder of African-Americans, violence that white nationalists disavowed while continuing to champion the ideology behind it. In the years leading up to Roof’s massacre, when he drew inspiration from a racist website run by the Council of Conservative Citizens, “weaponized autism” was basically a punchline; it made an early appearance, for example, in a thread about a kid who beat up a classmate for denigrating SpongeBob SquarePants.
But as a schism widened in troll culture ahead of Trump’s improbable run at the White House, radical strategies also diverged. Where progressive hacktivists spent the early 2010s hyping open protests like Occupy Wall Street and hijacking the Westboro Baptist Church’s web accounts, the fascists waiting in the wings would come to prefer a sneakier style of counter-subversion: Weaponized autism would serve the authoritarian need for control.
We know that people on the spectrum can exhibit remarkable mental gifts in addition to their difficulties; Asperger syndrome has been associated with superior IQs that reach up to the “genius” threshold (4chan trolls use “aspie” and “autist” interchangeably). In practice, weaponized autism is best understood as a perversion of these hidden advantages. Think, for example, of the keen pattern recognition that underlies musical talent repurposed for doxxing efforts: Among the more “successful” deployments of weaponized autism, in the alt-right’s view, was a collective attempt to identify an antifa demonstrator who assaulted several of their own with a bike lock at a Berkeley rally this past April.
As Berkeleyside reported, “the amateur detectives” of 4chan’s /pol/ board went about “matching up his perceived height and hairline with photos of people at a previous rally and on social media,” ultimately claiming that Eric Clanton, a former professor at Diablo Valley College, was the assailant in question. Arrested and charged in May, Clanton faces a preliminary hearing this week, and has condemned the Berkeley PD for relying on the conjecture of random assholes. “My case threatens to set a new standard in which rightwing extremists can select targets for repression and have police enthusiastically and forcefully pursue them,” he wrote in a statement.
The denizens of /pol/, meanwhile, are terribly proud of their work, and fellow Trump boosters have used their platforms to applaud it. Conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec called it a new form of “facial recognition,” as if it were in any way forensic, and lent credence to another dubious victory for the forces of weaponized autism: supposed coordination with the Russian government to take out ISIS camps in Syria. 4chan users are now routinely deconstructing raw videos of terrorist training sites and the like to make estimations about where they are, then sending those findings to the Russian Ministry of Defense’s Twitter account. There is zero reason to believe, as Posobiec and others contend, that 4chan has ever “called in an airstrike,” nor that Russia even bothered to look at the meager “intel” offered, yet the aggrandizing myth persists.
That’s not to entirely discount the abilities of “autistic” sleuths on /pol/ and related forums, who have scored verifiable wins post-election. Having repeatedly derailed actor Shia LaBeouf’s livestreamed anti-Trump performance piece “He Will Not Divide Us,” twice prompting him to move the installation, they managed to find its third, undisclosed location in rural Tennessee within 24 hours of the stream’s reactivation. The group investigation relied on details as esoteric as the flight paths of planes passing overhead and the position of stars in the night sky. Once the new site had been confirmed, autists on the ground executed the only appropriate coup, stealing LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” flag and replacing it with one that depicted Pepe the Frog.
Congratulations, I guess.
Since “autistic” has become a catchall idiom on 4chan, the self-defined mentality of anyone willing to spend time reading and contributing to the site, it’s impossible to know how many users are diagnosed with the condition, or could be, or earnestly believe that it correlates to their own experience, regardless of professional medical opinion. They tend to assume, at any rate, that autistic personalities are readily drawn to the board as introverted, societal misfits in search of connection. The badge of “autist” conveys the dueling attitudes of pride and loathing at work in troll communities: They may be considered and sometimes feel like failures offline — stereotyped as sexless, jobless and immature — but this is because they are different, transgressive, in a sense better, elevated from the realm of polite, neurotypical normies. Their handicap is a virtue.
Unless, of course, you subscribe to a competing, arguably more macabre view of weaponized autism, which holds that sinister elites have inflicted autism upon our population. Vaccine truthers have taken up this deranged reasoning, writing that “politicians, drug companies, [and] the slush fund that is federal autism research” all benefit from an artificially augmented prevalence of the disorder. Then there are the tongue-in-cheek advocates of this theory, who say that foreign interests have used autism to create an American generation too dysfunctional to continue their family line.
So, are the race-baiting, doxx-happy, Trump-aligned autists of the internet the stewards of a genuine collaborative influence, or simply the victims of their own divergent thinking? If you’re at all familiar with the 4chan universe, you know these aren’t mutually exclusive propositions, and that both are just a little too tidy. Instead, they illuminate a paradox at the heart of trolldom: the recognition that there is something “wrong” or “off” about oneself, coupled with the desire to heighten and strengthen it. That instinct recurs in related web movements — witness the misogynists who struggle to form relationships with women condemning sex and “going their own way,” as if they chose to be celibate.
When you’re an outcast, that doubling down may be your only means of survival. But either way you slice it, translating autism into a meme is shameful. While theoretically emphasizing autistic intelligence, it piles additional negative stigma onto a disability long misrepresented in our culture, co-opting the struggles that come with the condition not just for jokes (see also: cancer, depression) but partisan power struggles.
Worse, any diagnosed autistic person finding solace and purpose in the toxic soup of alt-right extremism is proof of this nation’s refusal to reckon with its mental health crisis. Absent institutional support, a critical mass of exiles makes up a new hierarchy, with new modes of defense and attack. Weaponized autism is in an experimental stage — its blast radius and radioactive signature unclear — but we must prepare for a cyberwar future with this bomb in the trolls’ arsenal.
They have no problem pushing buttons.