Red’s morning routine could only be called normal. There’s coffee involved, and a kid who needs a ride to school, and in the empty spaces of the morning, he tweets. Just a few lines here and there, maybe a pic or a video to go with it. And over time, as practice becomes habit, and habit becomes a lifestyle, people start catching on, listening, following, and supporting the message.
Red is not his real name. His Twitter handle is Red T Raccoon, but the man behind the adorable profile pic is simply an east coast IT guy with a healthy hatred for authoritarianism. His morning tweets are first seen by an army of followers just under 70,000 strong. From there, his message is shared through a series of likes and retweets, and by the time the coffee is brewing on the West Coast, he’s already on tens of thousands of computer and phone screens. On average, his messages reach anywhere from 1.2 to 1.5 million people each day, even though he has never worked in media, and has never held a position in which he had or even wanted a public profile. He’s just a citizen, a veteran, and for many months now, a proud member of #TheResistance.
And he is one of many.
“Complacency has helped to get us to where we are. I cannot sit quietly and watch this continue without speaking out and fighting.” @CMDR_Paylor – “HG Commander Paylor”
To understand sheer tonnage of influence held by social media resistance personalities like Red, we must first look at the numbers, how large they get, and how quickly. For this piece, the sample size of participants sits at about 20, and their followers, when added together, number about 500,000. Now, it’s likely that some people follow many of these accounts at the same time, but by any calculation, this is a massive audience for a group of people who only get 280 characters at a time to say what they have to say. While the analytics for this many followers over this many accounts can only be estimated, the quick math puts the daily influence of this 20-person sample at just under 11 million views every 24 hours. While this number is likely on the high side for reasons mentioned above, even cut in half, it would still represent an unprecedented concentration of media power existing in the hands and on the keyboards of just 20 ordinary Americans.
And that’s what they are, just normal everyday folks. A person becomes a member of #TheResistance in much the same way one becomes a writer, simply by declaring it so. There is no application, no screening process, and no purity test. Since this is the case, any kind of membership headcount would be a futile undertaking. It would be like trying to wrap one’s arms around a mountain range; it simply cannot be done.
“As a nation, we cannot allow ‘alternative facts’ to be normalized, no matter who they come from.” @LiberalVenom
When we look at the massive influence that can be exerted by only 20 of these fire-breathing do-gooders, it doesn’t take long to understand that public discourse in America is changing at a pace we have not yet caught up with. It will certainly keep changing, but for the moment, in the latter months of 2017, there is no more powerful agent of social change in the world than a simple tweet, and the fingers, thumbs, and keyboards of resistance members everywhere are creating those tweets as a means to seek justice, right wrongs, and fight what looked a short time ago to be a losing battle. But today, a little over a year after the election day no one will ever forget, a valid argument can be made that the balance has shifted, and 2017 has been a social media counterpunch, a powerful response to the digital attack on democracy that began in 2016, and continues to this day.
While there is no way to create any kind of formal hierarchy within a movement as amorphous as this, groups do form, and sub-groups under those, and people join different subsets of this or that. Leaders in the lowercase sense of the word are chosen, and messages are coordinated and launched simultaneously for maximum effect. At times, the struggle for uniformity leads to conflict, and claims of anything from fame-seeking to plagiarism are made, but this is to be expected, since no one can be forced to fully sublimate personal desires to the will of a group or movement. After all, there are humans under the masks, and fame, even Twitter fame, can spin people about.
When viewed with a wide enough lens, this collection of voices is both orderly and chaotic, like hordes of individuals all shouting different things at different volumes, and in different languages, but walking in the same direction while they do it. The tone of it is often discordant, and sometimes quarrelsome, but they do not oppose each other. The whole thing looks less like political infighting, and more like a gathering of relatives who sometimes shout. It’s just a family thing.
“I began Havok as a safety net, a way to ensure my family didn't get dragged into arguments about the Resistance. It soon meant much more than that. The character accounts are families. Geeks Resist, Heroes Resist, Villians Resist – they helped make me feel like there were still sane people out there after the election.” @Havok_2017
And since the resources to make this impact are available for free, meaning each member can take part by giving nothing more than his or her time, this movement is not likely to shrink anytime soon. In fact, with 2018 coming, it’s likely going to grow larger, though there is no way to know just how big it will get. Even trying to guess would require a prediction of sorts about an administration that has already branded itself as the most erratic in US history. There is no way to know what might come next, so there is no way to gauge how the public will respond.
The numbers involved in the big-picture evaluation of #TheResistance are staggering, and they tell the story not only of where we’re going, but how we got where we are now. As details of Russian interference in the 2016 election come out, social media companies are divulging more and more of the information that they have been hiding and denying for over a year. Even now, while Twitter and Facebook in particular admit widespread misuse of their platforms by foreign entities, they mask and downplay the enormity of the problem. This surface-level explanation of the size of #TheResistance should not only inform our understanding of what’s happening now, but it should also inform our understanding of what happened before, when this kind of messaging was used as a weapon in what can only be called an all-out attack on American democracy. It was used with the enthusiastic support of a hostile foreign power, and perhaps the full support of a hostile domestic power as well.
“I have friends in the Resistance who aren’t anonymous. They and their family members have been stalked and threatened. It’s been clear for some time now that the old rules of decency no longer apply.” @jacksnowknows – “Jack Snow”
If a small collection of regular Americans can affect our national discourse so dramatically, what could an army of paid Russian trolls accomplish? Could they influence an election? Could they really manipulate that many American voters? The jury is still out, so to speak, but there are a couple conclusions most can reasonably accept; one is that we are not being told the whole truth about the size and scope of the attack. Another is that even if we do get a complete look at what happened, we’re likely not fully able to compute and process numbers so large. If anything can be learned from what these 20 internet personalities can accomplish, it’s that the influence of Russian bad actors was almost certainly much more effective that anyone has yet reported.
Social media has created the means for this interference, but it has also given individual citizens more power than they have ever had before. If 20 Americans can use their bathroom breaks to reach 11 million people and move audiences from hate to hope, then democracy may be more alive today than it has ever been before. Just as we responded to attacks like 9/11 and Pearl Harbor with waves of patriotism demonstrated by soldiers abroad and workers at home, we are doing so again, with a wave of activism established, organized, and promoted on the very grounds where the last battle was lost.
Why the Masks?
“I have a hard time explaining why I use an anonymous account to people who are on Twitter but use their own names. Unfortunately, many people seem to think it’s childish until I explain my reasons. Of course I don’t have the opportunity to explain to most people in the Twitterverse.” @AgnetScullyGR “Dana Scott”
While the members of #TheResistance profiled here are quite different when compared to each other, and their ideas and political views vary as well, there is one subject about which there seems to be only one opinion, and that is the subject of anonymity. For example, some activists focus heavily on healthcare issues, others on the Russia investigation, and others on the general decline of morality in today’s America, but ask about anonymity and the need for it, and suddenly everyone is on exactly the same page, sharing a single opinion on the matter. Anonymity is necessary. It exists because it must.
Now, while the need for anonymity is not challenged by any of the people I have come in contact with, none have expressed a preference for it, either. Given the choice, I believe most anonymous resistance activists would choose to speak out under their real names, but long ago made the choice to wear masks for the protection they provide, and when we listen to a few of their stories, the need becomes quite clear.
“[A]s an American Jewish woman I find the current normalizing of hate and bigotry terrifying. I can’t sit back and let the Nazis win 70+ years after our parents and grandparents defeated them.” @mindyanns – “Mags Resists”
It is worth noting that when asked about their motives for donning digital masks, the first reason given is typically job-related. In the world of at-will employment, where an employer can fire someone without cause, it only takes one enemy with mid-level power to end a career, so many activists go anonymous first and foremost to add an extra layer of protection against these threats. After all, most work in environments where they can be fired for liking the wrong football team, or not liking the boss’s sexual advances. Unfortunately, keeping a job in today’s America means keeping one’s head on a swivel, and with job tenure dropping below four years for the first time in American history, we need all the protections we can get:
“I use an anonymous account on Twitter because I am [job title removed] and since I use this account primarily for political reasons, I could lose my job or even end my career.”
“Anonymity has been necessary from the start. I have a job that I cannot state my political beliefs.”
“I wanted to be able to get more involved in The Resistance without needing to fear blowback from offline if my family or students from my school were to find my Twitter page.”
These kinds of protections make sense to most people, since we all have details about our lives that we do not reveal to our co-workers. For example, if I spend my Saturday nights going to monster truck rallies, I may or may not tell people, and if I think it’s a detail that might damage my credibility with my peers, I almost certainly won’t say anything. Twitter judgments are no different; it’s simply a decision about the things that might advance a career, and the things that may not, and people take action accordingly.
That said, there are a number of other reasons why resistance members choose anonymity, and these reasons are much darker, much more frightening:
“On a daily basis I have received death threats towards myself and my family online. This includes an in-person event that involved my wife being cornered at her workplace by a white supremacist who most likely found us at a public event days earlier. Having a young child and wife to protect, we have since taken measures to increase our personal safety.”
“I have received […] threats from MAGA supporters who claim to be able to find where I live.”
“I think everyone in the Resistance has reported at least one threat made against themselves or someone they know. It’s something I think about every day. I take precautions now I would have laughed at a year ago and I’m not even a high profile activist as some in the Resistance are. But I’ve learned from the experiences of others what the other side is capable of.We’ve had some powerful voices that fell by the wayside, because of active measures used to silence them.”
“I've had to lock my account for periods of time, and delete many tweets. One time I deleted all of my tweets (every single one) because a network of trolls was researching everything they could about me. […] The trolls were taking screenshots of my tweets and asking other trolls to ‘find out who this is, so we can do something about him’ and stuff like that.”
These threats to identify and locate anonymous resistance members for future retribution is a practice commonly called “doxxing,” which refers to the acquisition and public release of personal information related to anonymous online personalities. The goal is to remove the target’s anonymity and expose him or her to as much pressure and danger as possible in order to silence, or perhaps even encourage real world violence against the targeted individual. It’s a practice as common as it is disgusting, and many resistance members have been silenced this way. In fact, this is so prevalent that it took a great deal of time to develop the trust necessary to create a suitable sample size for this article, and at the request of several participants, every piece of contact information obtained in the process was disposed of as soon as the work was completed.
“I am a great-granddaughter of a suffragette. When I was eight years old, she told me that I must promise to never shirk my responsibility and vote any time I could.” @porpentina2017 – “Tina”
These attacks seem to have at least the tacit support of the current administration and many members of Congress. While Trump has a long history of inciting violence against protesters on the campaign trail, now that he is in office, and people are taking to both the actual and virtual streets, we’re also legislating against the protesters as well. According to a February, 2017 article in the Washington Post, laws now exist that seize the assets of people involved in protests that turn violent, and other laws protect drivers who injure or even kill protesters with their cars. States have also proposed laws that ban the use of masks in protests, so the possibility banning them online is not exactly a difficult logical leap. Tacit support for doxxing seemingly already exists. Every single person interviewed for this article has received threats, and sees anonymity as a means of protection against those threats. But this protection comes at a cost.
While the resistance members profiled universally agree on the need for anonymity, they also almost universally agree that anonymity damages their cause. Most freely admit that a fictional persona is much easier to dismiss or discredit than a real identity, but this is viewed simply as the cost of doing business in the Trump era:
“Often the fact that I haven't put my name on my account gets thrown against me by detractors. I am often able to brush it off, but it does allow them to make up completely false claims that can't be countered without identifying myself. One of the more disgusting attempts was claiming that I was a child molester. Nothing could be further from the truth[.] I ignored it without response, but if I took the bait, I could have easily attempted to defend myself by giving my true identity. It all becomes a game for many trolls, to the point where I have seen bounties for my identity being passed along by the alt-right.”
In Red T Raccoon’s case, anonymity is not only something that opens him up to attacks from the alt-right, but it also keeps him from recognition he richly deserves. While his activism has led to engagement with political leaders, and given him a loud voice in our public debates, it is not his name in the Congressional record. Instead, the recognition goes to the furry alter-ego, mentioned here on the floor of the United State House of Representatives by New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney:
— Red T Raccoon (@RedTRaccoon) July 25, 2017
In the larger equation of overall good versus overall evil, anonymity is seen as a lesser, even necessary evil, but one that gives many resistance members the freedom they need to speak openly and loudly to power. It is certainly a hindrance at times, but the threats are real, and despite the use of sci-fi names and superhero identities, political activism is not a game.
Who Are They Really?
When I first started sticking my big nerdy nose into the anonymous side of the resistance movement, I noticed that a strange form of organization existed. The accounts of resistance members tend to share some common characteristics. Most assume a fictional character identity rather than simply choosing a common name as a pseudonym. Rather than Jane Doe, they become a forest animal, or a superhero, or a sci-fi character, among others. For some, like Jack Snow, for example, the name itself is an act of resistance. In his case, it’s a spin on the term “snowflake,” which happens to be one of the favorite derogatory nicknames the alt-right uses to describe resistance members, liberals, and pretty much decent people everywhere.
“I get many DM's from Resistance and non-Resistance accounts asking for clarification/education about government, policies, and complex political issues. I take those requests seriously and, while it's rather time consuming, I respond to all of them.” @CaptJaneway2017
Most anonymous resisters also claim affiliation with a hashtag, and there are several to choose from: #TheResistance, #ResistanceUnited, #HeroesResist, #GeeksResist, and many others. Under these banners, teams form, messages are coordinated, and when things work properly, they can get themselves onto just about anyone’s Twitter feed. Before my research began, I was only following one of the accounts that volunteered to be interviewed, but as the names of potential volunteers began crossing my desk, I quickly realized that I knew who most of them were already, and had been exposed to their messaging on a number of occasions.
There were Star Wars characters who volunteered, one of The Incredibles, a Hunger Games casualty, and even a Jean-Luc Picard. I also found other Trek-related accounts, including Captain Janeway (@CaptJaneway2017) from the Star Trek: Voyager series. At first, I thought it was cute, and considered dismissing these characters as a form of fan fiction, and nothing more. But then I looked closer. Janeway has a collection of followers almost 33,000 strong. Her messages are clear, cogent, forceful, but never hyperbolic. She is obviously well educated, with a fluent understanding of politics – not someone to be dismissed. And while it is common for her to have to explain to people that she is not in fact Kate Mulgrew (the actor who plays the role of Janeway in the Voyager series), this is only a minor hindrance to her activism. And when we combine her followers with Red T Raccoon’s followers, we get a group of over 100,000, using only two of the great many resistance personalities. As more and more add their voices, the message gets stronger and stronger. If this 20 can reach millions, what can 200 do? What about 2000?
“I wanted a way to stand up for what I believe in and have a voice in the world, and prior to then I had not had a good way to do so. I also wanted to learn more about politics in our country, and this provided a wonderful opportunity for me to do so.” @vo_asshekh “Kiana Reeves”
In an article like this one, in which large numbers are common, it’s easy to miss the simple fact that with a single click, these two individuals, neither with ties to mainstream media, can touch a number of people large enough to populate entire cities that most people have heard of. When they hit the Tweet button, they reach a number of people equal to every man, woman, and child in Santa Clara, California, Cambridge, Massachusetts, or South Bend, Indiana, and they do so instantly. And that’s just the first click. Once people start to look, like, share, reply, and so on, the numbers get gigantic in a hurry. That’s an impressive network for a couple of fictional characters. Ignoring them would be a big mistake. Ignoring the fact that this influence expands exponentially as #TheResistance grows would be an even bigger one.
In conclusion, I feel the need to make a few admissions. At the outset of any project like this one, we begin with a set of assumptions. We don’t mean to, and in my case, I am well trained to set these aside, but we’re all human, and we assume things about those we don’t know. When asked to profile a group of anonymous Twitter personalities, digitally dressed up like Marvel superheroes, Jedi knights, and phaser-wielding explorers looking to go where no one has gone before, I found it impossible to avoid my inner skeptic. I began investigating what I thought would end up as a cute little band of cosplay nerds who would claim to be much more than what they actually are.
I was wrong. There’s just no other way to say it.
Thanks to the access I have had to a great many wonderful scholars over the years, I have learned to embrace these moments of change, when I discover that I don’t know what I think I know. This has been one of those moments. My subjects are not what I thought they would be, and I must admit a bit of shame at my own ignorance. They are from different fields, and different backgrounds, but almost all are professionals, and almost every resistance member possesses a sense of purpose and direction that goes well beyond petty things like internet fame and recognition. And some are writers like myself:
“The threat always likes to think it can define those who act to stop it. But the people who defend themselves and others from threats, both foreign and domestic, are defined by the nobility of their courage. We resist for all of the right reasons: liberty, decency & equality.
We love this country enough to fight for it. The doubters, the trolls and the agitators have seen what we can do, and they've seen we can do it without resorting to threats.
May our government for the people, by the people and of the people, never perish from this earth.” @jacksnowknows
While the personalities are as varied as we would expect among people from different generations, different walks of life, living in different places, and dealing with much different circumstances, resistance members all row in the same direction, more or less. They are people who gathered for a common purpose, and most share a moment when they realized they had to get involved. For many, this moment was Trump’s election, but this does not mean that they are obsessed with him. Trump is treated more like a symptom than a disease, a sign of a much larger, much more dangerous form of societal decay. All resistance members want change in the White House, but the removal of a wannabe despot is only part of their goal. What they truly seek is an America free of hate and free of “dogmatic nostalgia.” It’s a noble goal, and they are most certainly patriots.
We pass them on the streets, and we stand with them in line at the local coffee shop. We don’t know who they are, and may never know. Indeed, when asked about the day when they would feel comfortable removing their masks, most gave fictional storybook responses, as if they knew that this day would likely never come, at least not in the real world. This was the only evidence of widespread pessimism I managed to find under the masks. It is telling, though. They know the size of the fight, and they know it’s one they’ll never fully win, and yet they pick up their light sabers and fight on.
There’s something wonderfully American about that.