One of the most dizzying effects of the current culture war is the way language is quickly co-opted and subverted toward directly opposed purposes. Witness, for example, the fate of “fake news.” In the days following the election there was a rightful investigation into the ways Facebook’s algorithms created self-reinforcing echo chambers of fictional stories passed around as news. The furor over this, though, was quickly claimed by the Trump administration, which repurposed the term “fake news” to describe any factual reporting that was inconvenient for them.
This is an old trend online: The same has been done repeatedly over the years, as “alt-right” trolls repurpose the language of progressives—“trigger warning,” “safe space,” and so on—toward their misogynistic, white-nationalist ends. Just last week, while still nursing his grievous head injury, “alt-right” frontispiece Richard Spencer used the phrase “triggered” to troll Aziz Ansari, after which he spent the remainder of the evening getting dunked on by everybody with a Twitter account. It’s hard to troll while the whole world is still cackling at you for getting sucker-punched.
Anyway, this new Chrome extension flips that exact language back around again, rendering the internet into a “safe space” for MAGA kids. Called Alt-Space, it scans pages for terms that might trigger a troll into shitposting—LGBTQA, social justice, reproductive rights, climate change, etc.—and issues a warning after the page is loaded, allowing the sensitive troll to decide whether or not to engage with the questionable content. Choose to “proceed on” and read the page, or click “go elsewhere” to be… well, sent elsewhere. (It’s a Rick Astley video.)
It is not the most trenchant piece of cultural critique, and it’s hard to say how many times you can reclaim a term’s meaning before you’ve watered it down to nothing. On the other hand, we do need these terms to mean something. A delineation like “fake news” was once useful to identify a category of deliberate misinformation, but when applied to CNN or The New York Times it turns into a maddening exercise in semantics. At this point it feels almost trite to talk about, but if that term is gone, how else will we describe alternative facts?