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.
Over the weekend, Twitter responded by suspending about 1,500 accounts associated with the NPC trolling campaign. The accounts violated Twitter’s rules against “intentionally misleading election-related content,” according to a person familiar with the company’s enforcement process. The person, who would speak only anonymously, was not authorized to discuss the decision.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Here, we try to unpack the NPC meme, what it means and why it’s causing trouble on Twitter.
What is an NPC?
NPC means “nonplayable character” or “nonplayer character.” It’s a term, borrowed from the world of video games, for a character that is controlled by the computer rather than by a player. An NPC often advances the game’s plot by saying scripted lines, or assisting the playable characters in some way.
A classic example of an NPC is Navi, a character in the 1998 video game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time who acts as a navigator for Link, the game’s protagonist.
What does this have to do with politics?
Several months ago, users on 4chan and Reddit, the online message forums, started using the term NPC to refer to liberals. These people, they said, join the anti-Trump crowd not because they are led by independent thought or conscience to oppose President Trump’s policies, but because they’re brainwashed sheep who have been conditioned to parrot left-wing orthodoxy, in the manner of a scripted character.
As a Reddit user, BasedMedicalDoctor, explains in a thread about the appeal of the meme, NPCs are “completely dependent on their programming, and can’t do or think on their own.”
Is there more to the NPC meme?
Sort of. There is NPC Wojak — a crudely drawn, gray cartoon avatar with a pointy nose and a blank face.
NPC Wojak is a variation of Wojak, an old cartoon (also known as “feels guy”) that has become a kind of collective mascot for the far-right commenters online. In recent weeks, users on 4chan and Reddit have made all kinds of memes featuring NPC Wojak.
Here is one:
And this is a thing … why?
It’s a long story, but the short version is that a group of young, extremely pro-Trump internet trolls have spent the past several years mocking anti-Trump people as whiny, easily triggered snowflakes who are primarily motivated by social acceptance rather than by logic and critical thinking.
Many of Mr. Trump’s supporters — including, as of last week, Kanye West — put their support for him in the language of freethinking rationality and paint the other side as being motivated by blind loyalty and identity politics. (Mr. West said of his pre-Trump-supporting days, “I was programmed to think from a victimized mentality.”)
The NPC meme fits neatly into this narrative and offers Mr. Trump’s online supporters an easy shorthand way to paint liberals as humorless prudes who say “Drumpf” because the HBO host John Oliver told them to, who march in protests and put on pink “pussyhats” because they’re the popular things to do, and whose views can’t withstand scrutiny.
(And then, when progressives object to a meme that portrays them as unthinking automatons, it becomes another piece of evidence: See? The left can’t take a joke.)
So what happened with Twitter?
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.)
This was a bridge too far for Twitter, whose rules prohibit giving out knowingly false voter information.
Are these people actually trying to interfere in the election?
Probably not. Evidence suggests that these are mostly just attention-starved gamers looking to impress one another by “triggering the libs” with edgy memes. But not everyone gets the joke. State officials are already worried that voters will be fooled by deliberate social media campaigns that contain incorrect voting information. Similar types of disinformation spread on social media in 2016, which makes companies like Twitter nervous.
Are these Russian bots?
Probably not. (Although some of the NPC accounts may have been automated, there is no sign that Russia is involved in this.) Mostly, it appears to be a 4chan joke that spiraled into some mild voter suppression.
Aren’t you giving these trolls the attention they’re seeking by writing about them in The New York Times?
Yes, probably. But understanding how these things happen, and how easily joke memes can escape the internet’s seedy underbelly and morph into actual tools of influence, is part of understanding the mechanics of modern politics. As we’ve learned, ignoring trolls doesn’t always make them go away.