Donald Trump Jr. cut short his event at UCLA Sunday promoting his book, “Triggered,” when a group of far-right activists continually chanted “Q-and-A” and “America First,” driving him from the stage.
One day earlier, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, was asked a series of questions about Israel at a question-and-answer session at an Arizona State University event. After one attendee made an anti-Semitic reference to the 9/11 attacks, Crenshaw asked, “What do you guys call yourselves? There’s a name for your group, right?”
Crenshaw was met with a series of sarcastic answers before the group started chanting: “America First! America First!”
The group does have a name, and its adherents are part of a larger far-right, anti-Semitic and homophobic movement that is trying to emerge into the larger world.
The trolls pushing the movement online call themselves Groypers, a reference to the name of a meme — a running joke in the form of a customizable image — on extreme, far-right parts of anonymous internet forums 4chan and Reddit. There is little indication that the word has any other meaning outside of its relation to the meme, which is a drawing of a frog with its hands clasped that is similar to a drawing that gained popularity with internet trolls in recent years.
The group is led by a minor celebrity in the alt-right named Nick Fuentes, who runs a YouTube channel called “America First.”
Fuentes’ and his group have gained national attention for a series of identical stunts, in which they take over question-and-answer portions of events with conservatives who align with President Donald Trump. They then confront the speakers with anti-gay, anti-Semitic and racist questions, efforts that resemble internet trolling taken into the real world, which are then streamed online for its supporters.
The troll takeovers have been met with mixed or negative reactions. A person who last month posed a homophobic question during a Q-and-A with Charlie Kirk, a popular figure among young conservatives and head of the super PAC Turning Point USA, was laughed off by the hosts and audience members.
But the troll’s target audience wasn’t in the room. Fuentes was watching the event and livestreaming it on YouTube, where he built up anticipation as one of “my guys” waited in the Q-and-A line.
“Here we go. Here we go,” Feunters said on the stream. “Groyper time.”
Other white nationalist voices have recently been banned from platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in recent months as part of a broader crackdown on hate speech. Fuentes, meanwhile, has been able to add more subscribers to his YouTube channel.
Fuentes receives donations on his livestreams using YouTube’s “Superchat” function, which allows for instant donations to streamers. His account is still verified on Twitter, giving him an algorithmic bump in searches and trending topics.
Fuentes first gained national attention when he decided to leave Boston University after attending the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where anti-racist protester Heather Heyer was killed and 33 others were injured. Fuentes complained in a Facebook post after the event that he was unfairly singled out by liberal activists for talking about white pride.
Joan Donovan and Brian Friedberg, who research disinformation and extremism for the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, have been studying Fuentes’ rise for the last three years. They said his group has taken off in the last six weeks.
Donovan compared Fuentes to white nationalist Richard Spencer, though Fuentes had previously received far less attention.
“He’s no less dangerous than Spencer. His time just hadn’t come yet,” Donovan said. “He’s a Holocaust denier, a vicious homophobe, and anti-immigration talking points that’s so bad most journalists are going to read it as trolling. But it’s not trolling. He’s just trying to seed these talking points, and infect the culture with these discussions.”
Donovan said that Fuentes has capitalized on the factionalization of pro-Trump conservativism that has emerged since the Charlottesville rally. As the president and some of his media surrogates have tried to push a comparatively more moderate message, some online trolls have begun to feel left behind.
“As these middle-of-the-road conservatives defend Trump, Fuentes looks more and more appealing,” Donovan said. “He can say he supports ‘America First,’ and these platforms give him a space for that political identity to flourish.”
Friedberg said the goal of the Groyper army at events like the ones that targeted Trump Jr.’s book signing this weekend is simple.
“What they’re trying to do in these explosive Q-and-A’s is say, ‘Shocking language around race is back on the table.’”
The driving ideology of the group, he said, is even simpler: “We just want to be racist with our friends on Twitter. It’s low commitment for high amounts of racism.”