In the eyes of her persecutors, the author Maris Kreizman was guilty of the following counts: being a woman, being Jewish, criticizing Donald Trump, and tweeting at all. “Elie Wiesel died on the day Trump used the Star of David in a political attack ad,” Kreizman tweeted on July 2. “I hope Wiesel’s books can be warnings, not prophesies.” Within 16 hours, Kreizman’s mentions became “a horror show” of coordinated harassment; one user with a Soul Eater anime avatar and less than 300 followers responded to Kreizman’s initial tweet by simply placing her name in triple parentheses — a call to harass Jewish users with anti-Semitic threats and memes.
Kreizman, having examined the wreckage of her mentions, also wondered: “Why do so many anonymous racist Twitter trolls have animé characters as their avatars?”
Early this year, The New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer similarly noted the odd, online prominence of “racist anime fans.” But what might seem like a broad contingent of anime-obsessive trolls is actually a bit more nuanced. Look closely and you’ll see that the most commonly adopted avatars are cartoon girls whose passiveness or adorable radiance contradicts the cruel language and intentions of the users who co-opt their aesthetic. One of the first users to target Kreizman has worn a variety of anime avatars since first harassing the author in July. Before @PetainSnek deleted his account earlier this week (and possibly started a new one), the user’s avatar was a fan art drawing of the Neon Genesis Evangelion character Rei Ayanami, the archetype for an anime character style known as moe.
As one observer of Kreizman’s ordeal tweeted in personal solidarity, “It’s always moe girls yelling Nazi shit at me for some reason.”
Moe is an archetype as well as a genre unto itself. Broadly defined, moe means young girls doing cute stuff: attending school, crushing on boys, pouting, and being clumsy. If there’s a single word you could use to describe most moe archetypes other than “cute,” it’s “passive.”
Moe trolls themselves are hardly passive. They brand themselves with character art from WWII-themed anime series such as Girls und Panzer or Barbarossa, or adorn more run-of-the-mill moe imagery with swastikas or “Make America Great Again” caps. Here’s Mio Akiyama, a shy high school bassist in the popular manga series K-ON!, reimagined by a fan artist as an SS officer.
U.S. anime critics have noticed this odd prominence of neo-Nazi moe imagery among vicious Twitter trolls. Daryl Surat, a journalist who writes for Otaku USA, traces this to imageboards such as 4chan, an infamous online community of anonymous users who chat about pop culture, politics, porn, video games, and, from its earliest days, anime. “In the last 10 years, give or take, a lot of internet culture arose around anonymous imageboards,” Surat explains. “Invariably, because a lot of that culture originated from Japan, that led to an American equivalence, specifically things like 4chan.”
In 2004, U.S. entrepreneur Christopher Poole, known online as “moot,” founded 4chan as a forum for anime discussion. Over the years, the website’s user base has massively expanded, and so has its variety of discussion boards. Much as the Japanese godfather of imageboard culture, 2channel — the most popular online community in Japan — became a swamp of Japanese nationalism, 4chan now doubles as a breeding ground for antisocial, maladjusted political expression, including the neo-Nazi sympathies that English-speaking users proliferate in 4chan’s /pol/ (“Politically Incorrect”) board. Thus, 4chan squares reactionary politics with anime fandom — unique strains of anime fandom, to be clear. “You’re not liable to find somebody vehemently defending Trumpism who is using an anime avatar from a Studio Ghibli work,” Surat says. “If their attitudes towards women are more antiquated or — as conservatives often put it — traditional, they may watch entertainment in which those roles are reinforced.”
Surat describes these moe trolls as having developed “a pretty advanced level of understanding mimetics” by way of immersive interaction on the imageboards whence they spawn. Practically, however, moe trolls aren’t any more or less dangerous than other mad men of the internet, though they are perhaps younger than your average Trump agitator. Kreizman notes that the Twitter user who first targeted her is 14 years old, according to his Twitter bio.
JP Meyer, an anime blogger who’s fluent in forum culture, compares moe trolls to guerilla fighters: a small, infuriated band of imageboard users who might share an article, identify an author or subject for potential harassment, then mobilize and migrate to Twitter. On the social media platform, they create several, anonymous, low-follower accounts in order to maximize their reach and volume while, simultaneously, obscuring their numbers. “I actually don’t think there are that many of these guys out there,” Meyer says. “It’s one part of these imageboards: You have no idea who’s actually using it. It could be five really bored people just yelling at each other nonstop, or it could be a zillion people.”
Surat agrees. “It’s a smaller group of people than you may think, but they are highly active online,” he says. “What you do see is the coordinated effort that appears somehow online.” (Our outreach to a couple of Kreizman’s trolls went unanswered.)
Looking back, Kreizman tells The Ringer she never felt physically intimidated by the trolls who swarmed her mentions. She was nonetheless overwhelmed, disturbed, and perplexed by many of the offensive tweets, including ones that she screen-capped and shared as a plea for Twitter to police abusive content and purge abusive accounts. “The tweet that I finally, really pushed on reporting [to Twitter] was just the most overt: It’s anti-Semitic, it’s threatening, and it’s rape. There’s nothing that can be misconstrued there,” Kreizman says. “That was a perfect little ball of hate.” Since Twitter, the company, has historically done very little to curb user harassment on its platform, the ball is only growing.