This analysis combines targeted study of a specific discourse with a broader study of its context, as is customary in discourse analysis (Crowe, 2005). We therefore present the findings and the discussion together in this section.
A complicated analysis
Our analysis was complicated by obfuscating language used within Gab, which is among several known communication tactics in alt-right spaces (May & Feldman, 2018). Gab, like many online spaces dedicated to alt-right or white nationalist interests, deliberately use humour, sarcasm, irony, and “playful” imagery (including memes) to obscure their intentions to spread hate (May & Feldman, 2018). These so-called “LULZ” (an adaptation of laugh out loud, or LOL) tactics are employed to rebrand and obfuscate fascist ideology and allows users a level of deniability when called out for their hate. These tactics work to make their offensive material more palatable to the mainstream, enhance their recruitment of young people and people who would be repelled by overtly violent or racist material, facilitate identification of insiders (those who know the vernacular) and outsiders (those who do not), and ultimately allow groups to “hide in plain sight” (May & Feldman, 2018). These tactics also pose a challenge to discourse analysis. Humour, sarcasm, and layers of irony are designed to leave many statements “open to interpretation”. Because of these tactics, extended immersion in the data was required to develop confidence in detecting the intended message of a post.
The questions with which we interrogated the data can be collapsed into three meta-questions: (1) What does this term mean? (2) Where does it come from? and (3) What does it enact? We break down our analytic findings along these same lines: (1) the meanings of the term in this context; (2) the roots of the term and the realities it reflects; and (3) the ways in which the term impacts people and how it shapes reality (within the “#Gabfam” and beyond).
Understanding the term “weaponized autism” and its meaning in Gab context
When conducting discourse analysis, it is critical to consider “who is talking” and “who is not” (Crowe, 2005). Within our dataset, “weaponized autists” are frequently discussed but rarely part of the discussion. Of the 711 posts included in this analysis, only 19 are written by people who claim to be autistic or possess “weaponized autism.” These 19 posts were generated by nine different users. Most discussion of weaponized autism refers to users among “the chans” (online unmoderated, anonymous forum sites such as 4chan and 8chan) or referencing unidentified people behind certain stunts or feats that the posters have learned of through media. Weaponized autists are frequently spoken of and occasionally spoken to, usually with some sort of call to action.
I need the weaponized Autism of /pol/! /pol/ got a president elected. Now we need a party in congress that will support him! #MAGAParty *NOTE /pol/ is a reference to “politically incorrect”, a discussion board on 4chan known for hate speech (Tuters, 2018)
Well thought out! Now, get the weaponized autists at 4Chan in on this!
The Gab definition of weaponized autism is rooted in an esoteric understanding of autism itself. When Gab posters speak of autistic people, they are not necessarily referring to someone who has been diagnosed as autistic or meets the diagnostic criteria if assessed. Rather, they are applying a stereotype of autism, which is largely of their own making, but has roots in medical and media representations of autism. Their autism archetype is a person with hyper-focus, social awkwardness, ‘savant’ or very narrow intelligence, a specific or specialized talent, and is usually single (probably a virgin) and “NEET” (not in education, employment, or training).
If you click on the link, the title of the photo is “Behold the power of weaponized autism.“ A lot of these guys are geeky, tech savvy, and a bit autistic(if not a lot).
In a nutshell many of them are basically super-geeks with some pretty awesome technical skillz. They tend to be politically conservative. You don’t want to get on their bad side :O
Each of these posts collapse autism with both social ineptitude and technical competencies. Interestingly, the reference to the risk of being on their “bad side” enables the weaponization: it is this implied potential for retaliation along with technical skills that makes autistic people useful to the movement.
Building off the Gab autism archetype, weaponized autism is the harnessing of hyper-focus and talents of “autistic” people. This “weapon” can be used to advance the interests of the alt-right, including harming their enemies, opponents, or people they see as undesirable.
weaponized autism. The focused application of nerdiness, computer tech savvy and social awkwardness in the cyber pursuit of justice, Payback or even serving the public interest
WEAPONIZED AUTISM!!! :D Now we know the evolutionary purpose for autism: highly focused warriors who relentlessly pursue the enemy.
It’s called weaponized autism, it’s the waxing and waning of shit posting intermixed with real life, math, philosophy, and smart LARPing.
Autists can be the most fanatical people you can find. We need “Waffen-Autismus” aka Weaponized Autism. Give those people a cause and something their skills are useful for and watch things get awesome. *NOTE “Waffen” is the German word for “weapons” and is also employed in the name of “Atomwaffen Division,” a defunct neo-Nazi network.
For these posters, autism is a readily exploitable resource that can be channelled in pursuit of their agenda, and especially as a means for lashing out at those who are considered “the enemy.” Indeed, Gab posters within our data discuss how autistic people can be deployed to advance the interests of the alt-right. The comments reveal a sometimes implicit, other times explicit assumption that autistic people are ripe for manipulation.
The greatest weapon on Earth is the weaponization of the depressed and emotionally vulnerable. Is Weaponized Autism not a piratical suicide delivery device? Can Social Media be used to find and manipulate useful idiots? Sadly yes
Back in the day (2016) we on the very hard right, the white nationalist alt-right, used these people as a force multiplier because at the time we desperately needed their weaponized autism to elect Trump.
What makes weaponized autism so appealing to Gab posters is that it is seen as an all-powerful, omniscient force with limitless reach. It is highly prized as a sophisticated and advanced tool in the alt-right arsenal and perceived as an “unstoppable” means by which to secure the salvation of white, western culture.
So few really appreciate the pure raw POWER of weaponized Autism! It’s reach is limitless, it’s power isinfinite!
My god, if #CrookedHillary really wants to control the people and stop #Trump, she need to stop worrying about guns and ban weaponized autism ASAP. Their autism know no bounds. #MAGA
This is amazing! No other superpower in the world can stand against weaponized autism!
We are only beginning to scratch the surface of weaponized autism. Even if we have harnessed a fraction of its power, we will be nigh on unstoppable.
We’ve weaponized autism and it’s both beautiful and terrifying to behold.
Weaponized autism is seen as particularly valuable to the alt-right because it operates in what the posters see as their primary battlefield (the Internet) and is appropriate for the type of conflict they prize (meme warfare). Autists are thought to excel in the development and circulation of memes that signal insider/outsider status, and that communicate the aims of the alt-right.
Let us praise all the fine meme war soldiers on the Right side of history! Your weaponized autism is appreciated and will not be forgotten
Normie Oppression will never end!!! WEAPONIZE YOUR AUTISM This is the MOTHER OF ALL MEME BATTLES.
These posts suggest that “meme battles” are central to their tactics, and the greatest warriors are thus autistic people. Weaponized autism, then, is also considered to be something uniquely owned by the far right. It is claimed as something that has been and will be helpful in advancing their agenda, which is sometimes overtly linked to promoting favoured political figures and defeating their political enemies.
I love this. Obama may have weaponized stupidity, but Trump supporters at r/The_Donald have weaponized autism. *NOTE r/The_Donald/ is a reference to a subreddit that has since been banned by Reddit for not conforming to their standards (Lima, 2019).
I amconvinced our only plan for victory is convincingly smearing every Dem in 2018 as some type of Sex Offender, GOP obviously won’t do that so we need weaponized autists to spread #pizzagate times 10, but more convincing. *NOTE “pizzagate” is a reference to a conspiracy theory that claimed Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring in a pizzeria.
While weaponized autism is often discussed in terms of direct political advancement, it is also discussed as a tool for general mischief making and “entertainment.” “Shitposting” and other forms of online pranking that capitalize on diligent detail-oriented research (such as identifying people of interest) are among the LULZ strategies and other tactics discussed earlier, which are employed to simultaneously demonstrate the group’s power and distract from their most nefarious work and intentions.
BOOM!!!!! Shitposting has now reached fully weaponized autistic levels!!!!
Saturday is April Fool’s Day and I suggest we make use of it. I want every Gabber, Alt-Right and conspiracy Theorist dropping round after round of weaponized autism on the enemy via social media.
Later you can claim it was just a joke…#MAGA #GABFAM
To be a weaponized autist is to be valued. Weaponized autists are held up as heroes within the Gab posts. Many posters express admiration, appreciation, and affection for these “soldiers” for their cause.
Weaponized autism is a wonder to behold to us regular people. You guys are thermonuclear! Thank you for never giving up on anything!
Who’d have thought the heros of the day would be the weaponized autists of 4chan? Not only are they successfully identifying cowardly masked #Antifa anarchists, but they have analyzed their mob tactics in detail. These guys deserve some love!
Apparently it’s World Autism Awareness Day - the AltRight is ahead of the SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] when it comes to this. The AltRight respects and cultivates the awesome power of Weaponised Autism, this gives meaning and direction to many autist’s lives. #Gabfam #Maga #Trump
Calling other [people] “weaponized autists” is a high honor bestowed on those who fight for good here :)
Paradoxically, to be a weaponized autist is to be simultaneously devalued. Alongside the expressions of admiration and affection are incongruous sentiments of degradation. While useful and talented, weaponized autists are seen as “strange” and incapable of many “normal” tasks such as maintaining hygiene, relationships, and employment. They are presumed to spend time engaged in “useless” activities (such as online gaming) and to occasionally engage in “unusual” behaviour, such as making screeching “Reee” sounds.
Our top Kek priests are in development of a new kind of weapon... Called the Reeeening Rifle. Shoots dank memes with semi-auto, and concentrated weaponized autism with fully-auto. *NOTE “Kek” is an insider vernacular term with several meanings, in this case referring to a fictional culture / heritage and religion shared by alt right online community (Tuters, 2018)
Never underestimate weaponized autism and the boredom of a couple of unwashed NEETS.
The ambivalence directed toward weaponized autists is reflective of their alt-right values. The simultaneous valuing and devaluing of weaponized autists is elucidated when their autism archetype is mapped onto values held by the group. The alt-right are known to value whiteness, stereotypic maleness, cisgender, heteronormativity, and ‘rational’ intellect (or pseudo-intellect) (Bogerts & Fielitz, 2019; Forscher & Kteily, 2020; Nilan, 2021) and these characteristics match their stereotype of autistic people. Alt-right ideology also values power, strength, capitalistic prominence, social dominance, sexual access to women, and being head of a household (Bogerts & Fielitz, 2019; Forscher & Kteily, 2020; Nilan, 2021), all of which are lacking from their weaponized autist archetype.
Roots of the term weaponized autism and the realities it reflects
The Gab archetype of an autist did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it is rooted in some portrayals of autism in media. As mentioned earlier, a weaponized autist, as discussed within Gab, is not necessarily a person with a formal diagnosis (though it can be). The image portrayed within Gab aligns closely with the cultural figure of “nerds’’ depicted in popular culture; specifically, a person who is male, who fails to fit hegemonic standards of masculinity, a computer user, is technologically brilliant, but is socially inept (Kendall, 1999). In addition to the “nerd” stereotype, the media has offered many portrayals of autism. Journalistic portrayals of autism have tended to offer a negative or tragic view of autism and to portray autistic people as asocial, or even antisocial (Huws & Jones, 2011). Early entertainment-media portrayals of autistic people have been criticized for depicting people who were either subhuman or superhuman with nothing in between (Maich, 2014). Today, autistic characters are featured in a growing number of movies and television series (Nordahl-Hansen, 2017). Despite the growing popularity of autistic characters, autistic people are generally left out of both the production and the casting of these characters, and the characters are criticized as being archetypal rather than authentic (Nordahl-Hansen, 2017) with said archetype often matching that which is portrayed in Gab.
It is also the case that the Gab archetype of an autistic person is rooted in some portrayals of autism in medicine. With a growing portion of autism research being informed by a neurodiversity framework, we are developing an improved understanding of the heterogeneity of autistic people, beyond simply thinking of “levels of severity” (Welch et al., 2020). This includes explorations of autistic experience that challenge older, dominant conceptualizations of autism. However, early framing of autism maps well on to the reductionist Gab autism stereotype. Especially fitting is the former diagnostic category of Asperger Syndrome, which was named after Hans Asperger, who reportedly referred to his young patients as “little professors”, comparing their knowledge (relevant to their area of interest) to that of erudite professors, but also describing them as socially unskilled, unaware, and uninterested (Osborne, 2002).
The term “weaponized autism” might also be understood as an extension of the broader use of militarized speech in this forum. The term aligns with the general tendency by users on Gab to use militarized language on this site. This is reflective of the alt-right value of authoritarianism (Phillips & Yi, 2018), as well as a collective sense of grievance and an “us against the world” mentality frequently intermingled with the idea of being at war with much of the world (Forscher & Kteily, 2020). Presumably, posters use militaristic speech to evoke a sense of power / authority and legitimacy as well as being precise and well organized, all things that are valued in this space (Nilan, 2021; Phillips & Yi, 2018).
We cherish our autism for we have weaponized it and made of it a terrifying sword with which to harrow our enemies
The side effects of weaponized autism were still not fully understood in 2017, much like the side effects of nuclear weapons in 1945
The use of the term “weaponized autism,” then, is not out of line with standard discursive practices of the alt-right, indeed, to “weaponize” something is itself a common alt-right strategy. That is to say, they capitalize on opportunities to advance their agenda by manipulating people, sentiments, media, technology and events for their own purposes (Ganesh, 2020; Munn, 2019; Picciolini, 2020). The alt-right have been known to “weaponize” online memes (Ebner, 2019), cartoons (Bogerts & Fielitz, 2019), irony and idioms (Albrecht, 2019), and use technology such as YouTube recommendations (Munn, 2019) to advance their agenda.
How use of the term “weaponized autism” shapes reality (within the “#Gabfam” and beyond)
Within the #Gabfam, the simultaneous valuing and devaluing of weaponized autists are internalized and reflected in the posts of Gab users who identify as weaponized autists. Some of the posts from users who self-identify as weaponized autists reflect a sense of pride, accomplishment, and positive identity. It is a badge of honour. These posts mirror the high regard for weaponized autists that is sometimes conveyed by other Gab users. Other posts from self-identified weaponized autists reflect an internalization of the negative stereotypes attached to this label.
you don’t understand I AMweaponized autism. I AMthe memetic autistic nonsense. it’s thanks to autists like me that Trump is your President (if you’re American), it’s autists like me that keep balance within the universe. you’re welcome
Ah dude its the nature of being a weaponized autist_x000D_ It destroys sanity and replaces with raw memes
actually that makes sense. thanks m8 that’s why I don’t have anyone, no one deserve to be paired up with the pure weaponized autism that I am :D I’m okay with this, I’m a living weapon :D
Unfortunately, the #Gabfam’s level of acceptance for some autistic people may be better than that of general society. A critical contextual factor to consider is that many autistic people experience a high level of rejection in general society (Acker et al., 2018), such that the partial or intermittent acceptance offered to autistic people in the Gab space will, to some people, be preferable to the general non-acceptance experienced in larger society. Within the “#Gabfam”, autistic people often have insider status and an important role to play. This role is seen as critical to the cause and this cause is central to this community. While the term is partly insulting and derogatory, it is also partly glorified, and it speaks of a person as talented, smart, and useful. Additionally, many autistic people encounter challenges developing close, reciprocal relationships and commonly experience maltreatment within relationships (Pearson et al., 2020). This can make the maltreatment encountered on Gab seem “normal”. The quotes below highlight pervasive experiences of rejection in greater society as well as experiences of acceptance and a role to play within Gab.
I just like it when we do agree - it means I am not a complete lunatic. I like it when I agree with anyone. Keeps me sane knowing Im actually not alone. Being a weaponized autist has drawbacks, and isolation and depression are 2
Lol Ive been called worse. Im 99% pure weaponized autism. If it werent for the 1% not weaponized I would have imploded into a black hole by now. I know I will be alone. I do not expect ANYTHING in return. My fate is sealed. I am at peace with this role.
Im ugly, and none of those other things. My extremely dense weaponized autism is as bad as radioactive waste for womens’ health. I stay single for their sake. They dont wanna deal with this level of autism
Ultimately, Gab creates an “echo chamber” that shapes users, including autistic users. Gab is specifically designed for people to express extreme views in a forum where it will not be challenged (Jasser et al., 2021). Additionally, Gab discourse has been found to be driven by “super participants” who work to ensure dissenting / divergent views are discouraged (Zhou et al., 2019). “Intellectual” rationalizations for alt-right ideals are often presented in these forums, offered with a logic that can be very convincing, especially when there are no counter balancing arguments offered (Darmstadt et al., 2019). Posters whose content expresses white nationalist sentiments are often encouraged and praised; posters who express dissent are harshly criticized or worse, ignored (Jasser et al., 2021). Patterns of acceptance and rejection within discourse always have the power to shape people (Crowe, 2005). The acutely explicit and strong signals of acceptance and rejection seen on Gab are likely to be especially powerful.
Our paper raises many considerations for autistic people, family members, researchers, clinicians, and policy makers. The term “weaponized autism”, and the communication tactics in which it is grounded, pose risks to autistic people, particularly autistic youth. There are many components to this risk. The Identity, Community and Purpose Model of Radical Socialization (ICP) suggests that attraction to hate based material is driven by unmet social needs rather than by direct appeal of the ideologies themselves (Picciolini, 2020). As the title of this model suggests, the primary unmet social needs are a sense of identity, a sense of community, and a sense of purpose. These three social needs are easily mapped on to the construct of weaponized autism as presented in the Gab posts. By becoming a weaponized autist, an autistic person is bestowed a clear identity, becomes an insider to this community and has a vital and highly specialized role to play. The partial inclusion offered by the Gab community is better than the exclusion often enacted by larger society. Larger society poses many barriers for autistic people to attain a sense of identity, community, and purpose (Acker et al., 2018; Cappadocia et al., 2012; Pearson et al., 2022; Sofronoff et al., 2011). The marginalization experienced by autistic people can set them up to be responsive to the allure of the sense of identity, community and purpose offered to weaponized autists within Gab.
The layers of irony, as well as the humour and sarcasm used within these spaces (May & Feldman, 2018) increase the risk of attracting online users who are merely curious or who are attracted to the humour and “shenanigans” but who are not truly interested in the ideological underpinnings of alt-right forums. These layers of irony and humour can also make it difficult for family members and clinicians to know how entrenched a person is in the ideology, since the plausible deniability lent by LULZ tactics extend to individual users and people who consume the material.
It is not uncommon for “insider” vernacular terms, ideas, or memes to leak from niche platforms into the mainstream (Literat & van den Berg, 2019). Currently, the term weaponized autism can be found in public forums such as Reddit, Twitter, and other online blog posts. T-shirts, stickers, and buttons emblazoned with the term are available for purchase on Amazon and Etsy. Growing popularity of the term has the potential to cause harm to the larger autism community by suggesting an association between autism and violence, while simultaneously suggesting that autistic people are like “programmable robots”, or malleable and ripe for manipulation.
This remains an understudied area. Much thoughtful research is needed in order to better understand the engagement and recruitment tactics of alt-right and other hate-based groups directed at autistic people. Additionally, more work is needed to identify risk and protective factors to prevent and respond to autistic peoples’ engagement in online hate-based materials. This is especially crucial for autistic young people.
There are important limitations to this study and the way its findings can be applied. The posts scraped for this analysis were generated within or before March 2019. Given the way in which language is rapidly manipulated and frequently changed within alt-right discourse (Donovan et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2018), the use of the term “weaponized autism” can be expected to evolve. In fact, it is possible that this has already happened by the time of publication of this manuscript. It must also be considered that each online platform / forum has its own unique culture and vernacular, and that the nuanced interpretations offered here are specific to Gab and the term “weaponized autism” may have somewhat different nuance within discourse generated on other forums, including alt-right spaces. The online posts scraped for this analysis were limited to those containing actual use of the term “weaponized autism” (or a variant of the term) and did not contain full threads of conversation for analysis. This limits some of the contextual information for these posts and may have impacted the interpretations we have offered.