Shia LaBeouf is having a really hard time with his “Anti-Trump Art Project.” What began as a standalone exhibit has become a game of Capture the Flag with Internet trolls. Perhaps the stress of it is what led to his most recent outburst—a drunken argument with a bartender that resulted in his ejection from a Studio City bowling alley (a move that was very Un-Dude).
Starting on January 20, 2017—the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration—the actor and his collaborators planned an ongoing art project in front of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The exhibit consisted of a camera and microphone broadcasting the video feed of an outside courtyard where people were encouraged to make the statement “He will not divide us,” and broadcast it on the website HeWillNotDivide.US.
The exhibit was meant as a means of resistance, an expression of solidarity, and a way for people to find unity in the horrible reality of a Trump presidency. LaBeouf promised he would continue to be involved with the project and in the early days he appeared several times to lead supporters with chants of “He will not divide us!” But then the Internet happened.
Shia LaBeouf, Meet the Internet
If the Internet has taught us anything, it should be that the ability to make anonymous comments releases the worst tendencies of people. If reality television has taught us anything, it should be that people will go to just about any length to become “famous.” When you combine the two, problems are bound to happen.
While many people came to the exhibit to participate in LaBeouf’s vision for it, several groups came for the exact opposite reason. A group of Trump supporters came to chant “He will unite us” over the stream. Trolls showed up to get on camera wearing shirts displaying “Pepe the Frog”—the mascot of anti-PC and alt-right memes. Finally, one troll provoked a physical altercation by shouting the cryptic neo-Nazi code words “14” and “88” into the camera during the middle of one of the chants LaBeouf was leading. Another troll hugged LaBeouf in a video selfie then said “Hitler did nothing wrong!”
Were these men neo-Nazis? It’s hard to tell, as they are not public figures and we have no idea what they actually believe. Whatever political philosophy they hold, however, they seem to know that an effective means of trolling a Jewish progressive is to sing praises of the biggest villain in Western civilization.
Advanced trolling doesn’t just pit the individual troll against one individual; it pits various sides against each other. “South Park” brilliantly summed it up when the normally mild-mannered Gerald found the secret to success:
It’s about pushing people’s buttons so that they’ll react in a way that pushes other people’s buttons… You don’t just Troll the woman with cancer to get a reaction from her, it’s about the group of people who will come to her defense. They’re going to be so self-righteous that another group of people will eventually find those people totally annoying! You’re just setting them against each other. It’s like the fission reaction that sets off the fusion explosion. The Internet does it all and you just sit back with your glass of wine and laugh!
The Plot Thickens
LaBeouf tried to get his project back on track by relocating to a site in Albuquerque, but ended that exhibit after about a week with the explanation that there were reports of gunshots in the area. Then he took the exhibit to an undisclosed location, training the live camera feed on a white flag, emblazoned with the slogan “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US.” The trolls, of course, were excited to go after this latest incarnation.
Much of the previous disruption campaign had been organized on the websites 4chan and 8chan, so the users started gathering information and comparing notes. First, they were able to find out from social media and news reports that LaBeouf had been in eastern Tennessee when the flag went up. Then they watched the background of the live feed to figure out flight patterns of commercial aircraft in the area, determined the position of the flag relative to the camera by tracking the star movements, and figured out the property where it must be located by having a co-conspirator drive around honking his horn until it was heard on the feed. Within 37 hours they captured the flag and raised a “Make America Great Again” hat in its place.
Again, LaBeouf restarted the live feed and raised the flag from the roof of the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology building in Liverpool, England. It was reasonable to think that placing the flag on top of a secure building in another continent would deter vandalism. Unfortunately, the trolls extended their reach. They used Google Earth to devise a route where co-conspirators could jump onto the roof from an adjoining building then escape after lowering the flag. As a result, the exhibit has been closed again.
On police advice, FACT and LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have removed the installation HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US due to dangerous, illegal trespassing.
— FACT_Liverpool (@FACT_Liverpool) March 23, 2017
Will the organizers try to revive the project once more? Only they know for sure, but the problem is that these exhibits now have a big target painted on them by the trolls of 4chan and 8chan. Trolls feed on emotional turmoil without relenting or apologizing. There is a reason Internet forum moderators will tell members, “Don’t feed the trolls.” They generally take the attitudes of juvenile boys, regardless of their actual age or gender, and always seek new ways to push their targets’ buttons.
To Beat Immature People, Don’t Play Into Their Hands
LaBeouf is as big a target to trolls as they come. He is wealthy, famous, and passionate about his causes. He has used his fame to provide a platform for his activism and has a history of getting into fights and doing bizarre things. He is the perfect combination of the kind of person a troll most wants to bait and the kind of person who is most likely to respond badly when baited.
And who are the trolls? Perhaps some actually are neo-Nazis or members of the alt-right, but many don’t seem to have a strong political ideology. Many 4chan types are simply “anti-PC” and don’t consider themselves Trump supporters. Mostly, it seems they did it for the lulz and feel they’re doing the world a favor by taking Shia LaBeouf down a notch.
We should all be able to agree that it is not right to make fun of people stricken with cancer or the victims of gas ovens, and that making jokes about genuine atrocities is socially taboo for good reasons. Even fake defenses of Hitler and National Socialism are vile given the historical realities that continue to affect survivors and their descendants. The problem is that in our current political climate where we increasingly silo ourselves into tribal groups where no ideological dissent is allowed, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the actual neo-Nazi types and those who are lashing out because they feel disrespected.
This differentiation matters because we need to deal with each group differently. Neo-Nazis need to be actively denounced, vicious trolls need to be banned and ignored until they go away, and tacit supporters of trolling need to be persuaded that they would be better off engaging in an actual conversation based on mutual respect.
Lost in all of this is the ironic fact that perhaps the statement “He will not divide us” is true in a way that none of the folks involved in this “game” think. Trump will not divide us because we are already divided. Anti-Trump progressives and #NeverTrump conservatives need to accept the reality that he is the president and understand the people who voted for him if they want to actually create more unity in our society. They could start by refusing to feed the trolls by overreacting to antics perpetrated precisely to provoke meaningless outrage.
UPDATE: After this article went to publication it was announced that LaBeouf and his collaborators will spend a month secluded in three separate cabins in a remote area of Finland. They will continue their artistic expression by communicating via text message with visitors at the Kiasma Finnish National Gallery, who can speak to the artists through a live video feed. We wish LaBeouf the best of luck in avoiding the trolls.