If I asked you to imagine the worst parts of the internet, you might think of racist message boards, like parts of Reddit and YouTube comments. Or a stream of angry alt righters doxing someone on Twitter. Or perhaps you’d remember that time your cousin earnestly shared fake news on Facebook. Whatever the story, you’re probably picturing words, memes, and avatars. And in all of that multimedia noise, it’s easy to forget: The internet is really just the people posting on it.
Perhaps that revelation sounds obvious, but it’s a reminder provided by illustrator Jim Cooke in work commissioned by Data & Society, a New York City research institution dedicated to studying the intersection of culture and technology. For two of the organization’s latest white papers, the group breaks down terms like “gaslighting” and the historical precedents of the alt-right movement, for journalists, scholars, or anyone who is interested to reference. Cooke, who works at Gizmodo Media Group, was brought in to illustrate these ideas into tangible images, and the results are appropriately disquieting.
Innocuous chat windows weave their way into a giant slithering snake. An incensed, shouting man wraps his words like a blindfold around someone else’s eyes. A set of wind-up chattering teeth look so cute, until you spot the forked serpent tongue poking forth from them. In these images, you can see deceptive bots, deceitful news, and the dark choreography of mass coordinated campaigns of hateful people. It’s everything bad on the internet.
“A lot of [dark internet depictions] look the same. It’s screenshots of message boards, or those little Pepe things. And that just felt so tiring for me to do that,” says Cooke. “So I tried to think of it in a different way, as more of a crowd, or hoard, of disingenuousness.”
Cooke, who was hired specifically after Data & Society saw his work depicting internet trolls on the gaming site Kotaku, quickly sketches up ideas on a digital tablet. In this case, he then clone-stamped much of his own work, and filtered the handmade drawings through all sorts of post-processing to create an organic, screenprinted effect that’s reminiscent of hastily manufactured propaganda posters. “I like that everything looks sort of rubber stamped,” says Cooke. “It made the people more anonymous.”
Indeed. The work obscures any one identity much like the hive mind of any online group. And as you see a dozen or so heads lined up, shouting angry words like bullets flying from the barrels of a firing squad, you realize an even deeper truth: that much of the internet really isn’t people after all. Today, it’s clone-stamped hatred that’s forgotten anything else.