In Brief

What are NPCs and why has Twitter banned them?

Pro-Trump alt-right memes are latest front in culture war raging across America

Twitter has banned more than 1,500 spoof accounts featuring NPCs - grey, expressionless avatars who tweet bland, politically correct messages intended to mimic and provoke liberal pronouncements.

 The social media giant’s decision has triggered accusations of censorship and prompted questions about how this seemingly harmless phenomenon has caused such controversy.

What exactly are NPCs?

NPC stands for “non-playable character”, a phrase taken from video games referring to any figure a gamer encounters while roaming a digital landscape that they cannot control themselves.

The Independent says that “rather than the hero of the game, these are often supporting characters who offer a quest or recite dialogue to further the plot. Unthinking automatons, they have no minds of their own.”

The NPC meme is a variant of the long-running Wojak meme, a simply drawn monotone character often used as a reaction image to represent feelings such as melancholy, regret or loneliness. The NPC versions “mocks leftists as expressionless in appearance and bot-like in behaviour”, says far-right website Breitbart News, which claims that “the universal standard appearance illustrates the Left’s political homogeneity”.

Who runs them?

According to The New York Times’ Kevin Roose, the trolling campaign that spilled over onto Twitter “was born in the fever swamps of 4chan and Reddit message boards” where much of the pro-Trump alt-right originated.

Earlier this year the online forums began using the term NPC to refer to liberals, arguing that many anti-Trump supporters are the equivalent of brainwashed sheep who repeat empty phrases that have no real meaning.

“The NPC meme fits neatly into this narrative and offers Trump’s online supporters an easy shorthand way to paint liberals as humorless prudes” while they present themselves “in the language of freethinking rationality”, says Roose.

“Like a lot of conservative memes, the rhetoric helps insulate it from criticism,” writes Ellen Ioanes on Texas-based news site The Daily Dot. “If a number of people claim they aren’t being brainwashed to fight the depiction, well, they’re just brainwashed to say that. Any criticism of the meme’s logic is proof that you’re a stupid NPC sheep.”

Why were they banned?

There is a darker side to NPCs. These social media accounts posed as liberal activists and were used to spread, among other things, false information about November’s midterm elections.

The BBC reports that in a single 24-hour period there were more than 30,000 uses of the term NPC on Twitter, and Facebook pages dedicated to the trend have amassed tens of thousands of followers.

According to a person familiar with Twitter’s enforcement rules, some 1,500 accounts violated the company’s rules against “intentionally misleading election-related content” and were removed as a result.

What has the reaction been?

As the BBC notes, “what looks like a row over a meme sits in the broader context of ongoing culture wars. Trump supporters complain liberals denigrate them all as fascists or Russian bots. Liberals are angered by their mass characterisation as snowflakes or NPCs.”

Predictably, many pro-Trump conservatives have been outraged by Twitter’s actions, although others suggest the decision to remove the accounts played into their hands and turned what was a small online phenomenon into a national news story.

The Daily Dot’s Ioanes says the right-wing “already has a beef with Twitter: from accusations of ‘shadowbanning’ to #verifiedhate, many on the Right are convinced they’re being purposefully targeted and silenced when they’re suspended or blocked from Twitter or Facebook for violating the companies’ guidelines”.

The NPC purge is no exception, despite being a clear case of fake accounts distributing false information.

The impact on the midterm elections may be negligible, and there is no evidence to suggest NPC memes are part of a wider disinformation campaign, but the coverage garnered by the row has extended far beyond the forums in which the trend began.

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