There is a whole world out there: the Internet. Anyone can see the other side of the world with the click of a button, content is spread continuously by users entertaining their audience and things that were unimaginable before are now widely available. The prediction on how the Internet would affect humanity was that it would create equality and enforce democracy by allowing everyone free access to countless of sources. While true in some cases, there are also less fortunate effects that the Internet has, for instance: it is easier than ever to spread propaganda through the world. Some of this propaganda is in the shape of so-called memes, often presented as a light-hearted joke, even though they can carry a hidden political agenda.
1. What is an Internet meme?
Firstly, I will explain the word ‘meme’ and in which context we will be referring it to during this essay. The word ‘meme’ was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, describing a cultural item that is transmitted with repetition and replication, analogous to the transmission of biological genes (Cambridge Dictionary). This process used to happen through word-of-mouth transmission, but because of instant communication methods made available through the Internet, the process has sped up rapidly, creating trends and fads in a matter of minutes. When speaking of an Internet meme, we refer to a piece of media being spread as mimicry, often for humorous purposes, that spreads from person to person. One of the first famous Internet memes is the ‘lolcat’, pictures of cats with a joke or a pun included in them. The lolcat originated from the anonymous image board 4chan in 2006 and became a sensation in 2007, when the website I Can Haz Cheezburger was created. In figure 1, the meme is a funny picture of a cat, with grammatically incorrect text to visualise what the cat is saying. This is a typical example of a innocuous meme, without any political connotations or global challenges included. From 2006 and onwards, most memes have been of this calibre, an image macro with a funny caption, however, over the course of several years, the content of memes has become more political and often more polarised, often appealing only to very niche subcultures on the internet.
2. The Rise of the Political Meme
As formerly discussed, memes were often innocuous in nature and meant to make the audience laugh. While humour is still an important part of the political meme, there is also often a particular worldview/political view being spread. The first time memes were at an all-time high, was during what the media referred to as the “meme election” of 2012 (Jeffries, 2012; Jurgenson, 2012). Throughout a debate, images and jokes would spread and gain attention in real-time An example is the phrase “binders full of women”, used by presidential candidate Mitt Romney in response to a question about pay equality during the 2012 election. The debate had not finished before there were numerous pictures depicting Mitt Romney holding ‘binders full of women’ (see figure 2). Barack Obama, the opposing presidential candidate, referenced the phrase by saying “I’ve got to tell you, we don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women”, cleverly using his opposition’s mistake to make his own political views clear. Edgerly et al (2016) even suggested that posts such as the aforementioned were a driving force in the election, ultimately causing Obama to win.
Similarly, the result of the US elections in 2016 have been thought to be a result of the now mainstream ‘meme-warfare’, with mainstream media channels falling for fake ads created by trolls. It does not matter which side you are on, any fragment of a video can be made into a funny gif that can either compliment or criticise the person in question. The amount of clicks and revenue one can gain from a post that is not entirely true, the facts having been changed just a little to be in favour of the audience’s narrative, is usually a lot higher than a dry report. Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth College, says: “Facebook, Google, and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences”. Social media is now tailored to the likes of the individual, because it gains the highest amount of revenue during the time you spent on a certain site. The need for truth becomes less important than the need for your attention. Dr. Nyhan explains another reason misinformation is spread so easily: “The networks make information run so fast that it outruns fact-checkers’ ability to check it. Misinformation spreads widely before it can be downgraded in the algorithms”. Even if misinformation was corrected later, the initial reaction of the brain would still be to connect the rumour to a person (e.g. Obama: Muslim immigrant, Trump: fascist, Clinton: sex offender). Even though this is a logical fallacy known as the illusion of truth, it still impacts how the audience thinks of a presidential candidate.
3. Turning Mainstream Memes Into Mainstream Racism
Pepe the Frog was created by Matt Furie as an innocent ‘stoner frog’. He used to be one of the most commonly used memes on websites such as 4chan and Tumblr, his picture being used to express joy, sadness or anger. Matt Furie described as him: “My Pepe philosophy is simple: ‘Feels good man.'”, Pepe being the embodiment of feeling ‘zen’. Furry continues: “I find complete joy in physically, emotionally, and spiritually serving Pepe and his friends through comics. Each comic is sacred, and the compassion of my readers transcends any differences, the pain, and fear of ‘feeling good.'” Users of 4chan began to dislike how mainstream Pepe was becoming and kept changing the picture into more offensive visualisations of the frog (as shown in figure 3), in order to keep so-called ‘normies’ away from their character. These users were using racism ‘ironically’ to undermine the popularity of Pepe, however not long thereafter, actual white supremacists started using the frog as a heroic symbol of their cause (Lantagne, S. M. 2017). Whereas racists used to hide their true identity behind a mask or a cloak, the newer kind hides their ideology behind irony, provocation and trolling. Likewise, the founder of The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist site that has been terminated after the rally in Charlottesville, claims he is not a ‘real Neo-Nazi’, but an ‘Ironic Nazi’. When ADL designated Pepe as a hate symbol, 4chan users were celebrating: they thought they owned the character now. Members of the Alt-Right even went as far as to write and design an Islamophobic children’s book called The Adventures of Pepe and Pede.