Democrats are losing on a key battleground – the meme wars

Many people who saw the attack on the Capitol unfold on January 6, 2021 were amazed by what they saw. The mobilization of Trump supporters who tried to stop Congress from allowing Joe Biden to be elected, the violent invasion of the building, the painted-faced rioter wearing a horned headdress and bearskin — everything seemed surreal, almost unbelievable.

Yet little surprised the authors of “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America.” The authors, who are all researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, say the disturbing events of January 6 were “entirely predictable” to anyone who had seen the “Stop the Steal” meme go viral on social media. social.

“Meme Wars” was written by Joan Donovan, a sociologist who studies technology and social movements; Brian Friedberg, an ethnographer who studies internet subcultures and alternative media; and Emily Dreyfuss, a technology journalist who contributed to Globe Ideas. They present a disturbing tale of how digital memes stir hearts and minds and mobilize the masses, often spreading dangerous ideologies and misinformation. And they convincingly show that you can’t understand American politics without understanding how memes are weaponized.

My interview with Dreyfuss has been condensed and edited.

What are memes?

Memes are concise ideas that spread across culture. We usually think of memes as pictures on the internet that come with a short text. The interaction between words and pictures presents an idea. But memes predate the internet. As originally defined by Richard Dawkins, memes date back to the beginning of human culture. These can be slogans, images, flags, symbols or gestures. What makes a meme a meme is that, like a pill capsule, it’s a compact delivery mechanism for something complex.

A “Stop the Steal” protester outside the Capitol three days before the Jan. 6 uprising.STEFANI REYNOLDS/NYT

What are some examples of effective memes?

Our book is about political memes. “Let’s Go, Brandon” and its counterpart “Dark Brandon” are two good recent examples. These memes exhibit the classic hallmarks of a successful meme. They are authorless. No one thinks who invented them. They designate an inner group and an outer group. People who use the “Let’s go, Brandon” meme are united in their contempt for the current president. The people who use “Dark Brandon” are united in their strong support for the president. Memes resonate with the preconceptions that people have. They’re also flexible and can be endlessly remixed in all sorts of formats and mediums – from hats and macro memes of images created in Photoshop to songs and chants during ball games. The memes are also weird in a way that makes them a fun joke for those in the know and a curious thing to look up for those who aren’t.

In this regard, both memes are potential openings to a rabbit hole of political ideology. If you don’t know what “Let’s go, Brandon” means, you google it. What you find in these search results and where you find it can determine the path your quest for knowledge takes.

Does that mean seeing a meme can be a slippery slope to radicalization?

No, it’s not that simple. But memes can be “red pills,” provocative ideas that instantly change your understanding of the world. Once you know it, you can’t ignore it. Before “The Matrix” made the “red pill” a popular metaphor, they were called “hate facts.” A hate fact is an intentionally drastic and offensive statement that may or may not be true and is intended to upset you and make you hate a specific group.

How did memes advance Donald Trump’s agenda?

Memes have been essential to Trump’s rise and a key part of his messaging strategy. Trump was ideally placed to be a meme because he was so famous and there were so many images and videos of him that meme-makers could play with. He was also already a living caricature of a certain kind of powerful rich white man. And he was embraced and loved in memetic communities even before he seriously ran for president. As with any good meme, Trump was just weird enough in his looks and what he said he did for immediately sticky memes.

After Trump won the presidency, memes played a huge role in how he communicated with his base, and they still do. He retweeted memes. He [was the source of] some, like “covfefe”. And he strategically deployed others, like “Stop Theft,” which he pitched to his base well before the 2020 election to lay the groundwork for his downfall. Or “the Biden crime family,” which he and his biggest supporters shared on the social web at the end of the 2020 election.

Emily Dreyfuss is co-author of “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America”.Courtesy of Emily Dreyfuss

Why do so many people view memes as jokes rather than a powerful form of political communication?

Because most internet memes are jokes. Some are apolitical cat memes. But many political or ideological memes are also jokes of one kind or another. More often than not, these are jokes that poke fun at a perceived other and signal to their group that they have a common belief. And even when they’re not funny, memes are weird. Consider the slogan “Stop theft”. Its ungrammatical format makes it strange and memorable. This kind of quirk allows those in the outgroup to reject it. They think, “How could #stopthesteal matter when it doesn’t even make sense? »

The far right seems to be winning the meme wars right now. But you and your co-authors write that these techniques were actually pioneered by Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011.

On the heels of the Arab Spring (aka the Twitter revolution), Occupy Wall Street operationalized the use of social media and social media spectacle to foment support for the movement. He showed that social media could be used to generate media interest, which, in turn, would boost real-world participation. Occupy Wall Street used the Internet to spread very quickly from New York across the country and around the world. The right, in particular Andrew Breitbart, Stephen Bannon and Alex Jones, looked at this and saw that Occupy Wall Street’s technology strategy was a model they could follow.

Can today’s political left do a better job using memes? If so, should he?

He absolutely could and has recently tried to take it to the next level with his use of “Dark Brandon” to co-opt and counter the right-wing’s “Let’s Go, Brandon” meme. The White House has even turned to memes to shame Republican politicians for their hypocrisy over loan forgiveness.

I don’t know if the left should do a better job of the meme wars. One of the main takeaways from the book is that winning a meme war doesn’t often lead to policy changes or good personal outcomes for those involved. The meme wins and people lose. That said, the left isn’t always good at articulating its core beliefs and values ​​succinctly or at all. And he would benefit from doing a better job in this area.

But for the left to really engage in the meme wars the way the far right is doing, there would have to be a sea change in the culture of the Democratic party. The party and the way it interacts with its supporters are so fundamentally different that any attempt by the left to actively counter the far-right meme machine would be a top-down effort, one that rarely succeeds. Usually, memes have to grow organically from their communities.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, an affiliate fellow at the Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity at Northeastern University, and a fellow in residence at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.

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