Parallel to the 2016 United States election ran a conflict that mainstream media largely overlooked, until it surfaced in the form of criticism of the Pepe meme and its association with the increasingly brazen and visible “alt-right.” However, this was only a glimpse into the “Great Meme War”—organized on Reddit and 4Chan but waged on Twitter and Facebook—which linked an ideological conflict expressed through memes to an exceptionally contentious U.S. presidential election. After Trump’s victory, many participants in the “war” celebrated their success at “electing a meme.”
Memes are credited with an increasingly important role as a potent form of political propaganda, both solidifying in-group ideological identity and disseminating ideas in forms that are often disarming in their unexpectedness or humor. The alt-right is especially effective at using memes—exploiting liberal impulses of “virtue signaling,” and piggybacking onto the currents of social media outrage culture—though there is also a burgeoning scene of communist and other anti-capitalist/leftist memes in communities such as r/FULLCOMMUNISM.
These “political” memes are not necessarily used to spread a particular message. They are also strategically deployed to disrupt the unity or discussion of other communities: For example, by presenting a controversial opinion and goading others into arguing against it. The poster has no intention of actually engaging in debate, they just want others to waste time and energy. This usage of memes is more akin to earlier definitions of trolling, where the goal is to derail conversations.
There are several questions I’m interested in exploring in regards to this new phenomenon. Namely, what is the actual influence of memes on individual political opinions? And how are ideological arguments made through them?
Furthermore, how are forms of totally apolitical memes appropriated as political messaging? How do conflicts over the control of meme symbolism, as we saw with Pepe, play out? Can memes reliant on increasing layers of irony communicate a cogent political argument?
To gain some insight into these questions I’ve been collecting political memes on Are.na. There are so many to choose from and so much more that could be said about each, but here are a few selections.
This form started out from The Political Compass, a website where you could take a quiz and see where you lie on a matrix with an economic axis (left vs right) and a social axis (authoritarian vs libertarian). The reductiveness of this representation is ripe for ridicule and has generated many variations that are surprisingly way more expressive than the original. Some of these desperately try to create a rigorous and elaborate spatial representation of ideology; others play with the form for criticism and humor. Many of these renderings riff on the perceptions of one quadrant towards the others, mocking all positions and placing the creator outside of the matrix. Others clearly identify with one quadrant more than others.
Anarcho-capitalist memes (“ancap” memes) are dystopian microfictions that depict anarcho-capitalist “utopia,” where unregulated markets completely replace the state. Property reigns supreme, force is privatized, corporations are warlords, and a relationship is only as good as the contract you signed.
There are other forms of these “life in libertarian paradise” memes. For example, some exist as 4chan greentexts:
“Increasingly verbose” memes deconstruct a statement into greater and greater detail while the accompanying image dissolves into abstractness. In a political application they provide a way to unpack rhetoric into a less ambiguous form (i.e. “What does he mean when he says ‘Make America Great Again’?”).
Many alt-right memes use a “fascist” aesthetic, evoking a nostalgia for the Roman empire and other imperialistic or militaristic motifs. These references are often channeled through the imagery of the Warhammer 40K universe, where the “Imperium of Man” is embroiled in an endless pan-galactic holy crusade. This one depicts Trump as the Imperium of Man’s “God Emperor” who, according to W40K lore, requires the daily sacrifice of one thousand souls to stay alive. This aesthetic communicates a grand narrative of impossibly large scale, simultaneously positioning its audience as its pivotal actors while casting others as totally expendable.
Comrade Jeb! memes appropriate the image of Jeb(!) Bush, rebranding him as an anti-fascist activist. There’s an implied narrative of Jeb radicalizing after the election, where his loss causes him to re-evaluate his politics and join in leftist organizing. It’s not clear. But the dissonance these memes generate—a conservative politician advocating for the destruction of the capitalism—is weirdly catchy, especially in those milliseconds where the quote is mistaken for real. If ideas are received or ignored based on who they are coming from, then memes that exploit both the audience’s preconceptions of a speaker (i.e. “Jeb Bush is a conservative, I’m also a conservative, so I’ll hear what he has to say”) and the tendency to, at least at first, believe what we read online could be an effective way of priming people to receive new political perspectives.
So did the “Great Meme War” actually have an effect on the presidential election? I suspect memes did have some indirect impact on Trump’s victory. That impact may have been simply to mobilize subcultures distant from, and overlooked by, mainstream politics: For example, the 4chan community, which possesses not only a great deal of coveted technological expertise, but also a moral ambiguity in how it is applied.
Memes provide a visual culture and communicate values around which effective political organizing can spring. These memes may never make it out of these subcultures, and maybe they don’t need to. They only needed to provide the glue to bring together people for more direct action. In the case of 4chan, that action was brigading, harassing, spreading rumors, and intimidating “cuckservatives” into more radical positions.
This is just speculation on the short-term effects of memes; it’s even more difficult to comment on how this will play out in the long-term. Can communication rooted in absurdity and recursive layers of irony produce a real shift in the intellectual landscape? One helpful way of framing it is to view memes as a metapolitical strategy, one that would “gradually transform the political and intellectual culture as a precursor to transforming institutions and systems,” as Matthew Lyons puts it in his book, Insurgent Supremacists. This plan was advocated by the European New Right and subsequently carried on by its intellectual successors, the alt-right.
While I haven’t found any convincing evidence to prove the effect of memes at a societal scale, there are some meta-memes reflecting on the role of memes in individual political development:
It’s unclear how common this narrative is, but glimpses can be caught in the comments of some shitposting communities. In one such community I’ve witnessed several genuine political discussions, with receptive and open-minded participants, take place around memes about anxiety and depression (which perhaps imply a dissatisfaction rooted in politics but are not themselves explicitly political).
I’m still in the initial stages of this informal research, and these memes are constantly being produced, reinvented, and appropriated. If you come across any interesting political memes or analysis, please bring them to the political meme research channel.
Thanks to Chris Hong, Édouard Urcadez, and Meg Miller for their feedback and suggestions. I also recommend Éd’s Heavy Memetics Assault Unit channel.
Francis Tseng is a designer, data developer and researcher-in-residence at NEW INC. He recently released the dystopian business/start-up simulator The Founder. Previously, he was a fellow at IdeasCity Athens, was a researcher-in-residence at DBRS Labs, a 2015 Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow at The New York Times/Washington Post/The Coral Project, visiting faculty at the New School’s Design+Journalism program (Fall 2014, Fall 2015), a designer at IDEO, and a Knight Foundation grantee.