Case Study
Propaganda of the Meme
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.