The alt-right’s worldwide weaponization of memes
Pepe has made his way to France.
Of the many wildly unpredictable aspects of the 2016 election, the usage of memes by a fiercely active, populist conservative movement stands alone.
Using easily shareable and emotionally driven images to promote nationalist conservative politics, internet meme evangelists believe that they had a direct impact on the election, carrying Donald Trump all the way to the White House.
Six months later, this coordinated movement has taken their Great Meme War overseas to help elect Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far right National Front Party, as the next president of France.
“This is a global movement because people around the world are being forced to accept a globalist agenda that benefits the few at the expense of our nations, our cultures, and our peoples,” the moderators of the subreddit r/The_Donald said about their campaign. “Memes, humor, images, and videos that people come up with … draw people in… Meme magic works if you have the right message/plan.”
Seemingly emboldened by Trump’s electoral win, the weaponization of memes has been codified into something that mirrors the form of a social movement.
That movement has zeroed in the French election.
France will elect their next president in a run-off election on May 7, when Le Pen — currently the face of extreme populism — will face Emmanuel Macron, a centrist from the En March! party. Thanks to Brexit, an increase in terrorist attacks throughout France, and the election of Donald Trump, the election is now the center of international attention.
In the months leading up to the election, American nationalists have taken their brand of online activism across the Atlantic, working hard to spread their message to the people of France. Some have even created best practice guidelines for using virality to push Le Pen to a win, while others have more deviously pretended to be French in order to better spread their partisan memes, as reported by BuzzFeed.
“There is no doubt that French people will react positively to dank Pepes, the danker the better.”
The American assistance has not been unwelcome. French meme-makers have deftly accepted the baton and are vocal about “Making France Great Again,” even offering tips on how best to fight the Great Meme War on French shores. One post in Reddit’s r/LePen forum explained that though French people might not be super familiar with Pepe, the oddly-shaped cartoon frog that became a standard bearer for the alt-right, the community should readily use memes with him.
“There is no doubt that French people will react positively to dank Pepes, the danker the better,” the post by TortueGeniale666 read. “No need to hold back, use Pepe the way he is the most efficient: destroy Political Correctness.”
Following this advice, the community has not held back and have focused their attacks on what they see as the immigrant threat to France, and on Macron himself. Images invoking terror attacks, memes of Muslims in France (suggesting an overrun country), and emasculating pictures of Macron have been widely spread on Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, and Reddit. As they did during the 2016 U.S. election, users want these memes to be easily shared, replicated, and provoke an emotional response, enough so to hopefully sway voters.
This particular meme factory believes that they are spreading the will of a greater population than just their own; crossing international boundaries to do is a matter of duty in the fight as what they perceive to be dominant, malevolent forces like the mainstream media.
Many right-leaning meme-makers exude confidence, sure that their populism knows no global boundaries — memes, to them, are just an extremely effective tool to harness a movement and center it on a target.
“There exists a massive internet subculture devoted to creating these masterpieces and distributing them,” Reddit user DecoySlug said. “This means that the idea of meme magic is not confined to a specific region but is rather spread over the world. An example is the French who are now using memes to support Le Pen.”
The memes have indeed shown support for Le Pen and trashed her opponents, and the community was rewarded when Le Pen thanked her fans for the internet bravado, much as Trump did when he visited r/The_Donald for an AMA last summer, back when he was merely a presidential candidate.
“At the end of the first round, I thank the Internet activists of the
#patriosphere, mobilized since the beginning of this campaign,” her tweet read, referring to the alt-right nationalist movement that supports her.
The message added confidence to the web’s alt-right activists, who feel that they are not only helping to elect Le Pen, but are actively involved with educating the masses in a hope for their future. All this, through memes.
“The goal of weaponizing memes is to get a message across to as many people as possible,” DecoySlug said. “With a well-made meme, a poignant point can be made in a format that allows it to be shared and distributed throughout the internet. In this way, these memes can have an actual and profound effect on people.”
James Cohen, Program Director and Assistant Professor of New Media at Molloy College had a different take on the message that was being spread through the alt-right channels. He believes that the meme-makers ultimately want to disrupt conventional thinking and create more noise so that signals like traditional media and establishment governmental messages are distorted. The alt-right hope their reactionary ideas will grow dominant through their self-created static.
“It’s less about the message being delivered than about the obfuscation of the message,” Cohen said. “The heavier the obfuscation, the less time there will be to do critical thinking. If they can do that, they believe the populism will prevail, because only those with clarity will be able to make the right decision. But the thing is, no one will be clear.”
For many supporters of Trump, Le Pen, and memes, the goal is simple and universal: nationalism.
A Reddit user named Spartharios, who said they lived in Bulgaria, had a basic outlook for what the community should use memes to accomplish.
“Ultimately, the goal of the whole culture of memes and ‘meme magic’ is to spread our political message, which is nationalism and a right to self-determination of all peoples,” Spartharios said simply.
However, Florian Cramer, lecturer in 21st century visual culture at Rotterdam University in the Netherlands, doesn’t believe that the overseas attempt to harness a community into action has an easy path to victory.
“There’s, however, one major obstacle for image meme campaigns in France and the rest of continental Europe,” he said. “[I]mageboard and meme culture is a very specifically American phenomenon. Its popular cultural references and humor are incomprehensible to most Europeans.”
That lack of translation has not, and most likely, will not stop them from trying.
But can a meme really move mountains?
Of course, if you live outside of the realm of meme magic, you may have skepticism around memes and their effectiveness when it comes to changing the course of an election. How, you may ask yourself, could some weird frog and text on images really sway anyone’s political leanings?
And it’s true, measuring memes ain’t easy. Gauging the IRL effect of a community spreading images around social media is not an easy task. Cohen called it a “very hard question” and said it was an ongoing focus of studies as they try to understand if it had any actual political impact. The New York Times’ analysis actually said that American memes do not translate well to the French population.
However, online alt-right communities have no doubt that memes are successful.
“There is no question in my mind as to the fact that memes elected Donald Trump.”
“The whole concept of memes is that they spread from person to person, and there is literally no way of measuring that,” Andrew Anglin, editor and founder of the neo-Nazi blog The Daily Stormer, said over email. “But there is no question in my mind as to the fact that memes elected Donald Trump. A lot of things elected Donald Trump, mainly Hillary Clinton, but without the memes it wouldn’t have happened. That’s not hyperbole.”
While Cohen acknowledged that it’s somewhat difficult to tell how effective memes may be at shaping a political climate, he did concede that the current global technological network, combined with the sense of anonymity that comes with joining a large, active group, is capable of imbuing its members with a real feeling of agency.
“When someone understands the power of anonymity, we return ourselves to that guerrilla technique of power of masks, power without faces,” Cohen said. “That one anonymous face could be one person or it could be all people. When you can create five memes per member… If you can show that a meme has power, that power can seem immense.”
And, in fact, Cramer said that any meme movement thrives on the fact that no one can really tell if it is effective or not.
“Meme culture is fundamentally based on the fact that neither the origins, nor the addressee of a meme are clearly identifiable,” he said. “As a side effect, this leads to uncertainty about the actual size of the network and reach of memes… If people neither know the actual reach, nor the real impact of their meme campaign, they make themselves believe in the most optimistic scenario. This is fundamentally a religious belief.”
But that isn’t the only thing that the conservative meme movement has going for it. When Trump won his electoral victory, whether or not the meme community could realistically take any credit didn’t matter — the win was more than enough encouragement.
“When Trump won it became, ‘we could do this anywhere,'” Cohen said.
When Charlton McIlwain, Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU was asked about whether Trump’s win emboldened the meme-ing community, he said, “Absolutely.”
“Sometimes people search for invitation to act in different ways, but there’s an increasing sense of visibility,” he said. “People in the crowd who are like minded in their beliefs and their behavior say, ‘When I see a president like President Trump and the way that they communicate, I look and say, it’s not so fringe or hush hush, I can say it out in the open, because there are people who think like me.'”
According to them, the alt-right has Pepe ring a bell, the media salivates.
To others in the alt-right, the success of their Great Meme War is nothing but highly specialized, and extremely effective, trolling against a mainstream media that they see has left their ideals far behind, but has also evolved into something easy to control — like Pavlov’s dog.
“The ‘meme phenomenon’ is simply a grass-roots push-back against the transparent shilling of [the mainstream media],” an active meme creator on Reddit, who preferred not to use their username.
According to them, prodding the media with inflammatory or emotionally reactionary expressions like memes ended in a predictable reaction; the alt-right has Pepe ring a bell, the media salivates.
“It has been insanely successful precisely because the media are not made of Journalists, but shills,” this Redditor said. “The reason why we are winning is not the memes, they are a symptom. The memes win the day because the media is easy to troll.”
But, in the end, regardless of the actual electoral results, the nationalist meme movement rests assured that its sheer exposure will attract more to their cause.
“It has certainly been effective at reaching the youth on the internet, especially on Reddit,” Spartharios said. “The reason why it’s succeeding is because our memes are not only funny, but they ignore the PC culture and don’t give a damn about offending anyone, which adds a certain edginess to it. Just enough edginess for it to be effective, and not annoying and polarizing.”
Oh, the places Pepe will go
Naysayers may believe that the international spread of memes will make little difference to the ultimate outcome of the French election, but effectiveness doesn’t seem to matter to the participants in digital populism. To them, the goal is to maintain their energy and grow their prospective influence.
Should this level of digital populism continue to grow in numbers and energy, how will that affect not only the American or French government, but ultimately the world? Even if the memes don’t resonate into mainstream internet culture, the goal is still to build numbers and resolve.
“The definition of populism is an appeal to the masses, and memes are intended to transmit concepts which hold universal meaning among the targeted group using simple language and imagery,” Anglin said. “The democratization of meme-production would necessarily lead to a populist mindset among the masses.”
For now, the masses are online, though the meme makers still see that as a place to rack up perceived victory after perceived victory.
“Hundreds of thousands of Redditors are on the path to nationalism, simply because of /r/The_Donald,” Spartharios said.
If that growth’s gonna happen, this movement might have some growing pains. The meme movement has attracted a wide range of people that might not exactly agree on its goals.
“Hundreds of thousands of Redditors are on the path to nationalism, simply because of /r/The_Donald.”
“I think earnest or sincere political memes produced by the alt-right are often effective at revealing the absence of a cogent political position among those who create them,” Matt Applegate, Assistant Professor of English and Digital Humanities at Molloy College, said.
The people I spoke to subscribed to widely varied politics, from far-right, racially-based ideals to simple disenfranchisement with a system they felt didn’t represent them.
“These aren’t white supremacist neo-Nazis, they are trolls who know that the media hates Trump and will grab at ANYTHING which makes him look bad…,” the Redditor who asked not to be identified said of the meme makers. “I am Jewish, and I am more socially open-minded than any liberal I know. The internet trolls pretend to be crazy in a way that reveals the hypocrisy of the other side, but most of them are like me, I believe.”
This view of people like Anglin and his readers over at the Daily Stormer have more rigid social ideas about the ultimate goal.
“The goal is to create a new culture, a new identity for young white men who don’t have one,” Anglin said. “Basically, it took the young white male population some time to get to the point where a significant percentage of the intelligent members of that demographic understood that they were part of a collective – a populace – with collective interests. Once a certain number of such persons was reached, they began to meme the message. The meme is the message.”
The professors that we spoke to had a much more alarmist view of a possible future highly influenced by this type of digital populism. They thought this emotionally-driven expression, filling up people social feeds could spell doom for us all.
Cohen, who encouraged “meme literacy” for everyone, had the most memorable description of this possible future.
“What could happen is frightening as fuck,” he said.
For him, the natural outcome of the growth of digital populism is fascism, not necessarily on purpose, but as the result of particular people directing the expression of the masses towards an authoritarian fate.
“If we do not gain control of this [movement], we being people,” he said, “If we do not take control of this and take a step back, we will accidentally walk ourselves right into this.”
To sum up his ultimate thoughts on the end result of this globalized movement, Cohen pointed me to the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1968 book Illuminations, in which he writes:
“Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”
Memes may have begun as harmless internet jokes, but their impact on the French election, and the world, is someone no one could have expected.