The Brief: As memes become increasingly political, will they shape public opinion, or simply exist as a form of political entertainment?
People make memes about everything. This includes the mundane, the absurd, and the political. As memes are an outlet for self-expression and a tool of community formation, political memes combine comedy and politics, representing a spectrum of ideologies. Within these memes and their often-convoluted layers of irony, it can be difficult to discern the exact intentions of their creators or the full effects of their proliferation. This includes visual memes, which usually consist of an image and some text (Distracted Boyfriend, Trojan Horse), as well as conceptual memes: ideas that are spread online through repetition and reproduction (Tide Pods, Ligma).
The rise in popularity of political memes marks a shift in how voters get their news and share their opinions. Memes are more than just a cultural phenomenon, but a tool shaping public opinion that should not be overlooked.
The rise of the American Alt-Right can be partially attributed to its successful rebranding of white nationalism through online means such as message boards, memes, and trolling. Memes including Pepe, Kek, and NPC have served as a tool for perpetuating far-right ideologies and agendas. These sorts of memes are particularly popular on 4Chan and Reddit. The pro-Trump Reddit page, The Donald, has over 670,000 subscribers and features a mix of politics, conspiracy theories, jokes, and memes.
Through memes, posts, and comments, some Alt-Right internet users seek to troll liberals, SJW’s, the mainstream media, and others with whom they disagree. This trolling can take the form of inflammatory memes and comments, conspiracy theories, or farcical fake news. Its goal typically to incite a reaction from the opposition that makes them look foolish, ill-informed, or overdramatic.
For the Alt-Right, memes have been a way to normalize extreme ideas through humor, creativity, and repetition. The proliferation of these memes and the association of the movement with irony has helped it stretch beyond its core ideas, appealing to anti-establishment contrarians and trolls. More extreme Alt-Right memes casually include overt racism, homophobia, antisemitism, and hate. As social media feeds include these sorts of memes, fascism and white nationalism can become more normalized and accepted.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
This meme was originally posted on r/The_Donald by Reddit user “HanA**holeSolo.” In 2017, President Trump retweeted a version of this meme in and was then heavily criticized for encouraging violence against the press.
Also from r/The_Donald, this meme flips feminist rhetoric about consent and bodily autonomy to liken refugees to rapists, suggesting that immigrants are violating a “helpless” United States.
Politics & The Meme War
Political memes exist across many ideologies. They can have nuance and are not limited to a binary left and right. That being said, memes can also be a tool for polarization, for people online to sort themselves based on their previously-held beliefs, and then to share them with like-minded individuals.
The term “meme war” often refers to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the ways that the rhetoric and imagery of right-wing political memes supported Donald Trump’s campaign. After Trump won the presidential race, Alt-Right memers self-proclaimed themselves to be the “winners” of the meme war via their “meme magic.”
Whether or not oppositional political memes should really be compared to a war, partisan political memes are popular and can be divisive.
The Impact of Memes
While there is no doubt that political memes have significant engagement online, it can be difficult to discern whether they impact voting, political movements, or social change. A common argument against online political discourse labels it as “slacktivism:” a way for people to have the illusion that they are enacting political and social change via social media, while they have no impact IRL. This is sometimes true, but there is no denying the effects of political memes and social movements that gain traction online. For example, although the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements are well-known for their online campaigns, they have significant real-life elements and impacts as well.
Events such as Pizzagate demonstrate how something that started online can have serious consequences in real life. President Trump’s retweeting of various memes also shows that they have moved from a niche online realm into mainstream American politics.
Teenagers who spend large amounts of time online are likely to inform some of their political views by interacting with articles, memes, posts, and forums. For example, Flop Accounts, places for teens to post fails have also become spaces for them to debate politics and social justice. Memes can be a way for teens to interact with activism and politics in an accessible, fun way. They can also oversimplify topics, spread fake news, and normalize extreme points of view.
For better or for worse, memes have entered the public political sphere. As they begin to replace other forms of information dissemination, memes will continue to have an impact on politics and society, both online and off. Media literacy is a key step for people of all ages understand what they see and read online. Memes are a potentially powerful tool to spread information: ideas, facts, opinions, propaganda, etc. It is crucial that internet users understand memes and the impacts they can have.