In 2019, after BuzzFeed and Verizon Media announced a combined 1,000 layoffs on the same day, many people who had shared their layoffs on Twitter were inundated with replies telling them to “learn to code.”
Memes have been used to target marginalized groups for at least a decade now. A new book by researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy documents how memes and the online communities that produce them sow disinformation and erode trust in the government and the mainstream media. Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America explains how the “Stop the Steal” movement — the false idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from former president Donald Trump — started online and resulted in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and used examples from Gamergate, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency to develop its playbook.
Meme wars are culture wars, the authors write — “accelerated and intensified because of the infrastructure and incentives of the internet, which trades outrage and extremity as currency, rewards speed and scale, and flatten the experience of the world into a never-ending scroll of images and words.”
In April 2020, co-authors Joan Donovan, the research director at Shorenstein, and Brian Friedberg, a Harvard ethnographer studying online fringe communities, launched a newsletter, “Meme War Weekly,” “that got really grim very quickly,” they told me. It was impossible to write about the political impact of memes on a week-by-week basis without noticing their significant social and political impacts over time. Their Media Manipulation Casebook, a series of case studies published in October 2020, was a precursor to their new book.
I caught up with Donovan, Friedberg, and Emily Dreyfuss, a technology journalist and 2018 Nieman Fellow, to talk about their book and what journalists can learn from the last 10 years of memes to inform their future coverage of American democracy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2016, I had written an article in MIT Tech Review about meme wars in the 2016 election. We had a lot of interesting data lying around and wanted to put it into an internet history. We realized very quickly that our starting point would be the Occupy Wall Street movement and the use of memes to mobilize people in that moment in 2011. Many of the books and writings about the Occupy movement didn’t attend to the fact that it was just as mobilizing for the right as it was for the left. And so we wanted to begin with our understanding of where Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon, and Alex Jones got their foothold in social media and meme wars.
It wasn’t out of nowhere, but hearing people ask how it could be happening really clarified for me that we actually do know, [whereas many] other people don’t know. Joan and Brian’s research about meme wars had been ongoing for years, but it struck us that this was the perfect vehicle to explain something that other people thought was unexplainable. That night, we wrote the outline for the book.
What are the comparable big movements within [the Democratic Party’s political communication]? You have the much discussed adoption of the Dark Brandon meme by more mainstream Democratic figures, potentially signaling an entrance into the meme wars. We have yet to see if that’s actually going to impact the midterms. But there is definitely [increasing] adoption of “us versus them” messaging among most political factions in the U.S. I think we saw the foundation for that in the 10 years leading up to the book.
The media itself is a proxy for all types of institutions, including academia and government. I was awakened to that through the course of researching this book, and then I couldn’t unsee it. With Roe v. Wade and what’s going on with the Supreme Court in the U.S. right now, I think we’re watching that lack of trust in the system increasing on the left, as well as the right. Our book focuses a lot on the right, and there are a lot of people who feel that way on the right, but in the U.S., a lot of people feel that way on the left as well.
One of the things that is important to understand here is that memes don’t just come in the form of an image with some quippy text. They’re viral slogans, too. They’re the activation of people’s confirmation bias and stereotypes. As we watched political opponents begin to memeify one another and push these tropes — some with the intention of sowing disinformation, others with the intention of spreading propaganda — I think many journalists were initially very dismissive.
One big example is the way in which the alt-right arrived in the media landscape. It’s not that journalists were unable to understand the rise of a white supremacist movement, but they refused to call it what it was. Instead, they used the branding and memes that had been drudged up by these groups that were specifically seeking to rebrand themselves…they didn’t know they were being played.
So you saw the rise, not just of the alt-right, but of a key figure in the alt-right with Richard Spencer, who was able to use all of that media attention to garner and recruit people into this movement, which then manifested and moved [into the real world] at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where many people were injured and a woman died.
When we’re trying to understand where the media is culpable in meme wars, it’s not just that they dropped the ball, but also that some in the mainstream media thought use of the term “alt-right” wasn’t something that they needed to concern themselves with. In doing so, they spread the meme very far.
The media treating Twitter like an assignment editor is one of the fundamental errors that enabled meme warriors to play everyone. It showed that if they could get [something] to trend enough, then they’d get a story about it. In the era of social media taking all the ad sales out of journalism, it became even more important for journalists to write more, have a lot of content, and be covering the thing that everyone was talking about, which then created a snowball effect.
If something trended and someone covered it, a million other people covered it as well. It really reinforced things like the term “alt-right,” and if you then asked where the term “alt-right” even came from, it was very hard to find the origin because of all that content that used the term without questioning it. At Wired, we used “alt-right” for a very long time until it occurred to us: “Whoa, wait, is this a problematic phrase?” But at that point, we’d already written a million articles adding to the problem.
One of the concurrent problems with the media coverage is that there will often be stand-ins, particularly in the right-wing press. Instead of saying “Black people” are doing something, they’ll say “inner city” or “Chicago.” While they might not be directly quoting these [hate facts], they all line up with the comment sections and the Facebook shares. There’s a lot of informal knowledge-making that happens underneath the mainstream news stories that the outlets aren’t necessarily responsible for. One of the things that we’ve talked about is how the alt-right comment bombed and raided the comment sections of the conservative press, which is why a lot of comments sections on websites disappeared.
So there are placeholder words and frames that are being accepted, and a lot of uncritical adoption of official statements and statements by police that further criminalize marginalized communities. I think that’s the next frontier that needs to be addressed [and understood]: That this stuff feeds into narratives that keep people impoverished and oppressed.
[Journalists need to ask]: Is calling attention to these memes going to improve the audience’s understanding? And then, is covering this going to be damaging in some way? Is it going to give oxygen to those who are trying to wage culture wars?
The point at which journalists should pay attention to these things is always a tough call, unfortunately. But we’ve noticed over the years that the far right is going to lie to you about who they are. They’re going to lie to you about their intentions are, because their views are fringe, unethical, and antisocial. Journalists are going to have to learn the methods of digital internet forensics and become much more adept at internet sleuthing if they’re going to survive writing about these meme wars. We caution journalists not to get into things that they don’t quite understand.
My broad advice to journalists is to get to know your beat, and to stay on top of those who are using media manipulation, disinformation, and meme wars to carry out their politics or to make a profit.
The impact of meme wars, central to the book, is Joan’s theory that meme wars drive something online to happen in the real world. The meme wars fail if something doesn’t happen in the real world, because the point of them is not to just be online, but to actually influence culture.
The work is rewarding when you see things getting done that are outside of your purview. As researchers, we know the work that we do is of global importance. When journalists give us feedback saying that they were able to write better stories because of our research, when technologists say they were able to create better software because of our work, when civil society actors say they were able to influence culture or policy in certain directions, when members of Congress say thank you for the research that we do — that, to me, is a really important protective element.
If we were doing this work and sort of screaming into the void and watching as democracies fail, it would be hard to keep doing it. But we know the work that we’re doing is getting taken up by important decision-makers and stakeholders, and is protecting other people from going through some of these very damaging campaigns. There’s a sense of justice in the work that you don’t get from many other jobs.
The people who have most been marginalized by our political system use the tools of new media to be seen and be heard. But that doesn’t necessarily make social media good for a society. Social media is now overrun with very powerful politicians and very powerful rich men who have a very particular political agenda.
Even though social media as a technology hasn’t really changed that much over the last decade, its users have, and it’s become much more ubiquitous. It’s become much more of a tool of the powerful to oppress, rather than a weapon of the weak to liberate. As journalists are thinking about what stories they should be telling, they should turn their eye to the groups of people who are the most marginalized, who are struggling for recognition. They should not assume that just because a few accounts on social media are being loud that that means the whole multiplicity of that identity is represented.
The way in which social media is structured is almost like a distorted mirror of our society. It’s imperative that journalists understand that they are on the front lines of the meme wars, and that they can really shift the balance if they shift who they spotlight and what stories they choose to tell.