How Donald Trump, backers weaponized memes – Harvard Gazette

Donald Trump was the consummate “meme leader,” appealing to a range of shady, loosely organized groups with different philosophies but common roots in internet “imageboards” like 4chan and 8chan, along with wanting, like their adopted boss, the Established disrupting power structure.

“He had already become a memetic figure in many of these communities before he ran for office in 2015. His hair was already a meme. It represented a certain kind of New York wealth, power and masculinity for those communities,” said Emily Dreyfuss, journalist, fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy and co-author of “ Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Struggles that are Upending Democracy in America.” “When he decided to run for President, these characters said, ‘Oh, he’s one of us.'”

Dreyfuss appeared Monday at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Harvard Kennedy School with coauthors Joan Donovan, the Shorenstein Center’s research director, and Brian Friedberg, the Shorenstein Center’s senior researcher, and Harvard anthropology professor Gabriella Coleman on. The four spoke at How the Internet Changed Politics: From Memes to the Insurrection, an Institute of Politics-sponsored event, one of the few at the Kennedy School this week that touched on the topic of current threats to democracy.

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The group characterized Trump’s rise as a sort of perfect storm that turned the US political system on its head, which took full advantage of the internet’s evolution from an early tool that fostered hope to what Donovan described as a “trickster.” . While the web has become a valuable and indispensable part of our daily lives, it’s also a place where racists thrive, conspiracy theorists scheme, memes emerge, and where ordinary users need to be wary of fraud, misinformation, and outright lies.

The ground had been prepared on social media boards like 4chan and 8chan, where people who anonymously shared unpopular views loosely grouped themselves in groups like the “hacktivists” of Anonymous, the conspiracy theorists of Q-Anon, and the right-wing Proud Boys and Oath Keepers could organize -wing militias. Trump and Republican actors like Roger Stone and Stephen Bannon were able to mobilize the reach and passion of these grassroots organizations for Trump’s mission.

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Some of the roots of mobilization efforts like #StoptheSteal, strangely enough, can be traced back to the rise of the more progressive equality movement Occupy in 2011, according to Donovan and Friedberg. Though right-wing activists disagreed with the movement’s policies, they appreciated the way Occupy used scathing memes circulated across the internet and social media, as well as traditional media, to mobilize people into action.

Today, it’s Democrats struggling to emulate Republican success, in President Biden’s “Dark Brandon” meme and Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman’s US Senate campaign memes against Republican Mehmet Oz over long-term residency, among other things his rival has deployed in and identification with neighboring New Jersey.

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Donovan said it’s important for society to look at how much “baiting” — like that which led to the Jan. 6 riots — we should allow, how we ensure all sections of society have access to these technologies have, and whether platforms like Facebook do, should effectively be the ones tasked with overseeing national information security.

“Facebook is the first line of defense against attacks on our nation on Facebook. Do we now accept that as part of our political anatomy?” said Donovan. “I have nothing but existential fears about the future of an internet that doesn’t belong to the people.”

The Internet has become a powerful tool to exploit various divisions in American culture and politics for various purposes. One of the most profound, and perhaps longest-standing, concerns race.