How memes became a problematic influence on American politics

The word “meme” might think of a viral image of an odd-looking cat with silly text, a tweet, or a video popping up all over the internet.

But some political memes can be downright dangerous, according to a new book — Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America, by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, and Brian Friedberg. Its authors argue that memes have inspired cultural struggles both online and offline over the past decade.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke to Dreyfuss, a senior editor at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, about how far-right or extremist groups are using memes as armed tools to influence American politics.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Emily Dreyfuss: When we talk about meme wars, we are talking about online culture battles started by people who understand the power of these memetic phrases, these memetic images and use them as a kind of artillery in a culture war for your belief system. And a memewar is successful if it also has an effect in the real world, if it comes out of the mouth of a politician or if it leads to real violence.

Kimberly Adams: Your book begins during the Occupy movement. For people who may have forgotten, can you explain what that was and why you felt it was important for the book to start there?

Dreyfuss: So the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and 2012 was a progressive call for a better financial system. It was all contained in the idea “We will occupy Wall Street with our bodies”. And the other central meme was “We are the 99%”. What exactly did Occupy Wall Street want? It’s difficult to say. And that was the big criticism of Occupy Wall Street at the time. But the reason we started the book here is because this was also the era when social media started scaling and taking over our cultural discourse. They used the relatively new infrastructure of the social internet to spread their message and mobilize people into the streets. And they may not have changed the law, but they did show that if you used the internet to ask them to come, they were willing to come and created a meme that resonated with them. And perhaps the people closest to watching were the far right, who wanted to use the same tactics to mobilize their own communities. And in the book, we really look at Occupy from the perspective of [Breitbart News founder] Andrew Breitbart and [Trump White House Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon, who watched and then made a film about it. And we explain the impact this movement has had on the right.

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Adam’s: You know, I think a lot of people think of an image when they hear the word meme. But what you talk about in your book and in this research are not only images, but also phrases and cultural moments. What is the difference between a meme and just a slogan?

Dreyfuss: For a slogan to become a meme, it must have certain characteristics. They are flexible, memorable cultural ideas that contain a complex idea within themselves, delineating an ingroup and an outgroup, and have no author. You can start to see that there are all sorts of memes out there. So, using the America First meme as an example, if you’re an America First candidate, of which there are quite a few right now, during midterms, take that phrase and use and share it Idea shows other people who agree with you that you are one of them, that you belong to them. And shows others who know what America First is but don’t agree that you’re not them, that you’re against them. “American Dream” is a meme. “Don’t step on me” is a meme. “Resistance,” “Stop Theft.” They are a powerful, memorable cultural code that delivers a complex idea in a very simple package.

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Adam’s: What is the difference, if there is one, between the way some of these leftist movements, like the Occupy movement, use memes versus, say, “alt-right” groups?

Dreyfuss: The real difference in terms of US politics is that we are seeing a willingness on the right, particularly in the Republican Party, to take on the memes their ideological brethren are using online and amplify them and their signals from to take them and adopt them as part of their platform. That’s how we see it with my first example, with the “America First” candidates. You know, these candidates themselves didn’t decide out of the blue, “I’m going to run on this platform.” What happened was they saw this growing support online and from their most loyal supporters. And then they saw the success of this former president [Donald] Trump had when he adopted this meme. What our research really shows is that the memes that come from the far left, the progressive left, don’t find their way up the chain to democratic politicians in the same way. And there are all sorts of reasons for that. I mean the right and left media ecosystems are very, very different. The way they interact with their constituents varies widely. And the way their constituents interact with them. I mean, meme users on the right, in particular, are much more willing to rally around an idea that they think will be powerful, whether they fully agree with it or not, in a way that we’re addressing left the world not watching.

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Adam’s: Many of these far-right groups or individuals have been kicked out of mainstream online spaces, and content moderation appears to be becoming stricter. In this more tightly controlled and monitored environment, how effective are meme wars now?

Dreyfuss: Content moderation has had an impact. However, the media ecosystem is so complex and made up of things like Twitter and the radio and television, but also places on the internet that are forums that are unmoderated. But still, it’s important to try to mitigate these things because a meme war only succeeds when the people who have an agenda have a platform to reach a larger audience so that, as we put it, they can , these people can somehow unknowingly get into the meme wars by telling them something that outrages them, that makes them so angry that they feel like they have to act on it.

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