Her new book, Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America, is the first in-depth account of how the stop-the-steal movement transitioned from wires to weeds or online subcultures to real life . She co-wrote it with Brian Friedberg, who studies online groups, and technology journalist Emily Dreyfuss. Both conduct research at the Shorenstein Center.
Donovan spoke to The Globe about “Meme Wars.” The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for space and clarity.
When did you realize you had to write this book?
It really was the night of January 6th. Many people wondered, “How did this happen? How did so many people know about this kind of event?” They wanted to know what symbols are used on flags and slogans. As we listened to reporters and others asking us these questions, we realized we needed to write a book about the internet’s impact on society over the past decade—particularly on politics.
You were in an all-day Zoom meeting with your team at Harvard on January 6th. How was it?
Everyone had TVs on in the background, knowing it was going to be a very busy day in terms of internet fact checking and disinformation. We were all one eye in the briefing, one eye on the TV, as things got really intense in the Capitol. Each person on the team watched different live streams and different media.
We jumped into action mode and started taking screenshots and copying information from one place to another. We knew there was going to be a pretty big purge of content from platforms not too long after that, as a lot of the content floating around was against the Terms of Service, and a lot of it was incredibly appalling in terms of violence and gore and the gore.
I’ve told my team if it’s too difficult to handle, don’t feel like you have to watch. But at that point I think the whole world was watching.
So what are memes?
Most people think of memes [as] Those silly little pictures you see online that have some kind of witty saying, hint at some kind of irony, or are very funny. Ultimately, they are how we convey culture. Memes represent very nuanced and complex concepts and issues.
Memes that come from the right or the fringes can impact mainstream culture if they get enough attention. We don’t necessarily think of them as a means of making politics right now, but our book argues that politicians have really started adopting memes as a way of communicating with the public.
They refer to a group called “Red Pill Rights”. Where does it come from?
We really looked for terminology that wasn’t used before. “Red Pill” is from the “Matrix” series where you saw reality when you took the red pill.
Men online, you know, they took the red pill and now they can see, in a very misogynist way, women denying them love, denying them sex, denying them family. Racists who have been treated with red pills will talk about immigrants taking their jobs away from them.
Some people might refer to this group of people as the alt-right, but that means something very special and historic for us, having studied the Internet.
Will the Red Pilled Right Win the Meme Wars?
They get their messages out. More people hear and understand their position. But if you look at, “Well, where are these people now?” What you find is that while a few have made money, many of them are involved in lawsuits. Some are in prison.
Do social media companies play a role in this?
They have a responsibility to learn about and monitor what is happening on their platforms. Unfortunately, the platform companies only understand very late when something becomes dangerous.
What is a recent example of this?
In recent months, platform companies have slowly learned that far-right anti-trans activists are deliberately singleing out trans people by calling them “groomers” instead of “paedophiles.” The slur “pedophile” is something where you accuse someone of a crime, while “groomer” doesn’t have the same meaning.
Anti-trans activists found each other through this OK, Groomer meme. [a riff on “OK, boomer”] and they organize themselves. They target specific individuals, doxing doctors and hospitals. We’re starting to see the fallout from this, including bomb threats against Boston Children’s Hospital.
For a long time, platform companies did not consider groomers an offense and therefore did not take any action against them.
They study memes. Does the rest of America take them just as seriously?
Why should they? That is the point. It’s supposed to fool you. It’s supposed to be ironic. It’s supposed to be fun. And what we don’t really understand as a society is how these messages are internalized, how they create a focal point of coordination.