What meme culture means for the future of politics

Originally written 27th February 2017 for Varsity, but not published

One of the strangest moments of the 2016 US presidential election (if it’s possible to pick just one) was when Pepe, the anthropomorphic green frog popular as an internet meme, was branded a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish civil rights organisation. Somehow, a (relatively) innocent reaction image had been co-opted by white nationalists and Trump supporters – Trump himself retweeted an image of himself as Pepe. It was a bizarre sign of the times that something as trivial as an internet meme could become a potent political tool.

Trump’s victory in the election was a vindication of the so-called ‘alt-right’, an ultraconservative, neo-fascist movement born out of sites like 4chan and Reddit. Their rise to prominence has been disturbing and surprising, although the warning signs had been there for a while – their obsession with ‘God Emperor’ Trump is only the culmination of a long-held vendetta against social movements like feminism and Black Lives Matter.

What’s even stranger is that, in contrast to the conservative political establishment, the ‘alt-right’ is young and web-savvy. They talk in irreverent online slang rather than policy jargon, and would rather watch a meme compilation than read an in-depth thinkpiece.

It’s strange to think that memes could become a legitimate part of political discourse, but in a way we shouldn’t be surprised. Memes have a been a central part of our online vocabulary for well over a decade, and political humour has existed for as long as politics has. As the internet generation begins to make up an ever-greater portion of the electorate, it’s no surprise that our unique conceptions of humour, politics and identity would start to bleed into the mainstream.

The effectiveness of memes as a political tool is perhaps even stronger because they’re perceived as politically harmless. Memes are a bit like propaganda: they’re at best misleading, and at worst fuelled by bigotry and lies, but if they work on you emotionally – in the case of memes, that just means they have to make you laugh – then they’ll spread. With memes as ubiquitous as they are, an impressionable, disaffected young person could easily be seduced by a funny image macro, only to be led into far-right radicalisation.

We’re now at an impasse: memes are a part of politics now, and the people using them the most effectively are outright bigots – what do we do about that? At this point, just dismissing memes won’t work. These memes might be crude and they might be spreading falsehoods, but trying to discredit them as such will appear like intellectual snobbery, which only serves to fuel a narrative of victimhood that makes them look like underdogs fighting a righteous cause. When Hillary Clinton and the ADL condemned Pepe, the ‘alt-right’ weren’t deterred – they thought it was hilarious. To them, it was proof that they were irritating establishment figures, which only further encouraged them.

Does there need to be some kind of alternative, then? Should liberal, left-of-centre types be launching their own rival meme campaigns? Maybe, but if they do, it’s going to have to look different than it has done in the past. Clinton tried to do something along these lines during her campaign, asking her followers to describe how their student loan debt made them feel “in 3 emojis or less”. This attempt to make Clinton appeal to millennials spectacularly backfired, making her seem even more out-of-touch that she was already perceived to be.

The success of ‘alt-right’ memes, contrasted with the Clinton campaign’s failed courting of millennials, is a microcosm of the wider Donald Trump effect – the galvanisation of a disgruntled section of the electorate against a political and cultural elite. Young people can smell inauthenticity from a mile off, so when Clinton and other older establishment figures try to feign an understanding of online culture, it seems like condescension rather than genuine engagement, leaving young people feeling even more underrepresented and misunderstood.

The memes produced by the ‘alt-right’, however, seem subversive. They seem edgy. They’re going against ‘PC culture’. For young white men who feel threatened by the rise of identity politics, this is especially appealing. It’s difficult to say what the solution to this problem is, but dismantling this fraudulent notion that these memes are subverting authority when actually they’re strengthening it, will be key.

Next month will see the French presidential election, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, is already the darling of French white nationalists and has spawned several Trump-esque memes. Le Pen is trailing in the polls, but her prominence is further testament to the power of memes as a political force; if the liberal left can’t effectively challenge these far-right online provocateurs, there’s a very real risk of falling behind.

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