Understanding the far right’s use of memes with Hampton Stall of the Global Network on Extremism and Technology

Understanding the far right’s use of memes with Hampton Stall of the Global Network on Extremism and Technology

Memes are part and parcel of Internet culture, with people creating new ones on a daily basis and inundating social media with them. From memes celebrating cats to ones making fun of former US president Donald Trump, there’s a meme for every occasion. But other, less honest players, are also aware of their potential to go viral. And this makes the format ripe for abuse, allowing these same groups to easily spread disinformation and propaganda. So, unsurprisingly, like every other group on the Internet the far right has an active meme culture.

Memes of hate

This part of the Internet was recently the subject of a new report published by the Global Network on Extremism & Technology (GNET) entitled Can the Right Meme? (And How?): A Comparative Analysis of Three Online Reactionary Meme Subcultures. Using what they termed a “mixed-methods approach”, the authors of the report gathered and analysed three blocks of 100 memes each. The three groups they focused on are the Indian nationalist and anti-Islamic movement Hindutva, neo-Nazis directing their efforts at the US, and, finally, a varied coalition consisting of memes surrounding the Kyle Rittenhouse case.

As the authors note in the report, the gap between what happens online and “in real life” is becoming “increasingly less distinct”. What we see today is actually a “symbiotic relationship” between politics and propaganda that makes the mentioned distinction even smaller. Tinged with humour and irony, memes can be “critical cultural and social vehicles for political projects”, hence their importance to both social justice as well as extremist movements.

In the case of the Hindutva, the GNET report found that Muslim people were the preferred target of the Indian extremist movement. Although the memes analysed don’t call for outright violence against Muslims, they do refer to them in derogatory terms and paint them as a threat to Indian self-determination as well as to Hindu women and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hindutva adherents also used memes to spread the so-called “Love Jihad” conspiracy theory. Not entirely dissimilar to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, the “Love Jihad” conspiracy contends that Muslim men are actively trying to win over Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam. Of course there is no evidence that such a conspiracy exists, but it remains a powerful force in Hindutva propaganda. In one case a mob hacked a Muslim man to death after accusing him of being engaged in “Love Jihad”.

Compared to the Hindutva movement, the report reveals that the neo-Nazi memes are “extremely chaotic and disconnected”. The memes targeted 28 different out-groups with an average of 1.5 of them being identified within each meme. Common themes do exist, however. Women are a regular topic of neo-Nazi memes, accounting for 14% of the out-groups researchers identified. And roughly a quarter of memes in which women were the subject called for violence against them.

Other so-called out-groups GNET identified within the neo-Nazi dataset were, Black people, Jewish people, Israel, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the US government. As the authors point out, such a wide range of perceived enemies “is indicative of the many antagonisms that neo-Nazi groups hold close to their activism and worldview”. On the other hand, online celebrities and cultural and historical figures aligned with the far right were also a popular topic, accounting for more than 15% of the neo-Nazi meme dataset.

The third dataset involved memes related to Rittenhouse, who has become a far-right icon in the US after shooting and killing two men and wounding another in Kenosha on 25 August, 2020. Researchers discovered that the memes targeted “a more specific range of out-groups” compared to the neo-Nazis. Of the 12 groups which were the focus of Rittenhouse memes, the Black Lives Matter movement and Communists were the most popular, with “Antifa” and Anarchists also also scapegoated. Of particular importance is the revelation that all of the memes in which Communists were the target contained implicit or explicit calls for violence against them. Overall, the report found “Less than 10% of the Rittenhouse memes collected contained no signifiers of violence”.

But, perhaps, more importantly the Rittenhouse dataset showed “how meme communities intersect and interact with other movements or events”. For example, gun rights activists aren’t necessarily active on the far right but they shared the same online support space for Rittenhouse. As the report itself argues, the teenage shooter “represents a crucial figure for often-disparate movements to coalesce around and find common ground among the US right”.

Mapping meme groups and the mainstreaming of extremism

The Beacon spoke with Hampton Stall, one of the authors of the report. We discussed the issue of Americanisation of culture and whether or not this was also taking place on the Internet, what he found surprising — or not — in the datasets he helped gather, and how we shouldn’t generalise movements that are actually quite different from each other. The role of social media companies in spreading memes was also a topic of conversation, as well as why people create memes themselves.

Your findings show obvious similarities between the meme cultures of the far right in India and the US. But the same similarities can be found in Europe, for example here in Ireland. Do you think that’s a result of the so-called Americanisation of culture or would it be more fair to say it’s indicative of a separate Internet culture that’s above nations?

This is definitely a question that we’re seeking to answer through our own inquiry. To your point, it can be quite difficult to tease out what drivers are connected to Americanisation of culture (especially English-language culture) or what is more connected to online culture. Primarily, I think, it’s tough to tell how far American cultural influence extends into the online sphere (my thought is pretty deep). My personal theoretical view for now — and this is something I intend to test alongside my colleagues — is that American right-wing meme culture has direct influence on non-American right-wing meme culture but that each right-wing meme community online will pull specifics from their own geographically specific context. Exactly how and why is something I’m definitely interested in continuing to pursue — and Irish reactionary memes are on my list to look at in the future.

Do you think social media companies are doing enough to deal with these kinds of things on their platforms? If not, could they be doing more and what would that entail?

The question of regulation is always a peculiar one for meme content especially. There’s a fine line between posting that is, for example, delighting in violence versus that which is explicitly calling for it. Memes are especially hard to tease out specifics [for] because of how much they rely on what Geertz would call “thick” descriptions — context, intent, and reception are all highly cultural and community-driven or even individually reinforced. The question of acceptability within public debate is one that I feel like many are still debating and ultimately the answer probably ends with what sort of organizational materials are okay on platforms — something that memes are related to but maybe not as central for, if that distinction makes sense.

Was there anything in particular in your findings that you found especially surprising?

I’m not sure if it’s surprising or not, but I was expecting more political figures to be evoked in the neo-Nazi meme dataset (instead of the heavy reliance on cultural figures). It’s really clear, therefore, how important the culture war remains for fascist actors online, as they seek to influence and capture cultural artifacts perhaps even more than historical or political ones today. It’s also worth highlighting here just how easily far-right material seeps into the mainstream, either through concerted effort or determined posting or bad actors in mainstream positions. Both the cases of Rittenhouse and Hindutva are linked pretty directly to even state power — between the GOP in the former and the BJP in the latter, there’s a lot of popular and formal support for the politics both political communities bring to the fore.

The case of memes related to Kyle Rittenhouse is particularly interesting because, as you note in the report, it “elucidates how meme communities intersect and interact with other movements or events”. And, more specifically, it allowed “often‐disparate movements to coalesce around and find common ground among the US right”. My feeling is that this kind of deeper understanding is ignored by some in favour of a one-size-fits-all narrative and is a potential weak point in predicting the rise of protest movements on the right and those who might intersect with them on certain issues, like Rittenhouse in this case. What are your own thoughts on this and using memes to map the involvement of individuals and groups?

I think your feeling here is really salient. There’s often a tendency to flatten or generalize movements that often have really discreet and distinct characteristics. Even just looking at the Rittenhouse event’s memetic environment we see clearly several different reactionary communities interacting and intersecting. Another similar example of disparate movements interacting and drawing inspiration/inertia from one another beyond the Rittenhouse killings is that of anti-lockdown demonstrations. This seems to be pretty universal and not just confined to the US context, but brings together serious political movements, outsider esoteric groups, conspiracy theorists, opportunistic grifters, reactionary insurrectionists, conservative intellectuals, and more. Meme environments might provide some visual insight into who all might be bringing their politics and networks to a particular issue. More study is needed, though, this is all just kind of anecdotal conjecture, admittedly.

At the end of the report you mention that how and why people make memes “remains deeply contested”. Could you expand on this a little and give us some insight on the differing views around the creation of memes?

I’d say there are several broad reasons memes are created, often with intersecting causes for each case. First is entertainment, because laughing at microcontent is central to online culture and virality. Second is partisan programming or advertising (though “partisan” is probably too specific a term since I’m specifically meaning political tendencies in addition to firmer organizations), namely creating memetic content to drive viewers towards a politics or group. Third is impacting or changing the conversation on a topic (for example, there’s another GNET report by Martin Innes on “fogging and flooding”, but this could even just be for indexing content). Fourth is just the social clout and dopamine associated with content engagement. There are more, but these four seem to be really close to this specific case. Again, most of this is just theoretical, perhaps further research in the field of anthropology or psychology could net a more scientific answer or otherwise get at how these drivers really push content creation.

Featured image via Free Svg 

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