The popularity of internet memes has been on the rise over the last decade or so, and they’ve become a defining part of youth culture for the last few years. A meme, as described by Richard Dawkins who coined the term, is a unit that allows culture to be spread throughout a society. Originally thought of as a biological concept, the term has been hijacked by internet users to describe images with text that essentially do what Dawkins described – transmit cultural symbols and practices and signal to certain like-minded groups. Memes have been used to enhance social cohesion among groups and as a form of social capital in personal relationships. For the last two years, memes have also been used as a powerful and effective form of political discourse. While there are groups for every type of political ideology from Sassy Socialist Memes to Dank Memes for Fascist Teens, a formal political movement that has garnered exemplary success with the genre is the alt-right. A movement thought to have its roots on message boards like 4chan and Reddit, the alt-right has harnessed the power of memes to transmit rhetoric, cultural ideals, and oftentimes misinformation to a mass audience of Facebook and Twitter users.
memes as a form of discourse
As Dawkins originally intended and as internet scholars have noted, memes are a vehicle of cultural production. They take an agreed upon aspect of society and exploit it for a joke. If there was no collective agreement on the basis of a meme, it wouldn’t be a good meme. The viral component of internet memes also parallels Dawkins’ biological definition. A meme is most effective when it is shared virulently among individuals in a network. The increasing prominence of a global network society gives internet memes some of their power. A problem with memes as discourse, however, is the oversimplification and even obfuscation of notoriously complex social problems. While it is easy to share a quick burst of text one identifies with personally, it is not always an accurate or factual depiction of the issue at hand. When discussing overarching institutions like the government, economics, or religion, it can be quite harmful to have ideas reduced to two lines of text. In fact, the popular information website Snopes has an entire archive devoted to clearing up inaccurate memes. When one considers the concepts being shared in memes, it becomes easy to see how they can be used to manipulate public opinion on and societal perspective of major issues in American life.
white supremacy in online spaces
The rhetoric of white supremacy, while embedded in American political institutions since its inception, has morphed through history depending on the social climate. The alt-right has fashioned a particular kind of white supremacy, a pseudo-intellectual ideology that reasons that people of color are inferior instead of simply stating that they are. Richard Spencer, widely known as the founder of the alt-right, has developed a white supremacist think tank called the National Policy institute in order to garner more legitimacy and prestige for his movement. Spencer’s supposed success, with a publishing company, online magazines and academic papers and formal meetings with members of his think tank in Washington D.C., has provided a new face to a group who many assumed were uneducated hillbillies on the fringe of American society. This group has an affinity for technology, and they’ve used various forms of it to advance their message to a global audience. David Duke, leader of the Ku Klux Klan and rabid Trump supporter, has often waxed poetic about the internet as a tool for white supremacy; he predicted that the internet would be the ultimate tool for a globalized white revolution. With thousands of online news sites, Reddit and 4chan forums, and cloaked propaganda websites, the movement has mastered the internet far faster than mainstream political parties. Hillary Clinton was using Pokemon GO to campaign while Trump supporters were farming out memes and articles that half the country saw on their Facebook feeds, nodded their heads in agreement with, and shared, with no regard for the legitimacy or accuracy of what they were sharing. These articles and memes pass a gut check with people who share them; white supremacy is a thread woven into the tapestry of American society, and white individuals, particularly those who fall somewhere on the matrix of oppression, have no qualms about blaming their problems on people who are frequently othered.
The structure of the internet, much like the structure of American society, allows for white supremacist discourse to run rampant. Originally thought of as a colorblind space in which race was not and could not be a factor, both internet studies and sociological studies have shown that this is far from reality. The language of slavery, master drives and slave drives, is coded into computer language and programming. While many white supremacist organizations from the 1970s-1990s have not had a strong web presence, their individual leaders and their publications did make the transition from print to digital. From sarcastic mocking to intellectual debate to violent vitriol, the alt-right employ a range of discursive tools depending on the medium and community they’re speaking with. Utilizing computer games, news sites, cloaked propaganda sites on historical events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement, and most recently, memes, these leaders have thrived in the digital era among an array of demographics. The discursive properties of racialized memes along with their ability to be shared quickly and vastly allows them to reify the structure of American white supremacy. While on the surface it seems like a silly and juvenile phenomenon to study, their power should not go unnoticed.
White supremacy is an ideology that white people are superior, but those who adhere to it and support it don’t always come out and say they believe it. White supremacy is also a cultural phenomenon and a structure that frames American society; the country was built on a foundation of racial superiority, and to ignore that legacy is to ignore American history. The way white supremacy pervades online spaces is important to study because discourse shapes society. When our discourse is racist, whether that racism is explicit or implicit, it creates a hostile and dangerous environment for black Americans, and when anyone of any age with access to the internet can access these vitriolic ideas, it becomes a social problem. Only by identifying the problem can we make efforts to eradicate it.