white supremacist trolls

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.

on implicit and explicit racism

After the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, race relations in the United States took a nosedive. In the years that followed, subsequent instances of police brutality were followed by the country with acquittal after acquittal. The aftermath of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and, perhaps most egregiously, 12 year old Tamir Rice took over national news, one by one. Black Lives Matter was a group that formed in response to this police violence and towards the inhumane treatment of black Americans, and while protests sprung up across the country in the streets and in the media, a storm brewed on the decidedly opposite side. Social scientists have struggled to understand the backlash to the fight for justice for people of color: a group of actors loosely labeled the alt-right. The rise of the alt-right has confounded those who believed that after the election of Barack Obama, we had moved into a post-racial America. Public opinion over time, however, shows that this backlash was a long time coming.

Source: Gallup Poll’s spotlight on historical trends in race relations

Gallup Poll asked a nationally representative sample how they’d rate race relations in the U.S. In the early 2000s, the majority of both white and black people believed that race relations between the two groups were either somewhat good or very good. Interestingly, the largest difference between black and white people was in 2007, at 20 percentage points. In 2015 & 2016, the majority no longer believed race relations were good among whites, then blacks, respectively.

In October 2017, NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a report on a survey conducted earlier in 2017. The survey included a nationally representative sample of 3,453 adults 18 and older, of which 802 were African American. This report included statistics on how often African American people report discrimination in various every day circumstances and how they view their environments and communities in comparison to white people.

While the majority of all African Americans reported individual discrimination because of their race, there was a vast class difference. For example, 55% of blacks earning $75,000 plus reported people acting afraid of them, as compared with 33% of blacks earning less than $25,000. Although the report provides no insight as to why these numbers may be so different, it is logical that the more upwardly mobile a black individual becomes, the more likely it is that he or she will be around white people. While this could be a case of higher exposure, it could also be that upwardly mobile blacks are seen by whites as threatening.

Similarly, black people in suburban areas report that they or a family member have been treated unfairly by the police because they are black at a 19 percentage point difference than those in urban areas. While a number of factors could be at fault for this difference, it is possible that whites’ association of black people with urban areas creates more cause for concern if a black person is in a suburban area. “Urban”  has become a colloquialism for people of color, as Buzzfeed generously points out.

Perhaps the most alarming set of statistics in this report is a question of whether individuals are to blame for prejudice and discrimination, or if discrimination is based in laws and government policies.

A majority of black people of all ages believe that discrimination is based on individuals. Of those ages 50 and older, only 19% believe that discrimination is based in laws and government policies, while 24% of this age group think both are equally responsible. While the numbers travel in a similar direction among those under 50, many more believe that discrimination is based in laws and government policies or that both individuals and the government are to blame.  This difference among ages is fascinating, but moreso the idea that African Americans separate individual discrimination from a larger system of discrimination. According to Pew data, black and hispanic people’s trust of the federal government is higher white people’s. This could have something to do with the federal government being the savior during periods of incredible injustice such as slavery and the civil rights movement. The federal government has also been juxtaposed with an argument for state’s rights, which has largely become a neoconfederate racist dog whistle.

While whites overall have long believed similar racist stereotypes, there has been a shift in the reported opinions of whites between the Republican and Democratic parties.

Data from the General Social Survey shows how split whites are on questions of whether African Americans face more poverty due to their lack of motivation and willpower. As we can see, the 55% of Republicans who agree in 2016, the year of the rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump, has not been the highest percentage in the last 10 years. If this type of racism was a new phenomena, or one brought back from the times before the Civil Rights Movement, we might expect to see the rise of these types of attitudes steadily increase over time. Instead, Republicans are at 55% – the same percentage who believed this was true in 1996. Saying that black people are disproportionately poor because of their own inadequacies does not provoke the same visceral reaction as seeing a meme describing a black woman as “fat and lazy.” But what is the difference in sentiment behind these two forms of discourse? Has colorblind ideology pervaded our society and our politics to such an extent that we can only identify racism when it is explicit?

While media pundits have been thoroughly astounded by Trump’s popularity and meteoric rise to the top of right-wing politics, research shows that this never should have been surprising. America did not suddenly become more racist during year and a half leading up to the primaries. Statistics show that black Americans have consistently experienced discrimination, and activist groups like the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter were a new generation’s response to the same old tensions. Although the backlash to this response is grotesque and sickening, ending the era of colorblind ideology may allow for a new and more truthful assessment of race and racism in a country built by and for white people.