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Virality and Morphogenesis of Right Wing Internet Populism

von Eva Kimminich (Autor:in) Julius Erdmann (Autor:in)
©2018 Sammelband 190 Seiten


Information and its individual interpretations are highly discussed in social media. Their use and misuse is an important subject for cultural and media studies. The theoretical framework of this volume is based on a synopsis of socio-constructivist and semiotic paradigms, which permit insight into ongoing adjustments of the social perception of reality and the thereby changing benchmarks. The assembled micro-studies concentrate primarily on right-wing Internet populism in Germany, France and Italy and allow a more precise idea of the effects the disseminated myths, metaphors and memes can have: Becoming viral, they can have an influence on a society’s semiosphere, i.e.on common sense and social life.


  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Foreword
  • Contents
  • Series Information
  • Viral Information – The Shift of Meaning and Politics
  • 1 Theoretical and Methodological Design
  • 2 Virality: A Short History of the Metaphors of Virus and Contagion
  • 3 Short History of Memetics
  • 4 The Virus and Meme Metaphor as Scientific and Populist Instruments
  • 5 Use, Technicality and Effects of the Virality of Codes, Myths and Metaphors in Extreme Right-Wing Populism
  • 6 Internet Memes, Pixelcanvas, Extreme Images and Trolling
  • Neither Right Nor Left
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 The Previous Political Scene
  • 1.2 Ruptures and Changes
  • 1.3 Five Stars Movement: Neither Right Nor Left
  • 2 Actions and Positions in Political Discourse
  • 2.1 “We are the folks”
  • 2.2 Verbal Violence and the Construction of the Enemy
  • 2.3 “Let’s help them at their home”
  • 2.4 Euroscepticism as Autarchia 2.0
  • 3 The Spread of Rhetoric and Its Variations
  • 3.1 Renzi: “Left is equal to innovation”
  • 3.2 Monti: “Stock markets asked for this”
  • 3.3 Discussing the Referendum
  • 4 Preliminary Conclusions
  • Against Virality
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 The Metaphor of Virality: Between Positivism and Ideologies
  • 3 Virality and Spreading
  • 4 Buzz
  • 5 Conclusions
  • Virality and Emotionality of the Lügenpresse Phenomenon
  • 1 Prolegomena
  • 2 Data and Approach
  • 3 Theoretical Foundation
  • 4 Analysis and Results
  • 5 Conclusion
  • On the Metaphors of Conspiracy Theories about Refugees in Right-Wing Media
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Conspiracy Theories
  • 2.1 The Term
  • 2.2 Origin and Shape
  • 2.3 CTs and the Right Wing
  • 2.4 Towards the Mechanisms of CTs
  • 3 Metaphors
  • 4 Examples
  • 4.1 Container Metaphors
  • 4.2 Metaphors of Catastrophe and War
  • 4.3 Metaphors of the Wild, Unsophisticated, Uncivilized and Evil
  • 4.4 Metaphors of the Endangered, Sophisticated and Sometimes Naive Self
  • 4.5 Other Categories of Semantic Change
  • 5 Conclusion
  • The State as a Company
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Basics
  • 2.1 The Code BRD GmbH
  • 2.2 Conspiracy-Ideological Milieu
  • 3 State of Research
  • 4 Methods
  • 5 Analysis
  • 5.1 1996: Outside the Milieu
  • 5.2 1997: Conspiracy-Ideological Environment
  • 5.3 2005f: Reichsbürger and Selbstverwalter Milieu
  • 5.4 2009f: Broader Public
  • 6 Conclusion
  • Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers on Online Networks
  • 1 Virality in Times of Digital Media
  • 2 Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles
  • 3 Algorithms and Interfaces on Facebook
  • 4 User Interfaces on Facebook and the Creation of Right-Wing Echo Chambers
  • 4.1 Pages and Groups as Intersections of Ideological Networks
  • 4.2 Individual user Networks as Echo Chambers
  • 4.3 Towards a Politics of Echo Chambers on Facebook
  • 5 Conclusion: Virality and Echo Chambers on Facebook
  • A Picture of the Internet
  • 1 Pixels and Meaning
  • 2 The Million Dollar Homepage
  • 3 Reddit Place
  • 4 Pixelcanvas
  • #Pepe #völkisch – Memes as Vehicles for New Right Ideology
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Theoretical Approach and State of Research
  • 2.1 Ideological Shift in Meaning: The Clash over Meanings
  • 2.2 Multimodals, Virals and Memes
  • 2.3 Re- and Decontextualization
  • 3 Methodological Approach
  • 4 Case Study 1
  • 4.1 Pepe the Frog (USA) – The Alt-Right Poster Boy Meme
  • 4.2 Analysis 1: Special Features of the Pepe Exploitable
  • 5 Case Study 2
  • 5.1 Memes of the New Right in Germany
  • 5.2 Multimodals of the AfD on Facebook
  • 5.3 Memes of the jAfD
  • 5.4 4chan /pol/ and Reddit /r/germany/
  • 6 Conclusion
  • Pokémon and the PETA
  • 1 The Contemporary Mediascape of Animal Rights Movements
  • 2 Pokémon Black and Blue
  • 3 Patterns of Extremeness
  • 4 Factory Farming in 60 Seconds Flat
  • 5 Extremeness as a Semiotic Device
  • 6 Where Fiction Meets Reality
  • 7 Two Faces of the Same Coin: Giuseppe Cruciani and Massimo Leone
  • The Art of Trolling
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Trolling Versus Provocation
  • 3 Trolling Versus Joke
  • 4 Trolling Versus Defensive Anonymity
  • 5 Trolling Versus Public Discourse
  • 6 Trolling Versus Controversy
  • 7 Trolling Versus Lying
  • 7.1 Pain
  • 7.2 Meta-Pain
  • 8 Trolling Versus Critique: The Case Study of Laura Boldrini
  • 9 Conclusions
  • Instead of a Conclusion
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • About the Authors

Welt – Körper – Sprache

Perspektiven kultureller Wahrnehmungs- und Darstellungsformen

Eva Kimminich

Viral Information – The Shift of Meaning and Politics

An Introduction to a Multi-Perspective Analysis of Internet Activities

Abstract: The article introduces the fundamental deliberations constituting the theoretical framework of the here presented analyses. Focusing primarily on right wing Internet populism, they offer a current object of research for observing the more or less viral spread of particular memes, myths or metaphorical concepts as well as their morphogenesis via their dissemination, their effects on reality perception and the orientation of social behavior. Combining socio-constructivist and semiotic paradigms, a holistic perspective is developed in order to understand the socio-semiotic effects of information spreading via social media. Understanding culture as an operating system which displays the basics of social construction of reality, the basic values and semantic categories for individual and collective behavior – and synthesizing the synopsis with the semiotic model of semiosphere – permits insight into the ongoing adjustments of the social perception of reality and the thereby changing benchmarks. Concentrating on the use of social media, this approach allows a deeper knowledge about the role of the individual semiosis and its manipulation via social media for the collective perception of socio-politic developments. Thus individual interpretations or faked individual interpretations of information can be analyzed as swivel pins for shifting semantic categories and memes, being the basis of common sense of a society. Accordingly, the virality of such information and interpretations has to be taken into serious consideration. For this purpose, the conceptualization of the virus and the meme metaphor is outlined as scientific and populist instruments before introducing the particular accentuation of the assembled articles.

Keywords: Shift of meaning, self-evident handling of information, fragmentation of common sense, culture as operating system, semiosphere, social semiosis, metaphor of meme and virus

The dissemination of information units, fake news, myths, codes or memes and their potential for social contagion is a phenomenon which followed in the wake of recent communication technologies. They have initiated a profound societal change with regard to how information is handled. Not only is any interpretation possible, but any interpretation can be spread and shared with a larger or smaller number of people. Apart from the super-regional public created by the mass ←9 | 10→media, there is also a new bottom-up public that makes its own journalism (see Gillmor 2004), which Nigel Thrift links to “low-end globalization” (see Thrift et al. 2014: 13). It is a public of users who carry on their social activities in these media (see Lehmann and Schetsche 2007: 22). The dissemination of information and the contagiousness of particular information meanwhile led to a superabundance of information on the one hand, as well as one of interpretations on the other. Thus, in between information, there is also an interpretation of interpretations of said information being handled as information. This is particularly the case when social media is mainly used. In the case of an interpretation of interpreted information, we have to deal with political myths defined as vague narrations that are partially crossed with ideologies. They have the potential to influence or even steer political constellations (see Münkler 2004: 774). This potential is a result of its character as a secondary semantic system in the sense of Roland Barthes ([1957] 2012), which means that a myth hides its own process of generation and thereby its reference to social reality. More precisely, it is the result of synthesizing factual information with more or less factually based interpretation and the respective semantic categories used by the receiver. The mostly unknown mechanisms of network technologies add a magical component (see Lehmann and Schetsche 2007: 25). Thus the output is a fictional narration handled as sacrosanct information. As such, a political myth is a filter which reduces complexity, fades out historical contexts and predicates apodictic certainty for decision making:

It is especially in modern society that political myths fulfill three central tasks in the framing of the political order as well as the steering of political decision making: the reduction of complexity through which alternatives to the incalculable hodgepodge of political problems are being developed and made obvious; the reduction of contingency, through which the randomness of past historical events is blotted out and the uncertainty of decision making processes is coated in certainty; […]. (Münkler 2004: 775; own translation).

The delineated development has initiated an everyday self-evident handling of information, which can be linked to a new form of self-performance via the interpretation of information. That is to say, posting and sharing individual interpretations facilitates the formation of we-groups by which the interpreting individual can win recognition. The dissemination of extreme messages or images means breaking a taboo, not only in a moral sense, but also with regard to the semantic categories for differentiation and evaluation that are commonly accepted, for example true/false, good/evil or moderate/extreme; and of course breaking this kind of taboo also means a gain in recognition and self-affirmation. ←10 | 11→

We can therefore assert that the increasing individualization of our society is mirrored in its use of media. Individual interpretation nowadays stands against the interpretation authority on official interpretation content. That means that in the very last consequence it could be the catalyst for a fragmentation of a common world view and of common sense.

As individual interpretation can therefore be the flash point of particular interpretations becoming more or less public, we first have to look closer at the spreading of individual interpretation and information in order to observe its eventual influence on the social construction of reality. More precisely, we first have to focus on the reception of information, as an individual picks up only a certain amount of information. Therefore, criteria of preselection can be the focus of interest, the source of its dissemination, the topicality or the emotional tint. Secondly, we have to estimate their virality and their potential impact on social reality construction and common sense, something that cannot be measured but only modeled by a socio-semiotic constructivist approach.

1Theoretical and Methodological Design

For this purpose, our approach is mainly based on a combination of two models – a sociological-constructivist and a semiotic one. The conception of Siegfried J. Schmidt, who considers culture in general as an operating system for society steering all cognitive and communicative processes, enables us to view the processes of reality construction in its sociopolitical complexity. It takes place within the categories of differentiation and evaluation connected to the clusters of perception and interpretation of social realities, social or ethnic groups, events or developments. This operating system is providing the semantic categories and the central cognitive concepts. They offer its members help for evaluating and visualizing the naming of perceptions or differences in advance (see Schmidt 2014: 46). This discussion of the construction of social reality is proceeding

in an unreflected way as an endless process of linking, experiencing and evaluating of semantic categories, differences and differentiations, which are generating within the actant and his life context that which he himself is living as the sense. (Schmidt 2014: 46; own translation)

The operating system is thus to be seen as a collective construction kit for reproducing and securing a common world view as well as its fundamentals of behavior. But to this end, it must be reproduced by the individual. The latter thus has to be conceived as a scene of the production of meaning (Ort der ←11 | 12→Sinnerzeugung), from which also deviant applications of the collective construction kit emanate (see Viehoff 2008).

In semiotic terms, it means that semiosis is to be seen as a crucial point for the construction of social realities. Within a society having a refined medial system, the constructiveness of the common view of social realities goes hand in hand with a multi-level observation, which causes on the one side the unobservability of the whole cohesion of the construction. On the other side, in an individualized society doubting its own interpretive agencies, the individual as an intersection point of social systems consequently becomes more active in observing and of course also in producing digressive interpretations of social realities. In the case that these digressive interpretations are increasing, a decomposition of the common view of social realities can be set in motion. In this case proven knowledge and accepted semantic (moral) categories can also erode.

Within the concept of Jurji M. Lotman’s semiosphere, Schmidt’s conceptualization of culture as an operating system (Kulturprogramm) can be visualized as a semiotic space, assembling every sign, meaning or value used and produced by a society, arranged in various subspheres, competing against each other by a permanent transfer of their elements. The concept of semiosphere thus allows the insight into the processes of meaning production and the shift of socially accepted meaning. This takes place in the spaces of the contact aureoles in between the subspheres, conceived as a sum of bilingual filters of translation (see Lotman 1990: 290).

Thus, like Schmidt, Lotman conceives the dynamics of the whole system as a mechanism for the creation of any text or interpretation, as well as world views, images of the self or of the other. And like Schmidt, Lotman (as well as Eco) underlines the fact that any programmatic set does only exist in its application, which means that the individuals’ interpretations can have much more impact as is admitted by so-called objectivist reflection, hiding the importance of semiosis, particularly its creative power (see Eco 1996).

Against the background of sociocultural constructivism, individual semiosis and its emerging interpretations are to be viewed as a scene on which the social semiosis, that is the common perception and evaluation of social realities, can be shifted. In the line with the new possibilities of Internet information and communication, the individual is to be considered a nerve cell or knot of a global brain because, as Marshall McLuhan wrote in his rather idealistic view of the new media in the 1960s, we have “extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing space and time as far as our planet is concerned” (McLuhan 1964: 3). ←12 | 13→


ISBN (Hardcover)
2018 (Dezember)
Construction of reality Common sense Social semiosis Memes User generated Content Social Media Semiosphere Politics Semantic Change
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 190 pp., 3 col. ill., 16 b/w ill. 3 b/w. tab.

Biographische Angaben

Eva Kimminich (Autor:in) Julius Erdmann (Autor:in)

Eva Kimminich is Professor of Cultural Studies and Cultural Semiotics at the University of Potsdam. She is the chief editor of Welt – Körper – Sprache. Julius Erdmann is a PhD student in Cultural Studies and Philosophy at the University of Potsdam and the University of Paris, Paris 8. Amir Dizdarević is finishing his Master degree in Linguistics in Potsdam.


Titel: Virality and Morphogenesis of Right Wing Internet Populism
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191 Seiten