Table Of Content
- About the authors
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Introduction: Alt-Right Memes and Networks of Public Discourse
- Chapter 1: The Origins of Alt-Right Memes and Their Proliferation
- Chapter 2: Pepe the Frog and Iconic Assemblages
- Chapter 3: Lulz: White Nationalism for the Digital Age
- Chapter 4: How the Alt-Right Moves: Memes as Tactical Circulation
- Chapter 5: Silencing the Opposition: Memes as Warfare
- Conclusion: The Coming Meme Battles
- Series index
Heather Suzanne Woods
and Leslie A. Hahner
Make America Meme Again
The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right
New York • Bern • Berlin
Brussels • Vienna • Oxford • Warsaw
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Woods, Heather Suzanne, author. | Hahner, Leslie A., author.
Title: Make America meme again: the rhetoric of the alt-right / Heather Suzanne Woods and Leslie A. Hahner.
Description: New York: Peter Lang, 2019.
Series: Frontiers in political communication; vol. 45 | ISSN 1525-9730
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018044668 | ISBN 978-1-4331-5974-9 (hardback: alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-4331-5975-6 (ebook pdf) | ISBN 978-1-4331-5976-3 (epub)
ISBN 978-1-4331-5977-0 (mobi)
Subjects: LCSH: Right-wing extremists—United States.
Memes—Political aspects—United States. | Social media—Political aspects—United States.
White supremacy movements—United States. | White nationalism—United States.
Presidents—United States—Election—2016. | Trump, Donald, 1946–
Classification: LCC HN90.R3 W66 2018 | DDC 320.56/90973—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018044668
Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.
Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the “Deutsche Nationalbibliografie”; detailed bibliographic data are available
on the Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de/.
© 2019 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York
29 Broadway, 18th floor, New York, NY 10006
All rights reserved.
Reprint or reproduction, even partially, in all forms such as microfilm, xerography, microfiche, microcard, and offset strictly prohibited.
About the book
As demonstrated by the 2016 presidential election, memes have become the suasory tactic par excellence for the promotional and recruitment efforts of the Alt-right. Memes are not simply humorous shorthands or pithy assertions, but play a significant role in the machinations of politics and how the public comes to understand and respond to their government and compatriots. Using the tools of rhetorical criticism, the authors detail how memetic persuasion operates, with a particular focus on the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump. Make America Meme Again reveals the rhetorical principles used to design Alt-right memes, outlining the myriad ways memes lure mainstream audiences to a number of extremist claims. In particular, this book argues that Alt-right memes impact the culture of digital boards and broader public culture by stultifying discourse, thereby shaping how publics congeal. The authors demonstrate that memes are a mechanism that proliferate white nationalism and exclusionary politics by spreading algorithmically through network cultures in ways that are often difficult to discern. Alt-right memes thus present a significant threat to democratic praxis, one that can begin to be combatted through a rigorous rhetorical analysis of their power and influence. Make America Meme Again illuminates the function of networked persuasion for scholars and practitioners of rhetoric, media, and communication; political theorists; digital humanists; and anyone who has ever seen, crafted, or proliferated a meme.
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
Index ←vii | viii→ ←viii | ix→
Figure C.1: Seize the Memes of Production ←ix | x→ ←x | xi→
This project began over a series of frenetic text messages, each attempting to make sense of the new landscape of digital propaganda. Both of us were trying to understand how our mediated friends and family members could fall so easily for obviously dubious persuasive tactics. As more information unfolded, we found that we, too, had been courted by such communiqués—this time by (at least) targeted messages from Russia’s Internet Research Agency. We also discovered that we were compelled to name and analyze what was happening—we could not sit idly by and not use our skills to help citizens grapple with ongoing information wars. Our individual areas of expertise, historical uses of propaganda, visual rhetoric, digital ecosystems, and algorithmic amplification, enabled us a certain level of know-how, but also provided us enough background information to underscore how much more we, and the general public, needed to learn about the new landscape of psychological operations. We have learned much over the course of this project. There is still much to discover and we hope that this project is a beginning, one that invests in areas of research that require ongoing and robust analysis.
We have quite a few folks to thank for helping us complete this project. First, we would like to thank Kathryn Harrison, who saw potential in this project and kept us invested in the work and the vision of Peter Lang and the←xi | xii→ Frontiers in Political Communication series. We are also deeply indebted to Mitchell S. McKinney and Mary E. Stuckey. Both of these editors devoted themselves to bettering this project and understood our goals and insights—sometimes better than we did. This project is stronger from their astute guidance and energetic support.
Colleagues at both of our home institutions have enabled the success of this book. At Baylor, Scott Varda was a precise editor who dropped everything to help us when we needed it. He is a champion of good scholarship and we could not have finished this project without him. Fielding Montgomery and Alden Conner contributed significant time and effort to helping us finish this project. David Schlueter facilitated our efforts by finding us resources and time to do the work. Martin J. Medhurst, as always, offered his wisdom and insights whenever we needed it. The College of Arts and Sciences also supplied Leslie Hahner with leave time to engage this book. Theresa Varney Kennedy, Kara Poe Alexander, and Beth Allison Barr bettered early work for this project through their wonderful advice. The women’s writing group started by Lisa Shaver buoyed this endeavor when it could have rested in the doldrums of Leslie Hahner’s associate professorship. At Kansas State University, the intellectual community comprised of Soumia Bardhan, Soo-Hye Han, Tim Shaffer, Travis Smith, William James Taylor (JT), Darren Epping, and Craig Brown inspired deep thinking about communication’s democratic possibilities. Alex McVey critiqued early (and also late) drafts of several chapters, and challenged us to carefully imagine a future, mediated politics. Greg Paul and Melissa Winkel supported the project logistically, often in pivotal, behind-the-scenes ways. Jakki Mattson provided critical research for chapters one and four, while also serving as a sounding board for ideas. Colene Lind and Sarah Riforgiate gave really good advice. Natalie Pennington was a thoughtful interlocutor and advocate. Joe Koehle shared dank memes (and how to find them). At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Kumi Silva provided excellent advice (as always).
We are also thankful to scholars across our field who helped us through productive conversations and advice. We are particularly grateful to Heather Ashley Hayes, Casey Ryan Kelly, Ryan Milner, Damien Pfister, Jonathan Carter, Rachel Winter, Emily Winderman, Atilla Hallsby, and Dustin Greenwalt. As well, Jennifer Coates Millard was an astute and rigorous copyeditor for early work in this project. We are likewise grateful for the legal services and advice of John Cook, who is brilliant and helpful, as per usual.←xii | xiii→
This project is inspired by our students. It could not exist without the scholarly fruit harvested from the relationships between teachers and students. In particular, students from Heather Woods’ Contemporary Rhetorical Theory graduate class and undergraduate classes in Rhetoric in Western Thought and The Rhetoric of Social Movements studied memes alongside us, participating in the struggles and delights of rhetorically engaging an emerging genre of political discourse. Calvin Horne and Jeremy Williams shared with us several of the memes referenced in this volume. Students in Leslie Hahner’s Theories and Methods of Visual Communication supplied astute observations about digital propaganda. We have also learned from one another as teacher and student, each occupying both roles in various ways throughout our tenures. We continue to learn from our students and endeavor to give them our very best insights on pressing matters. This work has helped us reach toward that end and reminded us to continually wrestle with the ever-changing conditions of late capitalism. Ultimately, then, we dedicate this project to those who would fight for radical changes in the worlds in which we live, to the people’s victory over hegemonic interests. We are far from that future, but we can use our rhetorical skills to invent new pathways toward it.←xiii | xiv→ ←xiv | 1→
Heading into the 2018 midterms, a number of heavy-hitting financiers began to invest in the persuasive power of viral media. The New York Times reported that a wealth of enterprising liberals were raising money to fight for voters via those modes of communication at the forefront of political campaigns—spreadable content.1 New organizations such as Stand Up America joined forces with older social media groups such as The Other 98 % and Civic Ventures to generate social media dispatches that might bolster democratic candidates and issues. Reid Hoffman, one of the creators of LinkedIn, and Mark Pincus, of Zynga, founded Win the Future, a group aiming to turn “user-generated” messages into Washington, D.C. billboards.2 Social media users formed Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, and Tumblr feeds to sway constituents. Companies hired meme designers to fashion aspiring viral messages.3 Such efforts demonstrate how the battle for public opinion and political candidacies is focused on harnessing the opportunities of social media. Such investments follow the 2016 election in which conservative, often vicious, memetic imagery played a significant part in the outcomes. Indeed, the vast majority of viral social media messages toward the end of the election were either pro-Trump or anti-Clinton.4 Post-election, bolstering the reach of digital content entrenches the battle to win the hearts and clicks of voters.←1 | 2→
These entrepreneurial efforts are predicated on the unprecedented outcomes of the 2016 election—a contest that has come to be known aptly as the meme election.5 During this period, a number of actors deployed prolific amounts of visual internet memes to benefit presidential candidates and political parties. Memes were far more influential to public discourse than scholars have begun to grasp fully. Yet, memes, as we will show, became one of the most important persuasive channels for the contest and the political machinations that followed. That status rests predominantly on the role of the Alt-right, who became a pernicious force during this time based largely on those who fashioned memes on 4chan and reddit. While we cannot know if Alt-right memes swayed voters, these images nevertheless created a significant impact on public culture during the election. Because of the shocking and hateful tenor of Alt-right memes, these discourses became a regressive force on public culture, ultimately stultifying exchange. For his part, Donald Trump benefitted from these tactics and, as we will show, demonstrated his support in numerous ways. Such claims do not discount the massive impact of third party candidates, voter-suppression, or Russian propaganda on the outcomes of the election, but rather underscore another way voters were addressed during the contest and in the months that followed.
The Alt-right has become a significant social force in recent years, generating an incredible amount of attention and interest through innovative media tactics, especially those visual memes deployed in the months leading up to the presidential election. 4chan is an imageboard while reddit is a digital forum; both are places where users can post under a pseudonym or anonymously on a variety of topics.6 Of course, 4chan is popularly known as the birthplace of memes and a wide swath of creative content. Reddit has followed suit as a place for invention and discussion. Each site boasts millions of users, totaling over 350 million in April of 2018.7 In recent years, the Alt-right on both 4chan and reddit began using memes as tactical propaganda. The apotheosis of this mode of visual engagement seemed to be the 2016 election. Users associated with Alt-right message boards launched a massive meme campaign to promote the election of Donald Trump and impede Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory. In this context, memes refer to concepts and images that spread virally across culture, largely through social media platforms. In their most popular instantiation, visual memes are used for humor, political claims, visual short hands, and more. In a number of boards on 4chan and reddit, visual, static memes became a crucial site for advancing not simply the election of Trump but engendering a significant shift in public culture. The←2 | 3→ Alt-right made tactical use of memes to create a public presence and attract new members.
The Alt-right (with attempts at rebranding using the title the New Right) is a loose collection of social media users and boards, public personalities, and content platforms that often adopt libertarian or far right advocacy. The Alt-right commonly espouses claims, including but not limited to, support for white supremacy, opposition to feminism, rejection of identity-based rights, exclusive immigration policies, and an abhorrence of political correctness. The Alt-right capitalizes on those modes of communication prominent in the digital sphere. Major personalities identified with the Alt-right include Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and YouTuber PewDiePie. YouTube alone has enabled Alt-right figures to attract an audience of millions.8 Content platforms such as Breitbart have helped legitimize the views of the Alt-right. Recent research suggests that the headlines of Breitbart and similar news agencies “successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.”9 In select forums and boards, 4chan and reddit users often refer to the election of Donald Trump as a result of meme magic—the tactical use of memes supposedly changed mainstream culture and politics. The election of Trump—and the belief that their memes played a role—has resulted in these boards continuing to use memes to push an agenda. On our view, the most significant tactic of the Alt-right is its use of memes to both lure mainstream devotees and direct larger public discussions. Memes are the nodal points in the ecosystem of this far right collective. The rise of Alt-right digital media, then, is of serious concern in that discourses emerging from this stance play a prominent role in public culture.
The memes developed on Alt-right boards do not stay in these enclaves but travel outward across social media platforms, indicating the reach and significance of such modes of address. In the months leading up to the 2016 election, memes created on 4chan and reddit moved rapidly from these locales to mainstream sites such as Facebook and Twitter. A specific image of Pepe the Frog, the poster symbol of the Alt-right, even traveled from these discussion boards to candidate Trump’s Twitter feed.10 During the campaign, Trump retweeted several extremist images developed on 4chan and reddit.11 Of course, these retweets should not be surprising. Donald Trump’s campaign team had staffers monitor reddit and 4chan boards, communicate with users, and direct effective content to the social media director.12 Such patterns have not abated since the election. In early July 2017, President Trump retweeted←3 | 4→ a GIF that showed him pummeling a figure of CNN (See Fig. I.1). The GIF was created by a reddit user who “had a history of tweeting anti-Semitic and racist memes.”13 In this way, Alt-right memes are now part of presidential public address and comprise a significant number of messages on most social media platforms.
Memes are an exemplary persuasive mechanism for the Alt-right insofar as this imagery is especially compelling for its target audience and helps to proliferate an Alt-right agenda, even as insiders disagree about its specific goals. Angela Nagle argues in Kill All Normies that the collective is a contentious group that is often “warring and sectarian” such that a committed political ideology is difficult to codify.14 Yet, the Alt-right congeals and converts through its mediated tactics.15 In particular, the social media strategies of the Alt-right have influenced the way politics informs public culture. Of its media tactics, memes are the tactic par excellence as they have the most social traction. As these images traveled from message boards to the mainstream, memes flagged the work of the Alt-right and generated journalistic coverage. Such coverage helped to legitimize the Alt-right and provided a mainstream platform for its views.16 Memes operate as palpable propaganda for the Alt-right. Douglas Haddow acknowledges that viral short hands have often been used for persuasive effect.17 Yet, as Haddow notes, “What’s novel here is an inversion of control—political memes are no longer rare flashes of uncensored←4 | 5→ personality or intensely manicured visual messages. They are now born from the swamps of the internet in real time, distributed from the bottom up.”18
Moreover, memes have attracted those who do not consider themselves ideologues but are instead invested in the irreverence of the Alt-right or memes generally. Memes are a gateway for the radicalization of outsiders to far right advocacies. Nagle argues that “the alt-right today could never have had any connection to the mainstream” without “the image- and humor-based culture of the irreverent meme factory of 4chan and later 8chan that gave the alt-right its youthful energy, with its transgression and hacker tactics.”19 Memes enabled the Alt-right considerable suasory power in terms of recruitment and attracting media attention. Memes are not just one part of how the Alt-right communicates—they are the most important rhetorical tool it uses.
Yet, memes as part of the Alt-right arsenal have not received significant scholarly attention. Though there have been numerous studies on Anonymous, 4chan, and reddit, as well as robust attention given to memes and virality as a whole, the dramatic outcome of the 2016 election marks the importance of investigating the Alt-right’s influence on public culture.20 A few books and a growing collection of journal articles are at the fledgling stages of research seeking to understand the culture of the Alt-right and the tactics used by its members.21 Patent in popular journalism and scholarship on the topic is a diminution of the work of memes or a lack of sophisticated engagement with their suasory role. Those who write about Alt-right memes often do so by attempting to decode “meme magic” as a manifestation of chaos magic. They identify ritualistic interpretations of memetic symbols on particular message boards.22 Others will write about the culture of these sites and how specific ideological patterns structure broader public tactics, sometimes referencing memes.23 There is little dedicated work on Alt-right memes as persuasive tactics in and of themselves, especially as these memes change the contours of public discourse. Such focus is necessary, especially if we heed Nagle’s insight that the Alt-right rarely congeals around a singular or coherent ideology. Instead, the work of memes is important precisely because these images can be disarticulated from their creators, who may or may not espouse a particular political viewpoint, who nevertheless fashion memes that impact public culture in rather important ways. Memes are not simply one tactic for the Alt-right—they are the primary rhetorical mechanism grounding its broader work and linking outsiders to its radical views. To grasp how this collective has been successful, there must be a robust interrogation of the rhetorical work of memes.←5 | 6→
This volume analyzes the memes of the Alt-right from their development on the boards of 4chan and reddit to their circulation across mainstream media sites. We argue that Alt-right memes impact public culture by stultifying discourse and thereby shaping the ways publics congeal. More specifically, memes are the mechanism that helps proliferate white nationalism and exclusionary politics by spreading algorithmically, often in ways that are difficult to identify easily. We focus on several boards, but dedicate most of our attention to two specific sites: politically incorrect or /pol/ on 4chan and r/the_donald/ on reddit. Our goal is to analyze the persuasive principles used to design memes, with the understanding that memes are generated in these sites to target and lure outsiders to the worldviews of those on 4chan and reddit. Thus, we explore the work of these memes in galvanizing political candidates and issues, as well as spreading extremist, often racist, views. Memes are not simply humorous short hands, or pithy assertions, but play a significant role in the machinations of politics and the ways the public comes to understand and respond to their government and compatriots. To grasp the radicalization of the American electorate, scholars must engage at the forefront of politics. At the present juncture, that forefront is the rhetoric of memes. Memes are part of an overarching shift in public culture that requires scholarly consideration. The Alt-right has capitalized on memes as a mode of public address. Our goal is to analyze the architecture of the persuasive communiqués that have helped build the Alt-right agenda.
The Rhetoric of Memes
This project begins by taking memes seriously as rhetorical images that are designed to move audiences and ultimately shape the larger culture. Rhetorical studies have traditionally focused on meaningful modes of public address—presidential speeches, social movements, and public debate. To study these events rhetorically was to analyze their persuasive principles or the means through which the speaker or movement responded to an exigence to sway an audience. Today, the study of rhetoric also examines how forms of address shape public culture. In this way, rhetoric shapes both a specific audience response and the larger culture in which audiences are immersed. Images, including memes, are significant to the ways audiences are rhetorically addressed and moved. Members of 4chan and reddit understand memes as modes of communication that promulgate their views both inside and outside their←6 | 7→ enclaves. As Whitney Phillips notes, users sometimes refer to their skills as “knowing how to rhetoric.”24 Memes employ particular features that aim to persuade viewers. Our goal is to interrogate both the suasory features board users espouse and the actual ways memes work as rhetorical devices. Thus, we use our training as rhetorical critics to understand the principles users proclaim as significant to their methods just as we analyze the functional mechanisms that make some memes travel far and reach broadly.
Memes are crucial means of rhetorically addressing audiences within this cultural milieu. Their visual variations and quick replication enable memes to reach a wide set of viewers. Memes are efficient as images that can quickly disseminate a political agenda. Internet memes are constructed and reconfigured hundreds of times with one still image or GIF providing the visual foundation for its considerable afterlife. In the narrow sense, these images are rhetorical insofar as they can be designed to persuade audiences for a particular purpose. For instance, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) memed the image of Lieutenant John Pike pepper spraying Occupy protestors at UC Davis. Many of the memes created by OWS provided a visual synecdoche of the ideas motivating the movement: a figure of the state overpowering a larger, defenseless group of students.25 Memes are fashioned with particular rhetorical features to charm audiences into replication or in an attempt to induce other specific actions. Ryan M. Milner argues that memes are multimodal texts that are appropriated, possess resonance, existing as collective phenomena that are spreadable.26 Building on earlier studies, Limor Shifman suggests that memes that circulate widely are more likely to exhibit six features that abet virality: “positivity, provocation of high-arousal emotions, participation, packaging, prestige, and positioning.”27 Milner and Shifman delineate the general qualities of memes and the mechanisms that facilitate their speedy circulation. Put into the language of rhetorical studies, these scholars demarcate the mechanisms that invite the audiences’ admiration (likes, hearts, retweets, etc.) of memes and drive replication.
Yet, memes are also rhetorical in a broader sense insofar as they become a propagandistic means of affectively impacting both audiences and culture. These images are cunning because memes typically conceal their status as persuasive texts. As Shifman writes, the meme works “as a living and changing entity that is incorporated in the body and mind of its hosts.”28 When rhetorical texts such as these precipitate embodied or pre-conscious residuals, scholars read them as creating affective resonance. Eric S. Jenkins maintains that memes illustrate how “affective capacities” structure the “encounter between←7 | 8→ viewers/rhetors and images.”29 In this sense, memes are both direct forms of persuasion but also modes of rhetorical address that may work more obliquely. It is important, then, for scholars to analyze the specific ways that memes function as selected images or modes of address that travel across the media landscape. Sometimes, memes are obvious attempts to persuade the populace. In other instances, memes conceal or hide their rhetorical work, even as they sway viewers.
Alt-right memes are a unique instantiation of this overarching visual form, exhibiting features and circulatory patterns that indicate a rhetorical difference from other memes. While the images may employ some of the attributes outlined by Milner and Shifman, they usually exhibit other qualities. To wit, high arousal emotions and appropriation are significant to Alt-right memes but positivity and prestige are not essential to their virality. Moreover, these basic features do little to indicate the motivated reasons for why Alt-right memes travel in particular patterns. For instance, President Trump retweeted a meme designed in reddit. The meme was a political cartoon of a train emblazoned with a Trump logo (See Fig. I.1). The train collided with a human figure, stamped with the CNN logo. The caption read: “Fake News Can’t Stop the Trump Train.” As it relates to the categories outlined by Shifman, the image was an appropriation, it aroused high emotions, it was a collective phenomenon, and it was a multi-modal, spreadable meme. Yet, these basic characteristics say very little about the rhetorical resonance of this image. This image is both a dog whistle to Alt-right audiences and an alienating image to liberal viewers. Moreover, these basic categories fail to detail how this image polarizes audiences or the modes through which it marks white supremacy—and how those actions facilitate its travels. By exploring the specific rhetoric of Alt-right memes, we may better understand their circulation and the ways they shape the larger culture.
Memes certainly play a pivotal role in public life and may generate larger outcomes than popularly imagined. Milner argues that memes facilitate individual expression and participation in larger collectives, especially for those who may be disenfranchised from mainstream forms of communication.30 In this sense, memes broaden access points and generate inventional opportunities for outsiders. Other scholars suggest that memes are a resource from which participants can fashion arguments, new modes of activism, and other modes of public engagement.31 Memes, then, are not simply pithy images or rote modes of communication. Instead, they are tools that can be deployed in a multitude of ways. It is their flexibility that allows them to be used as novel←8 | 9→ rhetorical resources.32 Insofar as the meme can be redesigned, appropriated, and deployed for new audiences, it affords a multiplicity of rhetorical possibilities. The considerable participation in the creation and circulation of memes suggests that a meme can reach a broad set of audiences, a potentiality that serves as the ground for its rhetorical finesse.
Memes are also rhetorically important to the temporality of public attention given the speed of their circulation. Like much viral media, memes are known for incredibly quick propagation and movement. The speed of the meme is part of its rhetorical power. Shifman contends that virality itself is a form of persuasion, noting that Elihu Katz’s and Paul Lazarsfeld’s understanding of “personal influence” indicates how viral content travels through affinity routes—your friends, family, and contacts. Building on the work of W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, Shifman writes that “memes play an important role” in the “coordinated actions” of social movements in that they are “personalized, adapted by individuals to tell their own stories.”33 For Bennett and Segerberg, it is the largescale network that creates a social movement with new and effective advocacy. The network facilitates the breadth and speed of the meme’s travels. The meme often begins in smaller, digital enclaves and then spreads virally to a whole host of other sites via the wealth of network nodes. The relationships that build that network may engender a sympathetic viewpoint or interpretation of viral content, thereby shaping the ways publics encounter and understand memes.
Overall, memes are important rhetorical texts that use their flexibility and circulation to move audiences. For social movements and users on networks, memes present significant opportunities for advocacy, creativity, and investment. The specific features of memes are often deployed by creators for a variety of rhetorical purposes. In these ways, memes can operate rhetorically as explicit or implicit means of audience identification, resonance, or persuasion. Yet, while scholars are beginning to grasp how memes open up the advocacy possibilities of social movements and individuals, those same rubrics for analysis may not apply to Alt-right memes. By interrogating the specific ways that Alt-right memes are designed, travel, and shape audience response, we glean a stronger understanding of the current political climate and the ways these memes stultify public discourse.←9 | 10→
Memes and Public Culture
Memes play a significant role in public culture, one predicated on the creation and maintenance of social identities and values. Shifman writes that memes facilitate the “construction of group identity and social boundaries.”34 Carl Chen concurs and suggests that memes developed by 4chan users are participating in their own public sphere, identifying a particularly positive outcome from the creative process: “increasing diversity in taste, creating a unified identity, and expressing political agendas.”35 For a number of scholars, memes mark the creative and interactive processes of the collective.36 Memes, as fashioned in digital enclaves, are images that highlight the values of the group, their identities, and the negotiated processes of participation. We explore these aspects of meme creation in chapter one, describing how board culture contributes to the development of memes and the standards that privilege certain expressions over others.
Yet, memes are not simply important to the collectives working in 4chan and reddit but also respond to and shape a larger set of values and principles—those of public culture. When we refer to a public culture, we mean the available repertoire of social practices that structure discourse, affective investments, patterns of thinking, and daily practices. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites suggest culture is “a distinctively coherent set of social practices” as they are articulated through “habituation.”37 When it comes to digital public cultures, that coherence is a bit more difficult to theorize. Nathan Rambukkana argues that the “form and matter” of network “assemblages can take on different emergent qualities based on the particular actants that are at work in shaping each…unique and individual event.”38 Memes are specific modes of rhetorical address that shape public culture. In this sense, memes are one mode of emergent possibility. They are not simply reflections of the culture of 4chan and reddit—though they are related to such sites of origin. Instead, memes are active and responsive rhetorical texts that play a part in the ongoing negotiations of public culture.
Memes emerge alongside the digital public that shapes and is shaped by their creation. Memes are fashioned through robust digital participation, a mode of invention that indicates how these images are a key way communities and publics congeal. Nissenbaum and Shifman argue that memes “function as part of a culture, contributing to the set of ideas around which communities gather and act.”39 As we detail in chapter one, users on 4chan’s /b/ board indicate their adherence to community norms and protocols by developing memes←10 | 11→ that speak to the culture in which they are immersed. Similarly, users of forums on both reddit and 4chan must follow community patterns if they are to feel included, if they seek their memes to be valued, or if they seek to avoid ridicule.40 Certainly, users on /pol/ and r/the_donald/ are policed in terms of their ability to fashion memes that stay in keeping with the standards of the board. The community of users comes together via memetic discourse, among other discourses, by speaking to the larger trends and values of the board. Memes thereby articulate and reify the normative culture of users. Yet, memes are also sites of creation. Norms are not static but modified over time. Memes are a key place where innovation is essential to both community membership—one must be able to build on the standards to show competence—but also to the success and growth of that board.41 Invention is a form of social capital such that users must create novel memes that nevertheless remain wedded to community standards.42 The constitution of the public on these boards is predicated on the juxtaposition between stability and change.
Memes are also sites of public investment through their circulation outside of their digital origins into the mainstream. Some memes speak to insiders on 4chan and reddit and often focus on working with or innovating community standards. Memes designed for external audiences operate differently. Kate M. Miltner maintains that once memes move to the mainstream, the social capital they once held diminishes for insiders as that same capital increases for outsiders. LOLCats memes, for example, become rejected “by the collectives that created them” once they are a technology for anyone.43 For memes designed specifically for publicity or propagandistic purposes, the shift in their value remains; however, their capital for persuading the masses is increased for users on the boards. That is, if a meme is successful at moving from the original board to the mainstream and is heavily circulated, that meme becomes one to imitate. The image still articulates what is valued and persuasive, but now the public constituted by the meme’s circulation is broader. However, this wider public remains somewhat tethered to the norms enunciated on the original boards. That is, while social media users may spread or remake the meme for different purposes, the circulation of Alt-right memes often traces the aesthetics and attitudes of their creators. Such memes remain indebted to the patterns of their conception and may suture such communicative tactics to novel re-creations.
The circulation of Alt-right memes is the cardinal feature of their impact on public culture. The travels of memes are what enables the articulation and re-articulation of values and standards from 4chan and reddit to the larger←11 | 12→ public. Memes become points of recognition for particular Alt-right arguments and manifestations of its public presence. Alt-right memes, then, travel with the specter of Alt-right advocacies, unless the original memes are changed dramatically. Previous studies of memes and imagery have indicated that the circulation of these visuals opens up their constitutive possibilities.44 Memes are highly manipulable imagery that can be changed and redirected toward new political and social realities. As such, these images are difficult to theorize as indebted to the goals of their creators. Their circulation often ensures they are a radical image, always open to reinterpretation and reuse. Ariella Azoulay writes that photography’s temporality is one of “an ever-expanding series of encounters.”45 The same is true of memes, which renew in each click the possibilities indexed by their creation and re-creation. Yet, with Alt-right memes in particular, their circulation often echoes and reifies the claims designed to travel with them. Many of these memes remain imbued, marked by the imprint of the Alt-right, especially when the meme circulates without visual editing. In part, as we explore in chapter two, those goals are entrenched given the responses of the Alt-right. Nearly any attempt to resignify an Alt-right meme by outsiders is often minimized by the subsequent proliferation of extremist memes. In this sense, the Alt-right fights back against attempts to redeploy its imagery by inundating social media with memes. While radical possibilities of rhetorical invention remain with more general memes, Alt-right memes often iterate the advocacy of extremists.
Users of 4chan and reddit design memes as purposeful rhetorical devices—memes help to organize political actions and recruit new devotees. In August 2016, white supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, South Carolina. In the course of their demonstration, three people died and many were injured. The incident sparked national interest in how these young, largely millennial men became radicalized as white supremacists. Certainly, many of the protestors present at the rally were attracted to the cause for a variety of reasons. But, as explained by those at the protest, memes were often the method of organizing and attracting new adherents. Vice interviewed feature writer Robert “Azzmador” Ray of The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, who explained that their physical presence meant “that we are showing to this class of parasitic, anti-white vermin that this is our country.”46 He continued to say that the demonstrators were “stepping off the internet in a big way.”47 They had been organizing, specifically by “spreading our memes.”48 For some members of the Alt-right, memes became a method to organize and create new white suprem←12 | 13→acists. One of the main organizers at Charlottesville, Christopher Cantwell, claimed he turned from libertarianism to the Alt-right because it “had better memes.”49 One young man at the rally even indicated that he was compelled to join the demonstration given that it was fun to “say white power.”50 Once the violence at the rally proved fearsome to this young man, he removed his Vanguard America shirt (an internet-purchase t-shirt supporting a white supremacist group), and tried to proclaim that he wasn’t truly a white supremacist.51 Here, visual memes and memetic imitation become a tactic for both earnest adherents to the Alt-right but also provide cover for those who wish to enact white supremacy, even as they disavow their complicity.
Memes also become a way to brand the Alt-right such that like-minded folks have a way to proliferate their ideas and to recognize those with whom they align. Pepe the Frog is a useful case study here—an exemplar we analyze fully in chapter two. Pepe was not initially an Alt-right symbol. Yet, users on 4chan and reddit transformed him into a poster-child for the Alt-right and white nationalism more generally. When that symbol appeared on mainstream sites, users found their viewpoint sanctioned. For instance, it was considered a triumph by 4chan and reddit users in /pol/ and r/the_donald/ when candidate Trump retweeted a Pepe image. In this instance, a viral image rewarded the branding work of the collective. Likewise, when other social media users posted or retweeted Pepe, those posts became a way to identify affinities. Yet, such recognizability was also important to counter responses. When Hillary Clinton reviled Pepe as a symbol of white nationalism, that same moment is a marker of memetic spread. The meme has been codified and traveled to further sites. Eliciting a response from Clinton—regardless of what she said—demonstrated the efficacy of the Alt-right: it had made her respond to a frog meme. In this sense, recognizability is key to the spread of the Alt-right brand and pernicious perspective.
Alt-right community building necessarily divides insiders from outsiders. The rhetorical work of the meme is to attract those who can identify with the meme and sow division from outsiders. The first goal is to create an image that might make extremist ideas more palatable to moderate or mainstream individuals. A humorous or often satiric image entices audiences to consider Alt-right claims or to at least spread those viewpoints to others. Memes become the place where Alt-right ideas are noticed and debated—a mode of engagement that mainstreams the advocacies of the far right. Whereas older generations of Nazis, Klansmen, and related far right political viewpoints used rallies, books, or other modes of communication, the Alt-right speaks to gen←13 | 14→eral audiences through memes. As we detail throughout this volume, memes are designed with a host of rhetorical features to prompt identification with the Alt-right. Just as memes draw likeminded folks together, memes can also separate citizens by pitting them against one another. 4chan and reddit meme generators use these images to distinguish themselves from liberals and drive a wedge between liberals and moderate conservatives, sometimes even moderate liberals. Alt-right memes regularly vilify the left as absurd actors who seek the destruction of the country. The ways liberals are depicted by these memes redefine the lines of insiders and outsiders, using memes to delineate a collective identity based on crafting liberals as enemies of the good.
Additionally, 4chan and reddit users deploy memes to anger leftist social media users. As we analyze in chapter five, the goal is to entrench leftist disaffection, to stir a reaction such that the left alienates mainstream voters. Some memes thus anticipate leftist response to shift the grounds of debate such that audiences might focus on the supposed hegemony of left-wing demands. Often, these tactics appropriate formerly leftist tools for this purpose. With the ideological tools of the left now deployed by the right, the left is to be without recourse, to erode their so-called safe spaces. The objective is to reposition the left as the establishment that must be railed against by those who claim to be disenfranchised by a progressive agenda. Such memes have succeeded if they anger liberals to respond with vitriol and outrage. The larger the reaction, the more successful the demonstration.
If scholars are to understand the rise in both publicity and numbers for the Alt-right, we must study its memes and the rhetorical principles they demonstrate. Memes are the gateway to a more vicious advocacy. These images organize the Alt-right and collect adherents who might otherwise consider themselves dissimilar to neo-Nazis. The basic function of a meme is to proliferate, to create fertile ground for this extremism. For the last thirty years, memetic theory has suggested that memes work by spreading virally.52 Memes employ an evolutionary impulse—the goal of the meme is to infect and spread. As Davi Johnson writes, the “meme is self-replicating, at least up to a critical threshold, because the more adopters it infects, the more others will be exposed to it.”53 While a meme can be any viral phenomenon—an idea, a habit, a fashion trend—visual internet memes work by spreading through online networks of distribution. When a meme is seen, retweeted, or shared via social media, it has fulfilled its evolutionary principle. The users of /pol/ and r/the_donald/ understand the basic circulation of memes and employ them to disseminate ideas and invite action.←14 | 15→
Alt-right memes play upon the networks fueling virality. For instance, many meme makers create an image displaying an oppositional stance. Audiences who replicate that image may understand themselves as adopting a renegade perspective—a small part of the defiance that is the Alt-right. It is this resistant posturing that fuels the meme’s ability to spread quickly and reach far. Memes are thus rhetorical images that influence insiders on message forums but, more importantly, are tactically used to convince mainstream audiences to find affinity with far right claims. Given this, scholars must engage with the tactical elements of meme creation and distribution. These images are fashioned with ideas about audience persuasion and adaptation in mind. The goal is to use affective appeals, stretched reasoning, simplistic claims, and other tactics to move audiences toward extreme positions. If these rhetorical appeals are successful in initiating the meme’s circulation, its continued proliferation is more likely. The ultimate result is that the Alt-right attracts a wider audience. By engaging with such rhetorical strategies, scholars might discover the viral force of these images. Memes are not simply heavily circulated images nor ritualistic activities. They are best studied as visual and verbal appeals designed to persuade a broad set of audiences. The rhetorical action of memes is both to normalize and generate devotion to extremism but also to organize and congeal the Alt-right and its modes of publicity.
This book analyzes how Alt-right memes impact public culture by precipitating investment in dangerous ideals and stultifying political discourse. Memes structure and organize the Alt-right as a recognizable group. By announcing the norms and attitudes of the group, memes aid in tabulating an Alt-right collective. The rhetorical actions of memes also help to lure devotees to the Alt-right. Those actors who are attracted to the Alt-right because they have “better memes,” as with Cantwell and others, are radicalized in their political actions or enabled to dissociate themselves from white supremacy or extremism by assuming a playful stance toward it. Additionally, the use of memes to declare and circulate particular claims directs the nature of public discourse. As memes such as Pepe the Frog take center stage in public discourse, the nature of discussion remains bound to extremist claims of white supremacy and more. That is, even if actors (e.g., politicians, journalists) repudiate the claims of the Alt-right, they are nevertheless moored to the Alt-right via the imposition to respond to the assertions and ideas of the collective. Public discourse is thereby stultified, or at least unproductive, when public figures and the people are compelled to respond to memes. As we will discuss in chapters two and four, the massive public attention given to memes←15 | 16→ shifts the focus and flow of public discourse. These memes are capable of radically changing the topics addressed by politicians, journalists, and the public. In these ways, Alt-right memes have both stagnated and directed the nature of discourse within public culture.
Framework of the Book
In this volume, we use rhetorical criticism to understand the ways memes have contributed to the current political climate. Our training in rhetorical criticism enriches contemporary discussion on memes of the Alt-right and on the suasory power of the Alt-right. Although there have been a few scholarly investigations on this topic, there is a dearth of scholarly inquiry on the memes of the Alt-right. Rhetorical analysis supplies a necessary investigation into the principles that fuel the replication and spread of these memes. Specifically, rhetorical analysis illuminates the persuasive mechanisms the Alt-right uses to attract new members and direct public attention and conversation. Memes are not simply one aspect of the Alt-right’s public address, they are the linchpin of the organization and the images provoking proliferation of its messages. Investigation of the specific operations of persuasion and resonance enable us to have a stronger understanding of how the Alt-right has grown, as well as the principles that can be redeployed for new political realities and modes of public discourse.
Our work predominately examines two boards on 4chan and reddit most readily associated with the memes of the Alt-right: 4chan’s /pol/ or politically incorrect and reddit’s r/the_donald/. These forums are not the only ones where memes of the Alt-right are created and circulated, and we may at times discuss other sites and images, including associated boards and journalistic coverage of relevant histories and events. However, the majority of discourses on publicizing the agenda of the Alt-right have emerged from these two sites.54 Focusing on these two boards also allows us to specify the norms and strategies of those interacting, and the tensions entailed. To be sure, the Alt-right is not a cohesive whole. In the same way, users on these boards are not strict ideologues that articulate a singular worldview. There is ample disputation and conversation on what is needed to organize an Alt-right agenda and the best ways to create and circulate memes. Similarly, the nature of discussion on these boards changes quickly such that even public figures of the Alt-right—for instance, Christopher Cantwell who spoke to Vice—are often←16 | 17→ rebuked for their ineffectiveness, even moments after being celebrated. Studying these two boards with nuance and sophistication is our goal. We account for the general discussion and the memes created while we attend in detail to significant objections and opposition. Doing so allows us a stronger sense of the nature of their rhetorical work and the ongoing ways board users respond to changing exigencies.
The time period under consideration spans from mid-2016 and continues into the middle of 2018. Our narrow time span centers the analysis on the actions and events that have enabled the Alt-right to develop a considerable public presence. Foremost among these events is the 2016 election, which witnessed users of 4chan and reddit engaging in a calculated campaign to meme Donald Trump into the White House. We therefore begin our analysis by studying the early memes that marked the Alt-right’s importance and set the tone for how the group and the larger public would come to understand the stakes of such imagery. Our interrogation continues by examining the ongoing significance of memes to the public presence of the Alt-right. We attend to the influence of memes as they appeared on President Trump’s Twitter feed, the memetic generation of the demonstrations in Charlottesville, and a whole host of other moments that indicate a correspondence between memes and the publicity of the Alt-right. In a relatively short time-span, the Alt-right has taken up a considerable amount of space in public discourse. Our investigation follows this explosive moment and grapples with its persistent influence.
To engage with the memes of the Alt-right and their persuasive impact, we employ our training as rhetorical critics. That is, we analyze the suasory principles evident in both the memes proper and the ways rhetorical operations are discussed and debated. Our collection methods follow general protocols for social media research. We study the images themselves, their circulation, and the practices (e.g., imageboard discussions) that give rise to memes.55 We use screen shots and other methods of saving textual data to provide a basis for analysis. When available, we use existing data sets or collect information from the circulation of particular hashtags, images, and the like. Given that the specific content on 4chan and reddit decays very quickly (often within twenty-four hours), our methodology captures relevant information and images such that we may analyze the initial moment of creation (or re-creation) and the image’s afterlife off the board. Given the way data withers on these boards, and the fact that the Alt-right uses a multiplicity of social media to convey messages, we are limited to the data we can digitally←17 | 18→ reap as we engage in on-the-ground research. Yet, our research methods collect data until we reach a point of saturation: when the claims we assert are proven significant through patterns of discourse. Using this data set, we are then able to interrogate the rhetorical principles users espouse as important to the Alt-right production of memes and its agenda more broadly.
Yet, we also employ our rhetorical training to compare and contrast the persuasive intent of users and the actual rhetorical machinations that either impede or effectuate the work of memes. Certainly, not all memes created on /pol/ or r/the_donald/ are viral media that proliferate an Alt-right agenda. Only some memes are capable of being picked up and circulated rapidly for a broad set of audiences and some circulate only internally within certain forums or boards. Even if users attempt to create each meme as a viral phenomenon, not every meme is potent as such. Moreover, just as meme generators insist that their memes work with one particular goal or tactic in mind, that assumption may not materialize in the circulation or uptake of the meme. As such, we analyze the compelling rhetorical functions of these memes—an assessment that may sometimes align with or deviate from the stated intentions of board users. As Edwin Black claimed in 1965, rhetorical judgment does not simply examine the text on its own but in relationship to the interactions between rhetor and audience.56 Given that the rhetorical situation engendered by the circulation of memes may enable a radical interpretation, we must not simply consider a single relationship between rhetor and audience but a multitude of perspectives as related to a meme. Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss have characterized texts that assume a multiplicity of audiences through the concept of “rhetorical velocity,” wherein the assumption of appropriation is key to rhetorical invention.57 In this sense, we employ rhetorical criticism to understand the ways these memes proliferate and the modes of address that allow a successful meme to be appropriated (shared, retweeted) and spread quickly.
The chapters that follow map out the rhetorical strategies at stake in Alt-right memes and how these images structure the agenda and principles of the Alt-right and subsequently, impact public culture. After an initial chapter that lays out the important histories of the digital sites we study and of memes specifically, the remaining chapters attend to the ways memes amplify the Alt-right and embolden its rhetorical finesse. We begin by explaining the role of memetic iconicity in constituting the Alt-right and shaping how this, often haphazard and contentious, group works. The next two chapters explain the messaging strategies of memes outside their digital enclaves such that they←18 | 19→ normalize extreme views. We pay particular attention to the ways these images mark a resistant posturing to interrupt and reposition mainstream values. We then turn to memes that alienate and silence the opposition, such that nearly any response is absurd or ineffectual. We conclude by offering an assessment of what happens to public culture when memes drive political and cultural discussions. Our goal with this arrangement is to follow Alt-right memes from their participatory creation, to their circulation, and conclude by considering the ramifications for these memes for public culture. The advantage of this approach is that it offers a conceptually rich account of the persuasive principles of meme invention and circulation.
To better grasp the radicalization of increasingly substantial portions of the American populace, we must attend to the rhetorical work of memes. Without an understanding of how moderates can be moved to the extreme (and perhaps back again) through the stealthy influence of memes, we cannot predict nor manage what will happen when the next set of propagandists uses memes for their own purposes. If democratic praxis can be radically shifted through the work of these digital images, scholars must begin to take stock of how memes persuade, influence, and entice audiences. We must begin, then, by attempting to understand how these digital sites birthed memes and the ramifications of that origination for the rise of the Alt-right.
1. Kevin Roose, “Political Donors Put Their Money Where the Memes Are,” New York Times, August 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/06/business/media/political-donors-put-their-money-where-the-memes-are.html.
2. Roose, “Political Donors.”
3. Francesca Wallace, “Gucci Just Hired Professional Meme Makers, Are Now Making Memes,” Vogue, March 20, 2017, http://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/news/gucci+memes+brand+hires+professional+meme+makers,42220; Peter A. Berry, “Professional Meme Maker Claims Interscope Hires Him to Help Promote Artists,” XXL Magazine, July 31, 2017, http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2017/07/professional-meme-maker-claims-interscope-hires-him-promote-artists/.
5. Ryan M. Milner and Whitney Phillips, “Dark Magic: The Memes That Made Donald Trump’s Victory,” US Election Analysis 2016, http://www.electionanalysis2016.us/us-election-analysis-2016/section-6-internet/dark-magic-the-memes-that-made-donald-trumps-victory/; Rodney Taveira and Emma Balfour, “How Donald Trump Won the 2016 Meme Wars,” The Conversation, November 29, 2016, http://theconversation.com/how-←19 | 20→donald-trump-won-the-2016-meme-wars-68580; Dawn Chmielewski, “Internet Memes Emerge as 2016 Election’s Political Dog Whistle,” USA Today, September 30, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/09/30/internet-memes-white-house-election-president/91272490/; Alana Levinson, “Meet the ‘Meme Scientists’ Who Tracked This Election’s Crazy Viral Phenomena,” Splinter, November 8, 2016, https://splinternews.com/meet-the-meme-scientists-who-tracked-this-elections-cra-1793863563.
6. Emily van der Nagel and Jordan Frith, “Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and the Agency of Online Identity: Examining the Social Practices of r/Gonewild,” First Monday 20, no. 3 (2015).
8. Tom Whyman, “Why the Right Is Dominating YouTube,” Vice, March 18, 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3dy7vb/why-the-right-is-dominating-youtube.
9. Yochai Benkler et al., “Study: Breitbart-Led Right-Wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 3, 2017, https://www.cjr.org/analysis/breitbart-media-trump-harvard-study.php.
10. Adam Serwer, “It’s Not Easy Being Meme,” The Atlantic, September 13, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/its-not-easy-being-green/499892/.
11. Caroline Simon, “5 Times Donald Trump Has Engaged with Alt-Right Racists on Twitter,” Business Insider, July 9, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-alt-right-2016-7.
13. Garet Williams, “Donald Trump Jr. Is Fanning the Flames of the #CNNBlackmail Story,” Vox, July 5, 2017, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/7/5/15921816/cnn-blackmail-donald-trump-jr-reddit-wrestling-gif-alt-right.
14. Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2017), 12. Nagle’s work has faced charges of plagiarism and sloppy reporting. The limited arguments we use from her have not faced such criticism. See Charles Davis, “Sloppy Sourcing Plagues ‘Kill All Normies’ Alt-Right Book,” The Daily Beast, May 19, 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/kill-all-citations-sloppy-sourcing-plagues-kill-all-normies-book-on-sjws-and-the-alt-right; “5 Big Problems with Kill All Normies,” libcom.org, May 24, 2018, https://libcom.org/blog/5-big-problems-angela-nagle-kill-all-normies-24052018.
15. Nagle, Kill All Normies, 12.
16. Benkler et al., “Study: Breitbart-Led Right-Wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda”; Niko Heikkilä, “Online Antagonism of the Alt-Right in the 2016 Election,” European Journal of American Studies 12, no. 2 (2017).
17. Douglas Haddow, “Meme Warfare: How the Power of Mass Replication Has Poisoned the US Election,” The Guardian, November 4, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/04/political-memes-2016-election-hillary-clinton-donald-trump.
18. Haddow, “Meme Warfare.”
19. Nagle, Kill All Normies, 13.
20. See, for example, Luke Goode, “Anonymous and the Political Ethos of Hacktivism,” Popular Communication 13, no. 1 (2015): 74–86; Vyshali Manivannan, “Attaining the Ninth←20 | 21→ Square: Cybertextuality, Gamification, and Institutional Memory on 4chan,” Enculturation, October 10, 2012, http://enculturation.camden.rutgers.edu/attaining-the-ninth-square; Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2014); Noah Hampson, “Hacktivism: A New Breed of Protest in a Networked World,” SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 2011); Asaf Nissenbaum and Limor Shifman, “Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital: The Case of 4chan’s /b/ Board” New Media & Society 19, no. 4 (2017): 483–501; Nagle, Kill All Normies; Matthew Trammell, “User Investment and Behavior Policing on 4chan,” First Monday 19, no. 2 (2014); Lee Knuttila, “User Unknown: 4chan, Anonymity and Contingency,” First Monday 16, no. 10 (2011); Laine Nooney et al., “One Does Not Simply: An Introduction to the Special Issue on Internet Memes,” Journal of Visual Culture 13, no. 3 (2014): 248–52; Heidi E. Huntington, “Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream: Using Synecdoche and Metaphor to Unlock Internet Memes’ Visual Political Rhetoric,” Communication Studies 67, no. 1 (2016): 77–93; Ryan M. Milner, “Pop Polyvocality: Internet Memes, Public Participation, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement,” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 2357–2390; Akane Kanai, “Sociality and Classification: Reading Gender, Race, and Class in a Humorous Meme,” Social Media + Society 2, no. 4 (2016): 1–12; Limor Shifman, “The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres,” Journal of Visual Culture 13, no. 3 (2014): 340–58; Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, “The Curious Case of Confession Bear: The Reappropriation of Online Macro-Image Memes,” Information, Communication & Society 17, no. 3 (2014): 301–25; Kate M. Miltner, “‘There’s No Place for Lulz on LOLCats’: The Role of Genre, Gender, and Group Identity in the Interpretation and Enjoyment of an Internet Meme,” First Monday 19, no. 8 (2014).
21. See, for example, Yochai Benkler et al., Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Stephanie L. Hartzell, “Alt-White: Conceptualizing the ‘Alt-Right’ as a Rhetorical Bridge between White Nationalism and Mainstream Public Discourse,” Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric 8, no. 3 (2018): 6–25; Kory A. Riemensperger, “Pepe’s Power: Internet Memes, Constitutive Rhetoric, and Political Communities” (MA Thesis, Wake Forest University, 2018); Nagle, Kill All Normies; Matthew N. Lyons and Bromma, Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right (Montreal, Quebec: Left Wing Books, 2017); George Michael, “The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization in America,” Skeptic 22, no. 2 (2017): 9–18; Evan Malmgren, “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” Dissent 64, no. 2 (2017): 9–12; Benita Heiskanen, “Meme-ing Electoral Participation,” European Journal of American Studies 12, no. 2 (2017); Niko Heikkilä, “Online Antagonism of the Alt-Right in the 2016 Election”; Paul Mihailidis and Samantha Viotty, “Spreadable Spectacle in Digital Culture: Civic Expression, Fake News, and the Role of Media Literacies in ‘Post-Fact’ Society,” American Behavioral Scientist 61, no. 4 (2017).
22. Milner and Phillips, “Dark Magic”; Abby Ohlheiser, “‘We Actually Elected a Meme as President’: How 4chan Celebrated Trump’s Victory,” Washington Post, November 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/11/09/we-actually-elected-a-meme-as-president-how-4chan-celebrated-trumps-victory/; Schreckinger, “World War Meme”; Haddow, “Meme Warfare: How the Power of Mass Replication Has Poisoned the←21 | 22→ US Election”; Paul Spencer, “Trump’s Occult Online Supporters Believe ‘Meme Magic’ Got Him Elected,” Motherboard, November 18, 2016, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/pgkx7g/trumps-occult-online-supporters-believe-pepe-meme-magic-got-him-elected.
23. See, for example, Dale Beran, “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump,” Medium, February 14, 2017, https://medium.com/@DaleBeran/4chan-the-skeleton-key-to-the-rise-of-trump-624e7cb798cb; Sophia A. McClennan, “Forget Fake News—Alt-Right Memes Could Do More Damage to Democracy,” Salon, July 8, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2017/07/08/forget-fake-news-alt-right-memes-could-do-more-damage-to-democracy/; Heikkilä, “Online Antagonism of the Alt-Right in the 2016 Election.”
24. Whitney Phillips, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 126.
25. Huntington, “Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream”; Jack Bratich, “Occupy All the Dispositifs: Memes, Media Ecologies, and Emergent Bodies Politic,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (2014): 64–73.
26. Ryan M. Milner, The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).
27. Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, 26.
28. Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, 56.
29. Eric S. Jenkins, “The Modes of Visual Rhetoric: Circulating Memes as Expressions,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 100, no. 4 (2014): 462.
30. Milner, The World Made Meme, 217; Heather Suzanne Woods and James Alexander McVey, “#BlackLivesMatter as A Case Study in the Politics of Digital Media: Algorithms, Hashtag Publics, and Organizing Protest Online,” Teaching Media Quarterly 4, no. 1 (2016).
31. Leslie A. Hahner, “The Riot Kiss: Framing Memes as Visual Argument,” Argumentation and Advocacy 49, no. 3 (2013): 151–67; Huntington, “Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream”; Bratich, “Occupy All the Dispositifs.”
32. Heather Suzanne Woods, “Anonymous, Steubenville, and the Politics of Visibility: Questions of Virality and Exposure in the Case of #OpRollRedRoll and #OccupySteubenville,” Feminist Media Studies 14, no. 6 (2014): 1096–98; James Alexander McVey and Heather Suzanne Woods, “Anti-Racist Activism and the Transformational Principles of Hashtag Publics: From #HandsUpDontShoot to #PantsUpDontLoot,” Present Tense 5, no. 3 (2016).
33. Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, 128; W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, The Logic of Connective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
34. Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, 100.
35. Carl Chen, “The Creation and Meaning of Internet Memes in 4chan: Popular Internet Culture in the Age of Online Digital Reproduction,” Habitus 3, no. 1 (2013): 15.
36. Noam Gal, Limor Shifman, and Zohar Kampf, “‘It Gets Better’: Internet Memes and the Construction of Collective Identity,” New Media & Society, 18, no. 8 (2016): 1698–1714; Ryan M. Milner, “FCJ-156 Hacking the Social: Internet Memes, Identity Antagonism, and the Logic of Lulz,” The Fibreculture Journal 22 (2013): 62–92; Ryan M. Milner, “Media Lingua Franca: Fixity, Novelty, and Vernacular Creativity in Internet Memes,” AoIR←22 | 23→ Selected Papers of Internet Research 3 (2013); Milner, “Pop Polyvocality”; Bennett and Segerberg, The Logic of Connective Action; Paolo Gerbaudo and Emiliano Treré, “In Search of the ‘We’ of Social Media Activism: Introduction to the Special Issue on Social Media and Protest Identities,” Information, Communication & Society 18, no. 8 (2015): 865–71; Paolo Gerbaudo, “Protest Avatars as Memetic Signifiers: Political Profile Pictures and the Construction of Collective Identity on Social Media in the 2011 Protest Wave,” Information, Communication & Society 18, no. 8 (2015): 916–29.
37. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 26.
38. Nathan Rambukkana, “#Introduction: Hashtags as Technosocial Events,” in Hashtag Publics: The Power and Politics of Discursive Networks, ed. Nathan Rambukkana (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 2.
39. Nissenbaum and Shifman, “Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital,” 485.
40. Kelly Bergstrom, “‘Don’t Feed the Troll’: Shutting down Debate about Community Expectations on Reddit.Com,” First Monday 16, no. 8 (2011); Benjamin D. Horne, Sibel Adali, and Sujoy Sikdar, “Identifying the Social Signals That Drive Online Discussions: A Case Study of Reddit Communities,” arXiv, May 7, 2017, https://arxiv.org/abs/1705.02673; James Meese, “‘It Belongs to the Internet’: Animal Images, Attribution Norms and the Politics of Amateur Media Production,” M/C Journal 17, no. 2 (2014); Noam Gal, Limor Shifman, and Zohar Kampf, “‘It Gets Better;’” Kanai, “Sociality and Classification;” Trammell, “User Investment and Behavior Policing on 4chan.”
41. Kevin Howley, “‘I Have a Drone’: Internet Memes and the Politics of Culture,” Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture 7, no. 2 (2016): 155–75; Najma Al Zidjaly, “Memes as Reasonably Hostile Laments: A Discourse Analysis of Political Dissent in Oman,” Discourse & Society 28, no. 6 (2017): 573–94; Bratich, “Occupy All the Dispositifs”; Vickery, “The Curious Case of Confession Bear.”
42. Nissenbaum and Shifman, “Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital”; Milner, “Media Lingua Franca.”
43. Milner, “There’s No Place for Lulz on LOLCats.”
44. Bennett and Segerberg, The Logic of Connective Action; Miltner, “There’s No Place for Lulz on LOLCats”; Shifman, “The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres”; Bradley E. Wiggins and G. Bret Bowers, “Memes as Genre: A Structurational Analysis of the Memescape,” New Media & Society 17, no. 11 (2015): 1886–1906.
45. Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (New York: Verso, 2015).
47. Vice, Charlottesville: Race and Terror.
48. Vice, Charlottesville: Race and Terror.
49. Christopher Cantwell, “Radical Agenda EP331 – Naming the Hate,” Christopher Cantwell, July 19, 2017, https://christophercantwell.com/2017/07/19/radical-agenda-ep331-naming-hate/.←23 | 24→
50. Max Londberg, “White Supremacist in Charlottesville, Va., Says He ‘Just Came Here for the Fun,’” Kansas City Star, August 16, 2017, http://www.kansascity.com/news/nation-world/article167641112.html.
51. C. J. Hunt, “A Charlottesville White Supremacist Stripped Down to Escape Protesters and We Got It on Video,” GQ, August 16, 2017, https://www.gq.com/story/charlottesville-white-supremacist-strips-to-escape-protestors.
52. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford Landmark Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
53. Davi Johnson, “Mapping the Meme: A Geographical Approach to Materialist Rhetorical Criticism,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4, no. 1 (2007): 42.
55. Martin Hand, “Visuality in Social Media: Researching Images, Circulation and Practices,” in The Sage Handbook of Social Media Research Methods, ed. Luke Sloan and Anabel Quan-Haase (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2017), 215–31.
56. Edwin Black, Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1978), 62.
57. Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery,” Kairos 13, no. 2 (2009).←24 | 25→
In spring of 2016, Politico Magazine published an essay entitled “World War Meme.” In it, author Ben Schreckinger describes the power of the meme to sway the election for the highest office in the United States: that of the presidency. “There is no real evidence that memes won the election,” Shreckinger writes, “but there is little question they changed its tone, especially in the fast-moving and influential currents of social media.”1 Yet, before memes even reached social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, many of them were created in enclaved websites. These websites, including 4chan and reddit, were memetic laboratories where users would experiment with persuasive memetic texts and later unleash some on the world. For many meme generators in these locales, the Great Meme War would unseat the liberal Democratic Party and install a new conservative, populist leader in its place. As Schreckinger puts it,
The fighters in the Great Meme War took their intimate knowledge of this ecosystem and weaponized it, genetically engineering pro-Trump and anti-Clinton supermemes they designed to gain as much mainstream traction as possible. The staging ground was an anonymous message board called “/pol/”—the “politically incorrect” section of 4Chan, which was founded in 2003 to host discussions about anime and has since evolved into a malignant hive mind with vast influence over online culture.2←25 | 26→
The Great Meme War was fought in many theatres, both online and offline. The initial weapons—ideologically charged memes—were produced in counterpublic enclaves and then disseminated rapidly to the masses.3 During the 2016 election, memes fashioned on these sites travelled rapidly and widely across multiple platforms, bringing with them pointed political messages about hot-button issues such as immigration, health-care reform, and civil rights in America. Ultimately, these memes became weaponized by the Alt-right who continued to deploy them long after the election.
The circulation of memes both in and outside these sites is a rhetorical phenomenon worthy of serious scholarly inquiry, in part because memes were one of the most significant rhetorical forms of the 2016 election cycle. These images have retained their significance in the months following. To investigate the influence of memes, we must analyze the places from which they emanate. Against those who would characterize 4chan and reddit as chaotic free-for-alls where anything goes, we treat them as sites of purposeful, rhetorical innovation. This chapter explores the history of 4chan and reddit and provides a roadmap for grasping the creation and proliferation of memes within these and other digital sites. The chapter lays out the chronological development of 4chan and reddit as networked sites influential to public culture, and in particular, to the development of Alt-right memes. It proceeds in three parts. In part one, we begin by introducing 4chan, the website most (in)famous for spawning the hacktivist collective Anonymous and now well-circulated memes such as LOLCats. We examine how 4chan’s inventional functions helped birth Alt-right memes. In part two, we describe the rise of social news aggregator site reddit that similarly played a role in the growth of Alt-right imagery. Although each of these websites is distinct, they share several structural characteristics that predispose their utility as so-called meme factories. Both reddit and 4chan thrive off of the anonymity/pseudonymity requisite of the sites, serve simultaneously as producers, hosts, and disseminators of memetic content, and constantly negotiate an ambivalent, antagonistic relationship with the public sphere. In the third part of the chapter, we outline our approach to memes as rhetorical artifacts that are both cultural products and productive of culture. We conclude by describing how memes transition from pithy internet jokes to tactical persuasive messages, a topic that receives more extensive treatment in chapter four.←26 | 27→
4chan: A Site of Enclaved Rhetorical Invention
Sometimes called the “rude, raunchy underbelly of the internet,” 4chan is a web-based community where public culture is produced and negotiated, in large part through the creation and dissemination of memes.4 Memes function as a shared vernacular for users. Adroit use of memetic content demonstrates in-group status.5 Memes also serve as the symbolic apparatus from which shared culture is managed. While we focus our analysis in this book on the sub-board /pol/ as the site of memetic creation and imitation, it’s worth outlining fundamental characteristics of 4chan because it structurally predisposes certain types of posts—and therefore certain modes of communication—over others. In particular, the simple format of the website combined with its status as an imageboard facilitates the development of memes, which serve a multitude of functions, including internal information transmission, communication of one’s insider status, and the dissemination of 4chan culture beyond the boards themselves.
4chan is an imageboard, divided into some 70 sub-boards, each with a different focus, community, and set of formal and informal rules. With the exception of a landing page linking to rules, FAQs, and information for the press, these boards comprise the entirety of the public face of the website. In part because of their topical orientation, the boards all inflect a different set of communication standards. The boards’ names are linked to an associated URL, demarcated by a forward slash and an abbreviation of the name of the board. For instance, /co/ (or, URL 4chan.org/co/) is for the discussion of comic books; /pol/ stands for “Politically Incorrect,” where 4chan users discuss politics; and /b/, which stands for “random,” is the part of 4chan often described as the place where “anything goes” (e.g., where other boards send trolls and other troublemakers to perform their various mischief). Users may access these sub-boards one of two ways, either by directly linking to them through a URL, or by clicking through a hyperlinked menu displayed at the top of website.
The design of 4chan imageboards can best be described as stark simplicity: the website has few bells and whistles.6 On the boards, the image is presumed a superior mode of communication; while text does constitute a significant portion of the communicative exchange that occurs on 4chan, oftentimes users will post images (either related or unrelated) to accompany their text. The original poster—more colloquially and somewhat disparagingly known as “OP”—begins a chain of posts. 4chan users may reply to the post, creating←27 | 28→ a chronological thread in response to OP. Importantly, these posts live or die based on user engagement; the boards are set to feature the most engaging posts at the top of the front page of each board. Those posts that see little to no action are algorithmically bumped off the front page. Although users have the ability to navigate to later pages, posts or threads that exist beyond the first and second pages are functionally ghost-towns. Unless they are revitalized through users posting, they slide down more pages and effectively disappear.
On 4chan, nothing good (or bad) can ever truly stay on the boards. Posts functionally vanish after a significant lack of engagement, demonstrating what scholars and cultural commentators have elsewhere called the “ephemerality” and “impermanence” of the site.7 While this design feature promotes lively communication for users, the structural prioritization of some threads over others as well as the non-static nature of the site poses a problem for scholars wishing to outline a conclusive history of the imageboards. As Whitney Phillips and others have noted, due to the ephemeral nature of the site, a thorough, complete history of 4chan is difficult—if not impossible—to report.8
We do not attempt to construct a complete history of 4chan, but instead focus on the site’s relationship to public culture. We do draw upon those histories that have been pieced together via informal documentation on encyclopedic sites such as Wikipedia and Know Your Meme.9 We also employ scholarly work on 4chan and our own participant observation. Because we are interested in tracing how memes move from enclaved spaces such as 4chan, we choose to use a chronological approach to document events that have shaped the culture of 4chan since its initial development, focusing on events that molded 4chan boards as cultures and content creators. We also highlight moments in the imageboard’s history when the community’s content spilled beyond its gate-kept walls. As we will show, these moments of rupture also demonstrate how the site functions as integral to meme creation and dissemination. We do not mean to suggest that this is the sole history relevant to this site. We choose to accent particular events because they reveal two important characteristics about the website: first, that the site is a complex network and, second, that the networked nature of the site encourages content produced on the platform to disseminate beyond it. By network, we mean that 4chan exists alongside and interdependent with other content-producing and -disseminating websites, and that these websites are nodal points within a web of information flows. Moreover, these websites are connected through (and sometimes against) varying degrees of publicity and counterpublicity that characterize←28 | 29→ their user base. Ultimately, our timeline demonstrates the rhetorical valence of 4chan in public culture by showcasing how this site has continually grappled with its influences, and a series of increasingly sophisticated attempts to harness 4chan’s memetic capacity outward.
Like its current manifestation, 4chan’s beginning was heavily networked, facilitated by the transition of users from other sites to the newly formed imageboard. There is some debate as to the precise date of 4chan’s creation. Some scholars suggest that 4chan was created in 2004.10 Phillips, on the other hand, argues that 4chan was introduced a year earlier, in 2003, by a teenaged Christopher Poole, known elsewhere on the internet by his pseudonym “moot.”11 Know Your Meme and Wikipedia support Phillips’ claim, maintaining that moot envisioned a simple imageboard that would serve as an English-speaking version of Japanese imageboards.12 Poole, an avid anime fan, developed the simple imageboard modeling sites such as Futaba Channel (or 2chan), where users could discuss anime, manga, and a variety of other topics.13 Like Futaba, 4chan revolves around the sharing of images and also features discussion boards siloed according to topic. In this way, 4chan is a product of a specific genre of internet sub-culture. The site shares distinctive design and cultural features with both Futaba and Something Awful, another predecessor that appears to have influenced 4chan’s aesthetic and cultural feel.
Prior to its creation, Poole was a frequent user of an influential, comedic website called Something Awful (SA), which preceded 4chan’s development by 15 years.14 SA emerged in 1999 and became one of the original sites where internet culture was fashioned and propagated.15 Moot frequented the site, which, in addition to boasting comedic content, had forums where sub-communities developed and mischief was planned. It is highly likely that SA impacted the structure of 4chan, which both extended and pivoted away from SA.16 It is significant that many of 4chan’s initial users came from SA, as this rambunctious site likely played a key role in 4chan as a site for trolling and activity that has been referred to as the “lulz.” SA was home to some of the earliest internet memes, including the now well-established meme “All your base are belong to us,” a phrase and phenomenon drawing attention to the poor translation of a phrase from non-English languages to English.17 SA, like 4chan and reddit after it, is known for producing highly influential content (that content would now be considered viral). The construction of the forums and users’ engagement within them creates the cultural conditions necessary to design internal memes and then radiate them outward to wider publics. Like 4chan, SA’s reputation as a “meme factory” relies on its members’ en←29 | 30→gagement, and in particular, their innovative use of popular culture to fashion sticky content for external broadcast.18
According to internet lore, 4chan’s creator moot belonged to a SA subforum community quite descriptively called “Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse” or ADTRW. One SA internet historian describes ADTRW as a place to keep unwelcome subthreads.19 The author suggests that the forum was not created “until a certain group posts a lot of threads about the same stupid shit that we give them their own forum. Then we hope and pray they all post there and stay the hell away from us normals.”20 As this description and the name of the forum suggest, ADTRW was a space not only for discussing anime, but for joyfully flaming and trolling in community with other like-minded flamers and trolls. ADTRW’s enclaved status is central to its (im)proper functioning on SA. A place to keep “a certain group” “the hell away from us normals,” ADTRW’s inherent alterity served as a perfect entry point for moot’s 4chan, which became an enclaved site set aside from the rest of the internet for board users to discuss things in peace using their own discursive norms and cultural practices. 4chan began as a “content overflow site” for material produced on ADTRW, and grew from there.21
4chan speaks to diverse enclaved publics. While the board began as a site for discussing Japanese anime, 4chan quickly expanded to its present seventy boards, each with a different focus of conversation. The wide range of topics abets its popularity, attracting users to the site in the thousands. As Lee Knuttila notes, “the user base has grown from a small community of site creator Christopher Poole’s friends to a massive collective of nearly 18 million unique site visitors with over 730 million page views a month.”22 The website is a well-trafficked and quite productive corner of the internet. Phillips, citing data provided by moot, states that “the site is host to 60,000 overall users at any given moment and 10,000 on the front page of /b/ alone.”23 Those users create and recycle significant content, including posts, images, and, of course, memes. Tim Bavlnka points out that “As of February 1, 2013, 4chan has accumulated 1,149,144,201 total posts and over 100 gigabytes of content.”24 For this, Bavlnka hails 4chan as “one of the largest and most notorious Internet communities.”25 At the time of this writing, 4chan’s FAQ page claimed that the website “serve[s] more than 100 terabytes of data per day, and over 680 million pageviews to more than 22 million unique visitors per month.”26 For a majority of the time since its birth, the website remained notorious and largely separate from the rest of the internet. However, every so often, content would spill from the boards into the greater digital public sphere.←30 | 31→
Perhaps the most popular meme to emerge from 4chan to mainstream discourse is “LOLCats,” elsewhere known as “cat macros,” featuring cats in funny poses overlaid by white text captions. For Limor Shifman, LOLCat memes are an exemplar of what she calls an “egalitarian meme,” or a widespread meme with no discernible “founding” image and one that leans on a template or associated genre.27 Before LOLCats had broad cultural appeal, widespread distribution, and their own website, “I Can Haz Cheezburger,” LOLCats were exchanged on 4chan on Saturdays, also known as Caturday. Caturday is a ritual practice of posting funny images of cats, especially LOLCats, on 4chan, and in particular, on /b/.
LOLCats highlights the importance of trolling as a cultural norm on 4chan. According to Know Your Meme, the rise of Caturday as an internal cultural phenomenon on 4chan’s /b/ occurred sometime in the middle of the aughts, with 4chan users participating in Caturday in 2006.28 The popular website I Can Haz Cheezburger first began publishing LOLCat memes in 2007.29 As Phillips notes, the birth of LOLCats is inextricably tied to 4chan and the trolling culture endemic to it. She contends that “a significant percentage of popular memes… originated within or amplified by subcultural trolls, particularly those associated with 4chan’s /b/ board. In fact, the act of trolling and the act of making memes were so interconnected during this period that the existence of memes on a given page or forum almost guaranteed that trolling had been afoot.”30 Trolling helped define the culture of the group and developed evolving standards by which memes were seen as effective. Caturday, for instance, shared relevant content as well as funny pictures of cats. As memes developed, a vernacular appropriate to Caturday emerged. Users could perform their membership in the enclave by appropriately using the vernacular, which was a humorous approach to broken English. Building on the trolling culture of the site, 4chan users who deviated too far from the accepted language of the intertextual artifact would be shamed and told to “lurk moar” rather than actively post content. Caturday remains an important tradition on 4chan, although its luster has dulled because so-called normies have hijacked (and, later corporatized) the once sacred text used to determine belonging on the boards.
As the LOLCats meme moved to the mainstream, it became a resource for building public culture beyond 4chan. Although Shifman notes that “to produce and understand LOLCats, users need to master LOLspeak,” the wide-spread dissemination of LOLCats enabled more opportunities for non-fluent LOLlinguists to participate in building the meme.31 Moreover, because the←31 | 32→ meme requires a specific format, and because no one owns the particular image upon which the meme is based, LOLCats spreads quickly and to more popular audiences, who, modeling the basic structure of the meme, can participate in constructing new memes, propagating them further. This effect has been documented by Phillips, who describes “waves of corporate encroachment” on meme culture, as well as “the mainstreaming of the web” that “resulted in a dizzying influx of novice users.”32 The effects of this circulation were two-fold. On one hand, newbie normies wrested a prized cultural tradition from the reclusive, exclusive 4chan communities, issuing the meme beyond the reproach of its initial creators. On the other hand, new users propagated 4chanian form and content outward, where counter-cultural ideas could become mainstream.
The LOLCats meme template is a prime example of how material that begins on enclaved sites such as 4chan and reddit are transmitted outward, often with mixed feelings for board users. Since their initial development and circulation, scholars have described LOLCats as one of the oldest internet memes and as one of the “most popular and enduring.”33 LOLCats have become so ingrained in the internet cultural milieu that they are imminently recognizable for many people on the internet. Miltner describes the “cultural resonance” of the LOLCat memes and their later iterations, which have led to corporate product spinoffs, including a TV show and a Bible translation.34 The diffusion of LOLCats to outsiders was met with ambivalence by users on the boards. Of course, memes by nature propagate. As more and different types of users interact with and share the meme, both the meme itself and the content contained within it are more widely distributed. The influence of the meme increases, and along with it, its rhetorical significance and power. Yet, Caturday began as a ritual process of belonging and culture-building for those endemic to the enclaved site of 4chan. Moreover, deft use of the meme was a sign that users understood the culture and language of the site enough to create content to reproduce the culture. If 4chan users were displeased when a novice user bumbled the cat macro, widespread popular misuse by normies off the site was unforgivable. The popularity of LOLCats demonstrates the antagonism and ambivalence of 4chan’s networked status as well as its role as a producer of content for the mainstream. Caturday is not the only mimetic content to slip from the counterpublic to general publicity, to the chagrin of some 4chan users.←32 | 33→
Anonymous and Networked Influence
To grasp the rhetorical tactics of 4chan users, it is important to attend to the actions of the hacker group that was spawned, in part, from this site. The ambivalence and hostility often expressed by Alt-right members can be indexed by analyzing an earlier 4chan collective: Anonymous. In early 2008, Anonymous emerged from the internet ether as a formidable assemblage willing and able to take on major targets.35 Anonymous is a decentralized group of human and non-human agents whose primary function is to agitate, and at times, to advocate for causes agreed upon—at least temporarily—by the collective. Notoriously elusive by virtue of its anonymity, “Anonymous resists straightforward definition as it is a name currently called into being to coordinate a range of disconnected actions, from trolling to political protests.”36 Bolstered by the anonymity encouraged by the boards of 4chan, varying masses of individual 4chan users, dubbed “anons” would use the site as a counterpublic enclave for stirring up trouble. Often, trouble would take the form of an antagonistic attack, or “raids” for which the site became (in)famous. These raids were a performance of shared collectivity, often leveraging the affordances of the site against significant targets. Success required users to band together to participate in any one particular action. Large raids drew more firepower from 4chan’s “anons.” However, bigger raids also meant more publicity and visibility on the boards. Though increased visibility lends legitimacy to the raids, increased attention also involves more risks for anons.
One of the first targeted, political raids that captured public scrutiny was called Project Chanology, a response to a promotional video shot by the Church of Scientology.37 The video had been leaked and became available for public viewing. The 2008 video depicted an incoherent Tom Cruise waxing poetic about the virtues of Scientology. In the video, Cruise issues statements that are nonsensical and unclear at best, including sentences that are missing parts of speech.38 Overall, it was an embarrassing video for Scientologists, prompting Wired to call it a “heaven-sent extra helping of the weirdness [of] Tom Cruise” for “wiseasses” looking for a chuckle.39 The Church of Scientology worked quickly to rectify the humiliating situation, issuing numerous copyright violation claims to force video hosting sites to take it down for a brief period of time.
The quick removal of the Cruise video did not sit well with a particular group of internet denizens who found the video intensely amusing and the rapid takedown of said video unamusing. Anonymous, whose amorphous but technology-forward actions tends toward a libertarian ethics of free speech and←33 | 34→ circulation, responded with pranksterish vitriol.40 The Church of Scientology answered with similar causticity, calling anons terrorists and threatening legal action. Anonymous reacted with a dual attack on the Church’s physical and digital locales. In an impressive assemblage of agitational rhetoric, Anons pranked the Church of Scientology with phone calls, all-black faxes, and unwanted pizza deliveries.41 Anons also took to the streets in protest of the church.42 The church countered by calling Anonymous religious bigots and cyber terrorists and again, leveraging lawsuits.43 The actions garnered media attention for each attack and counterattack. Project Chanology demonstrated that given an appropriate target, users from 4chan could be convinced to work together toward a particular end. Its success recruited more anons and prompted more raids for Anonymous.44
But 4chan users—the original anons—expressed ambivalence about the collective’s newfound popularity and protest-based action.45 As Gabriella Coleman notes, “Homeostasis is not, exactly, the preferred state of Anonymous—certainly not before Chanology, and definitely not after.”46 Some saw the trolling actions of Anonymous to be a direct extension of the cultural capacities of the site. Others saw the publicity tactics of Anonymous as a rejection of the anonymity of the site and a move toward incorporating the enclave into the mainstream.47 Since much of 4chan’s cultural ethos opposes mainstream forms of communication in favor of subcultural activity, Anonymous’ success may have been read as a blow to the very heart of 4chan itself. Adding insult to injury, Anonymous eschewed typical characteristics of a movement. As a decentered, supposedly leaderless consortium of individuals whose roster changed with every operation, Anonymous was difficult for the public to understand.48 Those intrigued by Anonymous’ actions tried to comprehend Anonymous by grappling with the place where it originated. As a result, a bright and oftentimes unforgiving light was shown on 4chan—a community of people defined by their alterity. These types of investigations rarely portrayed 4chan or Anonymous with accuracy.49 For these reasons, reports such as these were perceived as an attack on 4chan by normies who just didn’t get it. Already somewhat militant, disgruntled, and reclusive, some 4chan users responded by turning even more inward to the site itself.
Understanding the networked structures of Anonymous is key for the work of some 4chan boards, especially in the ways users engage the deliberative process to create collective action and invent novel methods of redress. The memetic creation we analyze leading into the 2016 election and beyond is indebted to this history. Tactical online actions are empowered by the structure←34 | 35→ of the site and the values of many users on the boards, who are often antagonistic to the mainstream. The more users who participate in collective action, the greater the tactical force of the whole in terms of garnering publicity and emboldening the work of others. But, these campaigns are often misunderstood by outsiders who tend to demonize the site and all users by painting them with a single brush.50 Similar modes of invention and action emerged from reddit. Yet, while this site shows affinities with the modes of communication on 4chan, it is also unique in its history and norms of dialogue.
Reddit as Meme Factory: More Than a News Aggregator
Reddit entered into a crowded media landscape in 2005, just two years after 4chan was founded. The site followed closely on the heels of popular platforms Facebook and Digg, each of which launched in 2004. Twitter would premier just a year after reddit began amassing users. In the early years, reddit was a small community featuring few forums, known on the site as “subreddits.” Then, just three years after its founding, reddit experienced a veritable explosion of new subreddits developed on the site. Now the 7th biggest website in the US, overtaking similar news aggregation sites such as Digg, reddit invites users to actively participate in the community-driven subreddits for which the site is known.51 Like 4chan, reddit users produce massive amounts of content. Recent reports suggest that the 240 million monthly active users of reddit compose well over 300,000 posts each day.52
Much like 4chan, reddit is a heterogeneous collective, with a relatively diverse community (in interest or affinity, if not in identity). As a networked site where content flows from numerous external sources, a multitude of publics form, at once coalescing around and creating discourse specific to the reddit community. As such, there is likely to be heterogeneous opinions within subreddits and on the site as a whole. At times, the communities demonstrate antagonism against one another.53 Other times, the communities band together in rejection of the established leadership. For instance, 2015 saw the reddit “blackout,” in which hundreds of subreddits were effectively taken offline in protest of administrative changes at reddit.54 Nevertheless, there are structural and affinity-based aspects of the site that bear consideration in understanding how the patterns of communication therein impact the culture of subreddits and a broader public culture.←35 | 36→
A social news aggregator site, reddit relies upon user participation in the form of content sharing and upvoting or downvoting of content. Similar to 4chan, user engagement correlates with popularity, and downvoted content is bumped farther down the forum until it eventually reaches relative obscurity. Unlike 4chan, which assumes anonymity as the standard, reddit operates on a pseudonymous model, wherein users pick a name during account creation and can then acquire “karma,” a sign of status in the community.55 Users may operate under many pseudonyms. Since signing up for reddit requires very little information, one can also create a “burner,” or throw-away reddit account, and use it for a very short period of time, or intermittently. Those who create, manage, and use the site suggest that reddit’s pseudonymity allows people to express themselves more freely than other websites that require one’s “real” name (Facebook and Google are examples of websites that require users to use one account under a legitimate name). Reddit, colloquially known as “the front page of the internet,” has experienced significant success despite controversy both inside and outside of the company.
The site was developed by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, who met at the University of Virginia. Huffman, a computer scientist and engineer, and Ohanian, an entrepreneur, sold the company quickly after its launch. In 2006, Condè Nast—the mass media company that manages more than twenty magazines including Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Wired, and ars technica—acquired the company. While the specifics of the deal are not clear, the New York Times reported that Condè Nast exchanged some $20 million dollars for the site.56 The sale of reddit to Condè Nast was met with some ambivalence by both reddit users as well as Huffman and Ohanian; Ohanian sometimes expressed regret about selling the company so early but also celebrated its purchase. In a Bloomberg interview with Huffman and Ohanian, Huffman noted that, upon reflection, “I’m not actually certain reddit would have survived…without” the acquisition by Condè Nast, which, Huffman later argued, helped transition reddit to a viable company.57 Huffman and Ohanian enjoyed significant privileges after the acquisition, remaining with the company for three years after the sale. For some, however, the acquisition began a long downslide into corporatism that muddied the ethos of “community” for which the site was known.
In 2011, reddit was “spun off” as an independent subsidiary run by Condè Nast’s parent company, Advanced Publications.58 By most accounts, Advanced Publications used a laissez-faire approach to operations, prompting Ohanian, who remained on the board of reddit, to suggest that “For the most←36 | 37→ part, we were given a ludicrous level of autonomy.”59 The changes that were made by Advanced Publications appeared largely managerial. Then, in 2012, reddit returned to “truly a private, independent company after receiving outside investment.”60 During this time, Yishan Wong took over the position of CEO in 2012, a position he would hold for two years. Wong began his tenure as CEO as reddit began to gain its footing on an international stage.
Some five years after its launch, reddit experienced dramatic growth, cementing itself as a site where publics formed based on interest or affinity. The explosion of subreddits in early 2008 and 2009, evidenced both a glut of new users and attracted a massive number of digitally savvy audiences to engage with that new content, both on and off the site, for good and for ill.61 In 2010, users organized the first global meet up day, in which those who had known each other online met in person, perhaps for the first time.62 This trend would continue in the following years. In early 2011, reddit celebrated a major milestone: February witnessed the first time the site had reached over a billion page views per month.63 “There are only about 100 sites on the entire Internet that get a billion pageviews in a single month, and now reddit can put on its smoking jacket and join that exclusive club,” a reddit announcement read.64 Several months later, reddit nearly doubled that number, jumping to 1.8 billion pageviews per month in October. October also saw reddit overcome Twitter in unique monthly visitors by some 28 million users.65
The material structure and layout of reddit holds rhetorical consequences because it implies who and what may be part of the reddit community. The affordances of reddit’s design aesthetic are also its limitations. That is, to an outsider, reddit’s design may appear obtuse. Yet its design aesthetic conveys important messages about what reddit values: namely, the production of content and the communities that make that production possible. Simultaneously both austere and a little cluttered, reddit is similar to 4chan in that the website is quite simple in its design: a header full of links to subreddits (subcommunities organized by interest or affinity), a long list of blue-links with associated up/down voting arrows, and a few basic ads or internal announcements across the top and sides of the website. For the uninitiated (or for those who are used to interacting with richly developed websites), reddit may appear both impenetrable and unwelcoming: a wall of blue text and symbols that, while perhaps intuitive to some, may alienate others. Indeed, the user experience on reddit has been compared to “peering into a bowl of spaghetti.”66 Once a would-be user moves beyond the barebones aesthetics (described by the same tech commentator as having “all the graphic appeal of Craigslist, which is to←37 | 38→ say, not much”), they access what users describe as a community of communities, all organized according to interest.67 Here, users’ “empirical” or offline identity comes second, if it is ever revealed at all.68 Reddit spokesperson Anne Soellner has described it as a place where people are organized “around passion points” rather than “around your personal identity.”69 The identity of the community—rather than the individual—is foregrounded. As such, each of these communities may modify the aesthetic features of the site with static images and headers even as the overall vibe of the site remains the same.
From a rhetorical perspective, reddit’s aesthetic simplicity serves several functions, the most visible of which is prompting the user to engage with the content rather than the site itself. Reddit leadership sees the site as a “platform” to facilitate engagement among users rather than a “publisher,” which disseminates content in a top-down way.70 The structure of the site is subtly persuasive; the argument forwarded by the design aesthetic is that the site is simply a host for the conversations that happen on it. Responsibility for the content on the site, the communication that happens with it, and the communities that form as a result, remains with users who actively create reddit. Framing reddit as an egalitarian platform where users determine content and culture is not only a branding move, but one that affords reddit’s leadership a laissez-faire relationship with some of the more offensive content to be found on reddit. Moreover, this rhetorical framing-cum-design aesthetic gels well with the founders’ and administrators’ hands-off approach to the website. Reddit has notoriously sidestepped the question of regulating content found on the site, preferring instead to have communities (and the moderators who oversee them, sometimes several at a time) set the parameters for community engagement. As Soellner notes, “each community can govern that community itself, so that they have much stricter rules or no rules at all. They can govern rules such as speech or how users to relate to one another.”71 Users are responsible for moderating both content and their reaction to it. Co-founder and CEO Huffman notes that “Our mission is to make reddit as welcoming as possible….There’s a lot of work we’re doing…connecting people with their home on reddit.”72 Although Huffman here espouses inclusion, the logic of this argument tacitly condones toxic cultures. Moreover, the implicit warrant of Soellner’s message is this: if users find content offensive, then they should locate their communities elsewhere. Additionally, the rhetorical pivot away from “publisher” to “platform” alters the legal responsibility of reddit: whereas publishers may be responsible for the content “published” on their sites, “plat←38 | 39→forms” have a more libertarian ethos, providing cover when content becomes offensive, violent, or otherwise problematic.
Reddit’s leaders and administrators also argue that the site serves as a neutral space where users may communicate and create culture without technical or functional impediments. For instance, Huffman has noted that “Reddit is very much a reflection of humanity,”73 a statement that both praises reddit as a site for community-making and shields it from criticism when a community provokes, offends, or astounds. Recent events—including the 2016 election—suggest that Huffman’s claim about the “reflective” status of reddit is empirically true, insofar as trends, debates, and even movements that occur “IRL” and off the forums eventually end up on forums such as reddit. From this perspective, the website, which at times functions as a revealing mirror for society, cannot remain immune to larger culture wars. In the early ’10s, a number of ultra-conservative interests resulted in the formation of new forums. Alongside the rise of the manosphere, a growing network of men’s rights users and sites, the growth of the Tea Party, and, perhaps goaded by the Great Recession, far right extremists began organizing around a new brand: the Alt-right, a loose collection of digital communities, components of which have a home on reddit. In 2012, the now (in)famous “red pill” subreddit was formed, structured around a counter-culture that believed men had ceded their sexual and political power to women (and, in particular, feminists).74 The red pill subreddit and counter-culture did not exist alone; other communities developed in response to what they saw as the precipitous rise of PC (political correctness) culture; feminists, racial justice activists, and SJWs (social justice warriors), all of whom have been the targets of such subreddits as KotakuInAction (KIA), which ultimately became a home to the now infamous Gamer Gate scandal.
In contrast to Huffman’s claims, reddit is not only a mirror to society. Nor is reddit as technically or ideologically neutral as reddit’s design aesthetic or administration might suggest. Rather, reddit’s technical infrastructure, its design features, and communication from leadership collectively make a clear, if subtle, argument in favor of a libertarian approach to the creation of culture on the site. In other words, the exaltation of “community” as central to the proper functioning of the site shields against accusations that reddit harbors racist, sexist, and homophobic trolls. By foregrounding the positively-valenced term “community” in its mission statement, reddit leaves ample room for the site to expand, profit, and reach more publics while dodging criticism.←39 | 40→
Reddit influences public culture via its technological and ideological capacities, namely, the ability to fashion content and disseminate it rapidly across a multitude of sites. One of the affordances of networked publicity on sites such as reddit and 4chan is that information moves quickly across each sites’ nodes—oftentimes more quickly than on other media channels. The Atlantic noted that the 2012 movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, like so many tragedies in recent past, “was not just a documented massacre, but one that is being documented across the web, and across the web’s media outlets: on Twitter, on Facebook, on news sites….But one of the most effective sources of information about the massacre has been Reddit.”75 In this instance, large amounts of information, often factual, was revealed on reddit faster than traditional news outlets could obtain, verify, and report it. The New York Times admitted that reddit had “Scooped the Press on the Aurora Shootings,” including disclosing information that “news outlets seemed to have missed.”76 With the assistance of other redditors who crowd-sourced information, a Denver-based redditor operating under the pseudonym “integ3r” (IRL name: Morgan Jones) developed a minute by minute timeline of the Aurora massacre, updated in real time, with external links to news sources, “realtime Google coverage,” an IRC (internet relay chat), maps, police scanners, and ways to crowdfund for victims of the attack. The comments on the timeline show redditors mining victims’ social media sites for information. In that moment, reddit experienced a kind of mission inversion. In an interview reported in the Times, integ3r noted, “It was sort of a strange feeling, like Reddit’s supposed to be this aggregate news site, but we’re actually breaking news to the media right now.”77 Furthermore, while the information found on reddit eventually proliferated to major news networks, the role of redditors was obfuscated in several of the early reports.78
Although reddit served as an important source of information during and after the Aurora shooting, not every fact-finding mission led by redditors proceeded as smoothly. In 2013, reddit users and leadership learned the dangers of the crowdsourcing method after an attack at the April 2013 Boston Marathon, where two homemade bombs fashioned out of pressure cookers detonated near the race’s finish line. While two brothers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were ultimately found responsible for the attack, redditors networked to decipher images of the two suspects. In part because the images were low quality, redditors began a misdirected search for an innocent (and in fact, deceased) Sunil Tripathi. Tripathi, who had gone missing, was the leading focus because of his supposed resemblance to the bombers. In re←40 | 41→sponse, Tripathi’s family received death threats. The media correctly called the crowdsourced search a “witch hunt” that was racially motivated.79
As a networked site, reddit both draws upon and creates public culture alongside other content producers and disseminators. In the case of the Aurora shooting, reddit’s role in a broader network suggests that the site was not alone in prompting a misguided search, although the site certainly played a central role in propagating misinformation. Twitter was an additional source of misinformation.80 On it, certain media wings of Anonymous sent its followers on a goose chase for the wrong suspect. Ultimately, leaders of the site posted an apology on “upvoted,” reddit’s blog, for their contribution to misinformed efforts. “[T]hough started with noble intentions,” the announcement read, “some of the activity fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”81 Thus, reddit participates in broader networks that situate the importance and influence of how this site interacts with others to produce shared, sometimes controversial, cultural influences.
The technological affordances of the site shape the ways that publics form both on and off the site. Indeed, the speed at which reddit can propagate all modes of content and facilitate mob actions plays into its controversial status. Aided by others on adjacent websites, in 2014, some reddit users leveraged the affordances of the platform to proliferate images, videos, and memes related to The Fappening and Gamer Gate. Each were complex events generally indicative of how mobs coalesced and caused significant upheaval on reddit and elsewhere. Adrienne Massanari deems these events indicative of a larger “toxic technoculture” on sites such as reddit, which function at the intersection of misogynist geek culture and platform politics that “implicitly encourage [sexist or extremist]…pattern[s].”82 The platform itself is structured to amplify both these and other patterns, propagating violent content beyond the bounds of reddit proper. In particular, those who participated in The Fappening and Gamer Gate used reddit’s capacity to quickly spread specific content within reddit and beyond it. Ultimately, the same structural characteristics of reddit make possible the rapid spread of vicious content and facilitated, as we will show, the memes that influenced the 2016 presidential election.
The Fappening named an event when nude (or almost nude) images of celebrities leaked on the internet, captured as a result of a vulnerability in Apple’s iCloud settings.83 A portmanteau, “The Fappening” is the merging of the words “The Happening” and “Fap,” the latter of which is geek speak for the←41 | 42→ sound one makes masturbating with a penis. Starting on 4chan, and moving to reddit, hackers (and their helpers) began posting selfies of celebrities posing in the nude.84 At least for 4chan’s /b/, events of this type are not unusual, as explicit images circulate freely, likely without the consent of those portrayed. What was unique about “The Fappening” was the number of images released, as well as the people portrayed. Hundreds of illegally acquired images emerged on 4chan, and later, on reddit, before making their way to more mainstream platforms such as Twitter. Celebrities who otherwise maintained privacy were subject to the prying eyes of thousands. As Alice Marwick notes, the cache of stolen images exposed primarily female celebrities, prompting significant debate over whether “The Fappening” ought to be considered sexual assault, since the images were both acquired and shared without consent.85 Although they denied responsibility, Apple took heat for a security liability in its iCloud service that allowed hackers access.86 In 2016, Ryan Collins and Edward Majerczyk were convicted of “phishing,” a common way for hackers and scammers to obtain personal information by posing as others, and what allowed the pilfering of celebrity photos.87
The networked relationship between 4chan, reddit, and more mainstream social media platforms ensured the quick distribution of these illegally acquired images. Massanari states that “After the stolen photographs were scrubbed from 4chan, they continued to propagate across the web.”88 The Fappening led to the development of several new subreddits, including r/theFappening/, dedicated to the discussion and dissemination of the leaked images. The subreddit grew exponentially in a short time, amassing 100,000 followers in the first day.89 So popular was the subreddit (and related subreddits) that reddit became the de facto locale for those wishing to view the images, with Wired reporting that “If you saw Kate Upton or Jennifer Lawrence naked last week, there’s a good chance that you saw them on the social news site reddit.”90 Though reddit did not technically “host” the images (instead requiring users to link to the images), it became a centralized node for users to access or share the photographs. The continuation of r/TheFappening/ undoubtedly influenced the wider circulation of the images, despite not being hosted on the site itself.91
For its part, reddit did little to curb the release and spread of imagery and the toxic posts encouraging these actions. Such structural choices indicate how the site abets particular forms of extremism. John Menese, the creator and one of the moderators for r/TheFappening/, noted reddit’s complicity in keeping the leaked content public. In an interview for Wired, Menese notes←42 | 43→ that “If Reddit had wanted to, they could have banned us on Sunday when our traffic broke their servers. Instead, they chose to milk a week of publicity and a month of server time in Reddit gold before they stepped in.”92 As Massanari notes, reddit allowed the subreddit to exist despite “numerous Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) infringement notices,” which were “filed on behalf of those who were impacted by the attack.”93 Eventually, administrators banned the subreddit after images of McKayla Maroney, who was a minor, appeared on the site, in effect making reddit a host of child pornography. Importantly, suggests Marwick, reddit “did not remove the Fappening due to ethical issues, or concern for the privacy of the women in the pictures. The Fappening community was instead removed due to legal pressure, child pornography laws and DMCA complaints—in other words, implications that might hurt reddit the company.”94 Although reddit may choose to extract itself from legal issues through rhetorical pivots identifying itself as a “community” forum and “platform” rather than “publisher,” the site nevertheless becomes an early distributor of particularly controversial content and often sets the tone for other networked sites.
Following a chain reaction that is part and parcel of these networked connections, 4chan and reddit are early stops on the lifecycle of viral content (including memes), both of which amplify material by privileging user engagement via algorithmic sorting. In the case of 4chan, The Fappening rose to the top of various boards. In the case of reddit, the amount of upvotes and other activity on The Fappening material drove discussion (and links) of the nude images to the top of the front page. In both cases, the amplification of content ultimately helped disseminate that content outwards, to less enclaved and more mainstream sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The lifecycle of this viral content is not—and need not be—teleological. Rather, amplification cycles are recurrent and imperfect, with offshoots of memetic culture landing in various places across the internet as they are taken back up or slightly modified in their original hotbeds.
Even as reddit responded and assessed the site’s role in The Fappening, yet another controversy would ensure that the features of the network once again benefitted mob-based extremism. Not long after the ambivalent frenzy of The Fappening, the Gamer Gate controversy erupted. Defining and describing Gamer Gate is necessarily to take a position on the event, which has been subject to great debate over its meaning. Reddit users conceive of #GamerGate (sometimes known as GG), as a movement in at least two parts. In the first part, they assert that basic journalistic integrity and ethics were←43 | 44→ broached when “a game developer and game journalist were having sex,” and as a result, “developers of the game had received favorable coverage in the journalists [sic] publication. That set off alarm bells and upset a few peoplr [sic].”95 Although there was no evidence to indicate that the game developer (Zoë Quinn) had slept with the journalist (Nathan Grayson) for favorable reviews, and although Quinn’s spurned ex-boyfriend initiated the allegations in an online missive, GG participants organized against this perceived injustice. Gamers suggested that they were victim to a biased system that took advantage of their love for video games, and lashed out against the “quinnspiracy,” leveraging the networked affordances of 4chan, Twitter, reddit, and related websites to attack. The second component of the movement, according to KIA, arose from the backlash to Gamer Gate by numerous parties who decried the sexism of GG, pointing out the GG participants who issued violent rape and death threats to Quinn and her family.96 Quinn was ultimately forced to go into hiding after several of her personal accounts were hacked and private information leaked. Other prominent women in the gaming ecosphere, including feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian and game developer Brianna Wu, were subject to doxing (releasing of personal information) and subsequent threats on their bodies and lives.97
From a rhetorical perspective, one of the most interesting and unsettling aspects of Gamer Gate as a cultural phenomenon is how well GG participants harnessed the memetic tools of the digital sphere, not only to unleash hell on their foes, but to rebrand their efforts as a “movement” for justice on behalf of victims who just wanted to play their video games in peace. The use of powerful networked sites such as reddit and 4chan was central to the “success” of the movement, here measured in terms of its ability to organize masses, unsettle “the establishment,” and maintain longevity. This movement did not need a leader, although it at times borrowed social capital of some of its followers (including Adam Baldwin, who receives credit for the moniker “GamerGate”).
Both Gamer Gate and The Fappening demonstrate the interconnectedness of the two primary websites under investigation in this book. These controversial events suggest the myriad ways 4chan and reddit contribute to the creation of public culture through networked sites. In each case, controversial content moved rather fluidly between the porous borders of 4chan and reddit. In fact, at various points, each of these enclaved websites served as a site of retreat for the other. That is, on occasion, some reddit users would turn to 4chan, either as a space of refuge, or as a rallying point, or as a reference point, a place where important content was held and discussed. Similarly, 4chan←44 | 45→ remained explicitly linked to reddit, which sometimes became an important “stop” on the way to the mainstream. Overall, GG and The Fappening evidence the interconnectedness of both sites, as nodes for promulgating content and as sites where publics and public culture form. These events also indicate how the structural features of these sites facilitate the work of those who seek harm or are driven by a mission. The formulaic and algorithmic affordances of the platforms paired with the volatility of the human condition create a tidal wave of both content and controversy that abound on nearly every internet shoreline.
New leadership for the site has attempted, unsuccessfully, to combat the structural mechanisms facilitating abuse. In 2014, CEO Yishan Wong was replaced by Ellen Pao, who endeavored to address the systemic abuse and harassment made possible by the website. For this and other reasons, Pao was not always a popular leader, receiving hate mail that, she later wrote in a resignation letter posted to reddit, “made me doubt humanity.”98 As the Daily Dot reports, Pao was a “controversial figure whom some redditors have taken to calling Chairman Pao.”99 As her tenure progressed, Pao was both the victim of and a one-woman army against one of reddit’s most disconcerting elements: what she called “the troll hivemind” who at times “moved against me.”100 In the letter announcing her resignation, she praised the “off-the-wall inspiring” good parts of reddit while critiquing the culture that not only harassed her, but made users “afraid to post supportive messages openly.”101
Users responded to attempts to curb toxic behavior just as they responded to the site’s corporate sale and leadership changes.102 In mid 2015, a number of “harassing subreddits” were banned, including r/fatpeoplehate/, r/hamplanethatred/ (similar to r/fatepeoplehate/), r/neofag/, and others. The move was met with varied reaction. One thread, in r/againsthatesubreddits/ celebrated the “Good news—Reddit admins remove a number of harassing subreddits, including r/FatPeopleHate. Nothing of value was lost.”103 r/freespeech/ responded with a thread noting that “Reddit increases censorship.”104 Other subreddits expressed their agitation more explicitly: r/circlefuckers/ linked to the announcement with a thread titled “RETARDED CRIMINAL CUNT PAO AND HE [sic] CUCK SQUAD ARE BANNING SUBS THAT HURT THEIR FATTY FEELINGS.”105 Administration banning subreddits signaled a major shift in how the site was run; rather than allowing moderators to regulate content, reddit’s leadership attempted to take over the reins. For a site that both depends on moderators for free labor and prides itself on allowing communities to self-define and self-regulate, the change was seismic.106←45 | 46→
Despite best attempts, these changes were not permanent. Journalistic assessment of the changes fueled the perception that the administration was undermining reddit’s treasured and hard-won culture. The Daily Dot wrote that “Reddit devolved into a civil war Thursday night that has left dozens of its most popular communities inaccessible and uncounted refugee users fleeing for higher ground.”107 Fortune published an article proclaiming “Reddit is at war with itself.”108 Elsewhere, the blackout was called a “rebellion,”109 a “revolt,”110 and a “meltdown.”111 On July 6, CEO Ellen Pao issued an apology, noting that “We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes….The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit.”112 Four days later, Pao resigned and Huffman became CEO.
Huffman, who remains CEO at the time of this writing, would see his own share of controversy, although perhaps not at the level of Pao. After a year with Huffman at the helm, reddit announced significant changes to its content policy. These content changes included “restrictions on what people can say on Reddit—or at least on our public pages—in the spirit of our mission.”113 In it, CEO Huffman suggested that what reddit required was a “very clear line” about what content was appropriate and what was not.114 Despite this pronouncement, that clear line has not materialized.
In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, reddit found itself in hot water once more. The development and subsequent rapid populating of subreddits such as r/the_donald/, the space on reddit valorizing Trump, demonstrated that prior attempts to regulate the site were insufficient at best. In addition to posting volatile content, r/the_donald/ gained a reputation for “brigading,” that is, inciting others to collectively upvote or downvote material on the site. On a site where user engagement determines what is seen, brigading effectively games the algorithm so that some content is privileged over others. As such, it undermines the purported democratic, egalitarian ethos of reddit. Brigading (or “vote manipulation”) is against the reddit terms of service for this reason.115 Although r/the_donald/ was not the first subreddit to manipulate votes (and therefore the production and circulation content) on the site, it was among the most successful at using it to promote favored material.
So effective was r/the_donald/ that reddit administrators introduced “technological and process changes” including a change to the algorithm responsible for r/all/, the page that displays the most popular content across←46 | 47→ reddit.116 In a Gizmodo essay, a moderator noted that the subreddit “used to make up 30%–40% [of r/all] in the past.”117 Taking up more than one third of r/all/’s prime real estate has a powerful effect on the millions of reddit users, and reddit administration noticed. Although CEO Huffman was clear to state that the algorithm change was not directly the result of brigading on r/the_donald/, he also noted “I cannot deny their behavior hastened its deployment.”118 Huffman suggested that as a community, r/the_donald/ “attempt[ed] to dominate the conversation on Reddit at the expense of everyone else. This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it.”119 However, the algorithm changes described by Huffman did not hamper r/the_donald/ or other Trump-affiliated subreddits. On election night, r/the_donald/ users bragged about their successful gaming of the system. As Gizmodo reports, users mocked redditors with a thread entitled “HEY LOSER SJWS OF REDDIT HOW DOES OUR DICK TASTE? GO FUCK YOURSELVES. WE ARE THE FUTURE AND YOU ARE A BUNCH OF 100 % LOSERS. I OPENLY LAUGH IN YOUR FACE….”120 Once more, efforts by reddit admins to recalibrate neutrality fell short.
The alteration of reddit’s algorithm and the subsequent announcement linking the change to “The Donald” demonstrates the significant influence the structure of the site and the processes of users possess. On the site, r/the_donald/ effectively gamed reddit’s algorithm while simultaneously operating under the democratic ethos central to the branding of the site. Off the site, r/the_donald/ and related subreddits used the networked nature of reddit to amplify pro-Trump content, including memes central to the election. Given the response of reddit administrators, it is clear that users exerted considerable influence on the discourse of reddit and aimed to sway outsiders using the affordances of the digital sphere. To wit, memes were both the medium and the message for redditors looking to influence the election. Memes generated within these digital enclaves afforded users sophisticated firepower.
Weaponized Memes: From Enclave to Public
Memes, at least as most internet users know them today, were formed in the enclaves of 4chan. As Dale Beran explains, “4chan invented the meme as we use it today. At the time, one of the few places you saw memes was there.”121 As a visual form, the combination of text and popular imagery was crafted by the anonymous users of 4chan. Beran continues,←47 | 48→
The white Impact font with the black outlines, that was them (via S.A.). Terms like ‘win’ and ‘epic’ and ‘fail’ were all created or popularized on 4chan, used there for years before they became a ubiquitous part of the culture. The very method of how gifs and images are interspersed with dialogue in Slack or now iMessage or wherever is deeply 4chanian. In other words, the site left a profound impression on how we as a culture behave and interact.122
4chan, given its relationship to the meme-hub Something Awful, became a veritable factory for memes almost immediately after launch. These early memetic creations on 4chan and SA were likely developed solely for internal use. Yet, as a networked site, 4chan’s internal memes propagated beyond its walls to the mainstream. For instance, as we mentioned, LOLCats leaked to the masses, distributing the public meme grammar indelibly forged in rarefied sites. This transition from counterpublic enclave to a broader public certainly altered the generic code of the meme, in part because broad circulation of a meme required uptake by different sorts of audiences. Yet, importantly, the basic vernacular of the meme persisted beyond 4chan and reddit, coloring the memes that are created and spread today.
Given ongoing cross pollinations, memes are a communicative media familiar to many audiences. The growth of meme literacy is tied to the way internet culture has been mainstreamed, including so-called geek and troll culture on enclaved sites. The rise of “meme hubs” such as 4chan and reddit certainly contributed to the popularization and increased circulation of the modern meme. As these sites expanded, so did their cultural influence. Shifman, for instance, notes an upsurge in the popularity of memes since at least 2011, evidenced by a sharp uptick in internet users searching for the term.123 Not coincidentally, 2011 was the year where reddit first celebrated a billion pageviews per month. Reddit serves dual roles as an aggregator and creator of content, both of which shape public culture. That is, although reddit is technically a “news aggregator site” where users post content from elsewhere on the internet, like 4chan, its communities also create and distribute content. As reddit gained influence and notoriety, so did the cultural content that leaked beyond its borders, including memes.
Memes are powerful rhetorical images insofar as they help fashion a discursive reality. At the same time, memes are forged from discursive spaces, including platforms. The co-constitutive nature of rhetoric and the environment from which it is uttered (or typed) is evidenced by the indelible mark memes make on platforms (and platforms make on memes). As constitutive artifacts, memes themselves can be understood as a form of symbolic exchange←48 | 49→ brought forth from and embedded into the platform logics where they are created and propagated outward. From this perspective, memes are a significant modality of user-expression and influence platform cultures. Consequently, platform culture prompts users to refer to and value replicability, iteration, collectivity, and interconnection, and synthesize these values in the making of memes. In turn, these platform cultures create, and continually recreate, a digital or networked public sphere.124 The formation of a new, digital public correspondingly generates a new form of public discourse that invites user participation and content creation within these cultural parameters. Importantly, 4chan and reddit are central locales for the creation and recreation of the memetically networked, digital public sphere. As platforms (rather than static pages), both 4chan and reddit offer memes, and those who would make them, raw cultural material to use as rhetorical resources, a medium for symbolic exchange, and networks for memes to spread.
In the culture of Web 2.0, users are more engaged in the present ecosystem, which is interconnected, flexible, and accessible in more and different ways.125 Web 2.0 users are afforded the opportunity and encouraged to create and/or share content across their social networks, another key component in the logic of the platform.126 Memes are a natural extension of this logic, insofar as they are collective, creative, constitutive, and capable of influencing others. Web 2.0 platforms encourage invention and invite users to share across networks as they participate in the shaping of the digital sphere, facilitating the proliferation of memes.127 Meme culture offers a way of communicating and crafting experiences on these participatory sites. A theoretically “democratic” or a-hierarchical model of content production and dissemination is crucial to the formation and circulation of a meme, in part because memes often function as expressions of the individual on digital networks. That is, users who fashion and share a meme participate in culture creation at multiple levels: through the self and through the other. As Shifman describes, “sharing…has emerged as a central cultural logic, encompassing realms such as ‘sharing economies’ and sharing emotions in intimate relationships. When I post a funny clip on Facebook, I distribute a cultural item and at the same time express my feelings about it.”128 The affordances of Web 2.0 as a set of networked platforms for sharing content ushered in the widespread uptake of the meme as a way of communicating and as a mode of deliberation. In this way, it is important to study the rhetorical elements of memes that play a part in democratic modes of discourse.←49 | 50→
In part, memes are significant rhetorical devices that seek to change circumstances, often relying on object-oriented models of persuasive action. For memetic theorists—who study memes as any replicable phenomenon—memes garner their power by spreading much as a virus would. Richard Dawkins first refers to memes as a virus, noting that they infect users who are hosts for its spread. The human is not a fully aware subject for Dawkins, but rather the medium through which memes infect and move. As he writes,
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.129
In this way, the goal of the meme is to spread, to take an idea or trend and make it sticky. The users of 4chan and reddit have long understood this principle, much as the term meme became used to identify a visual phenomenon that operated on the ideas of memetic theory. Dawkins’ approach to memetics connects theories of evolutionary biology to those of cultural evolution. Dawkins seems to describe—at least partially—the ways that macro image memes become cultural agents via their circulation and proliferation in the digital sphere.
Yet, visual memes work somewhat differently than theories of evolutionary biology, a situatedness that impacts the nature of rhetorical analysis. Dawkins’ theories about memetics have not always aligned with the ways that memes—as contemporary, visual phenomena—work. Shifman notes two major criticisms of Dawkins’ work as it applies to internet memes. First, importing key descriptive characteristics of memes from genetics is deeply reductive, and fails to take into consideration (1) how culture is different from biology and (2) how memes are unique from genes. Second, and perhaps more importantly for Shifman, memes are not only agents of communication that infect a passive host who serve as “vectors of cultural transmission.”130 Rather, for Shifman, humans matter. She notes that “the depiction of people as active agents is essential for understanding Internet memes, particularly when meaning is dramatically altered in the course of memetic diffusion.”131 For our purposes, memes are rhetorical in the hands of agential rhetors, who contribute to the creation and flow of memetic content on platforms that lubricate persuasive possibilities.←50 | 51→
Our rhetorical analysis proceeds with the idea that humans do matter to the spread of memes. With Shifman, we contend that humans are central to the creation, negotiation, and movement of memetic content. Humans who fashion memes can use them as vessels to launch content (e.g., Alt-right propaganda) far and wide. But as critical rhetoricians, we are drawn to consider the communicative effect of memetic travels. This approach allows us to theorize both the weaponization of memes, but also the rearticulation of memes in ways that humans neither intended nor predicted. We understand memes serve as an agential and communicative medium operating within a network of both human and non-human agents, including language, platforms, code, hardware, and wetware (e.g., humans). That is, memes interact with humans who interact with memes within a networked system that affords certain forms of action while limiting others. This co-constitutive process is simultaneously replicative and productive of difference, within an ecosystem that produces any isolated memetic image and in so doing, constitutes (partial and evolving) systems of meaning. From this perspective, it matters that humans and non-humans (e.g., bots) generate and propagate memes before, during, and after the 2016 election from reddit and 4chan, as interconnected nodal points on this vast network of content generation and replication. These sites, which algorithmically amplify content shared by anonymous or pseudonymous agents, have distinct infrastructures and cultures that privilege memetic propagation. The 2016 election shows that tech-savvy rhetors on reddit and 4chan understood the complex, intermingled relationship between the medium and the message and used both to their political advantage.
One of the principal powers of memes, of course, is their ability to communicate novel messages expeditiously with relatively little effort spent on their creation. Memes transmit information quickly often because they “infect” would-be participants to engage in the creative process of composing and circulating memes in exchange for social capital, including likes and retweets. Memes fashion the conditions of possibility for their own diffusion on social media sites where creative communication and original content is valued. At the same time, engagement with memes reify and amplify both memetic form and content. When (re)making a meme, users both contribute to a conversation and legitimate that conversation by drawing on a meme’s communicative history and redeploying it.132 Some of the most effective memes are powerful because they are self-referential or rely on already popular content. By “mimicking” and “remixing” imagery, texts, inside jokes, and other elements, memes use pastiche to fashion something new.133←51 | 52→
Memes use rhetorical invention, the creation of discourse, to move an audience by wedding action and invention. As participatory media, memes require and encourage participation in their creation. That is, effective memes suture the rhetorical processes of creation and delivery; dissemination of memetic content necessitates audience engagement. Before such an engagement may occur, memes must offer an enticing proposition to would-be participants, who may not be determined in advance. Of course, it is not remarkable for a rhetorician to say that effective symbolic exchange relies on invention given one’s available means. What’s different about memes—what’s new—is two-fold. First, successful memes speak to a contingent audience of strangers who may number in the millions. Memes—and those who make them—must deftly utilize the rhetorical canons of invention and delivery to form a public from these potentially fragmented individuals. Second, and relatedly, memes amplify the scale at which both inventio and actio might occur. For example, memes specific to the 2016 election relied on partisan tropes as well as common symbols to generate both broad interest and shape specific publics according to their interests. After constituting a shared community along partisan allegiances, related memes invited users to propagate divisive content outward, constituting polarizing but relatively coherent publics. In so doing, memes turned passive audience members into active participants manufacturing and sharing political content primed to activate even more would-be participants. In other words, the rapidity with which memes are constructed, circulated, recreated, and rearticulated primes this rhetorical artifact for viral uptake. In turn, the virality of the meme continually constitutes cultural context—and political messages—as it moves. At least for the 2016 election, memes evolved into tactical propaganda.
Memes are persuasive artifacts that can enact political work in myriad modes. At the most basic level, they can be used to broadcast persuasive messages quickly and succinctly. Because they propagate quickly without much effort, memes can carry persuasive arguments to vast audiences, often more effectively than traditional message forms. However, their utility in persuasive campaigns is not limited to their use as messages. Memes also invite user participation in argument creation during several stages of a meme’s life cycle, including periods of creation, negotiation, and diffusion. For instance, users interested in participating in a digital persuasive campaign may fashion or otherwise alter an existing meme for the purpose of influencing others. From there, memes may undergo a period of argumentative negotiation, where users or collectives contest the meaning of a meme and how a message might be←52 | 53→ best expressed. Memes may then be altered or remain more or less the same. At this point, the argument may or may not be disseminated further, as users share the meme to their networks. Sharing may or may not lead to uptake, actual persuasion, or other changes.
The battle over the meaning of memetic content can sometimes lead to the weaponization of memes as part of larger political campaigns. For instance, James Alexander McVey and Heather Suzanne Woods have shown how a memetic hashtag campaign related to the Black Lives Matter Movement—#handsupdontshoot—became a centralized battleground in public conversations about extrajudicial police killings. Studying the politicized transmogrification of images bearing or otherwise tagged with #handsupdontshoot, the authors note that “a powerful rhetorical element of #HandsUpDontShoot was its mimetic capacity—its ability to function simultaneously as a Twitter hashtag and a visual meme.”134 In response to visual memes identified with the anti-racist #handsupdontshoot and #blacklivesmatter campaigns, oppositional parties questioned the aggrieved status of Michael Brown and other victims of police brutality. The deployed memes marked the dereliction of the black body and circulated the hashtag #pantsupdontloot, corralling a debate over the meaning of police violence in the US. These visual memes are contested and appropriated by competing campaigns partially because of their rhetorical force. The power of memes as constitutive of meaning but also as means of persuasion cannot be understated. The production, negotiation, and dissemination of memes is not a neutral process. Rather, as this example shows, memes can be tactical instruments used by competing parties for the purposes of challenging or reifying power structures.
The 2016 campaign saw a precipitous rise in the use of social media for political campaigns. To be clear, social media has long been integral to national political campaigns. President Obama, for instance, famously harnessed the affordances of social media to reach young voters.135 Yet, the 2016 presidential campaign threw into stark relief the centrality of social media—and of memes—in electoral politics. The campaign was punctuated by candidates sparring on social media, many instances of which ultimately became fodder for memes. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for instance, tweeted “Delete your account” in response to then-candidate Trump’s tweet calling her “crooked.” Bernie Sanders had a “dank meme stash” on Facebook. Donald Trump emerged the meme master, turning “Crooked Hillary” into a rallying cry for his populist movement, retweeting Pepe memes, and flipping Clinton’s “de←53 | 54→plorable” comment into a badge of honor. The rhetorical function of these memetic moments receives significant attention in the chapters that follow.
During and after the election, memes became tools for transmitting propaganda produced by the masses as well as institutional actors such as political campaigns. The campaigns of Trump and Clinton recognized the utility of memes to influence potential voters and tried to wield them to their advantage. Technology journalist Dawn Chmielewski noted that “Both camps have embraced certain memes as a shorthand way to share inside jokes with supporters, spread campaign messages or deliver rhetorical gut punches to their opponent, while distancing themselves from the most hateful.”136 Yet, then-candidate Trump was the clear victor in the meme war, in part because of his (and his followers’) deft usage of platform cultures to circulate memes and influence processes of deliberation.
Platforms contribute to the weaponization of memes as propaganda both implicitly and explicitly. Daniel Kreiss and Shannon C. McGregor outline the extent to which technology firms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google seek to shape both institutional and political structures. Coming into the 2016 election, for instance, these platforms donated considerable monies to partisan political conferences.137 They also advised campaign staffers, including social media managers, on how to best reach would-be voters. Given that these platforms monetize user data, it is not remarkable to learn that their representatives coached campaigns to purchase advertising space on their sites and applications. However, the attempt to influence electoral politics was not limited to increasing revenue streams. As Kreiss and McGregor note, “Alongside growing advertising sales, these firms also sought out the visibility that came with the uptake of their products in the political space…as well as the opportunity to create relationships with legislators that would further their government relations efforts.”138 Social networking firms imbricated themselves within the deliberative process and their primary focus on advertising ensured that memes and other memetic imagery found a ready audience. In addition to supplying valuable user data and other services to political candidates, these platforms organized entire corporate structures to interlink platform economies with larger systems of governance. As we will show in chapter four, these platforms facilitated the use of algorithmically amplified ads and memes from Russia’s Internet Research Agency.
Memes were also weaponized by individual users on these platforms, who employed these images to circulate messages about political issues. Some of these agents may have been motivated by an ideological desire to influence←54 | 55→ electoral politics. Others may have simply done it “for the lulz.” Still others might have transformed memes into tactical propaganda to take the memetic form to its (ir)rational consequence, just to see what that consequence might be. Some of these savvy internet users—which mounting evidence suggests operated from enclaves in 4chan and reddit—gleefully proclaimed “We actually elected a meme as president.”139 Regardless of intent, the 2016 presidential election has shown us that the meme as a rhetorical genre has become persuasive, tactical propaganda.
Memes are useful distributors of propaganda insofar as they can spread widely and quickly. Those who design memes on 4chan and reddit understand the spread of memes and aim to infect users in that they seek to create memes that will become heavily trafficked either within enclaved sites themselves or more broadly via social media. The memes with the most widespread rhetorical force are those that extend beyond reddit and 4chan to other networked sites. Sometimes, these memes become fodder for journalistic coverage of digital sites or the election proper. Although 4chan and reddit have a documented antagonistic relationship with both mainstream media and more popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter, from a memetic perspective, these enclaved sites actually benefit from a symbiotic relationship with non-enclaved sites. One of the key characteristics of a meme is its ability to propagate across multiple bounded contexts. Drawing from each of these bounded communities, a meme succeeds when it draws more and different types of users into an active, engaged relationship with it. Put simply: a meme is most effective when it reaches the eyes and minds of many people.
Virality can often mark a meme’s effectiveness, though memes that are not viral images can also be effective. As a visual form, the benefits of virality for the meme are multiple. First and foremost, virality ensures a wider variety of audiences encounter a meme. An individual sharing a funny photo with a small, bounded group of people does not an effective meme make. Rather, memes benefit from increased sharing that occurs at the level of the exponent, wherein the rapid circulation of a meme increases precipitously. Second, and relatedly, viral memes become part of the cultural zeitgeist. When memes go viral, they become cultural touchstones subject to exponential memetic proliferation through self-referential remixing. On a social level, knowing, or better, remixing a viral meme becomes a marker of cultural belonging. Those who witness the viral phenomenon garner social capital as those “in the know” whereas those who miss the viral expression are out of the loop.140 Sharing a viral meme demonstrates that a person is savvy enough to have a←55 | 56→ finger on the digital cultural pulse; being among the first to share a meme might indicate superiority.141 Importantly, networked circulation of memes need not only be the result of intentional sharing by those who support the message. Sometimes, users will unintentionally propagate a meme by critiquing it, or expressing their intent to not participate in the type of culture proposed by the meme. At that moment, people who experience a positive association with the meme or its message may lead to its proliferation at the very same time as people experience a negative association with it. In sum, memes create culture by becoming part of it.
Toward a Rhetorical Analysis of Memes
Memes are important rhetorical artifacts because they are an increasingly primary mode of public address in the networked digital sphere. Like emoji text-speak, internet slang, and LOLspeak, memes have been understood as a distraction from the democratic deliberation process rather than a constitutive part of it. As this book will show, public culture is shaped by and constitutive of memetic images and discourse. And, because memes are both products of culture and produce culture, memes may be as constitutive as other forms of rhetoric. We reject the premise that content transmitted by memes does not contribute to democratic deliberation and argumentation. We also reject the objection that memetic communication is not an important avenue of persuasive public address. In fact, given the rapidity of a 24-hour news cycle and an attention economy dictated by rapidly-updating media, we believe succinct and humorous memes are potentially more likely than well-reasoned, lengthy debates to circulate rapidly and broadly. In that way, memes may infect (or at least influence) others. Memes also draw together several modalities of rhetoric—visual, affective, material—and propagate as an ever-adapting, constantly-updating rhetorical form. On the internet, memes may trump conventional discourse. No longer cordoned off to the “underbelly of the internet,” memes have become a common language for persuasive communication. Their persuasive capacity is worth investigation, especially as they focus and form public discourse and conversation.
At every turn during the 2016 election, memes were the communicative media used by the American electorate, candidates, and elected officials to communicate key values about the republic. Supplementing, and at times overcoming, other forms of public address, memetic content overwhelmed←56 | 57→ traditional norms of presidential speechmaking proper. Memes also served as the means through which candidates could bypass institutional media such as television, print, and even digital press formats and the gatekeeping (or fact checking) measures endemic to them. Memes offered a way to speak directly to the electorate with very little interference. They also propagated quickly, with little cost and wider reach than traditional ad buys. Presidential candidates could—and did—wield memes as methods of reaching audiences more efficiently than ever before. In this sense, memes have become the latest communicative iteration of public address.
The rhetorical architecture of memes fashioned during the 2016 election and after offers substantial clues to understanding the radicalization of the American electorate. For the very same reason memes excel at addressing the public, they are also an imperfect vessel for democratic, deliberative dialogue. Suited well to rapid rearticulation, memes are fickle, fecund artifacts. They are ideologically ambivalent in their creation of public culture, favoring no singular partisan side or political perspective. Rather, memes are agnostic media subject to the whims of those who (re)create them. In the 2016 election, memes were effectively weaponized by both the Alt-right and foreign agents, benefitting Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and contributing to the downfall of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Certainly Clinton’s loss was overdetermined by numerous factors, including the rise of democratic, erstwhile socialist Bernie Sanders, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-blackness, and a devolving political party system. Yet, memes played a powerful role in Donald Trump’s populist renaissance, in part because memes appear to be populist in their orientation. Memes—and the algorithmically-mediated platforms that facilitate their widespread distribution—contributed to the polarizing division of the American electorate. In the ringing echo-chambers of the Alt-right, memes spoke volumes. Whether it was for “the lulz,” to sow discontent, or to influence the political system, memes became a crucial tool for communicating increasingly divisive messages about what society ought to look like.
The 2016 election saw a precipitous uptick in the use of memes to communicate about politics. The Alt-right was one of the most important contingents to harness the rhetorical affordances of memes. The Alt-right deftly deployed memes on networked sites such as 4chan, reddit, Facebook, and Twitter. As we will show in chapter four, members of the Alt-right created the conditions of possibility for the meme to be weaponized—not just against a political candidate or ideology, but against public deliberation and democracy proper. With this in mind, in the next chapter we perform a critical←57 | 58→ reading of one of the memes most central to the 2016 Trump campaign, Pepe the Frog. Perhaps unlike any other meme during the 2016 election, Pepe’s steadfast dominance in the digital sphere was unmatched by anything other than his flexibility and subsequent circulation.
2. Schreckinger, “World War Meme.”
3. Other scholars often note that enclaves have the potential to be radical spaces that build coalitions. The spaces under study in this volume sadly do not actualize those possibilities. See Karma R. Chavez, “Counter-Public Enclaves and Understanding the Function of Rhetoric in Social Movement Coalition-Building,” Communication Quarterly 59, no. 1 (2011): 1–18; Lisa A. Flores, “Creating Discursive Space through a Rhetoric of Difference: Chicana Feminists Craft a Homeland,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 82, no. 2 (1996): 142–156.
4. “4Chan: The Rude, Raunchy Underbelly of the Internet,” Fox News, April 8, 2009, http://www.foxnews.com/story/2009/04/08/4chan-rude-raunchy-underbelly-internet.html.
5. Asaf Nissenbaum and Limor Shifman, “Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital: The Case of 4chan’s /b/ Board,” New Media & Society 19, no. 4 (2017): 483–501.
6. Lee Knuttila, “User Unknown: 4chan, Anonymity and Contingency,” First Monday 16, no. 10 (2011).
7. Nissenbaum and Shifman, “Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital,” 484; Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2014), 43. Coleman, for instance, notes “All this occurs with the knowledge of impermanence. In contrast to mailing lists or many other kinds of online boards, there is no official archive. If a thread is not ‘bumped’ back to the top by a time reply, it dies and evaporates. On an active channel, like /b/, this entire life cycle occurs in just minutes.”
8. Michael S. Bernstein et al., “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community,” Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, 2011, https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM11/paper/viewFile/2873/4398.
9. Phillips uses “user-generated content” on similar sites to approximate /b/’s historical development. Whitney Phillips, “The House that Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle, and Cycles of Amplification,” Television & New Media 14, no. 6 (2012): 494–509.
10. Bernstein et al., “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community.”
11. Phillips, “The House that Fox Built,” 494–509.
12. “4chan,” Know Your Meme, n.d., accessed June 6, 2018, http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/sites/4chan; “4chan,” Wikipedia, June 4, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=4chan&oldid=844323810.
13. Bernstein et al., “4chan and /b/.”
14. Phillips, “The House that Fox Built,” 498.←58 | 59→
15. “Something Awful,” Know Your Meme, n.d., accessed November 6, 2017, http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/sites/something-awful.
16. Phillips, “The House that Fox Built,” 498.
17. “All Your Base Are Belong to Us,” Know Your Meme, n.d. accessed June 6, 2018, http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/all-your-base-are-belong-to-us.
18. Phillips, “The House that Fox Built,” 498.
19. Zachary “Spokker Jones” Gutierrez, “The Awful Forums,” Something Awful, August 15, 2004, http://www.somethingawful.com/news/the-awful-forums/.
20. Gutierrez, “The Awful Forums.”
21. Whitney Phillips, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 57.
22. Knuttila, “User Unknown.”
23. Phillips, “The House That Fox Built.”
24. Tim Bavlnka, “/Co/Operation and /Co/mmunity in /Co/Mics: 4chan’s Hypercrisis,” Transformative Works and Cultures 13 (2013).
25. Bavlnka, “Co/Operation and Co/mmunity.”
27. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 58.
29. “LOLcats,” Know Your Meme.
30. Phillips, This is Why We Can Have Nice Things, 137.
31. Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, 111.
32. Phillips, This is Why We Can Have Nice Things, 140.
33. Ryan M. Milner, The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016); Kate M. Miltner, “‘There’s No Place for Lulz on LOLCats’: The Role of Genre, Gender, and Group Identity in the Interpretation and Enjoyment of an Internet Meme,” First Monday 19, no. 8 (2014).
34. Miltner, “There’s No Place for Lulz.”
36. Gabriella Coleman, “Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action,” The New Everyday: A Media Commons Project, April 6, 2011, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action.
37. For a more robust treatment of Project Chanology, please see Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy.
38. Heather Suzanne Woods, “The Rhetorical Construction of Hacktivism: Analyzing the Anonymous Care Package” (master’s thesis, Baylor University, 2013).
40. Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 5, 54–66.
41. Quinn Norton, “Anonymous 101 Part Deux: Morals Triumph Over Lulz,” Wired, December 30, 2011, https://www.wired.com/2011/12/anonymous-101-part-deux/.←59 | 60→
42. Dibbell, “The Assclown Offensive.”
43. Dibbell, “The Assclown Offensive.”
44. Woods, “The Rhetorical Construction of Hacktivism”; Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 6. As Coleman describes it, during and after Project Chanology, “Trolling had given way to an earnest activist endeavor, as if Anonymous had emerged from its online sanctuary and set out to improve the world. Over the next two years, some Anonymous members would hatch unrelated activist subgroups, and many participants came to identify themselves as bona fide activists, albeit with a transgressive twist.”
45. Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 63, 68, 73.
46. Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 72–3.
47. Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 72–3.
48. Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 3.
49. Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 3.
50. Phillips, “The House that Fox Built.”
52. “The Evolution and Future of Reddit’s Business Model,” Bloomberg, August 24, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2016-08-24/the-evolution-and-future-of-reddit-s-business-model.
53. Bryan Menegus, “Reddit Is Tearing Itself Apart,” Gizmodo, November 29, 2016, https://gizmodo.com/reddit-is-tearing-itself-apart-1789406294.
54. Andrew Couts, “Reddit Is in Open Revolt with Itself,” Daily Dot, July 3, 2015, https://www.dailydot.com/news/reddit-revolt-blackout-2015-ama-victoria/.
55. “Frequently Asked Questions,” Reddit, n.d., https://www.reddit.com/wiki/faq#wiki_why_should_i_try_to_accumulate_karma.3F.
56. David Carr, “Reddit Thrives Under Hands-Off Policy of Advance Publications,” New York Times, September 2, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/03/business/media/reddit-thrives-after-advance-publications-let-it-sink-or-swim.html.
57. “The Evolution and Future of Reddit’s Business Model,” Bloomberg.
58. Julia Greenberg, “For the Record: The Relationship Between WIRED and Reddit,” Wired, July 28, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/07/wired-conde-nast-reddit/.
59. Carr, “Reddit Thrives Under Hands-Off Policy of Advance Publications.”
60. Greenberg, “For the Record.”
61. Randal Olson, “Retracing the Evolution of Reddit through Post Data,” Dr. Randal S. Olson, March 12, 2013, http://www.randalolson.com/2013/03/12/retracing-the-evolution-of-reddit-through-post-data/.
62. hueypriest, “Global Reddit Meetup Day Is Happening on Saturday, June 19th,” Reddit, April 21, 2010, https://www.reddit.com/r/blog/comments/bu9d6/global_reddit_meetup_day_is_happening_on_saturday/.
63. “Reddit: Billions Served,” Upvoted, February 2, 2011, https://redditblog.com/2011/02/02/reddit-billions-served/.
64. “Reddit: Billions Served.”
65. Matt Lynley, “Reddit Had 1.8 BILLION Pageviews This Month,” Business Insider, October 31, 2011, http://www.businessinsider.com/ignore-the-jailbait-reddits-users-doubled-in-eight-months-2011-10.←60 | 61→
66. Carr, “Reddit Thrives.”
67. Carr, “Reddit Thrives.”
68. Anne Soellner in Alex LaCasse, “Reddit Director Talks Social Media’s Impact on 2016 Election,” seacoastonline.com, October 3, 2017, http://www.seacoastonline.com/news/20171003/reddit-director-talks-social-medias-impact-on-2016-election.
69. Soellner, “Reddit Director Talks Social Media’s Impact on 2016 Election.”
70. Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, “Reddit Is a ‘Reflection of Humanity,’ Says CEO,” Inc, November 17, 2016, https://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/reddit-and-the-platform-argument.html. Interestingly, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would mount a similar defense in front of Congress during a voluntary hearing in Spring 2018.
71. LaCasse, “Reddit Director Talks Social Media’s Impact on 2016 Election.”
72. “The Evolution and Future of Reddit’s Business Model,” Bloomberg.
73. Lagorio-Chafkin, “Reddit Is a ‘Reflection of Humanity.’”
75. Megan Garber, “Denver Resident Here. Reddit, I’m Doing My Best to Update This,” The Atlantic, July 20, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/denver-resident-here-reddit-im-doing-my-best-to-update-this/260115/.
76. Brian X. Chen, “How Reddit Scooped the Press on the Aurora Shootings,” New York Times, July 23, 2012, https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/reddit-aurora-shooter-aff/.
77. Chen, “How Reddit Scooped the Press.”
78. Chen, “How Reddit Scooped the Press.”
79. Alyson Shontell, “What It’s Like When Reddit Wrongly Accuses Your Loved One of Murder,” Business Insider, July 26, 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/reddit-falsely-accuses-sunil-tripathi-of-boston-bombing-2013-7.
- XIV, 258
- ISBN (Book)
- Publication date
- 2019 (February)
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 258 pp., 9 b/w ill.