Just a few months ago, an article about how a group called the alt-right is waging a war of memes on the internet would have been completely nonsensical. But today, it’s become clear that the center-left, and moderates in general, are losing the fight for the very soul of the internet.
In light of President-elect Donald Trump’s recent victory, it would be a good idea to take a step back and consider the factors that allowed for his rise in the primaries and the general election. While the “alt-right” surely did not compose the majority of Trump's “coalition,” they made up a small but vocal chunk of his base that offered zealous support as he secured the nomination and the presidency. So, that being said, on to the alt-right and the great meme war.
The alt-right is a “segment of right-wing ideologies that reject mainstream conservatism” in American politics. They found their origins deep in the web, on shady and anonymous message boards (remember the hacker 4chan?) that let you say anything for all to see but none to attribute.
Memes, as they are understood in internet culture, are difficult to define—basically, you know them when you see them. They’re generally familiar, oft-used images with some sort of caption that is meant to be humorous (though not always). Memes are about as diverse as they can be hilarious—check out this definitive meme database if you really want to get into it.
A meme in the classic sense, however, is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” And in the case of the alt-right, these two definitions merge in a strange way. By combining strong subculture ideas with consistent images, the alt-right has weaponized memes to serve their agenda and build community cohesiveness.
Memes have become a powerful force on social media and other internet forums. It’s hard to explain them to someone who doesn’t understand them, but a single meme can contain so much meaning. A combination of the context, caption, image, and forum can contain paragraphs of meaning—all in a concise, captioned image.
This makes memes a powerful means of communication—I myself have had online conversations consisting solely of memes and gifs. Memes, then, have become staples of communities, binding them together across time and space. Friends have inside jokes attached to specific memes. Online communities have favorite memes that are posted and reposted time and time again.
Unfortunately, many memes (and a fair bit of internet culture) have been hijacked to promote the bankrupt ideologies of racism, bigotry, and intolerance—all things that the internet was hoped to combat through the free exchange of ideas and debate.
How did this happen? Message board users on sites such as 4chan and reddit regularly utilized memes to channel racist, sexist, homophobic, or other-ist tendencies. Pepe the Frog is the poster-amphibian for this phenomenon—the situation became so desperate that the Anti-Defamation League actually labeled the meme as a hate symbol in certain circumstances.
One tragedy of this unfortunate descent into deplorability is that Pepe was never meant to be a symbol of hate. The creator of the character, Matt Furie, threw his support behind Secretary Clinton, and rejected the alt-right’s use of his beloved frog. Something good, an innocent meme, was hijacked by the shadowy powers that lurk in the dark corners of the internet.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Memes can be for good, not for evil. Every time you choose to share a meme with a friend in a way that adds to our social utility, rather than detracting from it, you strike a blow in the Great Meme War against the strongholds of hate and intolerance.
I call for a reimagination of internet culture, a true meme revolution: the right, center-right, moderates, center-left and left must rise up and seize the memes of production in a glorious battle for the very soul of the internet. It is within our grasp to reclaim memes for good, and not for evil.
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Say hello to doge, and bonjour to Kermit. Reject neo-nazi green frogs in favor of comical cat gifs. Spread the messages of love and acceptance and humor through your memes, leaving behind the chains of bigotry, discrimination, and mockery. Make the memes great again.
In the future, we will likely look back on the 2016 election as a turning point in the relationship between real-life politics and virtual memes—they surely impacted us in ways we do not yet understand. For in the 21st century, wars of ideas are fought on the internet, on those anonymous message boards, where the hearts and minds of the people find home and where Pepe the Frog finds a host.
So, global users of the internet unite! We have nothing to lose but our frogs.
David Wohlever Sánchez is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “simple complexity,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.