SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump seems rather fond of memes. During the same week as the rare solar eclipse, he retweeted an image on his Twitter account titled “best eclipse ever,” which showed a smiling Trump passing over and covering an image of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
In July, he retweeted a controversial video showing himself tackling and pummeling a CNN logo, which received more than 600,000 likes.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump retweeting one of his supporters’ memes was a regular occurrence.
“Whenever he would retweet something that was funny, or perhaps pretty cutting or a critical attack or anything like that — those were the holy moments,” said Matt Braynard, who was Trump’s data team leader during much of the campaign.
Passing along memes that captured his ideas and persona in a clever image allowed Trump's campaign to develop an influential (and free) online army of meme-makers who worked independently of any campaign or political party, but arguably had an impact on the outcome of the 2016 election and continue to rally his base of support and rile up opponents.
But more than just a political tool, memes are the latest propaganda weapon in the decades-old culture war over the hearts and minds of extreme right- and left-leaning Americans, observers of online culture say. The internet has not only facilitated memes’ growth and spread, but also led to increasingly radicalized echo chambers on both sides of the fight, energizing keyboard warriors to go offline and face off against their perceived enemies in the streets.
“It’s not that surprising young people are discussing politics the same way they are discussing everything else — on the internet, with memes,” said Luke Simcoe, a journalist turned advocate for using technology for the common good. “And now they’re leaving their keyboards and going out and doing something about it.”
While the word meme likely brings to mind share-worthy online images with amusing captions, the term is actually much older. In 1976, biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins first coined the term in his book, The Selfish Gene, characterizing a meme as an idea or piece of culture that could spread across human networks from one mind to another, as a sort of thought virus.
In an article on memes during the presidential race, Politico noted the Jesus fish or Uncle Sam as examples of familiar pre-internet memes.
With the advent of the internet and its ability to supercharge communication to worldwide audiences with a single click, memes have spread faster and wider than ever.
One particular website, 4chan, helped pioneer and perfect this new form of spreading ideas.
“4chan is kind of where it all originated from — memes, everything,” Simcoe said.
An image board website that features freewheeling, anonymous discussion on a broad range of topics, 4chan launched in 2003 as a place to discuss Japanese anime, a unique style of animation. Since the site is fully anonymous and doesn’t offer registration, 4chan users often refer to each other as “anon” for short.
4chan’s discussion boards quickly expanded to cover a wide range of topics, and developed a reputation as the Wild West of the internet, where trolling — provocation for its own sake — is a key part of user interaction.
Simcoe, who received his master’s degree from Ryerson University, wrote his thesis on the website and its often volatile, normie-hating culture — 4chan-speak for normal, everyday people.
“People say things that are horrible and offensive,” Simcoe said. “They use it as a kind of barrier to filter out everyday internet users who might not want to participate."
Visitors to the website are often greeted by a barrage of Nazi iconography, gruesome and violent images, pornography, obscenity and unbridled racism — which may or may not be a joke.
“There was always the issue of, OK, well, are we just being ironic Nazis here or are we being actual Nazis?” said David Auerbach, a writer and expert on internet culture. “Certainly, if I look on some of these boards now, it seems a lot less ironic than it did back then.”
4chan is also home to the internet’s hard-core pranksters — the site spawned the hacktivist group Anonymous — and there is a long, sordid history of 4chan users engaging in sustained mischief, hacking and bullying campaigns against whoever incurs their wrath.
“Anyone who was really concerned about anything or took anything too seriously was a target of ire derision, trolling and raids and all that kind of stuff from 4chan” users, Simcoe said.
While trafficking in often unsavory content, 4channers spawned various staples of today's mainstream internet culture — such as a web-wide obsession with cats, as seen in lolcat memes, and the popularity of rage comics.
“4chan used to be this space apart — this oasis of weird — separate from the rest of the internet,” Simcoe said. “But much of the culture that started there has now permeated internet culture.”
But more than just creating jokes and influencing the wider culture of the internet, when 4chan’s users put their minds toward something, they’ve been able to wield remarkable crowdsourced power.
In one infamous thread, an ISIS training video from Syria was posted online. Within hours, the combined power of anonymous users had found the location of the terrorist camp after scouring Google Earth for similarities to landmarks and buildings appearing in the video. Fox Weekly reported that the information was then passed on to Russian intelligence, which called in an airstrike and bombed the location later that same day.
A meme army
From this motley crew of censorship-hating internet refugees, libertarians, trolls, traditional conservatives and, in some cases, white supremacists, an uneasy alliance formed around a central figure who seemed to represent their shared interests: businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump, who was then running for president.
Simcoe said Trump’s bombastic style and over-the-top campaign rhetoric fit right in with chan culture.
“Posting on the internet in very positive terms about Trump was definitely a way to get a rise out of many online communities,” Simcoe said.
Trump was a candidate whose every phrase seemed memeable. His uncanny ability to deflect the labels and accusations of his opponents, who seemed aghast at his unprecedented political un-correctness, was a big draw. Trump operated like one of their own, the ultimate troll.
Pepe, the anthropomorphized cartoon frog co-opted by the alt-right, played a prominent role in many memes, and was eventually labeled a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, much to the delight of anons everywhere.
Most early memes originated from political discussion boards of chan sites before being disseminated through more user-friendly sites like Reddit and eventually reaching mainstream social media networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, which is where Trump occasionally shared them with his vast social media following.
A few of these organically grown memes got the then-candidate into trouble.
In July 2016, Trump came under fire after he retweeted an anti-Hillary meme originally created on 8chan — a site like 4chan, but with even more uncensored content — which featured an image of Clinton emblazoned with a Star of David symbol labeled “most corrupt candidate ever.”
The tweet was later deleted and the star— which the Trump campaign said was a sheriff's star and had no anti-semitic intentions — was replaced with a circle.
That same month, Trump himself appeared for a Q&A session on the_donald, a subforum of Reddit with nearly 500,000 subscribers who lovingly refer to him as the God Emperor. The page was a force to be reckoned with during the election, with heavily up-voted posts frequently making it to the front page of the site, where the chan-created memes could be seen by millions.
“The memes were such a tremendous distraction during the campaign,” said Matt Braynard, Trump’s campaing data manager. “They’d get enough traction, and so than rather than focusing on policy issues, Clinton would be forced to give a speech attacking a cartoon frog instead.”
An entirely new lingo of labels, insults, inside jokes and esoteric phrases grew out of the seemingly pro-Trump meme movement.
Braynard said the Trump campaign kept a close eye on its internet meme factory, which was operating under its own collective power.
“None of it was managed, it was all organic,” Braynard said. “It was sort of this whole parallel campaign of volunteers putting together funny memes and then sharing and spreading them.”
He said the campaign’s anonymous allies had a knack for recognizing which moments might have an impact. When Clinton called Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” his army of online meme-makers ran with the idea and openly embraced it. And after Clinton collapsed at a 9/11 memorial, a barrage of memes got the hashtag #hillaryshealth trending on Twitter.
“They’re able to weaponize moments and turn it into messaging, memes, they get it out there,” Braynard said. “Suddenly it is something on, as they call it, normie’s Facebook timelines, and it can be pretty persuasive if not convincing folks to come over and vote for Trump, maybe discouraging them from voting for Hillary.”
While 4chan’s crowd of jokesters were busy trolling and gradually becoming more politically active, those on the opposite end of the political spectrum were attempting to respond with their own memes, mainly through sites like Twitter and the microblogging site Tumblr.
Author Angela Nagle's recent book, Kill All Normies, makes the case that while extreme ideas from right-leaning corners of the internet — like 4chan's political board — have affected the mainstream views of the Republican Party, equally extreme and internet-borne liberal ideas have likewise affected Democrats.
During the election, the difference between the two was that right-wing memes were often gleefully offensive and over-the-top, seeking to elicit a strong reaction, which often resulted in humorous and shareable content.
In comparison, left-wing meme-makers were often unable to respond in kind, since their efforts were too cautious to elicit the reaction that an offensive meme could, experts like Nagle said, concluding that was the main reason why Clinton's followers' memes didn't get the same kind of mainstream traction as those siding with Trump.
“If you can get your opponent talking about it, you win,” Auerbach said. “So that’s one of the big things, which is that the right wing isn’t talking about the left wing’s memes, but the left wing is constantly talking about the right wing’s memes.”
He said the media’s constant coverage expressing shock and outrage at the offensive memes added fuel to the fire.
“You’ve got all these fear-mongering articles talking about how Pepe is frightening and the new Nazi symbol, but it was just free advertising,” Auerbach said. “Because it didn’t do anything to decrease usage of it, it just made people say, ‘wow, we’re getting through.’”
According to Nagle, the impact of constantly repeating extreme ideas — from both the right and the left — can be understood through a spectrum called the Overton Window. The more often that radical ideas are disseminated, the more normal and acceptable those unthinkable ideas become to the public in comparison.
“Discourse gets legitimated by becoming common, and the more people you think are saying a thing, the more likely you are to think it’s OK,” Simcoe said.
Auerbach said the inherent echo chambers of the internet only serve to further enhance this phenomenon.
“There are outlets that only get shared among the left and outlets that only get shared among the right,” Auerbach said. “It’s not the algorithms of the technology that create the bubbles that people live in, they do it themselves.”
The future of memes?
Seven months into Trump’s presidency, the extreme online rhetoric from both sides has transitioned offline and into the real world. Observers of online culture cite as an example the clashes in mid-August at a white supremacist rally over the removal of a Confederate statue. The conflict resulted in the death of a 32-year old woman in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In response to debates over who was at fault, chan users continue to uncover the identities and whereabouts of violent, left-wing protesters, and posting online identifying details like tattoos, eye color and hairstyles gleaned from images captured at the event.
Some credit 4chaners for criminal charges against a man who allegedly attacked right-wing participants at a rally in Berkeley, California, earlier this year.
While Trump continues to retweet and reference memes created by 4chaners and distributed by his supporters, some post-election memes from the opposing side are breaking through.
"We're seeing this happen on the left too, like the 'nevertheless she persisted' meme," Simcoe said, referring to a recent, popular meme based on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's silencing of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren during Senate debates over the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Which side of culture war politics will prevail in the near future is anyone's guess.
Braynard said the favor of fickle internet masses is not an easy thing for politicians to predict — or to control.
He said that just a few years ago, the internet community seemed very much in Obama's camp, excited and enthused about hope and change, a prominent meme from the 2008 election. He said he has seen the idealogical shift between the right- and left-wing politics several times.8 comments on this story
“The internet hivemind is favoring right-wing nationalist politics right now, perhaps, but these things operate in a pendulum,” Braynard said. “It’s really not the kind of thing you can bottle and market and sell, and (Trump's election) in many ways is a once in a lifetime, once in a history campaign.”
Simcoe expects internet-borne memes — from both sides — to continue to have a major political impact in the future.
“This is how cultural communication exchange happens now, among a certain influential group of people,” Simcoe said. “Memes might well become a component of political discourse just going forward, forever.”