With the advent of Web 2.0, memes have become a popular means of communication. Primarily taking the form of an image with text, memes used to be an innocent way to share jokes and to commentate on particular cultural phenomenona. But this innocence has been lost; instead memes have become Janus-faced in nature. They have become a strategic tool for political purpose, with the power to disrupt public discourse and shape public opinion. A rapid increase in the use of political vocabulary in memes was noted during the 2016 US presidential elections. Terms such as “racism” and “white supremacy” exploded with increased usage of 6,000% and 11,000% respectively. With a generation of social media users who prefer pictures to text, extremists make use of memes as a central weapon in online warfare. In their Manual for Media Guerrillas, the German far-right group Generation D spells out that images allow for “excellent memetic warfare and bring our narratives to the people.” The Christchurch attacker, Brenton Tarrant, also called upon others to “create memes, post memes, and spread memes. Memes have done more for the ethno-nationalist movement than any manifesto.” The neo-Nazi blog The Daily Stormer features a “Memetic Monday”, diffusing dozens of memes across social platforms. The German Reconquista Germanica ‘memelord’ was responsible for the dissemination of memes produced in their meme factory.
Extremist memes combine alleged fun with violence and hate speech. For example, the Christchurch attacker is labelled “the Kiwi Kebab Killer” in memes and he described himself as a “kebab removalist”, thereby referring to cleanse the land of people adhering to the Islamic faith. Efforts to transform the Christchurch attack into a real-world meme are not only morbid, but highly dangerous. Displaying the terrorist attack in memes reduces the psychological barriers to openly discuss certain topics, and eventually to engage in violent acts. The Russian owned website and app iFunny is among those forums that have become increasingly popular with the far-right: Some members have potential linkages to the recently dissolved neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division. It further featured channels like ArmyOfChrist, belonging to the 18-year old Justin Olson who was imprisoned after law enforcement seized a considerable number of weapons from his home, with around 5,000 subscribers and the white nationalist propaganda channel Traditional_Nationalist, with almost 20,000 subscribers.
By hijacking these webpages and strategically placing hate-filled memes in these forums, normal users are ‘collaterally’ exposed to the far-right ideology. Milder versions are used as “gateway drugs” to hard extremist content, and they lure users into echo-chambers. Through coordinated, collective digital action and targeted efforts, such as by Reconquista Germanica, simple memes can have far-reaching consequences. Memes are often part of shitposting efforts, which prevent fact-based debates and positive political exchange and spread disinformation. The humoristic aspects carry another advantage for extremists, as it opens up a back door. Labelling the meme retrospectively as “satire” gives them the opportunity to claim, “it wasn’t meant like that.” Even if publishers backpedal from the meme, its content has already been shared successfully and the underlying message transmitted, and criticism is often brushed off without consequence. This dual nature of memes makes them highly effective in digital warfare.
Their quick online diffusion and humoristic aspects are thus a highly effective tool in winning over the hearts and minds of people. The interpersonal aspect, being shared between individuals, makes memes considerably more influential than general disseminated content. The effortless adaption of style and aesthetic of memes to appeal to different audiences, which can be done by everyone, everywhere, makes them a digital weapon.
Recognizing the far-reaching power of memes is critical, because they have risen to be a central form of communication. Additionally, images influence how we see the world and thus influence our worldviews. The rising exposure to far-right memes and their rapid diffusion make violent ideologies more common. The problem is that we are not yet ready to deal with memes as tools of warfare. It remains difficult to differentiate between jokes and serious hate speech in memes. For artificial intelligence this task remains nearly impossible, as images and symbols are also used in other, harmless memes. While big tech companies are facing considerable challenges ahead to fight the meme war, there also seems to be a lack of preparation for new digital efforts in this realm. As long as this is the case, we need deeper engagement with civil society organisations and governments to promote critical thinking and Internet literacy. Societal efforts are increasingly important to stop the targeted and collateral dissemination of extremist ideology online through memes.