Humour is a staple of life found in in-person interactions and in virtual environments. Many of us have viewed, shared, and laughed at funny cat videos, along with memes like Lolcat and I Can Has Cheezburger?, while in 2014, we snickered and felt good about people raising money and posting videos of themselves being doused in ice water for the #ALSIceBucketChallenge.
Years of electronic ethnographic research reveals that the appeal of humourous content has not been ignored by terrorist and extremist movements online. Although humourous content can be taken at face-value, it can also be employed to impart messages beyond an initial meaning while conveying ideas significant to an ideology.
The use of humourous and sarcastic discourse is commonly seen in right-wing extremist content online, while also being found in jihadist content. Examples include images, gifs, stickers, and user discussions, with humourous material frequently being found in Internet memes across ideologies from far-right to jihadist. Zakem, McBride, and Hammerberg note that memes often use sarcasm, humour, and irony as a way of creating emotional resonance in audiences. Although this applies to memes in general, memes associated with extremist movements, oftentimes are embedded with underlying sinister narratives masked in humour.
The most known example of an Internet meme and its shift from harmless to disturbing, is “Pepe the Frog.” Originally a comic character from “Boy’s Club,” Pepe later became an Internet meme sensation, with versions of Pepe the Frog including, Angry Pepe, Feels Bad Man/Sad Frog, Smug Frog, and Feels Good Man, along with other iterations of Pepe posted on platforms like 4chan, 8chan, Tumblr, Reddit, Imgur, Instagram, Twitter among others.
At first, Pepe memes were harmless, being posted by users and celebrities to express various feelings and thoughts. For instance, in 2014, Katy Perry posted a Feels Bad Man/Sad Frog on Twitter, using it to refer to jet lag. In 2016, Pepe also became politically charged when Donald Trump Jr. posted The Deplorables meme on Instagram in response to controversial comments made by Hillary Clinton regarding Trump supporters. The meme plays off the 2010 film The Expendables, showing Donald Trump Jr., Pepe, then Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, and other “hard working men,” including provocative figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, and Alex Jones. However, just as Internet users adapted Pepe memes to communicate their emotions and political leanings, the alt-right embraced Pepe creating malevolent versions with anti-Semitic and racist subtexts so much so, that in 2016, the Anti-Defamation League placed Pepe the Frog on its list of hate symbols.
Addressing more specific extremist movements, one could argue that the loosely organised Boogaloo movement, a fringe movement adhering to broadly far-right, pro-gun, anti-government, and anti-police sentiments, gained momentum from jokes and humourous memes based off of the 1984 sequel film, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. From 1984 onwards, the movie’s title was manipulated for amusing purposes including during a 2014, Comedy Central, Twitter hashtag game where users posted funny book-themed renditions of the title, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 2: Electric Boogaloo,” “The Bible II: Electric Boogaloo,” and “Lord of the Flies 2: Electric Boogaloo.” Although these renditions display the vast appeal of humourous title adaptations of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, one specific version, Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo, originally favoured by gamers and other fringe communities, was adopted by gun rights activists bent on using violence if the government of the United States were to restrict gun ownership and infringe on Second Amendment rights. This concept of a sequel to the American Civil War, pushed the term “boogaloo” into becoming a subcultural reference for an impending second civil war in the U.S., with the concept spreading broadly from gun rights activists, to militias, to white supremacists, with the later altering the concept of “boogaloo,” to refer to a race war.
Although specific ideologies of adherents also known as boogaloo bois differ widely, the overarching theme of the movement focuses on preparing for, encouraging, and inciting a second civil war in the U.S. Boogaloo-associated memes tend to reference real-world events with sarcastic and violent undertones, usually tinged with cynical humour. This includes but is not limited to promoting chaos around current events, and in the past number of months there has been an emphasis on stay-at-home orders and other restrictions due to COVID-19, along with Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Wiggins argues that behaviours related with boogaloo memes include embedded metaphors, symbols, narratives, and juxtaposition, along with the term “boogaloo” itself, represents a “kind of activism hidden in plain sight.”
Like much of the humourous content associated with extremism online, including that found in Boogaloo-associated memes, veiled encouragement is part and parcel of employing humour as a form of persuasive rhetoric for encouraging action and violence. This tactic also offers a level of plausible deniability to content creators if someone were to commit an act of violence, since one could argue that the content was just a joke.
Aside from its suggestive elements, what makes humourous extremist content online troubling? In Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right, Woods and Hahner argue that memes are successful rhetorical tools in two ways: they create collectives, while also dividing people through antagonistic methods, both of which can foster notions of in-groups, out-groups, along with dehumanisation. As Bandura contends, dehumanisation allows for moral disengagement, which in turn can justify inhumane conduct towards individuals and those considered the “other.”
Memes and humourous content associated with Islamic State (IS) supporters online tend to amplify such rhetoric using anti-Shiite narratives and promoting violence against so-called rejectors (rafidah), apostates (murtadeen), and nonbelievers (kuffar). Although less current event-centric than boogaloo content, humourous IS content has been observed in narrative surrounding COVID-19. Memes then become persuasive tools not only for suggesting beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours, but also helping shape extremist virtual communities.
Overall, right-wing extremist content online has had an advantage compared to content linked to terrorist organisations, the latter being easily and legally removable due to social media and tech company terms of service, along with many terrorist groups such as IS, being designated on the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Because right-wing extremist movements lack such designations in the U.S. (due in part to the politically charged nature of such a task), propaganda of right-wing extremist movements, has had a more stable presence online, especially in the U.S. under First Amendment rights. Thus, some content is not as easily removable as others. Additionally, extremist content online with the added layer of wit, can sometimes blur the lines of hateful or harmful speech. Tactically, this is one reason why it is used.
With that being said, on 30 June 2020, Facebook announced that it was banning a “violent US-based anti-government network” that employs the term boogaloo while on 6 October 2020, Facebook also banned all QAnon accounts, pages, and groups on Facebook and Instagram. In addition, on 21 October 2020, TikTok revealed that it was taking action against “coded language and symbols that can normalize hateful speech and behaviour” associated with ideologies and movements including white nationalism, white genocide theory, male supremacy, and Identitarianism. Consequently, updated policies are beginning to slowly change virtual environments for non-jihadist and non-designated movements. It may be argued that this is long overdue. In this ever-changing environment, it will be interesting to see how humourous content associated with extremist movements is addressed.