Internet memes are an important means of visual communication for the far-right. As American white supremacist Richard Spencer bragged to an interviewer in 2016: “we ‘memed’ alt-right into existence.”
Research has shown the far-right uses memes to repackage their ideology – making fascism, racism and white supremacy more palpable to broader audiences.
While this may hold for amorphous virtual communities of the far-right, what role do memes play for the organisational layer of varied national far-rights? How do social movements in Italy, neo-Nazi groups in Germany or Australia, and far-right alternative media in the US deploy memes as part of a broader repertoire of visual communications online – and what, if anything, do they have in common when it comes to their digital visual culture?
We explore these questions in a recent article, analysing the digital visual cultures of 25 far-right organisations in Australia, Germany, Italy and the United States. To do so, we built an original dataset collection based on images they had posted to their Facebook, Twitter and public Telegram channels over an 18-month period from January 2019 to June 2020.
What’s in a Meme?
Internet memes are groups of digital items that share common characteristics constituting a template, created and circulated with awareness of each other. Memes are created by individuals and organisations and often have an ironic or humorous tone.
They can range from crudely drawn computer cartoons like Wojak or Pepe the Frog, photoshopped images like LOLCats and offline actions like planking or the ice bucket challenge, to remixes of popular culture drawn from video games or film.
Internet memes matter as they have repeatedly been highlighted as an important vector of far-right recruitment and radicalisation. By drawing on widely-recognisable artifacts of Internet culture, the far right uses memes to make their message more accessible, while using the ironic distance and ambiguity central to the meme as a genre to downplay or sidestep charges of racism and extremism.
Memes and the Far-Right
Despite our expectations, we found that Internet memes actually constituted only a very small amount of the overall visual material posted by the far-right organisations in our dataset. While their digital visual cultures are rich and varied – often relying on a mix of image genres including photography, political posters, and other promotional materials – memes comprise only a small percentage of this.
Where memes do appear, they generally correspond to particular geographical and organisational configurations.
Use of Internet memes was largely limited to Australia and the United States. Despite the potential of a transnational Internet culture underwriting memes, even in the few instances where Italian or German organisations had posted them, these memes relied on Anglo-centric references, like stills from Hollywood films.
Further, meme usage was tied to type of organisation, with the overwhelming majority of memes in our data originating from far-right alternative media.
On the one hand, this points to the role of alternative media as entry points to a broader far-right milieu. Keeping with our understanding of the use of memes in far-right communication, these alternative media organisations deploy memes as a way of appealing to audiences beyond the far right.
At the same time, their concentration in the Anglosphere and among alternative media outlets, indicates different approaches to communication and recruitment in different settings. Where American and Australian alternative media look in part to “meme magic” to get their message out, others, and particularly the Italian and German organisations in our data, adopt a more serious tone emphasising visuals of offline collective action like photographs of carefully choreographed protest.
Understanding Far-Right Digital Visual Culture
More generally, the digital visual cultures of these 25 far-right organisations share compositional and thematic elements, even if we find little evidence of direct transnational linkage, such as reproducing the same or similar images across borders.
Even without direct communicative interaction or sharing, many far-right organisations produce and distribute visual media around similar themes and in similar ways, while using their own nationally specific symbols. For example, each celebrates their nationally distinct ‘heroes’, with Italian organisations venerating Italian soldiers of World War One and Two, while American and Australian organisations memorialise the violent colonisation of their continents by Europeans.
There is also a shared symbolic lexicon lending itself to distinct visual discourses. For example, fascist and neo-Nazi symbols like the swastika can be found across all countries and though largely limited to those explicitly fascist or neo-Nazi groups in our sample, it works to draw a continuity between the activists today and their fascist forebears.
Likewise, motifs drawn from Greco-Roman antiquity and Christianity are employed across the far right as a means of constructing a shared civilisational identity, rooted in a mythologised vision of a racial pure and ancient European homeland. Both nevertheless serve to reinforce exclusionary collective identities based on entrenched ideologies like neo-Nazism and white supremacy.
What our research highlights is that while memes are an important site of critical research into the communicative ecologies of the far right today, memes are only one part of a broader far-right digital visual culture.
Despite their centrality to far-right communication at the individual or sub-cultural level, for example on forums like 4chan, memes do not play such a significant role in the organisational layer of the far-right on the platforms we examined.
But, for those organisations incorporating memes into their visual culture, they still fulfill important communicative functions, leveraging the ironic and humorous tone of memes to make far-right messaging more digestible. In this respect, memes remain an important – but not isolated – tool in the digital visual culture of far-right organisations.