Click here to read GNET's latest report Emergent Technologies and Extremists: The DWeb as a New Internet Reality?

Can the Right Meme? (And How?): A Comparative Analysis of Three Online Reactionary Meme Subcultures

Can the Right Meme? (And How?): A Comparative Analysis of Three Online Reactionary Meme Subcultures
13th December 2021 GNET Team
In Report-Gnet

The Executive Summary and Overview is also available in French, German, Arabic, Indonesian and Japanese.

Please read on for the Overview.

This report analyses memes propagated among three online socio‐political groups drawn from sample datasets pulled from social media sites often used by adherents of each group. These groups include those connected to the India‐based Hindutva, US‐based neo‐Nazis and those engaging in pro‐Rittenhouse communications in late 2020. The authors chose the groups based on similarities in their ideological goals, race‐based nationalism and their close association with political violence in their respective countries.

The first set of memes the authors analysed came from the Indian political group Hindutva. Hindutva, also known as Hindu Nationalism, is a ethno‐religious ideology that maintains that India should be a homeland for Hindus above all other religions. Despite the emphasis on Hinduism and Hindus, Hindutvadis, the followers of Hindutva, view Hindus not simply as a religious group, but rather a race in which Hinduism encompasses the faith, symbols and culture of the Hindu people and their homeland in the Indian nation. Through this conception of race, Christianity and Islam are viewed as foreign faiths and cultures that were forcibly imposed on the Hindu people; the loyalties of adherents to these other faiths lie in other countries rather than to the Hindu symbols that represent the Hindu nation. Indeed, one of the original intellectuals of the Hindutva movement, Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar, was an atheist. The movement originated during India’s late colonial period when many of its ideologues called for the establishment of a Hindu state. In particular, they viewed Islam and Christianity as alien to the country; Christian and Muslim loyalties and dedication to the state were considered questionable at best. In the early years of Indian independence, the movement was marginalised, largely due to the fact that a Hindutva adherent assassinated Gandhi in 1948. Due to their initial marginalisation, the left‐liberal hegemony over mainstream media in India and other factors, the various groups of the Hindutva movement sought alternative platforms and learned to use new technologies to spread their messages. The Hindutva presence on the Internet and on social media platforms is particularly intense, especially compared with other political parties and movements in India. During the 1990s Hindutva achieved mainstream success in the political arena and now its political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is the hegemonic political party in India. This puts Hindutva at a unique vantage point. The movement currently controls much of the discourse in traditional media, social media and political mobilisation on the ground. Hindutva is important in this investigation due to its identitarian focus and access to state power.

Neo‐Nazis, the second group in our analysis, are a heterogeneous set of online fascist communities with a long list of enemies and social grievances. The study conducted here is primarily focused on the neo‐Nazi gatherings that have emerged from the 2016‐era Alt‐Right and their subsequent evolutions, which has created several sects of neo‐Nazi online and offline activism. Those covered here include absurdist ‘shock’ neo‐Nazi content, accelerationist ultra‐violent neo‐Nazis, Hispanic neo‐Nazi Catholic posting and white‐power specific groups, all of which are directly addressing a US audience. These groups sometimes overlap but just as often are sectarian, competing with one another and especially with conservatives and libertarians who do not explicitly share their politics. The neo‐Nazis are key in this investigation due to their highly violent rhetoric and clandestine organising. In offline settings they often act in private or otherwise seek anonymity, yet are unafraid to engage in violent actions, causing direct bodily harm to their enemies or whomever they perceive as their opposition. Some actors from within this milieu gain access to power or resources, but usually do this by publicly concealing their privately held beliefs.

Kyle Rittenhouse is a teenager involved in the lethal shooting of two demonstrators and the maiming of a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following a Black Lives Matter‐themed uprising in the city. After the shooting, a community formed around Rittenhouse with significant overlap with US conservative activism. Chief among these groups are those connected with movements attempting to counter Black Lives Matter political messaging, supporting unfettered access to firearms via the Second Amendment and promoting nationalist (or self‐described patriot) movements in the USA. The contemporary Republican Party acts as a conduit for the ideologies and political goals of these groups. Political activism around Rittenhouse is not so much an ideology as it is a unifying aesthetic between many different movements with which the nationalist socio‐political groups find great affinity. Rittenhouse memes represent a convergence of meme creator communities rather than a specific meme creator community.

These communities seemingly engage with their audiences and among themselves in different ways. Appeals are made to an audience using various channels of identity and worldview, be that political, cultural or otherwise. Reactionary movements are often exclusionary in nature; therefore, actors tend to identify and target out‐groups. Finally, these actors often promote violence, expressing support for violence against their political enemies or alternatively decrying and highlighting violence against their group by the groups they oppose.

Read full report View infographic