September 28, 2022

Memes, like jokes, are often depicted as mostly harmless and incapable of exerting political influence. But recent elections have demonstrated organizers can easily leverage them to build political movements, spread group narratives and influence voters.

On Sept. 28, PolitiFact Senior Correspondent Jon Greenberg interviewed the authors of “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America.” Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg of the Shorenstein Center, which explores the intersection of press, politics and public policy, defined memes and discussed their political significance and conservative organizers’ widespread adoption of them.

“It’s a unit of culture passed between groups and passed between generations,” said Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center, referring to the original definition of “meme,” which was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “For us, the most important thing about memes in general is that they don’t just appear, they resonate. They inspire some kind of emotional component, which could then lead you to take action.”

Donovan cited Uncle Sam and the Occupy Wall Street movement as two examples of memetic ideas. While memes can be macro images with overlaid text, Donovan said, they can also be hashtags, slogans or anything that resonates.

“What it has to be is an idea that is sticky, memorable; it has to be compact; it has to be easy to reuse,” Donovan said. “How you react to it can tell someone what kind of group you’re in and not in.”

Friedberg, a Shorenstein researcher, described how, when writing the book, he and his co-authors viewed the Occupy movement as a template for the right’s use of “meme warfare.”

“One of the ways we looked at Occupy was how a lot of the right learned from Occupy, even as they were condemning it,” Friedberg said. “This idea of how to take a decentralized movement, foster it, but also to sort of glean the best of it and have it trade up the chain in mainstream political communication.”

“We concentrate a lot on Andrew Breitbart and his friendship with Steve Bannon,” Donovan said, referring to the conservative Breitbart News site’s founder and the former Trump administration adviser. “They made a movie about Occupy Wall Street where they actually focused on anti-media campaigns and the kinds of media manipulation that happened during Occupy.”

Donovan cited an email hoax in which Occupy organizers were tricked into believing the rock band Radiohead would be playing at the protests as an example of Breitbart and Bannon learning “that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” (The quote came from a famous cartoon in The New Yorker.)

“All of that organizing power that we saw in 2016 around MAGA and the alt-right, it’s no surprise to us that Bannon is undergirding that,” Donovan said.

Friedberg said that much of the language and mannerisms brought into the mainstream during the Donald Trump’s make America great again, aka MAGA, movement were developed online during the Gamergate harassment campaign.

“The phrase ‘social justice warrior’ became very popular around then and that language was sort of harnessed by folks who would then immediately go into the early stages of the Trump supporters,” Friedberg said.

Donovan also described memes’ ability to function as a dog whistle, simultaneously garnering in-group support and recognition without attracting out-group attention.

“Memes do this thing where if you know what the meme’s about, you’re in the community, you get it. Or if you understand it and you’re against it, it makes you mad.” said Donovan. “Dog whistles can be very much something if you don’t know what you’re hearing, you miss it, but if you know, it’s a wink and a nod.”

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Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

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