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Sept. 21, 2022, 2:37 p.m.
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“You don’t know which side is playing you”: The authors of Meme Wars have some advice for journalists

“The media treating Twitter like an assignment editor is one of the fundamental errors that enabled meme warriors to play everyone.”

In 2019, after BuzzFeed and Verizon Media announced a combined 1,000 layoffs on the same day, many people who had shared their layoffs on Twitter were inundated with replies telling them to “learn to code.”

It wasn’t just ill-timed career advice. It was a targeted harassment campaign against media workers that was organized on 4chan by people on the right who hate the mainstream media.

Memes have been used to target marginalized groups for at least a decade now. A new book by researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy documents how memes and the online communities that produce them sow disinformation and erode trust in the government and the mainstream media. Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America explains how the “Stop the Steal” movement — the false idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from former president Donald Trump — started online and resulted in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and used examples from Gamergate, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency to develop its playbook.

Meme wars are culture wars, the authors write — “accelerated and intensified because of the infrastructure and incentives of the internet, which trades outrage and extremity as currency, rewards speed and scale, and flatten the experience of the world into a never-ending scroll of images and words.”

In April 2020, co-authors Joan Donovan, the research director at Shorenstein, and Brian Friedberg, a Harvard ethnographer studying online fringe communities, launched a newsletter, “Meme War Weekly,” “that got really grim very quickly,” they told me. It was impossible to write about the political impact of memes on a week-by-week basis without noticing their significant social and political impacts over time. Their Media Manipulation Casebook, a series of case studies published in October 2020, was a precursor to their new book.

I caught up with Donovan, Friedberg, and Emily Dreyfuss, a technology journalist and 2018 Nieman Fellow, to talk about their book and what journalists can learn from the last 10 years of memes to inform their future coverage of American democracy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: At what point in your research did you realize you had a book on your hands?

Joan Donovan: It was the night of January 6. Brian, Emily, and I were hosting an open Zoom room where journalists were coming in and out and we were talking about the significance of Stop the Steal, these kinds of hashtag movements that had been popping up, and the role that right wing media had played in fomenting such an attack on the U.S. Capitol. We all decided that there was a book here.

In 2016, I had written an article in MIT Tech Review about meme wars in the 2016 election. We had a lot of interesting data lying around and wanted to put it into an internet history. We realized very quickly that our starting point would be the Occupy Wall Street movement and the use of memes to mobilize people in that moment in 2011. Many of the books and writings about the Occupy movement didn’t attend to the fact that it was just as mobilizing for the right as it was for the left. And so we wanted to begin with our understanding of where Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon, and Alex Jones got their foothold in social media and meme wars.

Emily Dreyfuss: [On] January 6, people were asking questions like “How could this be happening?” We were seeing the memes that we had been tracing through Meme Wars Weekly appear on people’s clothing and in the livestream comments. We were also getting so many questions directly from journalists and people who wanted to know Joan and our team’s take — questions like, “How could this event happen? This seems to be coming out of nowhere.”

It wasn’t out of nowhere, but hearing people ask how it could be happening really clarified for me that we actually do know, [whereas many] other people don’t know. Joan and Brian’s research about meme wars had been ongoing for years, but it struck us that this was the perfect vehicle to explain something that other people thought was unexplainable. That night, we wrote the outline for the book.

Tameez: After writing this, what are your takeaways about where we stand as a society, as a democracy?

Brian Friedberg: In these last few months leading up to the midterms, political communication and messaging are clearly trending toward polarization. But then you get big media institutions like CNN signaling a change in tone and focus over where they might have been in the last four years under Trump. There’s also a lot of fatigue within parts of the right with Trump himself, and an understanding that there’s not just a battle for the Republican Party but a battle for the future of MAGA playing out [among] different factions of broadcasters, influencers, and political candidates.

What are the comparable big movements within [the Democratic Party’s political communication]? You have the much discussed adoption of the Dark Brandon meme by more mainstream Democratic figures, potentially signaling an entrance into the meme wars. We have yet to see if that’s actually going to impact the midterms. But there is definitely [increasing] adoption of “us versus them” messaging among most political factions in the U.S. I think we saw the foundation for that in the 10 years leading up to the book.

Dreyfuss: As the normie on the team, one of the things I learned through while researching this book was just how many communities have lost faith in the power and credibility of institutions in general.

The media itself is a proxy for all types of institutions, including academia and government. I was awakened to that through the course of researching this book, and then I couldn’t unsee it. With Roe v. Wade and what’s going on with the Supreme Court in the U.S. right now, I think we’re watching that lack of trust in the system increasing on the left, as well as the right. Our book focuses a lot on the right, and there are a lot of people who feel that way on the right, but in the U.S., a lot of people feel that way on the left as well.

Tameez: Where do you think the press first went wrong?

Donovan: In the book we talk about significant moments of meme warfare occurring around Obama, particularly the way in which he was caricatured using Joker memes, [and] the conspiracy theories, particularly birtherism, that plagued his tenure as president.

One of the things that is important to understand here is that memes don’t just come in the form of an image with some quippy text. They’re viral slogans, too. They’re the activation of people’s confirmation bias and stereotypes. As we watched political opponents begin to memeify one another and push these tropes — some with the intention of sowing disinformation, others with the intention of spreading propaganda — I think many journalists were initially very dismissive.

One big example is the way in which the alt-right arrived in the media landscape. It’s not that journalists were unable to understand the rise of a white supremacist movement, but they refused to call it what it was. Instead, they used the branding and memes that had been drudged up by these groups that were specifically seeking to rebrand themselves…they didn’t know they were being played.

So you saw the rise, not just of the alt-right, but of a key figure in the alt-right with Richard Spencer, who was able to use all of that media attention to garner and recruit people into this movement, which then manifested and moved [into the real world] at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where many people were injured and a woman died.

When we’re trying to understand where the media is culpable in meme wars, it’s not just that they dropped the ball, but also that some in the mainstream media thought use of the term “alt-right” wasn’t something that they needed to concern themselves with. In doing so, they spread the meme very far.

Dreyfuss: During those periods of time, I was a reporter and an editor at Wired. Internet culture was treated, for a very long time, like its own side beat. If it was happening online, it would go into the tech section of a newspaper and not be treated with the gravitas that, perhaps, [it might get] if someone was making those statements on television or in other legacy formats. And then the press became very attuned to Twitter trends.

The media treating Twitter like an assignment editor is one of the fundamental errors that enabled meme warriors to play everyone. It showed that if they could get [something] to trend enough, then they’d get a story about it. In the era of social media taking all the ad sales out of journalism, it became even more important for journalists to write more, have a lot of content, and be covering the thing that everyone was talking about, which then created a snowball effect.

If something trended and someone covered it, a million other people covered it as well. It really reinforced things like the term “alt-right,” and if you then asked where the term “alt-right” even came from, it was very hard to find the origin because of all that content that used the term without questioning it. At Wired, we used “alt-right” for a very long time until it occurred to us: “Whoa, wait, is this a problematic phrase?” But at that point, we’d already written a million articles adding to the problem.

Tameez: In the book, you write about “hate facts,” or misrepresented statistics and pseudoscience that often come up in these communities and target marginalized people. What role does the press play in perpetuating those?

Friedberg: Things like crime statistics — real or fudged — or statistics about genomics and IQ keep resurfacing. It’s old stuff. Contemporary, blatantly racialized social science is not acceptable anymore, which is why they keep going back to the past, despite it being debunked by so many informal and formal sources. Things like scientific racism and gender essentialism keep coming up because we haven’t empowered the folks that they hurt systemically.

One of the concurrent problems with the media coverage is that there will often be stand-ins, particularly in the right-wing press. Instead of saying “Black people” are doing something, they’ll say “inner city” or “Chicago.” While they might not be directly quoting these [hate facts], they all line up with the comment sections and the Facebook shares. There’s a lot of informal knowledge-making that happens underneath the mainstream news stories that the outlets aren’t necessarily responsible for. One of the things that we’ve talked about is how the alt-right comment bombed and raided the comment sections of the conservative press, which is why a lot of comments sections on websites disappeared.

So there are placeholder words and frames that are being accepted, and a lot of uncritical adoption of official statements and statements by police that further criminalize marginalized communities. I think that’s the next frontier that needs to be addressed [and understood]: That this stuff feeds into narratives that keep people impoverished and oppressed.

Dreyfuss: These narratives get into the mindsets and brains of editors and reporters, so one other thing to look at is which stories get written and which don’t. That’s one of the main ways that the press can and does perpetuate many of these narratives. There was a ton of coverage of Antifa and violence during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. In fact, violence at those protests was extremely rare; it was an outlier, but the press is trained to report on outliers. That is a major problem. We write the story that’s odd — and if everyone writes about the odd story, it seems common.

Tameez: What do you think are the major takeaways for journalists from Meme Wars?

Donovan: Reporting on the meme wars is hard because you don’t know which side is playing you, in the moment. A lot of times, it only becomes apparent after the fact. Journalists might see something come up and think it’s interesting. But they don’t understand is that it might be part of a manipulation campaign, targeting them directly as journalists.

[Journalists need to ask]: Is calling attention to these memes going to improve the audience’s understanding? And then, is covering this going to be damaging in some way? Is it going to give oxygen to those who are trying to wage culture wars?

The point at which journalists should pay attention to these things is always a tough call, unfortunately. But we’ve noticed over the years that the far right is going to lie to you about who they are. They’re going to lie to you about their intentions are, because their views are fringe, unethical, and antisocial. Journalists are going to have to learn the methods of digital internet forensics and become much more adept at internet sleuthing if they’re going to survive writing about these meme wars. We caution journalists not to get into things that they don’t quite understand.

My broad advice to journalists is to get to know your beat, and to stay on top of those who are using media manipulation, disinformation, and meme wars to carry out their politics or to make a profit.

Tameez: Some people say that there’s no difference between “culture” and “internet culture” anymore because the internet is a driving part of our lives and society. Does that logic apply to meme wars, too?

Dreyfuss: We find that meme wars are an evolution of culture wars. But the creation of and mass scaling of social media, the infrastructure of the social internet, and the way those things put the power to reach billions of people in everyone’s hands has changed the nature of the way those culture wars can be fought online. They amplified the role that memes can play because of the format.

The impact of meme wars, central to the book, is Joan’s theory that meme wars drive something online to happen in the real world. The meme wars fail if something doesn’t happen in the real world, because the point of them is not to just be online, but to actually influence culture.

Donovan: I would add that there’s no more “offline.” If you’re a child of the early internet days of AOL, it was very clear when you were online, because you literally were plugged into a phone line that was plugged into the wall. We started the book with the Occupy Wall Street movement because it was the first huge instance in the U.S. of social media moving into public spaces and promoting civil disobedience.

Tameez: What is your tech stack? How do you protect yourselves online and mentally?

Donovan: I’d rather not reveal it. We use a mishmash of corporate products that delete content from the internet or make it difficult to collect our phone records, email addresses, and whatnot. We also have physical security protocols that make it more difficult for people to access us. Then we have some friendly people who monitor these spaces and keep an eye out for our names and information about people on our teams. That’s about all I’m willing to say about that publicly.

The work is rewarding when you see things getting done that are outside of your purview. As researchers, we know the work that we do is of global importance. When journalists give us feedback saying that they were able to write better stories because of our research, when technologists say they were able to create better software because of our work, when civil society actors say they were able to influence culture or policy in certain directions, when members of Congress say thank you for the research that we do — that, to me, is a really important protective element.

If we were doing this work and sort of screaming into the void and watching as democracies fail, it would be hard to keep doing it. But we know the work that we’re doing is getting taken up by important decision-makers and stakeholders, and is protecting other people from going through some of these very damaging campaigns. There’s a sense of justice in the work that you don’t get from many other jobs.

Dreyfuss: There is power in explaining something that is happening in the world and figuring it out. The existence of this book, and a lot of the work that we do as a team, is about recognizing that something is happening and figuring out why. Life is full of unknowable things and unknown things. There is some power and calmness that comes from [the recognition] that this is not an unknowable problem.

Friedberg: I almost exclusively consume some kind of indie media. At this point, the far right is just one of the many voices I listen to on a daily basis. I would rather triangulate between a real Nazi podcast and a real lefty podcast than between CNN and Fox News. I prefer this side of the media world.

Tameez: Is there anything else you want to add?

Donovan: We conclude the book by thinking about what memes have to do with people’s nationalistic identities. Right now U.S. politics is fracturing around who gets to define it means to be American. Who gets to claim that status? Under what conditions do we consider someone “patriotic” versus “nationalistic”?

The people who have most been marginalized by our political system use the tools of new media to be seen and be heard. But that doesn’t necessarily make social media good for a society. Social media is now overrun with very powerful politicians and very powerful rich men who have a very particular political agenda.

Even though social media as a technology hasn’t really changed that much over the last decade, its users have, and it’s become much more ubiquitous. It’s become much more of a tool of the powerful to oppress, rather than a weapon of the weak to liberate. As journalists are thinking about what stories they should be telling, they should turn their eye to the groups of people who are the most marginalized, who are struggling for recognition. They should not assume that just because a few accounts on social media are being loud that that means the whole multiplicity of that identity is represented.

The way in which social media is structured is almost like a distorted mirror of our society. It’s imperative that journalists understand that they are on the front lines of the meme wars, and that they can really shift the balance if they shift who they spotlight and what stories they choose to tell.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2022, 2:37 p.m.
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