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How far-right groups use memes to radicalize people

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Chances are you've laughed at or shared a meme. I know I have. There are some clever ones and some pointed ones and some potentially dangerous ones. Our next guest has spent years studying this kind of communication, learning how memes have become political tools for extremist groups. Joan Donovan is the research director at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and one of the authors of the new book "Meme Wars: The Untold Story Of The Online Battles Upending Democracy In America." And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JOAN DONOVAN: Thank you.

RASCOE: And so how does a meme, this kind of shared idea or shared imagery, grow into an attempt to overturn an election?

DONOVAN: Yeah. So this is where the internet becomes really important because the way in which we are connected, the actual design, brings us into contact with each other but also into contact with content. And it does so by inviting us to use specific keywords or key phrases. And so when Donald Trump was realizing he was going to lose the election, he started several different hashtag campaigns and meme wars to bring people to the Capitol. The most famous of them is Stop the Steal, where people were not just using that phrase to distill a very complex set of conspiracy theories but also using it to organize protests in different cities where early on, they wanted to stop the counting of votes, and then much later, they wanted to stop the certification by Mike Pence.

RASCOE: Having something like Stop The Steal - that type of slogan - is that a way to be able to organize information if you type that in? If someone else says it, you can use that to find other people who think like you, who you can connect with and then actually start, like, planning actions outside of the internet.

DONOVAN: Yeah. And that's why it's important that we think about not just one platform like YouTube or Twitter but that we think about a media ecosystem, which is the degree to which these messages surround people as they traverse the internet or move between different apps. And so you'll have platforms that have civic integrity policies. For example, Facebook took down many of the Stop the Steal groups and barred people from searching on the keyword, but it jumped to other platforms. And for us, the most important factor is when it moves from ideas in the realm of speech that then become grassroots campaigns and in this case, political violence.

RASCOE: So what are some recent examples of things that we might not realize are memes, but they are being weaponized?

DONOVAN: I think the most important thing that's happening in the recent week has been the remixing and revitalization of QAnon memes and that group that were instrumental in bringing together thousands - tens of thousands of people across the globe to believe that there was a very large contingent of U.S. Democrats and other liberal politicians that were coming together to abuse children and worship Satan. By the end of that sentence, I know people are befuddled, thinking, this just seems outrageous. But what we know from the way in which people stumble upon conspiracy theories online is that, sometimes, people find these conspiracy theories, but with the design of social media recommendation systems, sometimes, the conspiracies find them. And so Trump has been using Truth Social to push new QAnon memes that are then starting to leak out across other platforms.

RASCOE: So what are some of these memes? Like, when you say a QAnon meme, are there phrases? What does that look like?

DONOVAN: And this is interesting because it brings up a paradox for a media researcher, where if I were to tell you the phrases, people would search them and go find that content directly. And what's troublesome about that is if they do that, it's - you know, you might be doing it out of curiosity. But then the technical systems, the algorithms will pick up that signal and say, oh, they must want more QAnon content. One phrase that isn't so bad, though, is this idea that the storm is coming. And Trump said that in a speech at one point, and now he's sharing memes that - they use the "Game of Thrones" fonts.

RASCOE: Yeah, he said it randomly to some military leaders just after a photo op and was just, like - and no one knew what he was talking about.

DONOVAN: Exactly.

RASCOE: But, of course, people have latched on to it. He could have just been talking.

DONOVAN: But it was a dog whistle, right? What's interesting about meme wars is that ambiguity - people have said the storm is coming. You know, WWF wrestlers and all kinds of people, you know, will intimate that there's a storm ahead when, you know, things are going rough.

RASCOE: When you talk about meme warfare, is that something only on the right? What about on the left? What about - I don't know - defund the police or something like that? What's the difference?

DONOVAN: Yeah, it's exactly the same thing. And there are many, many books written about Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous movements like Standing Rock that have used similar techniques to key campaigns on the left. And we wanted to tell a different story of the internet. It was important to us to chart this history that hadn't been written before about the right-wing adoption of internet technologies and communication technologies. So it does happen on the left, although there's also, jokingly, this adage that the left can't meme, and part of it has to do with the fact that memes that are particularly sticky tend to be very transgressive and even cruel. And that isn't something that you can use as a weapon on the left very easily.

For instance, that image of the statue of Donald Trump where he's very obese and he is - you know, he's naked. And that was something that people thought it was funny until other people started shaming them, saying, well, we shouldn't be making fun of what he looks like. Technology is different when different groups are using it. And that's the way in which these platform companies need to make their assessments because, ultimately, what we really care about at the end of the day is, are these memes turning into hate, harassment and incitement?

RASCOE: Obviously, memes are here. They are happening in election races, campaigns. Where do you see things going in this midterm election year and beyond?

DONOVAN: There have been researchers that have been tracking candidates in 2022, and there's over 60 candidates that are using QAnon memes to promote their political campaigns. So this is going to turn into a much bigger problem, especially as U.S. agencies are designating QAnon as a threat to national security. So we have to pay attention not just to the fact that memes exist but to the way in which they're organizing people. And what of those messages telling them about their political capacity? Is it telling them to vote? Or is it telling them that the system is eminently broken and that they need to take other kinds of action to be heard?

RASCOE: That was Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard's Shorenstein Center. She, Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg are authors of the new book "Meme Wars." Thank you so much for joining us today.

DONOVAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.