Donald Trump was the perfect “meme leader”, appealing to an array of dark, loosely organized groups with varying philosophies but sharing roots in internet “picture boards” like 4chan and 8chan, as well as a desire, like their adoptive leader, to disrupt the establishment. power structure.
“He had already – before he ran in 2015 – become a memetic figure in many of these communities. His hair was already a meme. He represented a certain kind of wealth, power, and New York masculinity for those communities,” said Emily Dreyfuss, journalist, fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy and co-author of “Meme Wars: The Untold story of online battles shaking up democracy in America. “Then when he decided to run for president, these characters were like, ‘Oh, he’s one of us.'”
Dreyfuss appeared Monday at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School with co-authors Joan Donovan, Shorenstein Center Research Director, and Brian Friedberg, Shorenstein Center Senior Investigator, as well as Professor of Anthropology of Harvard Gabriella Coleman. The four spoke at “How the Internet Changed Politics: From Memes to Insurgency,” an event sponsored by the Institute of Politics, one of a series at the Kennedy School this week examining threats present against democracy.
The group called Trump’s rise something of a perfect storm that upended the American political system that took full advantage of the evolution of the internet from an early tool that promoted hope to a “crook “, as Donovan described it. While the web has become a valuable and indispensable part of our daily lives, it is also a place where racists flourish, conspirators conspire, memes crop up, and where ordinary users need to be on alert for scams, misinformation and outright lies.
The ground had been laid on social media forums like 4chan and 8chan, where people anonymously sharing unpopular views were able to loosely organize themselves into groups like the Anonymous ‘hacktivists’, Q-Anon conspiracy theorists and the right of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. -wing militias. Trump and Republican operatives like Roger Stone and Stephen Bannon have figured out how to mobilize the grassroots reach and fervor of these organizations behind Trump’s mission.
The roots of mobilization efforts such as #StoptheSteal can be traced in part, oddly enough, to the 2011 rise of the more progressive equality movement Occupy, according to Donovan and Friedberg. Although right-wing activists disagreed with the movement’s politics, they appreciated how Occupy used catchy memes, distributed on the internet and social media, as well as traditional media, to mobilize people to action.
Today, it’s Democrats struggling to emulate Republican success, in President Biden’s “Dark Brandon” meme and Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman’s U.S. Senate campaign, which has rolled out memes against Republican Mehmet. Oz for, among other things, the longtime residence of its rival. and identification with neighboring New Jersey.
Donovan said it was important for society to tackle the degree of ‘incitement’ – like that which led to the January 6 riot – that we should allow, how we ensure that all parties of society have access to these technologies and whether platforms like Facebook should be, indeed, the ones charged with overseeing national information security.
“Facebook is the first line of defense against attacks on our nation on Facebook. Do we accept this as part of our political anatomy now? Donovan said. “I have nothing but an existential fear for the future of an internet that doesn’t belong to the people.”
The Internet has become a powerful tool for exploiting various schisms in American culture and politics for various purposes. One of the deepest and perhaps oldest relates to race.