Mural by the meme artist XVALA covering graffiti artist Banksy’s Steve Jobs Mural in Calais, France | March 2019 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Memes, Antisemitism, and The Press

By Susan McGregor

The Internet Gets Memed

The rise of the social web, however, has long since made the term “meme” more or less synonymous with the Internet. Alongside Dawkins’s classic definition of meme, the Oxford English Dictionary now lists an Internet-specific version: “An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.”

Just as we should not mistake a handful of people online for multitudes, we should not allow one person to claim many voices for the sake of political expediency.

Memes for disinformation

According to Shifman’s definition, an Internet meme is

The level of trust readers place in the content they are seeing is dependent not on the original creator (or even the substance) of that content, but on the trust the recipient has in the person who shared it.

In this context, the conditions for the spread of misinformation are much more favorable, as the person sharing the memetic “image macro” with friends and family may be unwittingly sharing content that has much more pernicious roots — and hateful connotations — than their personal frame of inference would suggest. Even more crucially, however, is that while a given individual or community may be naive to the meme’s original meaning, its unwitting spread can, in retrospect, offer the appearance of broader “support” for its more hateful and extreme interpretations. At this point, the meme may then catapult to mainstream awareness through coverage by the traditional press and mainstream media, with the consequence of both elevating and cementing the hateful message on the national stage.

The Problem of Pepe

Perhaps the best-known recent example of the creation, co-option, and elevation of an image-based meme comes from the 2016 presidential election cycle, when a variation on a character from Matt Furie’s comic strip Boy’s Club, Pepe the Frog, gained national and persistent attention as a symbol of “alt-right” and white nationalist attitudes. Although the clear association of Pepe with explicitly anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi imagery is today undeniable, the evolution of Pepe from relatively innocuous cartoon frog to widely-acknowledged hate symbol demonstrates the complex task of disambiguating and attributing specific “meanings” to memes, even as they become increasingly powerful mechanisms for both personal and political communication and representation.

What can we do?

The advent of social media as a means for politicians to speak directly to a multitude of “publics” with the click of a button poses difficult questions about how that speech should be assessed, especially given the pernicious potential for a post-and-retract cycle to “play” to all sides. On the one hand, knowledge and use of the anti-Semitic meme is seen by its proponents as an inherent validation of both their views and their efforts to make those views more visible in the mainstream. For others, the convenient (even if it is true) scapegoat of an unnamed “intern” or “staffer” being responsible for the offensive content does little more than taint the politician as being “unsavvy” or “out of it.” The result is a dangerous potential for cynical politicians and other public figures to speak — or tweet — “out of both sides of their mouths.”

Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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