At no other time have the internet and social media been so politicized. Just scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feeds for a few moments, and you’ll most likely run into something political.
Whether it’s in the form of news reports, editorials, op-ed pieces from your favorite media sources, hot takes on a pundit or politico’s tweet, or a long-winded Facebook post on a trending political issue, the internet and social media are undisputable hotbeds of modern political discourse.
However, one particular medium has become an increasingly popular vehicle to make political statements in shareable, rapidly disseminated, and often crass units of culture.
We’re talking about memes — humorous units of cultural information spread through images overlaid with text designed to go viral.
What’s In a Meme?
A meme, based on the original definition of evolutionary biologist Richard Hawkins, conveys a unit of cultural information spread by imitation, according to his 1976 work entitled The Selfish Gene. This, according to Dawkins, may include anything that can be learned, spread, and transmitted from one brain to another. This could range from the concept of heaven, hell, and everything in between — to the Marlboro Man. Practically anything.
Since then, many have tried to define the term in its current context we all know (which doesn’t stray too far from Dawkins) — and the definition has turned into something more tangible.
Memes, in essence, could be a noun, slogan, photo, story, post, or tweet that can go viral. While memes might be seen as a harmless form of entertainment — but there’s something more than meets the eye about the countless frogs, gorillas, and politicians that have been the subject of memes.
And they’re fast becoming the predominant form of political communication used extensively to engage in modern information warfare in the battle for hearts and minds — to full-blown memetic warfare.
The Rise of Memes and Memetic Warfare in Politics
Political memes have been around as long as politicians have been around. However, the 2016 US presidential election highlighted their prevalence and their potential to communicate political messages massively.
Memes have now become part and parcel of modern information warfare, used by political operatives running out of sketchy former Soviet states, reaching an unprecedented level of reach that USA Today can only dream about.
Jeff Giesea, a memetics expert and tech consultant associated with venture capital bigwig Peter Thiel, defined memetic warfare as a new variant of information and psychological warfare carried out by the aggressive propagation of memes. This also includes social media guerilla tactics such as trolling and bot farms. According to Giesea, this is a necessary logical step to demoralize and diminish the appeal of an enemy to disrupt, subvert, and agitate the enemy’s efforts to do the same thing. It’s all about seizing control of the narrative, as well as public sentiment.
We’re thick in the era of memetic warfare. It’s everywhere. It’s become an inseparable part of the current political climate, and you know what? It’s not just some 300-pound basement-dwellers or bored teenagers with nothing to do who are getting involved in the fight for memetic supremacy. It’s a known fact that Russia implemented a complex, sophisticated memetic warfare and social media campaign to try and influence the 2016 US presidential campaign by way of the Internet Research Agency. The infamous, prolific troll farm disseminated pro-Trump and anti-Hillary content across the internet to influence how the American voting population might react. We all know how this story ended with the election of Number 45.
Memes are a potent weapon in the political realm and have become prominent in the new frontier of information warfare over the internet. This has highlighted the role social media manipulation plays in manufacturing consent and skewing public perception on a massive scale. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the numerous actors working in the political sphere.
Social media manipulation has progressively gotten worse in recent years, with nation-states, political parties, and shrewd political raconteurs harnessing the immense power of social media algorithms, big data, and massive automation to conduct large-scale psychological warfare operations with virtually limitless reach.
And it’s posing a serious threat to democracy.
Use and Abuse
Memes can and have been used to achieve positive instead of nefarious ends. But there are endless ways they can be abused. They play a major role in spreading misinformation and have been used to target and misinform a certain segment of the populace. Worse, memes make extreme views and hatemongering cool and funny, and its brevity as a medium makes it prone to being misused. At worst, memes can be destructive and manipulative. Extremism in itself is detrimental to a democratic society, regardless of what political party, belief, or politician an individual stands for. Creating memes that normalize such extreme views desensitizes people to those that carry them.
But they can also serve as a bridge to unite new societal narratives and enhance public discourse in various, potent ways. They can be harnessed to draw attention to issues and positively galvanize communities.
Vibrant democracies need sensible, political dialogue — and the rise of memetic warfare may erode the democratic values that serve as the foundation of modern society as we know it.
With the astonishing rate at which the world moves towards digitalization — culture and society included — so will the ongoing war for perception and the tactics needed to win it.
In the end, the potential that memes and the social media with which they are propagated to influence public opinion, voting behavior, spread lies, undermine democratic movements and cause polarization is virtually unfathomable. And the political powers-that-be and those operating within the fringes of the modern political discourse are becoming increasingly well-versed in using them to devastating effect.