Watching the Meme Wars
by Angela Nagle
The online culture wars of recent years have been fought through imagery as much as they have through text. Issues such as immigration, gay marriage, feminism and racism have been contested between and within right and left factions, in the political arena and newspaper commentary. Meanwhile, a parallel youthful online cultural battle has played out through rival political movements and subcultures trading in witty, funny, weird, sometimes cruel, crossfire communicated through memes adapted from collages, crude cartoons and ironically captioned photographs.
The anarchic image messaging board 4chan, which has been called a ‘meme factory’ of the internet, gained widespread public attention around the time of the emergence of the Occupy movement in 2011 when Guy Fawkes masks were being worn by protesters and leaderless hackers known as Anonymous – whose symbol was the mask and whose name came from the anonymous online culture of 4chan – started making headlines. It was a subterranean and politically ambiguous world of impenetrable argot and abundant in-jokes, which loved to prank the mainstream. But long before, and ever since, it has defined more of the aesthetic sensibilities of the English speaking internet than any other space, from lolcats: an early variety of image macro (a captioned picture) involving cute cats; to Rickrolling: the prank of linking someone to something seemingly serious only to lead them to a video of the song ‘Never gonna give you up’ by Rick Astley.
Since then the meme factory of the internet has taken a turn to the political right. 4chan’s politics board known as /pol/ created much of the imagery associated with what became known as the alt-right and the ‘alt-light’, it’s less extreme meme-sharing cousin. The crudely drawn cartoon of Pepe the frog, for example, cross-pollinated everything from extreme fascist sites to Donald Trump fan spaces and became a general symbol of a pranking geeky subcultural style. Rightist chan culture also specialised in photographic memes in which a still from a TV broadcast or a news photograph would be endlessly adapted, added to and captioned. Film stills from favourite movies like Fight Club, American Psycho and The Matrix are regularly captioned in these spaces for countercultural, transgressive or anti-moral political messaging. The media has tried to pay close attention to alt-right use of imagery, often getting it wrong, according to those that jealously guard the boundaries of what belongs to this subculture. What has attracted far less attention and analysis is the meme aesthetics of the online left.
During his US presidential nomination run, Bernie Sanders became the unlikely inspiration for a vibrant culture of memes among his young fans. Two college students created a Facebook group Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash (BSDMS) in October 2015, which went on to gain around five hundred thousand members. A previous social media account with a similar eye for the personality and quirks of the elderly socialist was based on the exaggerated and fictionalised Barnie Sandlers. ‘Dank Memes’ is a term for heavily irony-laden online viral media that is intentionally bizarre or has become absurdly repetitive, self-referential and in-jokey – the word ‘dank’ originally referred to good marijuana.
One of the images most closely associated with the BSDMS page was of multiple heads of Bernie laughing maniacally, repeated and fading into a background of a starry sky – a background with a certain 80s sci-fi retro quality. Variations of this outer space background have been used in meme culture for years, usually bringing a quality of something absurd, trippy or kitsch. The hugely popular keyboard cat meme from 2007, for example, which spawned thousands of collage images, gifs and videos, and came from a video of a cat playing a keyboard, had one of its more amusing incarnations in the form of the cat superimposed on the starry sky background, seemingly floating in space. The image conjures up sources of nostalgia like science presenter Carl Sagan, psychedelia, 80s TV sci-fi and a hippie-stoner aesthetic, simultaneously out of date and totally of the moment. By placing Bernie in the context of this image, which depicts him laughing from several different angles and moving through outer space, it was making him part of the in-joke meme subculture of the internet, a beloved figure of fun being bestowed with a geeky cool and cult following. It also suggests a projected sense of wisdom, a knowing sense of having had the last laugh.
Old black and white photos of Bernie were also popular, usually with some amusingly retro fashion such as Bernie’s thick-framed glasses. In some of the earliest black and white photos used, adapted and captioned, Bernie’s 60s student radical look so closely resembles today’s hipsters that the elderly socialist looks highly fashionable and strangely contemporary. One old black and white portrait was often captioned with the phrase ‘Hey Girl’ making Bernie’s awkward posed smile look like an amusing attempt at seduction. Another now famous image of the young Bernie being handcuffed at a protest amused his meme-making followers as a depiction of a bad ass version of him that contrasted with his older persona as the ‘good policy grandpa’. These old photographs of 60s Bernie were typically captioned with statements of his authenticity and stalwart dedication to democratic socialism, often unflatteringly placed beside Hillary Clinton, who was portrayed as robotic, corporate, inauthentic and deeply opportunistic, drawing attention to her tendency to support progressive policies such as gay marriage only after they became politically expedient. These would typically include Bernie making a cool countercultural judgment of taste when questioned on anything from his favourite movie to the best Radiohead album while she desperately tried to pick whatever she imagined the audience wanted her to say. Trivial as the subject matter of these images may seem they did get to the heart of Hillary’s unlikeability.
A common refrain from the alt-right online, most closely associated with Paul Joseph Watson, a vlogger and YouTube celebrity who works for Infowars, was ‘so much for the tolerant left’. Typically this came to be used after an incident like a rowdy demonstration or riot that ended in the shutting down of a speaker from the right, from Milo Yiannopolous to Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial The Bell Curve. But soon the online mocking of Watson’s favourite phrase began in image-based form, as hundreds of adapted, edited or captioned images started to appear on Twitter and other platforms. One was a photograph from a bizarre story titled ‘Remains of Nazi officer discovered inside 100 year old giant catfish’, captioned by the online poster ‘so much for the tolerant left’. Another was a painting of the Haitian revolution depicting the slave revolt and another was a still from the film Downfall depicting Hitler in his bunker in his final hours, now subtitled with the parodic phrase ‘So much for the tolerant left’, each defiantly pointing to the necessity for political violence historically and portraying the online right’s use of the expression as a prim little attempted put down.
After the alt-right had already attracted a great deal of coverage and interest in the months after the populist right turn in the UK and the US, many of its key figures on social media started to share an image that was typical of the alt-right forum style. It was tweeted out from the account of /pol/, a reference to the politics board on 4chan. The photograph depicted a dramatically dressed up drag queen on the subway sitting next to a Muslim woman in a niqab with the caption ‘this is the future liberals want’. Soon critics of the alt-right started sharing parodies of the image that highlighted their often paranoid conspiratorial over reaction to social change on issues of gender and sexuality. These included a photo of a male seahorse giving birth, an image of dogs and cats happily playing together, stills from old films of humans and fictional creatures arm in arm, all with the same ‘this is the future liberals want’ caption.
This mass participation in mocking the alt-right was certainly a turn-around from previous years in which many of the most productive spaces for playful satirical memes came from the right. But there was also a backlash against the backlash that reveals a great deal about the tensions that exist within left opinion online. Those considerably to the left of the liberals sharing the ‘this is the future liberals want’ images began to make images satirising the satire or commenting on the comment. An image of Chelsea Clinton’s spinach pancakes, which she chirpily told her Twitter followers she was making instead of sweet unhealthy ones, was captured and retweeted with the comment ‘this is the future liberals want’, mocking the elite liberal tendency to ‘virtue signal’ through preachy forms of ethical or health-focused consumer culture. Another similarly captioned image depicted a diverse corporate boardroom full of laughing board members while the city outside their window burns, a critique of the bourgeois liberal preoccupation with representative gender and ethnic diversity at the elite level and a lack of interest in economic inequality between elites and the great mass of society.
One of the growing divisions on the left among younger people in particular in recent years has been around this kind of cultural politics. ‘Intersectionality’ became the favourite term within liberal feminist and anti-racist online circles that dismissed those on the materialist or class-oriented left as ‘brocialists’, a portmanteau of the macho term ‘bro’ and ‘socialist’. Hillary Clinton had used the term ‘intersectionality’ and the phrase ‘check your privilege’, which provoked fights on social media between factions of the young online left. On one side of the left – the brocialists and ‘Bernie bros’ – memes mocked the other side as elite Hillary supporters with images like the photograph of her and Obama embracing, smiling and with eyes blissfully closed, superimposed on a nuclear mushroom cloud and captioned with the phrase ‘intersectional imperialism’. This was part of a wider critique at the time of the privilege-checking identity-oriented liberals for being concerned only with the interests of liberal elites and for being uncritical of Hillary’s regime change foreign policy approach, preferring her simply because she was female. The ‘brocialists’ were in return targeted by images and memes portraying them as sexist, racist and privileged.
This is certainly not just a US phenomenon. The British Facebook group Red London and 8chan’s leftypol have been a force for creatively mimicking some of the memetic style of 4chan but with leftist politics. In Northern Ireland the online meme sensation Loyalists Against Democracy remains a creative and funny producer of instant political commentary in the form of captioned images and gifs, though it’s politics have been criticised as snobbish and sectarian.
Critics have long been declaring the death of text with each new visual medium but the online culture wars are a battle of wits and creativity. As older forms of media desperately try to catch up with whatever the kids are doing online, the young people – who have been politicised by internet culture – communicate in increasingly photographic and multimedia based ways, responding instantaneously to events as they unfold. As petty as some of these squabbles may seem to the outside world, they have provided an introduction to politics for a generation who have grown up online.
As this meme generation matures and goes on to shape future political debate, its visual culture will be its defining influence. Its styles and sensibilities will form into coherent political tendencies, not the other way around. In a culture in which quickness of wit and visual literacy are key currencies the movement that leads the visual culture may go on to lead the political ideas.