Mischievous Memes: How the far right weaponizes the internet


“The most potent weapons known to mankind are satire and ridicule”- Saul Alinsky

Everyday images shape our world views. In the realm of entertainment, the images we’re exposed to are loaded with political symbolism and ideological assumptions. One such everyday type of image are memes, which since the 1990s have permeated through the internet and remain a key feature of Internet culture. At the most basic level memes are defined as images, videos, pieces of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that are copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations. The speed at which memes spread, often for relatively short periods of times, means that they can trend and cease to trend in matters of days or hours. While they may seem harmless, memes have become an important means of visual communication for the far right, who use them to not only push their ideologies (fascism, racism, and white supremacy) but also to recruitment supporters from broader audiences.

While the use of humour to denigrate other groups and emphasise supremacy runs like a golden thread through the history of far-right groups, the arrival of the internet vastly reshaped the ways in which this could be achieved. A feature of the internet and digital culture often criticised is the difficulty to distinguish between truth and sarcasm. Thus, the internet enables hate-based ideologies to be reframed, objections towards them reduced and accountability for one’s rhetoric and actions ignored. For this reason, the internet has become a natural medium and catalyst space to spread far-right propaganda and as such has become the focal point for the resurgence of far-right influence. Additionally, the humoristic notes carry other advantages as it offers opportunities for backpedalling. When memes are labelled retrospectively as “satire” it gives distributors a chance to claim that a meme was simply misinterpreted in the event of one being poorly received by internet audiences. Even on occasions where backpedalling is required, the meme’s content has already been successfully shared, it’s underlying message transmitted, and criticism evaded.

The internet's introduction isn't the only factor that has transformed the far right. The modernization process of the far-right is inextricably linked to post-modern cultures that express themselves artistically and humorously on social media. However to penetrate such cultures, a more contemporary aesthetic rather than the formal uniformity commonly associated with the far-right is required. Therefore, members of the far-right create online imagery like memes which can maintain their ideological core values but in a graphic style that is attractive to wider internet users. In essence, they attempt to aestheticize politics and ideologies.

Through a melange of humour, misanthropy, and political message, hate messages can be contemporised and public discourse distorted. Online, these processes are driven by the use of memes. For the far-right, memes have become a tool that they can use to normalise and trivialise their tropes and violence. This follows the idea that if individuals are continuously exposed to something which seems ‘impish’ but carries underlaying tones of racism, xenophobia, or anti-Semitism, these thoughts have the potential to be normalised. Such exposure, coupled with the lack of resistance and guideline enforcement on social media sites reinforces these microaggressions. The embracement of such undertones is known within the far-right as “red pilling”. This term, in reference to the film “The Matrix” describes the process through which an individual becomes completely politically and racially aware of what is happening around them. For far-right groups memes support this by shaping mindsets and forms of behaviour and actions within social groups.

The centricity of memes to online mobilisation practices has seen the creation of meme factories within various far-right organisations. These factories consist of coordinated networks of creators who produce, and host content (memes) encoded with subliminal messages. In many cases these networks are decentralised however in groups like the Reconquista Germanica, an appointed memelord is responsible for the dissemination of memes produced in their meme factory.

So, at first glance the messages being humorously conveyed through these memes might be, as the far-right would want us to believe, misinterpretations however, one does not need to delve too deep into history to see similar strategies being played out. One such example is that of Hans Litten. In 1931, Litten attempted to have criminal charges brought against members of the Nazi party’s SA paramilitary group in the wake of an attack on dance hall frequented by communists that claimed the lives of three people. One of the witnesses called to court by Litten, was Hitler, who at the time was still mocked by diplomats and politicians alike for his extreme views and advocacy for violence, seeing them as nothing more than tactics to bolster support. While others laughed, Litten took Hitler seriously. In the courtroom, Litten scrutinised Hitler and the tactics being employed by the SA, until the point at which Hitler cracked and failed to provide answers to Litten’s well-reasoned questions. The trial received wide publicity, but Litten was painted in a negative light as a hate figure and eventually the case was lost. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Litten was arrested and five years later killed himself in Dachau. Some parallels can be drawn between this case and the situation in which we find ourselves today, despite warnings about online radicalisation and hate speech, the messages which convey them still circulate, just in forms that can be more difficult to spot and easier to deny. While, at first sight, memes appear to be harmless instances of everyday visual culture and merely ironic, they still manage to convey key ideological narratives of hate and bigotry and if we fail to take steps to limit such activities it appears that history will repeat itself.

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