Information operations · Information Warfare · Mexico · Russia

How memes are being weaponized for political propaganda

(Getty/Josh Edelson/dr_evil/Salon)

The populist form of communication accessible to anyone with MS Paint is also a crucial form of propaganda

FEBRUARY 24, 2018 7:00PM (UTC)
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, which left 17 dead, WIRED reported that the Alliance for Securing Democracy and RoBhat Labs, data-gathering groups that monitor Twitter activity, had identified a spike in Russian trollbots hijacking online conversations to stir up controversy and spread propaganda.

Allegedly, Russian trollbots flooded Twitter with pro-gun memes, appropriating messaging from the alt-right and NRA to deliver polarizing right-wing rhetoric. Russian trollbots are a core part of Moscow’s many dezinformatsiya campaigns, in which false information is deliberately spread to manipulate public opinion. Any major tragedy or breaking news story is an opportunity to infiltrate and disseminate.

Dezinformatsiya campaigns existed before the age of the internet. As early as 1923, Russia had an office dedicated to the spread of “disinformation,” a term coined by Joseph Stalin to describe false information carefully constructed with the intention to deceive. Disinformation is a powerful political tool that has been used offline and online to impact discourse surrounding major societal issues.

Now, a once-populist form of communication — the humble internet meme, accessible to anyone with MS Paint and an internet connection — has become the centerpiece of disinformation campaigns. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” to describe cultural units of information that could transfer from one person to another. In earlier times, such a transfer might include one human teaching another to hunt; today, this might mean a professor teaching their students mathematics.

But the concept of the meme has transcended Dawkins’ initial conception and entered the virtual realm, where memes know no bounds. Internet memes are permutations of text, images and video that can proliferate rapidly online. Anyone with access to the internet can construct a meme, share it and join the critical mass of culture creators. Early internet memes you may have heard of include lolcatsrage comics and depression dog. More recent popular memes include dancing hotdogsevil Kermit the Frog, and a caveman version of SpongeBob SquarePants.

What once constituted a traffic in silly online inside jokes eventually proliferated to occupy every digital cultural sphere. And they’re no longer merely just jokes. Memes can and are used to simplify complex political and social commentary into easily digestible tidbits. The ability of memes to communicate ideology is boundless, and one need only look at the 2016 U.S. election to see their potential to impact the world at large.

In a 2002 essay, cultural critic Andrew Boyd wrote that “Social movements cannot live by meme alone.” He continued:

“[M]emes are clearly powerful — both analytically and operationally. A vital movement requires a hot and happening meme. The Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, sit-down strikes in the 30’s, campus building take-overs in the 60’s — arguably, these were all memes — no more or less, maybe, than the militant street carnival of the past decade.”

During the 2016 U.S. election, memes were used as vessels for political discourse for those on each end of the political spectrum. A green cartoon frog named Pepe was co-opted by the alt-right as a figurehead for their movement, a meme that even Hillary Clinton commented on; 4Chan embarked on targeted virtual harassment campaigns by flooding websites like Tumblr with memes. Elsewhere, a Facebook page called Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash gained hundreds of thousands of likes for its comedic lefty meme variations on the avuncular democratic socialist candidate.

Boyd predicted much of what meme culture would become, back in 2002. And yet he was very wrong about one thing. Boyd understood how memes were accessible, and could be created by anyone; he believed their populist underpinnings  meant that memes would be used by “those of us who believe that truth is a virus and whose aim is to subvert the corporate meme-machine with a sly guerrilla war of signs.” That is not the case. Memes can be tweaked to serve the aims of anyone. In that regard, they are merely another form of propaganda, albeit one that looks nothing like the propaganda that preceded them.

Consider, for instance, a controversial tweet by the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom posted in January 2017, featuring an image of Pepe the Frog. The green, anthropomorphic amphibian first appeared in a 2005 comic series by Matt Furie, though the image was later appropriated by Trump-loving alt-right 4chan users who took the frog as a symbol for their political agenda. The specific message the Russian Embassy was sending was hazy, yet the Pepe image functioned as a dog-whistle to the American alt-right.

When a government entity uses a meme to dog-whistle to a specific ideological group, it becomes clearer how memes can be weaponized for political warfare. In 2016, Esquire magazine wrote that “Internet mockery was emerging as a legitimate political technique: shitposting. Maybe the 2020 election would be all shitposting.” The term “shitposting” describes a type of internet behavior in which social media or forum users spam large amounts of low-quality content with the intent to derail conversations, take over threads or render a site unusable. And hence, shitposting is the internet’s guerrilla warfare.

Russia isn’t the only government weaponizing memes. In a recent episode of the podcast Reply All, titled “The Prophet,” hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman spoke with journalist Andrea Noel about her investigation into the underworld of political meme warriors. In 2016, Noel was walking down the street in a trendy, upscale neighborhood of Mexico City on a sunny day when a man came up behind her, lifted up her skirt and pulled down her underwear.

Furious, Noel was able to get hold of video surveillance of the attack and broadcast it on Twitter in an attempt to identify the attacker. Her tweet went viral and opened up a conversation in Mexico surrounding the rampant sexual assault of women in the country. While Noel received significant support, she also became a victim of horrific online trolling, receiving rape and death threats via social media. Noel eventually moved away, fearing for her safety.

Noel’s experience led her down a rabbit hole. Noel noticed that, amidst the barrage of tweets attacking her, the legion of trolls all followed a Twitter user called “Pasta Prophet.” She was able to get Pasta Prophet’s Twitter account suspended; shortly thereafter, he created a new one and quickly regained his follower base. This was a hint, Noel thought; the peculiar online behavior of her harassers was related, coordinated somehow.

Noel noticed that the trolls who followed “Pasta Prophet” would periodically post photos of an unknown man with various names attached. Eventually, using these different names, Noel was able to piece together a single full name and, using the photos trolls shared, find the man — the titular Pasta Prophet — on Facebook. To her surprise and with some effort, she became acquainted with the mysterious Pasta Prophet, the infamous figure who led the trolls who caused her so much grief.

After meeting with Pasta Prophet and coming to a truce, Noel learned of a political conspiracy involving shitposting by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Mexico and its candidate in the 2012 federal election, Enrique Peña Nieto. Pasta Prophet claimed he was a mercenary tasked with using his legion of trolls to drown out any bad news associated with his clients through shitposting. The drowning out of bad news could take various forms: making an unrelated hashtag viral; pretending to kill a celebrity by making rumors of their death trend on social media; or otherwise encouraging the internet to post themed content en masse.

Pasta Prophet described his legion of trolls as teenagers who were happy saying anything and everything online to get a rise out of people — or, as he put it, “for love of the sport.” Noel learned of how the PRI hired young people to run social media disinformation campaigns in favor of Nieto. They were successful: Nieto ultimately won the presidency.

For a form of discourse that can be created  by a preteen using basic image editing software, it is rather terrifying to think that political parties and governments can and do weaponize memes to serve a larger political agenda. In a 2015 article in NATO journal Defence Strategic Communications, titled “It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare,” writer Jeff Giesea argues that Russia has already engaged in memetic warfare, and that the U.S. should follow suit by trolling ISIS to interfere with their propaganda and recruitment efforts.

Giesea posits that shitposting, trolling or memetic warfare is an easy and cost-friendly process of “taking control of the dialogue, narrative and psychological space.” “It’s about denigrating, disrupting and subverting the enemy’s effort to do the same,” he continues.

In the beginning, memes were unusual in their capacity to subvert cultural production. As a vehicle for cultural production, memes were the opposite of film or television or literature: no editors to curate the package, no producers or investors or marketing teams honing them. Often riddled with JPEG artifacts and watermarks, memes are authentic in a way that other media are not. There is a subversion innate to that, a sense of sticking it to the man. They feel authentic because they are made by us. But as governments and political entities begin to catch on to possibilities of weaponizing memes for political warfare, the possibility emerges that they could be enlisted as another propaganda tool in a regime’s toolkit.


Deidre Olsen is a Toronto-based digital marketer and writer whose work has appeared in Refinery29, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Brooklyn Magazine, Narratively, and more. Follow them on Twitter @deidrelolsen