Extremist memes more dangerous because of their viral nature and coded messaging
A frog. A dog. A flag.
Most memes, those snarky images shared over and over on social media, seem innocuous enough. Just more hyperbole and opinion in a turbulent sea of it.
Yet experts are concerned about a subset of memes and the role they play in spreading extremist ideology and potentially radicalizing consumers to violence. By condensing complex, harmful ideologies into simple visuals, these memes can normalize and mainstream dehumanization. Their viral nature and coded messaging make extremist memes more dangerous.
A 2022 book, “Meme Wars,” grounds readers in the 21st century iteration of propagandizing. And a recent online panel hosted by the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education (NCITE) Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha aimed at shedding light on this important but often overlooked form of extremist communication.
First, a definition. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is generally credited with the term, which conveys the imitation and spread of ideas in culture. Perhaps plainly understood today, a meme is a bit of media that is shared repeatedly online. Thus, memes have become an efficient and often harmless way to communicate. Social media is awash in them.
Joan Donovan, a social scientist who coauthored “Meme Wars” with Emily Dreyfuss and Brain Friedberg, called this phenomenon of moving messages from the internet to real life going from “the wires to the weeds.” The book analyzes the use of memes over time in movements and events such as the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest, the deadly 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Extremist memes may start in dark fringes of the internet and move mainstream. Some messaging is vague; other messaging is transparently a call for hate against a range of identity groups. When people object, creators and sharers use the cartoonish, comedic nature of memes as plausible deniability: I was just kidding!
Extremist and terrorist groups are no strangers to technology. The Islamic State used social media, namely Twitter, to effectively coalesce support and spread fear until Twitter suspended accounts, curbing its reach.
But what makes memes pernicious is the jokey nature, constant iteration and messaging that can largely escape notice from the general population.
Panelists speaking at a livestreamed NCITE event on Feb. 23 referred to memes as “a gateway drug” and “open door” to those most vulnerable to extremist messaging – aggrieved, socially isolated individuals who are searching for community and meaning online. Take Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character that was co-opted in far-right online circles. One might see a post featuring Pepe, like the image, follow the account that shared it, and get pulled into an underworld of racism, antisemitism, misogyny, anti-government sentiment and more.
NCITE researcher Kat Parsons showed an example of how the Pepe figure had moved from the “wires to the weeds” during the panel. Here was a photo of a woman marching in a protest wearing the Pepe head.
The Pepe head appeared on a meme depicting a doctored image of rapper and provocateur Kanye West. Panelist Oliver Goodman, project manager at the U.K.-based Moonshot, which analyzes U.S.-based online extremism, explained how West’s antisemitic remarks last fall made antisemitic online chatter skyrocket.
Goodman showed another meme featuring West and a Nazi symbol that Goodman said had appeared months earlier in a racist-inspired massacre at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store. That meme communicates deep symbolism at play “quite immediately,” Goodman said.
NCITE hosted the panel on memes to respond to a beltway-area counterterrorism specialist who had asked for more information on the subject.
NCITE coordinates research on a range of counterterrorism issues for the federal government, and a secondary mission is responding to requests like this.
Following the May 2022 Buffalo shooting that targeted Black people, NCITE held a DHS community awareness briefing for local security officials at UNO. The center also created an explainer document which outlined key signs the shooter was mobilizing to violence. (The shooter subsequently pleaded guilty to charges including one count of domestic terrorism motivated by hate. His 180-page manifesto included memes and urged future mass shooters to create, post and spread them, according to the New York State Attorney General’s Office.)
Memes are right under our noses. While many are quite harmless, it’s important to recognize the role they can play in spreading extremism.
Sometimes a frog is literally a frog. And sometimes a frog is a vehicle for spreading hate.