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How Online Meme Culture Fails the Left

“As such, it is not simply the case that coherent political dialogue is difficult via the Internet; it is difficult, in large part, because of the Internet…”

In late 2019, Matt McManus and I co-wrote a piece at Merion West entitled “This Is How Bernie Wins.” The article acknowledged the struggle that Senator Bernie Sanders would face to win the Democratic Party’s nomination, particularly given the notion held by many voters that the Left stands for attacks on individual independence. We proposed a solution to the now decades-long problem caused by the falsely-held idea that the Right empowers working-class voters, while the Left aims to control them through a nanny state. We suggested that the Left must effectively counter the Right’s claim that the United States can be made great again through a focus on individual grit. As such, we emphasized the individual and group roles we can all play in fostering a society managed for the benefit of the many, not the few.

The challenge for the Left is to build a narrative equal to the heroic narrative of the Right, predicated on the idea of dispelling enemy hordes and individually embodying the fate of the nation or race. Against this, what could be more heroic and necessary than having an individual role in creating the first society that is truly open to races and nations, while giving everyone an opportunity to develop their talents through gainful employment? If need be, it is even possible to evoke a bogeyman in the form of the super rich or “the 1%,” as both Senator Sanders and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have done. Yet, however compelling the Left narrative of a class of underdogs rising up, deposing their overlords, and founding the fairest society known to humankind is, it perennially fails to win elections. This has, in the past, been correctly attributed to conservatives outspending the Left in media and advertising campaigning as corporate interests donate to protect the neoliberal order. To some extent, this remains true today.

With that said, in an age in which anyone can publish text images and videos to potentially large audiences via the Internet, the failure of the Left to ignite needs further analysis. The tools are there, but what if we do not know how to use them for anything other than stirring fleeting provocation? And what if the Internet is fundamentally skewed in favor of the Right? These questions need asking as the Left continues to appropriate conservative tactics, only to fail perennially. Perhaps it is time to stop sending Doge barking up the wrong tree.

Ever since President Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, the Left has seized on a narrative whereby President Trump won the electoral college thanks to a few thousand votes cast by disaffected young men turned on to a white-supremacist narrative by alt-right meme producers. This story appeals to people thirsty for answers: It features hopeless young men working from their bedrooms on readily available hardware, the source of so many moral panics; it explains shadowy practices of the coming-of-age generation to their elders; and it excuses President Trump as the accidental outcome of a comedic yet unhinged movement spurred by individuals such as these. Finally and crucially, it is a simple narrative employing everyday elements that we are all familiar with, such as social media and the singular “meme” unit. However, in the frenzy of articles, new programs, and YouTube analyses of the online right that followed President Trump’s election, no one really stopped to ask the crucial questions. Not least among them, could anyone attribute with certainty the votes on the margins that gave President Trump his Electoral College victory to the memetic output of the 4chan and 8chan community? And moreover, even if it could, does it make any sense to speak of the Left emulating an aesthetic approach that is deliberately oriented towards division and stirring antipathy?

Perhaps the clearest case study for a leftist parallel to the alt-right movement came in the form of the Yang Gang in late 2019 and early 2020. It also stands as a warning to the Left on the perils of going too far down the rabbit hole of political meme trickery. The Yang Gang operated as an unofficial wing of then-presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, though it ended up derailing his message by frequently appropriating commonly used right-wing imagery such as the MAGA hat and Pepe the Frog. This made it difficult to understand if the candidate was to the left or right of his party—or, indeed, ideologically positioned somewhere to the left or center of Republicans. This situation—in which meme producers distorted the message of a mainstream politician—came about by chance as Yang’s offer of a universal basic income inspired a young unemployed or underemployed population disillusioned both with the mainstream and President Trump. Memes depicted wads of cash, stashes of weed, or Pepe the Frog “diverting” the money towards right-wing causes. In the space of days this past spring, the suggestion that Yang’s basic income could be used to fund drug use fed into jokes about defections to Yang from disillusioned, young supporters of President Trump. This, in turn, fueled a genuine fear that Yang’s campaign was starting to be hijacked by the far-right meme community. Yang eventually dropped out of the Democratic race, lacking campaign funds and performing poorly in early Democratic caucuses and primaries, despite igniting a segment of the Internet.

The meme production of the Yang Gang is just one incarnation of “s—posting,” which is essentially the practice of producing lo-fi montage images deliberately to disparage or undermine a cause. The tendency—in itself—has become more of an aesthetic than a political tactic, inspiring a descent into a trash visual culture whereby jokey, low resolution, and glitched productions are seen as inherently more valuable than serious and polished mainstream products.

As valuable as such approaches may be in undermining the centrist, neoliberal political discourse—and Yang certainly fitted the centrist mold—it is unclear exactly who benefits politically from them. Yang signed on at CNN as a commentator after he dropped out of the Democratic race, signaling a move into the mainstream that the Yang Gang had tried so hard from which to differentiate him. Yang had done much to cast himself as a new kind of politician: a second-generation Asian immigrant and a tech-savvy entrepreneur unafraid of radical solutions such as basic income. This mix propelled him into the political mainstream, though it became unclear what he stood for beyond a belief that automation would drive no-strings-attached welfare. Further, his online base of supporters appeared amoral and money-grabbing, making the case for unconditional support for the unemployed in the wake of widespread automation of industry difficult to plead.

As the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma points out, the Internet is hard-wired to exacerbate social antagonisms to get people clicking and generating data. Seen in this way, it may radicalize people but only for the purpose of keeping them logged on in angry opposition to their political opponents. This, in turn, generates yet more anger, more clicks, and therefore more sellable data for the major companies.

Seen in this way, the already-sizable online left is no different from the bigger community of mostly-female selfie producers who upload daily videos and pictures on TikTok and Instagram to generate attention and sponsorships for themselves, as well as clicks for the social media giants. Ultimately, the Internet corporations do not care what a user does online so long as he or she generates more data. The online left is simply one niche identity that achieves this. For young women uploading selfies, the Internet plays on their insecurity about their appearance. For young leftist meme producers of a similar age, social media companies play upon threats made to their identity by right-wing imagery or by leftists of other factions. None of this builds a coherent left-of-center movement, even if there are growing communist and socialist presences online.

The lack of coherence within the online left is hardly surprising, given that the owners and shareholders of online social media companies, search engines, and shopping platforms are among the most powerful capitalists of all time. As such, it is not simply the case that coherent political dialogue is difficult via the Internet; it is difficult, in large part, because of the Internet—at least in its current form. The extent to which this is the result of an inbuilt design system that deters cogent thought processes from emerging can only be speculated on. Certainly, there are no public company communications that convey a deliberate attempt to derail intelligent conversation. However, the speed at which Internet platforms refresh information to keep users’ attention is sometimes enough to discourage linear thought or reflection. This is coupled with the fact that Internet algorithms—perhaps counterintuitively—do not operate with the sole intention of giving users information that may be useful to them. Rather, they furnish the user with information that will keep the user coming back, and this is not the same thing—a point that often leads us to believe that the platforms we use are not actually that smart.

The attempts of social media companies to hold our attention are often comical and give constant cause to believe that algorithms are far from perfect in their mission to apply the detailed knowledge social media companies hold about us. Comical, tragic, or simply wrongheaded suggestions and recommendations arrive as banner advertising, e-mails, or product recommendations on a daily basis. The arrival of an email suggesting a leftist professor might like to purchase, for example, The Communist Manifesto from capitalist megalith Amazon—despite already owning three versions and having cited it in numerous online essays—may appear both ironic and inept. However, it—in no way—signals the ineptitude of capitalism, given that it may lead the email recipient to go to Amazon, in any case, to buy another book that he had intended to purchase. It may also lead the recipient to WhatsApp message a friend, joking, “Amazon has again recommended that I buy the Communist Manifesto (insert appropriate emoji),”—an act that would, in itself, feed into Facebook’s databases.

I want to give three examples of my own experience online over the last month:

First, upon seeing the by-now-familiar New York Post headline and image combination conveying that Osama Bin Laden’s niece supports President Trump and featuring her wearing a MAGA hat opposite an image of her uncle in his familiar headdress and camouflage jacket, I felt immediately compelled to image capture it and post it to my Instagram story. This—together with a disparaging message—consolidated my anti-Trumpian views for the Facebook-owned algorithm. Instagram has a function whereby areas of one’s story are selected with image recognition software that redirects the poster to an online store that takes up a portion of one’s smartphone window. One could then purchase the suggested merchandise or close it to continue posting the story. The results are often mildly amusing but mostly plain annoying, as pizzas are mistaken for cheesecakes, a Trump doll for a footballer sticker set, etc. In my case, Instagram basically made the sales pitch: “Hey, you too might wanna own that MAGA hat that Bin Laden’s niece is wearing.” Breaking practically every rule of sales etiquette, I was offered a clothing item advertising my political nemesis and worn by the right-wing niece of the world’s most famous terrorist.

Days later, I was followed on Instagram by a page called @qanonofficial. What was oddest about this—aside from it being a little disconcerting (though not that rare) to be followed by an apparently right-wing page—was the fact that the page had 20,000 followers but was only following 150 or so people. For that reason, I felt targeted by a page that mostly featured heinous smears of leftist politicians and celebrities and obscene conspiracies. I was actually surprised by the aggression of the image and text memes. Only upon closer inspection did I begin to suspect that it was a spoof account, though one that for many right-wing followers might have seemed convincing.

Around that same time, I was included in a group chat on Instagram that was comprised of a number of left-sounding Instagram accounts that had convened to plan to spam right-wing accounts. It seemed (and still seems) to be a genuine group of young leftists wanting to spread their message of community and their socialist aspirations, even if I was unconvinced by their methods. I did not know how useful spamming a BBC story on sports with unrelated political news would endear an unsuspecting public to revolutionary communism. I reasoned that it would be better to make names that would appeal in some way to political neutrals—instead of bombarding viewers with aggressive rhetoric. The makeshift group’s policy of spamming right-wing and institutional accounts would likely only contribute to the existing noise that drowns out attempts to formulate solutions to societal problems.

All three of these scenarios contribute in their own way to derailing any reflective thought process, though, this—by itself—would not be detrimental. After all, there are modes of thinking other than philosophical reflection, and it would be reactionary to assume, as many academics do, that rational thought is superior to the states which produce and are induced by memes and other highly visual, Internet-based stimuli. However, while there may be forms of thought (or emotional and physical states) that are equal to rational inquiry, the effect generated by the above three online interactions was one of exasperation.

Unfortunately, leftist activity online fits into the same category of antagonistic signifiers that comprise online interaction today and which achieve little else other than to harangue, harass, and confound. The leftist Internet has, unfortunately, become one assembly line in a vast factory of irritation in which the principle production unit is contrarianism, as seen in the above examples: “You think you’re this (a never-Trumper), but I’ll sell you this (a MAGA hat)”; “You think I represent this (QAnon), but actually I’m this (anti-QAnon with QAnon characteristics); “We are aiming at this (leftist communitarianism), but really we only achieve this (further division).”

This being the case, if we are to use the Internet to build a movement that will challenge the hegemony of major corporations, we need to rewire it towards education, organization, and reflection. And to achieve this, we need memes that challenge the breakneck speed at which platforms encourage us to browse. It is for this reason that I propose a ”slow meme” movement that encourages the use of the Internet’s great resources in a considered way that challenges the data economy, while building a community that can also function and meet offline. Precedents for “slow memes” exist in online reading groups, quotation memes, and the Vaporwave movement—which, in its abstraction, leads to contemplation. While the leftist meme community is often criticized for its over-incorporation of text (often in right-wing memes), a well-timed quotation on an engaging background can go some way in prompting dialogue. Beyond this, platforms and initiatives are required to encourage an approach to meme production and reception that use the positive potential of the Internet (and its stores of knowledge) to promote class consciousness and dialogue over the formation of new institutions and worker-owned cooperatives.

While the formation of any such initiative for slow meme production and ensuing discourse would benefit from the use of alternative social media and video platforms such as Diaspora, Mastodon, and DTube (to name a few), there is no reason why the existing platforms cannot be co-opted. Doing so would require that discipline be maintained to resist the efforts of these platforms to provide a contrarian assault on efforts to engage in constructive leftist dialogue. Above all, a first phase is needed of communication signaling that we need to step back from the breakneck aggressive tendencies of the Internet as it currently stands and to cease emulating right-wing meme trends, the efficacy of which are in any case unclear. Right-wing memes trends succeeded only because the infrastructure of the Internet is inherently conservative. In and of themselves, alt-right memes only add to a sum total of confusion and angst that the Left would do well to veer away from. In doing so, we have much to learn from historical absurdist and abstract movements such as Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, Cubism, and abstract expressionism. While facing down right-wing and industrialist capitalist movements, they sought answers in reflective works appealing to the subconscious or some nonsensical human language that resisted the rationalist and capitalist injunction to produce ever more even quicker. The efficacy of such movements can be seen in attempts to stifle them by totalitarian regimes—or in the United States government’s efforts to co-opt abstraction in the 1950’s and 1960’s, despite Jackson Pollock’s personal political views. It is time that we see a parallel movement today that exposes the madness of our times, as our forebears have exposed their own. The Internet provides us with the tools to do so on an unprecedented scale, provided that we are not derailed by its inherent pace and tendency towards capitalism.

Mike Watson is a theorist and critic, who is principally focused on the relationship among culture, new media and politics. 

One thought on “How Online Meme Culture Fails the Left

  1. Could an abstracted meme be a slow meme? Like the info of a more traditional macro image and text meme is there but arranged in a way that you have to scan and put it together, rather than just the top text bottom text variety.

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