Often humorous, bizarre, or bewildering, Internet humor, hashtags, and memes form a fast-moving language that often divides the insiders from the outsiders, building communities of likeminded people. However, not all communities are positive. Many, particularly online, use the coded language of memes to spread hateful or extremist ideology under the guise of humor.
In recent years, multiple violent far-right attacks have been linked to “chan culture”—subcultures built and proliferated on websites and message boards, such as 4chan, 8chan, or 8kun. Attackers uploaded manifestos and livestreams to the sites themselves, and some—including Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant—included violent, racist, or anti-Semitic memes and in-jokes from the sites in their manifestos.
“The connection between chan sites and violence is concerning not only because of the chans’ tangible connection to specific far-right attacks but of the widespread community support that exists within these online subcultures—in which violence is both trivialized and glorified,” found the authors of Memetic Irony and the Promotion of Violence within Chan Cultures, a report released in December 2020 by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST).
The report, which analyzed memes and visual culture on 12 chan sites from March 2020 through June 2020, found that memes are “deployed to promote extremist narratives under the guise of pop-cultural aesthetics, humor, and irony, thus lowering the barrier for participation.” This attracts a younger generation of digital natives, who may be initially drawn in by the visual culture and community component of message boards and then slowly become more tolerant of radical and extreme ideologies—including racism, misogyny, and bigotry—due to prolonged exposure.
The in-group element cannot be overemphasized, say Blyth Crawford and Florence Keen, two of the King’s College London researchers who authored the report. Many of the memes and jokes, when taken out of context, seem innocuous or merely odd. But when viewed by insiders—who have been soaking in the culture, language, and themes of the message board—the memes take on a different, more insidious tone.
“Aesthetics deployed within these memes are really important to that chan culture way of drawing people in,” Keen says. “So, it might look to someone unversed in that community or in misogynistic, racist narratives like sort of a joke, and in that way, it would lower the barrier to entry to some of these more extremist mind-sets.”
Furthermore, memes and in-jokes evolve over time, picking up additional layers of meaning. For example, the smirking cartoon image of Pepe the Frog was co-opted by alt-right extremists, despite the original artist’s best intentions. Over the past few years, it has morphed into a myriad of versions to suit different situations, from a nihilistic, disengaged frog cozied up in a blanket to watch events unfold to depictions of a Pepe character committing graphic acts of violence against Jewish people.
The researchers found that the intent and context of an image’s use is paramount to understanding the meaning on a message board, which can make it particularly challenging for outsiders to evaluate potential threats and risks that emerge on chan sites, Keen and Crawford say. Additionally, the visual element—which can begin with a benign image of a smug cartoon frog—“provides users with a degree of inherent deniability,” the report said. “The harsh depictions of violence when juxtaposed with such a trivial aesthetic, not only allows extreme visuals to be masked by a guise of humor, but allows users to mock outsiders who might take the brutality of the images seriously by responding with shock or condemnation.”
Memes are used across all spectrums of intent, whether that’s communicating with an in-group that has a shared understanding of the context behind racist memes and tropes, using images and editing them to add to the joke or make the message more extreme, and deliberately targeting people or companies in mainstream spaces by flooding media and websites with incendiary or racist images, Crawford says.
Memes could also be weaponized in response to a major event, fomenting conflict. During the research period for the report, Crawford and Keen saw memes and dark in-jokes about COVID-19 transition from being anti-Chinese to anti-Semitic. The rise of Black Lives Matter protests in the United States triggered a spike in the use of racist memes about race wars or civil war.
For example, the use of hashtags to proliferate slogans and push extremist or conspiracy theorist views into mainstream media can rapidly escalate an incident. In 2019, online furniture retailer Wayfair was broadsided by a conspiracy theory that children were being trafficked in their cabinets. The rumor was easily debunked, Goldenberg says, but it went viral, with the hashtag #SavetheChildren being co-opted by QAnon supporters and others who were duped into believing the theory.