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Memes are no longer ridiculous online jokes – they are upending American politics – The Boston Globe

Cover of “Meme Wars,” a new book by Harvard Scholars.Courtesy of Harvard University

Her new book, “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America,” is the first in-depth description of how the Stop the Steal movement transformed from “wires to weeds” or from online subcultures to real life. She co-wrote it with Brian Friedberg, who studies internet groups, and technology journalist Emily Dreyfus. Both do research at the Schornstein Center.

Joan Donovan looks at how disinformation campaigns spread among far-right groups on the Web. Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff

Donovan spoke with The Globe about “Meme Wars.” The interview has been lightly shortened and edited to save space and clarity.

When did you realize you needed to write this book?

It was already the night of January 6th. Many people were asking each other, “How did this happen? How did so many people know about this kind of event?” They wanted to know what symbols were used on flags and emblems. As we listened to reporters and others ask us these questions, we realized we needed to write a book about the last decade of the Internet’s impact on society — politics, in particular.

Protesters outside the US Capitol on the day supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the building on January 6, 2021. Jason Andrew/The New York Times

I was on Zoom all day with your team at Harvard on January 6. How was that?

Everyone had TVs in the background, knowing it was going to be a very busy day in terms of online fact-checking, as well as misinformation. We were all one eye on the meeting, and one eye on the TV as things started to get a little more intense in the Capitol. Everyone on the team was watching a different live stream and different media.

We switched to action mode and started taking screenshots and copying information from one place to another. We knew there was going to be a massive purge of content from the platforms not long after, because a lot of the stuff that traded violates the terms of service agreements, and a lot of it was incredibly horrific in terms of violence, blood, and blood. bloodsucking

Authorities deployed tear gas as supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Kenny Holston/The New York Times

I told my team, if it’s too hard to handle, don’t feel like you have to watch. But by then, I think the whole world was watching.

So, what are memes?

Most people think of memes [as] Those silly little pictures you see on the internet that have some kind of funny saying, suggest some kind of irony or very funny. In the end, they are how we transmit culture. Memes come to suit very complex concepts and issues.

Memes that come from the far right or from the fringes can influence mainstream culture if they get enough attention. We don’t necessarily think of them as ways of doing politics right now, but our book makes an argument that politicians have already begun to embrace memes as a way to communicate with the public.

You are referring to a group rightly called the “red pill”. Where does that come from?

We were really looking for terms that weren’t already in use. The “red pill” comes from the “Matrix” series, where if you take the red pill, you see the truth.

Online men, you know, have taken the red pill and can now see, in a misogynistic way, that women are being denied love, denied sex, and denied families. Red cheated racists will talk about immigrants who take their jobs.

Some people may refer to this group of people as the alt-right, but that means something very special and historical to us as we study the Internet.

Do the right holders win meme wars?

They are spreading their messages. More people hear and understand their situation. But when you look at, “Well, where are these people now?” What you find is that while few of them have made money, many of them are tied up in court cases. Some are in prison.

Do social media companies play a role in this?

It is their responsibility to learn and monitor what is happening on their platforms. Unfortunately, platform companies are far behind in understanding when something started to turn dangerous.

Apple iPhone 7 on a wooden table with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat icons on the screen.ADOBE.STOCK.COM/Aleksei – stock.adobe.com

What is the latest example of this?

Over the past few months, platform companies have slowly learned that far-right, anti-trans activists have deliberately singled out transgender people by calling them “nanny,” rather than “pedophile.” Child sexual abuse is something in which you accuse someone of a crime, whereas a nanny does not have the same connotation.

Anti-trans activists found each other through the “Okay, groom,” meme [a riff on “OK, boomer”] And they organize. They target specific individuals, deceiving doctors and hospitals. We’re starting to see the fallout from that, including bomb threats to Boston Children’s Hospital.

For a long time, platform companies did not consider the nanny a hypothetical idea and, as a result, did not take any action about it.

You study memes. Is the rest of America taking them seriously?

Why are they? This is the point. It’s supposed to deceive you. It’s supposed to look sarcastic. It’s supposed to be funny. And what we don’t really understand as a society is how these messages are internalized, and how they create a flash point for coordination.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amissagardizy8 And on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.



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