Argument

The Alt-Right's Meme Affair

How white supremacy thrives off meme culture.
By
Kate Naylor
Contributor
Zeyd Anwar / Res Publica
May 7, 2021
I

n The Matrix, the protagonist (played by Keanu Reeves) is famously offered a choice between two pills. The ‘Blue Pill’ offers him blissful ignorance in a simulated universe, while the ‘Red Pill’ offers an escape from the fabricated reality pulled over his eyes. “You take the Red Pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes,” says Morpheus, played by the actor Laurence Fishburne.

Naturally, the term has been turned into a meme that has taken hold of the internet. Memes are now the zeitgeist method of communication of our times: wildly funny and digitally viral in their transmission from person to person. In his study of evolutionary biology, Richard Dawkins originally theorised memes as “cultural units of transmission” that “propagate themselves…by leaping from brain to brain”, akin to genes. This term was adopted to describe the internet phenomenon that Limor Shifman once defined as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated and transformed by individual internet users, creating a shared cultural experience in the process.”

The language of love, political satire and Gen-Z humour come in different digital formats: internet jargon, captioned images or animated GIFs. They share common features, typically making reference to popular or gaming culture, created with an awareness of each other and disseminated accordingly.

But they have also become a functional element of modern white supremacy. Much like the rest of the internet, memes possess a dark side. According to analysis of the encrypted platform Discord, the production and distribution of memes have become a critical part of extremists’ highly elastic and collective identity. The Red Pill meme has been co-opted by a range of white supremacists, neo-Nazi and conspiracy theories. Believing that the Red Pill awakens them to various forms of oppression such as feminism, liberalism and multiculturalism — and that Jewish people are orchestrating these trends — the Red Pill has become a central meme in the domain of the Alt-Right.

***

Memes first entered mainstream political discourse in the lead up to the 2012 U.S. election, in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring, as well as the dissident hacker group Anonymous. As a user-generated resource, a central attraction of memes is their ability to disseminate humour and irony. If an audience is not receptive to a meme’s content, humour enables the meme-creator to feign its lack of seriousness, often claiming that the meme was ‘just a joke’, or that they were simply ‘trolling’. Often, the visual elements of memes allow the creator to flirt within the boundaries of what is legally speakable, while maintaining a form of deniability. Angela Nagle, an expert on the relationship between the internet and the far-right, sees memes as a tactical tool. Memes, she argues, allow white supremacists to shift the range of politically acceptable discourse further to the right. Humour is utilised as a cover for racism, providing a degree of affective release, while also shrouding any racist content in various degrees of uncertainty.

Not only is this inherent ambiguity in memes readily co-opted by racists, but the form of memes also play a powerful role in recruitment. Their small size and easily sharable nature means users can flood different platforms with little to no costs of creation and dissemination. Take the instruction manual named ‘Advanced Meme Warfare’. The online handbook was created to improve the process of recruiting ‘normies’ and misleading journalists. According to data leaks from Discord, a large majority of users that reference red pills also narrate their own process of radicalisation. They prove conscious of the processes that led to their embrace of white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology: “I started my red pill journey on Storm front,” writes one individual. Another proclaims “…my red pill took several years”, and that “I got red pilled by watching lectures and reading books. Memes came way way way after.”

But memes are also used to construct and solidify a collective group identity. The lack of clear markers of identity, such as profiles and usernames on discussion boards, leaves white supremacists desperate for validation from their anonymous peers. Analysis of references to the Red Pill show that creating, disseminating — and most importantly, understanding — memes on a forum elevates one’s status and signifies communal belonging. Take a competition for an assignment of a ‘redpilled role’ on one online server. To be eligible, users had to ‘be a redpill’, demonstrated by showing one’s credentials to the group. Those who were rewarded were granted moderating powers on the forum, with the ability to delete and block other users, as well control communication by pinning certain messages.

In contrast, those who misinterpreted the meme could be kicked off the server. One online user neatly summarised the attitude to those who had misinterpreted the meme: “You’re the mod of a redpilling archive and you allow traitors like this to be in the server?” Users faced constant scrutiny and had to prove their belonging to the group through memetic fluency. “We can use pepes as a metric” said one user. During a dispute over how long a new user had been on Discord, another replied, “I will decide how redpilled you are.”

In this way, meme-making and sharing constitutes a form of gatekeeping, one that creates two camps: those who are in; and those who are out. Given the premium placed on memes by these communities, understanding them have become pre-conditions of membership.

But paradoxically, the open-ended interpretation of memes is also something often recognised and exploited. According to one forum user, “We need subtle irony in the questions, not too hard because not everyone is redpilled completely yet, but ironic enough that shills can’t understand.” Although memes and memetic literacy constitute a form of legitimacy, they are also highly unstable forms since their meanings are always contested. One user defined the red pill as the ‘truth pill’, allowing the abstract nature of the ‘truth’ to grant the meme power. Another dissented over what should be consisted the ‘ultimate red pill’ — and that the “removal of Jews is the end goal of the truly red pilled”. A third, too, posited that “race realism is probably one of the biggest red pills you can swallow.” This vacuum of meaning enables different groups to ascribe any meaning they want — and levy this to incite destructive collective action.

***

Before memes, white supremacist groups had a long history of flirtation with racist literature and pseudo-science to draw inspiration from. One of the most influential texts is The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce, which popularised the idea of a lone wolf strategy and has inspired over 200 murders, most notably the Oklahoma bomber in 1995. Equally, their use of symbols transcended divisions that tore through the cluster of disparate movements across groups and time. While the swastika is undoubtedly the most iconic white supremacist symbol, certain numbers such as 88 — which represents Heil Hitler — are identifiable to a select few and go undetected on certain platforms.

It is this aptitude that has translated into the digital space. White supremacist groups were some of the first to recognise the utility of the internet, with many setting up messaging platforms to spread racist literature and connect distant extremists with each other. Throughout the 1980s, white supremacists created bulletin board systems, like the Aryan Nations Liberty Net and the White Aryan Resistance. With the development of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s, a large constellation of white supremacist websites and forums began to appear. One of the most prominent was Stormfront, created by Don Black in 1995. From 2009-2014, nearly 100 people had been murdered by Stormfront users. Today, one of the most popular and grotesque neo-Nazi websites is the Daily Stormer, one which calls for violence against Jews and was ranked the 5,722nd most viewed website in the United States.

From curated reading lists to explanations of white supremacist concepts and links to white power music, the internet has centralised and streamlined the availability of racist content. The founders of the Red Pill Archive server collaboratively set up threads to improve the visual presentation of attached documents. In their discussion of how to attract users to the board, one user commented that “they [law enforcement] will come for the books”, and then “from here we can point them to the 20th of April.” April 20 is documented as the day Adolf Hitler was born in 1889, and has coincided with attacks and disasters throughout history. According to a terrorism expert at the South Poverty Law Center, April is a prominent month for extremist violence.

In recent years, forums have overtaken websites as the principal location for white supremacist interaction. White supremacists initially congregated on mainstream social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. But as administrators began to crack down on white supremacist accounts and content, much more loosely regulated platforms appeared. Currently, the most popular include Reddit, Gab, 4chan and 8chan, characterised by their level of discord, trolling and ridicule.

In 2018, Gab had 450,000 users and Robert Bowes — the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter — was an active user and posted on the site minutes before his attack. 4chan requires no login and usernames, testament to its faced paced nature where controversial threads are deleted promptly and permanently. 8chan, meanwhilst, was created as an even more unregulated alternative to 4chan, linked to three white supremacist attacks in 2019 alone. Across all three were the digital publication of manifestos: Brenton Tarrant posted his manifesto on the website before the Christchurch attack, John Earnest posted his manifesto online before he attacked a synagogue in Poway California, and Patrick Crusius posted before his attack in a Walmart in El Paso Texas. Service providers lagged in their responses: by the time they had shut down the site in 2019, it was already replaced by one called 8kun.

Memes ultimately play an important role in the puzzle of white supremacist terror. Recent white supremacist attacks have all contained digital elements, typically the dissemination of a manifesto online containing references to memes or community-specific jargon. The Christchurch killer’s manifesto, for example, had been littered with references to memes and internet slag designed to maximise coverage, confuse journalists and communicate with fellow 8chan users. In another example, the Boogaloo movement — which calls for an army revolt against the U.S government — has preciously demonstrated the tangibility of its terrorist potential: what started on the weapons discussion board ‘/k/’ of 4chan culminated in the murder of two security guards and a police sergeant in Oakland.

Despite this, intelligence and academic attention remain behind the curve. Attempts to deplatform or shutdown white supremacist accounts and forums simply result in a shift to a new platform that promises looser regulations. Deplatforming has proved insufficient. Instead, intelligence agencies must infiltrate these networks with a deep-rooted understanding of internet subcultures. Recent steps by intelligence agencies in the U.K and Canada to recognise white supremacist terror as a significant national threat are welcome developments — and this must predicate future counter-terrorism strategy.

For much of its history, white supremacy was embedded in the foundations of the state. Colonisation was justified through the ‘white man's burden’ while white supremacy was enshrined through slave trade and racial segregation laws. Now, much like the rest of society’s vices, it is embedded in code.

Kate Naylor is a postgraduate student from the LSE interested in strategic communication, foreign affairs and national security.
@KateNaylor98

Newsletter

Learn more

Featured Articles

View More
Goodbye, Trump
Trump's greatest legacy will be moving the Republican Party away from conservatism.
Zeyd Anwar
The Trump Presidency: In Pictures
After four tumultuous years, the Trump Presidency finally comes to an end.
Zeyd Anwar