The Influence of Memes on Far-Right Radicalisation

Memes remain an important potential influence on far-right online radicalisation and cannot be overlooked as an aspect of internet culture.

The far right has always thrived in the online space, however scholars Lisa Bogerts and Maik Fielitz suggest that the advent of Web 2.0 catalysed “a process of (post-) modernisation” within the movement, thus creating new avenues for online radicalisation. This shift has heavily featured the use of memes, which can be imagined as highly medium-specific, often user-generated “cultural units of transmission” – drawing upon Richard Dawkins’ original definition, and may have the potential to influence individuals’ radicalisation trajectories into violent extremism.

Opening the Overton Window

 A number of memes originate from within forum culture which is marked by a particular ‘troll sensibility’ that has catalysed antagonistic campaigns targeting the Church of Scientology in the United States, and Hollywood actor Shia Labeouf in a months-long game of Capture the Flag. This same sense of countercultural, antagonistic irony which fuelled these campaigns plays a dual function within far-right memes.

Often presented as humorous images, memes enable the spread of elements of far-right ideology by allowing extreme messages to masquerade as medium-specific parody. An example of this dynamic is the ‘Successful Black Man’ meme which presents an apparent parody of racial profiling while simultaneously enabling the gradual spread of prejudice, for as scholar Ryan Milner notes “familiarity with racist tropes is necessary to get the joke”. Angela Nagle suggests that this kind of countercultural irony is a tactic employed by far-right movements to shift the “Overton Window” – the public conception of what is acceptable discourse – by using edgy humour to disguise the loaded racism of their messaging. Thus, by gradually exposing users to increasingly virulent content concealed as ironic parody, far-right movements may catalyse the Gramscian-style creep of extreme ideology. This dynamic is evidenced in the “red-pilling” Discord logs collected by Unicorn Riot where one user comments he became involved in antisemitism “as a meme first off…. then all of a sudden it stopped being a meme”.

This kind of exposure may function from the bottom-up as users seek out increasingly extreme content for themselves, or it may be part of a top-down dynamic where existing members of extremist online spaces launch ‘meme campaigns’ to attract new users. This latter possibility has been evidenced during the coronavirus pandemic as calls have been made on fringe online forums for users to create and share memes which spread racist conspiracies surrounding the virus to attract newcomers to white supremacist ideology. 

Furthermore, the intended humour which underlies extremist memes may also produce a sense of moral impunity, where users are able to engage with the underlying ideology within memes, while simultaneously mocking outsiders who take the content seriously. Thus, these memes profit from the inherent ambiguity of online interactions, as is outlined in Poe’s Law, creating what Milner has termed a “Logic of Lulz” where it is never possible to discern the intended tone of an online post with any certainty, thereby rendering all participants of an online space perpetually vulnerable to trolling. This way, extreme views are allowed to thrive as memes, enriched by a surrounding culture of troll sensibility and ambiguity.

Memes and Identity Cohesion

Cristina Archetti, drawing on Social Movement Theory, stresses that radicalisation into violent extremism is made possible as individuals come to regard the values of an extremist movement as key markers of their own selfhood, and thus converge with a movement’s in-group identity. Far-right memes constitute a form of social capital in online communities where the ability to understand and disseminate images espousing comical articulations of extreme ideology signals one’s degree of belonging within that space. Dynamics such as this both bind users together and simultaneously create distinct out-groups through mocking notions such as “the left can’t meme”. Scholars Edwin Hodge and Helga Hallgrimsdottir also note that as users become more imbedded within increasingly extreme online communities, they may be exposed to “shock” memes, which may feature gore or graphic violence, thus, potentially eroding psychological barriers to violence.

Additionally, a number of memes exist as templates to be ‘remixed’ and edited by others. Thus, users are not only bound by dynamics of co-consumption but in co-production within a culture of “semiotic productivity”, where they are encouraged to participate in the reproduction of collective extremist tropes, and become active in the continuation of cultural in-jokes. Therefore, by engaging in the production or dissemination of memes, members of far-right movements may enhance a sense of in-group cohesion, critical to processes of radicalisation.

This function of memes as a facet of identity and community cohesion has been demonstrated in the recent string of far-right lone-actor attacks. Directly before his attack, Brenton Tarrant, the 2019 Christchurch shooter, posted a manifesto to the ‘/pol/’ (politically incorrect) board on the imageboard forum 8chan – which has since been removed from the Clearnet – addressing the users there as “top blokes”. In his manifesto, Tarrant directly referenced a number of memes popular on the forum, notably including the entire ‘Navy Seal’ copypasta, which is thought to have originated within ‘chan’ forum culture. This memetic style of manifesto-writing, was a trend imitated by subsequent attackers such as John Earnest, who carried out a firearms attack at the Chabad of Poway synagogue on 27 April 2019, and included a reference to the Toddroll copypasta in his ‘open letter’. Additionally, Stephan Balliet, who attempted to carry out a mass casualty attack at a synagogue in Halle, Germany on 9 October 2019, also incorporated images of the ‘catgirl’ meme, popular within some fringe imageboard communities in documentation supplemental to his main manifesto. The incorporation of these memes acts as a ‘dog whistle’ to others familiar with this culture, signalling a degree of belonging to the online community, while simultaneously ostracising those unfamiliar with these communities.

The inclusion of memes such as these in the writings of lone-actors suggests a self-awareness of the importance of memes within far-right communities. This is a clear signal that memes must not be overlooked merely as a ‘quirk’ of far-right online culture, but as an important potential tool for radicalisation.

Ms Blyth Crawford is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in War Studies, King’s College London. See her profile here.

© Blyth Crawford. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).