The Influence of Memes on Far-Right Radicalisation

Memes play a crucial role in the potential radicalization process within far-right circles online, representing a facet of internet culture that demands attention.

The digital age, particularly the emergence of Web 2.0, has facilitated a modernization within the far-right movement, as highlighted by researchers Lisa Bogerts and Maik Fielitz. This evolution has opened new pathways for radicalization, with memes playing a central role. Defined by Richard Dawkins as “cultural units of transmission,” memes in this context act as potent mediums, capable of influencing individuals towards violent extremism.

Shifting Perceptions Through Memes

Memes often emerge from forum cultures, characterized by a distinct ‘troll sensibility.’ This approach has led to antagonistic campaigns against targets like the Church of Scientology in the US and actor Shia Labeouf. Far-right memes, using this countercultural irony, can spread extremist ideologies under the guise of humor. For instance, the ‘Successful Black Man’ meme uses racial profiling as a joke, subtly spreading prejudice. Scholars like Ryan Milner point out that understanding these racist undertones is essential to get the joke, while Angela Nagle discusses how far-right groups use such humor to broaden what’s considered acceptable discourse, subtly introducing extremist ideologies.

Top-down and Bottom-up Radicalization Dynamics

These memes can function in two ways: individuals may independently seek out extreme content, or existing members of extremist communities may launch meme campaigns to draw in newcomers. The COVID-19 pandemic saw an uptick in such activities, with memes spreading racist conspiracies about the virus to lure new followers to white supremacist ideologies. Moreover, the humor in these memes creates a sense of moral impunity, allowing users to engage with extremist ideologies while ridiculing those who take the content seriously, leveraging the inherent ambiguity of online interactions.

Memes as Social Glue

Drawing on Social Movement Theory, Cristina Archetti emphasizes how radicalization can occur as individuals adopt the values of extremist movements as core to their identity, aligning with the group’s ideology. In far-right online communities, understanding and sharing memes signals belonging, creating in-groups and out-groups. The process of creating or sharing memes helps reinforce group cohesion and identity, a critical component in the radicalization process.

Case Studies of Memetic Influence

The significance of memes in far-right communities is underscored by their inclusion in the manifestos of lone attackers. Before the 2019 Christchurch attack, Brenton Tarrant posted a manifesto filled with memes to the ‘chan’ culture’s ‘/pol/’ board, demonstrating a deep connection to this online community. Similar memetic references were found in the manifestos of other attackers, acting as ‘dog whistles’ to those within these communities.

In conclusion, far from being mere online distractions, memes serve as a powerful tool in the radicalization process within far-right online spaces. Their role in spreading ideology, creating community cohesion, and signaling in-group belonging underscores their importance in understanding online radicalization dynamics.

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