[estimated reading time: 3 minutes for slower readers; 2 minutes for faster ones]
[epistemic status: So, I have strong opinions on dank memes. I could be biased, but bear with me.]
[editorial note: I was too lazy to provide hyperlinks-as-citations when I first wrote this. I might do that later. If you’re really curious about a particular claim, feel free to ping me for a source in the comments.]
It seems dank memes as political propaganda might be having some effect. I think the memers themselves don’t really know how they’re doing what they’re doing, so they say “meme magic is real”.
But I have some hypotheses. The upshot is that if Donald Trump ultimately got his edge to win the election by a hair by playing the media like a fiddle, the alt-right was the bow with which he played that fiddle. They ran back-up on the internet, where the media lives these days, and unleashed the worst trolling they save for each other on the darkest corners of Reddit, 4chan and 8chan on journalists. That includes dank memes, hit pieces, all sorts of things. And these nihilistic internet trolls eat it all up and gave the Trump campaign free spin control. They spewed it all over social media.
But dank memes are a special tool in their arsenal. What makes dank memes special? Some ideas:
- Dank memes are the aesthetic motif of the people. It’s decentralized, it’s unclassy and crass, and anyone can make them do anything. Dank memes spread when they’re ugly, so you don’t need to be a graphic designer. Legacy media like WaPo, or new media like Jezebel, who think policy debates are one-sided and back Clinton on everything wouldn’t be caught dead spreading dank memes as the ideographic propaganda on their Facebook pages. So, if you see a dank meme, you know it’s from an average Joe like yourself rather than an elite with an incentive to defend Beltway assholes.
- Dank memes sneak past people’s System 2, right into their System 1, and grabs them by the heartstrings. This is just “a picture is worth more than a thousand words”. Anyway, they fit well with Trump, who also operates by always routing around reason and preying on emotion. Mix this with how virally shareable they are on social media, and you’ve got a perfect way to spread a message throughout all social media, with its hundreds of millions of users and several billion accounts worldwide.
So, when you think about the unprecedented ability in history for so few people to convey their ideas so well to so many people so fast, the power of dank memes doesn’t sound so surprising. For all we know, it was in total a few hundred or few thousand young internet stormtroopers, maybe coordinated by some unknown cabal of reactionary social media wizards. I’ve heard about the Pied Piper scandal, so I don’t think the Democrats, or even anyone on the political left or centre, may be better than the far-right, or the centre-right.
But nobody predicted even a poorly coordinated group, a smaller conspiracy than most would guess, could so freely wield this much power over the internet. Maybe that’s a good thing, if we can’t trust the fourth estate anymore. But it scares me too.