Authoritarian Tech

As Concerns Over Technology Increase, a New Book Reminds Us the Internet is Made Up of Human Beings

Six years ago, the phrase “meme culture” recalled online characters like the troll face and a cartoon frog with the caption “feels bad man.” These characters were the faces of a newly emergent digital folklore. Their fans used them to create and share comics, and printed their faces on t-shirts to prove their technological prowess.

There have been a number of developments since. The “feels bad man” frog turned out to be named Pepe and, in 2015, his face was tweeted by the future President of the United States. Following that tweet, it took less than a year for the Southern Poverty Law Center to classify Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol, used as a mascot by white supremacists. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, published a solemn explainer. “That cartoon frog,” it read, “is more sinister than you might realize.” Matt Furie, the artist who had created Pepe as a lovable stoner in the 2000’s, was forced to act. By the time Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, Pepe was canonically dead, buried by his friends in a final one-page comic.

In more than one way, Pepe’s vertiginous rise and fall is emblematic of what has happened to public perception of the internet in the last decade. The internet, once celebrated as a cultural leveller despite corners which were filled with trolls and crime, now attracts everything from liberal moral panic about the corrosion of democracy to right-wing triumphalism about the insurgent power of memes. “We did it,” said one Republican voter on the day before Trump’s inauguration. “We memed him into the presidency.”

An Xiao Mina’s Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media is Changing Social Protest and Power is an attempt to sketch a kind of political economy of the internet. Focusing on memes, it turns out, is a particularly lucid way of doing that. In ways both good and bad, however, the book feels a few years removed from the present.

Ours is a moment of trembling fear about online influence campaigns, fake news, and echo chambers. These fears cast the average internet user as a powerless victim of propaganda and falsehood. But what Mina suggests, compellingly, is that we should stop seeing the user as a pawn.

Take the issue of fake news. In a commonplace fantasy of 2016, an unintentional conspiracy between Russian agents, clickbait sites, and Facebook’s callow business model thrust fake news upon a helpless, untrained population and helped damage American democracy. Mina rejects this patronizing approach.

“It’s tempting,” she writes, “to think of fake news as a series of falsehoods.” But this casts the people sharing news simply as dupes. When people share fake news, they are not just making a claim about what is true; a fake news post, like a meme, helps communicate political allegiances, drive attention to pet issues, and “perform a political identity.” Mina argues that fact-checking does nothing to address the fundamental reasons people decide to share lies.

As Mina makes this argument, Memes to Movements’ recurring focus is on memes, rather than online journalism or debate on Twitter. This is a clever move by the author. You can fact-check a Tweet or an article, but any discussion of a meme’s “accuracy” is beside the point. Instead, we should ask what the meme is doing for the person sharing it.

Mina’s definition of “meme’”is broader than than the usual application, and this helps her consider a wide variety of media both online and offline. She sees that memes spread because people spread them and that their reasons for doing so often reflect offline political realities. Her empathetic attention to the grassroots of internet culture is the book’s greatest strength.

What the book does with that framework, however, leaves something to be desired. Over a large number of case studies, the book shows how memes can drive attention to causes, build political narratives and create digital communities. Mina also spends some time demonstrating that humor and seriousness are deeply intertwined, that online culture bleeds into the physical world and that memes can both challenge and strengthen power. In a world where Pepe the Frog is a serious political issue, none of this is surprising. Mina occasionally seems to be addressing uninformed readers. “When someone says ‘internet meme,’” she writes, “you might think of just cats,” a sentence that sounds like it was written in 2006.

The book’s occasional naiveté might be a helpful corrective to the past two years of gloom about the internet’s political potential. Though Mina shows how memes can serve powerful interests, she never loses her excitement about the potential of grassroots memes to challenge hierarchies and empower the powerless.

This cautious optimism offers a marked contrast to another recent book about the internet, P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking’s bombastic LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. The authors, who appear out of breath as they summarize the political crises that have unfolded online, are determined to convince us that the internet, which they describe as a “toxic swamp,” is a sinister battlefield where dark political forces prey on the vulnerability of democratic societies.

“The internet,” they write, “once a light and airy place of personal connection,” is now “a battlefield where information itself is weaponized.” The following is an incomplete list of other articles the authors say have become “weaponized”: “viral marketing,” “the personalization afforded by social media,” “modest lies,” smartphones”, “memes”, and “our own brains.”

It’s not exactly that these things cannot be weapons. But this eagerness to cast everything as a weapon sounds like a war drum, and its own form of propaganda. The perils of describing information in military terminology are clearest when the authors say: “Media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs.” The source of the quote? ISIS.

Naturally, once you’ve defined a menace to society, the next step is to offer a remedy. Where Memes to Movements ends on a hopeful note extolling memes as the “mighty forest of our times,” the authors of LikeWar offer a series of chilling recommendations. They want the United States to engage in propaganda against its own citizens by creating a Centers for Disease Control to combat “viral outbreaks” of misinformation; people who share Russian disinformation should be “seen for what they are…they are aiding and abetting enemies that seek to harm all of society.”

The fundamental misstep that LikeWar makes and that Memes to Movements avoids, is to treat every new form of digital contestation as a threatening novelty. Mina reasonably sees the meme wars as an outgrowth of millennia of human history and power struggle. In Mina’s framework, what Brooking and Singer call “LikeWar” is not a shocking new “weaponization” of digital communications by men like Vladimir Putin, but the sound of centuries-old conflicts entering the digital sphere. The internet may be a game-changer, but the game has always existed.

Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard wrote his first article in Coda while a media studies student at Swarthmore College. After graduating, he worked in production roles for various public radio programs in the U.S. Now, he is excited to be back at Coda to help run its project on authoritarian technology. Eduard recently tried to boycott the internet, but this turned out to be impossible.

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