Donald Trump was the perfect “meme leader,” appealing to an array of shadowy, loosely organized groups with varied philosophies but shared roots in internet “imageboards” like 4chan and 8chan, along with a desire, like their adopted chief, to disrupt the established power structure.
“He had already — before he ran in 2015 — become a memetic figure in a lot of these communities. His hair was already a meme. He stood for a certain kind of New York wealth and power and masculinity to these communities,” said Emily Dreyfuss, a journalist, fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and co-author of “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America.” “Then, when he decided to run for president, these characters were like, ‘Oh, he’s one of us.’”
Dreyfuss appeared at Harvard Kennedy School event on Monday with co-authors Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center, and Brian Friedberg, Shorenstein Center senior researcher, as well as Harvard Anthropology Professor Gabriella Coleman. The four spoke at “How the Internet Changed Politics: From Memes to the Insurrection,” an event sponsored by the Institute of Politics, one of three John F. Kennedy Jr. Forums at the Kennedy School this week that touched on the theme of current threats to democracy.
The group characterized Trump’s ascension as something of a perfect storm that upended the U.S. political system that took full advantage of the internet’s evolution from early tool that promoted hope to “trickster,” as Donovan described it. While the web has become a valuable and indispensable part of our daily lives, it is also a place where racists flourish, conspiracists plot, memes arise, and where ordinary users must be on alert for scams, misinformation, and outright lies.
The ground had been prepared on social media boards like 4chan and 8chan, where people sharing unpopular views anonymously were able to loosely organize into groups like the Anonymous’ “hacktivists,” Q-Anon’s conspiracy theorists, and the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers’ right-wing militias. Trump and Republican operators like Roger Stone and Stephen Bannon understood how to mobilize those organizations’ grassroots reach and fervor behind Trump’s mission.
The roots of mobilization efforts such as #StoptheSteal can be traced in part, oddly enough, to the rise in 2011 of the more progressive, equality movement Occupy, according to Donovan and Friedberg. Though right-wing activists disagreed with the movement’s politics, they appreciated the way Occupy made use of snappy memes, distributed over the internet and social media, as well as traditional media, to mobilize people into action.
Today, it is Democrats who are struggling to mimic Republican success, in President Biden’s “Dark Brandon” meme and the U.S. Senate campaign of Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman, who has deployed memes against Republican Mehmet Oz for, among other things, his rival’s longtime residency in and identification with neighboring New Jersey.
Donovan said it’s important for society to grapple with how much “incitement” — like that which led to the Jan. 6 riot — we should allow, how we ensure that all parts of society have access to these technologies, and whether platforms like Facebook should be, effectively, the ones charged with policing national information security.
“Facebook is the first line of defense against attacks against our nation on Facebook. Do we accept that as part of our political anatomy now?” Donovan said. “I have nothing but existential dread for the future of an internet that is not owned by the people.”
The internet has become a powerful tool to exploit various schisms in American culture and politics to various ends. One of the deepest and perhaps the most longstanding involves race.