Excerpted from “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America” by Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and Emily Dreyfuss, senior managing editor, and Brian Friedberg, senior researcher, both at Technology and Social Change Project, Shorenstein Center.
“We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!” Elizabeth from Knoxville, Tennessee, told a reporter outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She had a blue Trump flag slung across her neck like a cape. As soon as she entered the Capitol, she tearfully related, police maced her in the face. As she cried into the camera, her fellow rioters walked into the frame carrying American flags, MAGA flags, Trump flags, and the familiar yellow flag with the coiled rattlesnake hissing the warning, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
As soon as this video of Elizabeth hit Twitter, it went viral. Her melodic, plaintive tone, her earnest insistence that she was part of a revolution, even her strange piano-design scarf and flag cape made her memorable. People watching the insurrection unfold live shared video of her with glee. Millions watched the chaos happen in real time — on broadcast TV, social media, and video streams that the rioters themselves dutifully posted. A very real and coordinated attempt to thwart the democratic process of America was also a surreal media spectacle, and Elizabeth was one of the minor characters.
From Twitter to TikTok, Elizabeth became fodder for internet jokes. People remixed the video with autotune. Sleuths spun conspiracies when they noticed that she held a towel with something white and round in it that she rubbed on her red eyes. Was it an onion? some speculated. Maybe Elizabeth was a liar who hadn’t really been maced, and perhaps the whole insurrection had been planned (it was, but not in the way these conspiracists meant) or was a hoax (it wasn’t).
Elizabeth from Knoxville had been memed. No longer a person with a real identity, now Elizabeth from Knoxville was a character, a memorable piece of media that resonated with people for different reasons. The video clip of her was recontextualized, remixed, and redistributed, carrying all sorts of meaning. That’s the definition of a meme, first coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 text “The Selfish Gene.” Supporters of the insurrection shared internet memes that focused on how Elizabeth had been treated badly by the police. People who thought the insurrection was a terrifying breach of democracy shared memes celebrating her macing or mocking her impotent rage. These memes made clear what group the sharer was in, which is a key aspect of memes. Memes signify membership in an in-group. Sometimes they are such an inside joke that they are inscrutable to people on the outside. Yet even when they are popular and accessible, they contain a point of view and announce the positioning of the sharer. Elizabeth, in the memes, was an ally or an enemy, depending on where you stood.
She herself was clearly a member of a meme group, as her flag made clear: the MAGA tribe. And it was memes like MAGA that helped bring Elizabeth to D.C. in the first place. Along with memes like “1776!,” which people had been sharing as hashtags and chanting at rallies to indicate that this January day in 2021 was, as Elizabeth had said, a revolution. And memes like the Gadsden flag, that coiled timber rattlesnake on a yellow background, itself one of the oldest memes in American history, born to express the spirit of insurgency. The Gadsden is now associated with the right, but its first iteration was created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754 as a call to unite the colonies during the French and Indian War. The snake, native to America and dignified in its approach to violence because it always warns its prey with a rattle first, was meant to embody the American spirit. It was during the Revolutionary War that the flag turned into the familiar image you see on Twitter profile pictures, bumper stickers, and lawn signs today, designed by a South Carolina politician named Christopher Gadsden (hence the name), and it has over two centuries been adopted by everyone from the Ku Klux Klan to libertarians to women’s rights activists. There’s a twisted irony that a symbol of resistance to tyranny was used in an insurrection against the democratic government it was created to help form. But it makes sense that this flag would become a symbol for a homegrown insurgency; one hallmark of a lasting meme is its ability to be recontextualized, co-opted, and used against its creators.
Amid the chaos of that day, flags told the story. Insurgents plunged the flagstaff of Old Glory into the building’s windows, piercing the glass, and with it the sense of security protecting the seat of government. Rioters paraded a Confederate flag solemnly through the halls, an act that hadn’t even happened during the Civil War. Outside, they held up green Kekistan flags, which most people had never seen, proudly claiming the U.S. Congress for the esoteric denizens of a meme-made country that sprang from the bowels of the internet. Plain red or blue flags with two words on them dotted the congregation: TRUMP NATION. And everywhere, the Gadsden, poised to attack.
The memes played a significant role in mobilizing these troops and inciting the violence. The central idea animating the insurrection — that President Donald Trump had been denied his rightful victory in the election — was itself a memetic slogan, #StopTheSteal, a phrase hashtagged, printed on T-shirts, and adopted by politicians and millions of voters. In three short words, #StopTheSteal managed to convey the complicated idea that Joe Biden was an illegitimate president and Trump had been wronged by a powerful system intent on subverting the will of the people, and it announced membership in the MAGA community. In the run-up to that day, memes were shared on Facebook, in chat rooms, and over encrypted messaging apps to drum up excitement and convince more people to head to D.C. In the charging documents from many of the people arrested for participating in Jan. 6, the FBI often included internet memes shared by the insurrectionists as proof of ideology. Posting a meme with the Trump quote “Stand back and stand by” indicated that someone was part of the Proud Boys militia, whereas someone sharing a green Pepe the Frog meme in a post about the insurrection was possibly in the alt-right, that subfaction of extremely online far-right youths who made themselves famous in the 2016 election by “memeing the president into office.”
These internet subcultures that had thrived in relative obscurity in the overlooked corners of the internet dramatically came into the light of day on Jan. 6. Everyone watching CNN at home — which had its highest rating day ever during the insurrection — was suddenly seeing groups of people together in real life who had found each other and formed a community of like-mindedness online. These communities had been having a profound impact on American society for decades — mainstreaming fringe ideas through the sharing of memes, trolling celebrities and journalists and politicians, and generally getting up to all sorts of planned mayhem — but were largely unknown to most Americans until they emerged from the wires of the internet and showed up on the Capitol steps that day.
They came because they were summoned. And the person summoning them was himself a living, breathing meme: President Donald Trump. He embodied insurgency with every aspect of his behavior. He had embraced these communities during his first run. He retweeted them with gusto despite the press calling him out for it. He refused to disavow them. He said they were very nice people. He embodied their grievances even as he actually belonged to the wealthy elite. His face was already a popular meme on their message boards. He spoke their language and treated them with respect. Trump told these far-right fringe factions over and over, in tweets and speeches, to come to the Capitol that day to “fight like hell.” It was a fight they had already been engaged in online, attacking Trump’s enemies, spreading his lies, amplifying conspiracies that would help him reach his goal, believing theories like QAnon that existed solely to make him look all-powerful. When their meme general asked them to bring that war to Washington, D.C., they took buses, drove caravans, chartered private jets, and showed up.
Never before had all these factions been assembled in real life together. The closest they had come were Trump rallies during his campaign and presidency, or perhaps the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which ended in a homicide, many arrests, and the destruction of the so-called alt-right coalition. The horde who breached the Capitol were not the alt-right, though some alt-righters were there, nor were they GOP supporters, though some of them were there too. They were not a homogeneous group of extremists but rather a collection of far-right and conspiratorial factions united by three things: extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo in America and their place in it; an aversion to or hatred of mainstream news and a corresponding preference for media that consisted of social networks and partisan outlets; and a loyalty to Trump. Aside from that, they disagreed on a lot. Some hated Jews, while others hated Jews a little but hated Black people more. Some hated women, some hated an imaginary evil cabal of baby eaters. Some believed the Constitution gave them the right to be sovereign over themselves, some were anarchists, and some were even monarchists. Members of the Korean American cult the Moonies were even there.
But as you watched these insurrectionists swarm the Capitol, climb walls, and break into buildings with the barricades they had dismantled, as you watched them set up a gallows on the Capitol steps and chant “Hang Mike Pence,” you would have been forgiven for not being able to tell the groups apart. Unless you’d been watching these subfactions closely for years — watching their YouTube channels, reading their forum conversations, following them on social media apps like Twitter and Gab, tuning into their podcasts, tracking their dramas — it would be extremely difficult to differentiate them.
For those who had been watching these communities — there is a wide community of internet researchers, journalists, and civil society organizations who watch these communities closely — the events of that day were entirely foreseeable. They were tragic. And sad. But they were not unexpected.
The simple reason for that is that the meme wars of recent years have been tremendously successful, even as they largely ruined the lives of the people who directly engaged in them. The most powerful meme warriors now face indictment, prison, bankruptcy, and loss of family and identity, but their ideas, carried into the bloodstream of our society through memes, persist: Learn to code. It’s about ethics in journalism. Race is real. It’s OK to be white. Critical race theory. Let’s go, Brandon. Blue Lives Matter. A deep state operates extralegally inside the U.S. government.
All of these are ideas born from meme wars.
Meme wars are culture wars, accelerated and intensified because of the infrastructure and incentives of the internet, which trades outrage and extremity as currency, rewards speed and scale, and flattens the experience of the world into a never-ending scroll of images and words, a morass capable of swallowing patience, kindness, and understanding.
Social media did not create culture wars, of course. They’ve been with us as long as we’ve had a nation. In his 1991 book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” sociologist James Davison Hunter detailed how religious conflicts in America’s diverse population evolved into the polarized, traditional-versus-progressive politic dichotomy of the time. While the now-ubiquitous term came from Hunter’s analysis, it was popularized by Nixon-administration speechwriter and paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, who co-opted the phrase back in 1992 in a speech he delivered to the Republican National Committee. He shocked the room with his claims that there was a “religious war” raging in America, one as important as the Cold War itself, and that this spiritual enemy was liberalism. This idea was embraced and built upon by media operative and publisher Andrew Breitbart, who evangelized that politics was “downstream of culture,” by which he meant that if you can shape the culture, you can shape the politics. Before social media, culture wars were spearheaded by evangelicals or radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh on the right, with progressive social movements like secularism and feminism positioned as their opponents on the left. They were amplified by TV pundits and argued over on web forums and email chains and in mailers sent to your house. Social media did to the culture wars what spinach did to Popeye — it juiced them up.
Suddenly you didn’t need a radio show to get your idea to millions of people. You just needed a viral tweet. You just needed to figure out the desires of a Facebook algorithm programmed to boost outrageous and emotionally stirring ideas, bury nuance far down your feed, and present information from your conspiracist grandmother and information from The New York Times in the exact same format, giving you the impression that they were basically the same. And more than that, the advancements on the internet in the 21st century and the advent of social media enabled culture warriors from across the country and globe to find each other and to gather in communal spaces where their ideas could grow. No longer would an Ayn Rand–obsessed teenager in a small liberal town be isolated from other libertarians; now they could just log on and find their people.
All kinds found each other. Lovers of plushy toys as well as fans of Japanese manga comic books. Globalist-hating ultraconservatives as well as beatbox hobbyists. The internet is an incredible place to build community around a common interest, however odd or specific. The common interests of the factions of the far right who have reshaped our democracy are fairly simple: they do not trust the system or the establishment in any form. The media? Establishment. The government? Establishment, unless it is being actively run by an “outsider” like Trump, who they believe is himself antiestablishment. Universities, pundits, “officials” of any kind — all of these people who enjoy cultural power and influence — are not to be trusted. This lack of trust in the establishment necessitates the creation of an alternative ecosystem for media and for experts, since even antiestablishmentarians need news and information. Thus the necessity for a far-right media landscape to inform these communities, along with the elevation of far-right influencers on social media, who are positioned as outside the mainstream liberal culture and whose cultural cachet is therefore not a liability but an asset to the communities they cater to. Folks like Alex Jones, whose Infowars community grew out of public television, moved online, and has been encouraged by its leader to #StopTheSteal or harass the parents of murdered children in Sandy Hook, all while turning a tidy profit.
This community building quickly led to communal action, once the fringe cultures of the internet realized they could adopt the tried and true tactics of social movement building, bring them online, and deploy them to accelerate the pace of change. We start our book with the story of Occupy and the ways it inspired the far-right fringe, teaching people like Breitbart and Steve Bannon, his friend and predecessor at far-right alternative news site Breitbart News Network, how to use the participatory nature of the web and the free speech free-for-all of early social media companies to launch culture wars that drew blood. These people learned how to put their audience to work fighting their wars, urging them to share hashtags, pile on to comment sections, retweet, donate, and show up in the street, empowering them to help fight the ultimate battle against the establishment and demanding that they conscript others into this battle.
This book is concerned with the insurgent use of meme wars to fight against the establishment and institutions. As you will see, many groups participate in meme wars. Governments use cyber troops to influence foreign affairs, corporations wage PR battles to sell products, activists launch memetic campaigns to change public opinion, extremists recruit using ironic memes, and conspiracy theorists piggyback their ideas into mainstream conversation with memes. When marketers use social media to grow audiences, it’s praised as innovation. When activists rally thousands for public protest using platforms, their tactics are both cheered and criticized. When conspiracy theorists used social media to spread lies and dangerous speculation, this chatter was largely ignored — until Trump took office. In that way, Trump’s election was the first social media candidacy that fully adopted meme wars as a campaign messaging strategy.
Memes can convene armies and disarm enemies; they can also mobilize large groups of people when they are fed a steady stream of violence, aggression, and replacement anxiety. It was a meme war that spilled into the streets of Washington, D.C., that day in January 2021. It was a decade of meme wars that radicalized people, that helped them forge their identities and find their communities, and it was a president and his political operatives who understand the power of meme wars who were able to send a tweet that drafted thousands into a battle against democracy itself.
Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2022 by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, and Brian Friedberg.