Weaponizing Memes: The Journalistic Mediation of Visual Politicization (2022)

Title: Weaponizing Memes: The Journalistic Mediation of Visual Politicization
Author(s): Chris Peters & Stuart Allan
Year: 2022
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2021.1903958
Publication title: Digital Journalism
Document type: Journal Article

This article develops the concept of “mimetic weaponization” for theory-building. Memes recurrently serve as identificatory markers of affiliation across social media platforms, with ensuing controversies potentially proving newsworthy. Our elaboration of weaponization refers to the purposeful deployment of memetic imagery to disrupt, undermine, attack, resist or reappropriate discursive positions pertaining to public affairs issues in the news. For alt-right memetic conflicts, impetuses range from “sharing a joke” to promoting “alternative facts,” rebuking “political correctness” or “wokeness,” defending preferred framings of “free speech,” or signalling cynicism, distrust or dissent with “mainstream” media, amongst other drivers. Of particular import, we argue, is the politics of othering at stake, including in the wider journalistic mediation of a meme’s public significance. Rendering problematic this contested process, this article focuses on Pepe the Frog as an exemplar, showing how and why variations of this mimetic cartoon have been selectively mobilized to help normalize – ostensibly through humour, parody or satire – rules of inclusion and exclusion consistent with hate-led agendas. Digital journalism, we conclude, must improve its capacity to identify and critique mimetic weaponization so as to avoid complicity in perpetuating visceral forms of prejudice and discrimination so often presented as “just a bit of fun.”


I found this part in the Conclusion thrilling:

“The cartoonist’s armoury is always there in the workings of our mind,” the art historian EH Gombrich (1963) once pointed out, making “it easier for us to treat abstractions as if they were tangible realities,” effectively mythologizing the world of politics (1963, pp 128, 139). “When perplexed and frustrated,” he added, “we all like to fall back on a primitive, physiognomic picture of events which ignores the realities of human existence and conceives the world in terms of impersonal forces” (1962, pp 139-140). The physiognomizing of Pepe as an expression of alt-right discordance with “mainstream” politics has proven to be effective, as we have seen here, but care needs to be taken not to overstate the impact or influence of memes in changing individuals’ personal beliefs (see also Nadler, Crain, and Donovan 2018). Our elaboration of “mimetic weaponization” as a heuristic thus represents a departure from theory-building that tries to differentiate causative links or associations in the symbolic realm. Rather, it is a term we have sought to inscribe within digital news ecologies, where the affective “hit-and-run” clash of memes and counter-means can have lasting consequences well beyond the left-right polarities of party politics.

Memes provide convenient, flexible, and efficient frameworks with which new or existing belief systems can be represented in an interactive form. Memes don't have to communicate beliefs or even attitudes in order to influence the formation of beliefs and the shift of attitudes. They can facilitate and promote particular kinds of interactions between individuals (perhaps merely fulfilling "communicative 'needs' that have existed for ages") who would not have done so otherwise, and do so in a way that scales incredibly well. The abundance of "open sourced" conceptual frameworks and memetic elements (i.e. assets for making memes) further enables this process, like a kind of no-code development for politics.

Memes facilitate and amplify the reflexive dynamics within representation. @Rekka's thread about memes and geopolitics seems relevant here. When memes both influence and are influenced by geopolitics, the metamemetic belief that overemphasises the causal power of memes also influences geopolitics through this reflexive chain of representation. In this way, memes act as a sort of meta-platform or a makeshift context which may facilitate the formation of networks, like a game (2021):

A central theme of post-2015 memecultures was the gamification of memes. This gave rise to Facebook memepages as well as a “meme president”. Post-2020 memecultures now struggle with the challenge of the cope, which is an inevitable consequence of creating new games with a loss condition. That is, what do you do when trusting the plan and forcing the meme doesn’t work? My answer is to question the memetaphysics of the memetic games that you play. Chances are, the success of the memes are determined by who wins more than the winners are selected by the memes. The memes merely keep the books.

At the same time, memetic game designers are drawn to phenomena which really can be influenced by memes, such as stocks and politics. As the normies learn about memes, subculturalists are also learning about the mainstream. The gap is ever narrowing, and eventually will cease to exist. What happens then? The existence of auxiliary memetic games will be the ubiquitous norm for anything that is amenable to being memed, whether it be a community, a product, a person, or a word. It’s only at this stage that the fantasy of meme magic will become reality, as the existence of memetic games begins to not only imply the existence of corresponding meme-objects but provide new niches within which that meme-object may develop and survive.