In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, analysts couldn’t agree on what exactly propelled his victory. Some thought it was economic anxiety among the white working class, while others argued it was prejudice or fears about the loss of white cultural dominance. Still others believed it was Russian electoral interference, or James Comey’s decision to re-open the Clinton email investigation.
But in the depths of the far-right internet ecosystem, a different explanation took hold — that “meme magic” had propelled Trump to the presidency. They claimed that, through swarming an unsuspecting internet with pro-Trump, anti-Clinton memes and propaganda, they managed to create a grassroots online movement that eventually usurped Hillary Clinton.
There is, naturally, no real evidence to back up this claim. But it’s true that memes played a role during the 2016 election, from Clinton calling Trump supporters “deplorables” — only to have the phrase fashioned into a popular pro-Trump meme — to the Pepe the Frog meme being classified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
But now, a new study shows just how much influence some of the most racist, anti-Semitic and far-right corners of the internet have over the meme ecosystem. These memes are remarkably effective at penetrating mainstream websites like Facebook and Twitter, and have the effect of derailing conversations, influencing public opinion with far-right ideas, and luring in unsuspecting new recruits.
The study, On the Origins of Memes by Means of Fringe Web Communities, was funded by the European Union and undertaken by seven researchers. It used a dataset of 160 million images gathered from July 2016 to July 2017, from across Twitter, Reddit, Gab, and 4chan.
“The influence estimation analysis reveals that /pol/ and The_Donald are influential actors in the meme ecosystem despite their modest size,” reads the study, referring to pro-Trump boards on 4chan and Reddit. “/pol/ substantially influences the meme ecosystem, while The_Donald is the most efficient community in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream web communities.”
Memes are also packaged in way that makes it easy for alternate versions to pop up, according to the study. Pepe the Frog, for instance, has other offshoots like Angry Pepe, Smug Frog, and Sad Frog. Many of these harmless memes show up organically on mainstream sites — but others are packaged along with hateful content and world events to make them appealing to the average viewer, and therefore a way to make far-right ideas seem more acceptable.
“Seemingly ‘neutral’ memes, like Pepe the Frog (or one of its variants), are used in conjunction with other memes to incite hate,” the study reads. “[For example] with images related to terrorist organizations like ISIS or world events such as Brexit.”
Crucially, but perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers also noted that both 4chan’s politically incorrect board /pol/ and Gab were awash with racist memes. But while the racist content on /pol/ maintained a relatively steady rate, researchers found the levels of racism on Gab spiked after certain events, particularly the Charlottesville protest in August 2017 (seen in the graphs below).
This leads to the potential conclusion that, since /pol/ is sharing racist memes at a more steady rate, it is one of the most racist places on the internet.
Over the past year, Gab, The_Donald, and /pol/ have been at the forefront of spreading fake news and conspiracy theories, especially after mass shootings. While the far-right groups that rose to prominence in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election may be receding at the moment, the study shows that memes still provide them with an easy method to spread their hateful ideas.
“The whole thing with memes is very serious,” author Savvas Zannettou, a PhD student at the Cyprus University of Technology, told Quartz. “They are used to weaponize information and to manipulate opinion.”