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On 3rd January 2021, I was in McDonough, a small town in rural Georgia, reporting on the critical Senate runoff election due to take place two days later. If the Republicans could manage to hold on to their two Georgia Senate seats, Joe Biden’s presidency would be dead on arrival. While Republican Senate candidate Kelly Loeffler geed up a crowd from the back of a pickup truck, I spoke to Matthew, a wiry, middle-aged man wearing a Maga baseball cap. “When Colonel Lin Wood says to march, we’re going to come together and we’re going to march,” he said. (Celebrity lawyer Lucian Lincoln “Lin” Wood was a pre-eminent peddler of Trump’s “stolen election” conspiracy theory.) Matthew then turned to the deep state plot against Trump. “This stuff has been suppressed,” he told me. “The media is not telling the world what is happening. So we’re going to spread the word.” How? “When General Flynn gives the order,” he said, referring to Trump’s former national security adviser, “we’re going to bust in like they’ve never seen the people move before in their life.”

Matthew’s words came back to me as I watched the storming of the Capitol in Washington three days later. Over the previous months, I’d spoken to many people across the country who had told me that Biden was a paedophile or that the election had been stolen. But it was Matthew who best embodied what Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg describe in their new book, Meme Wars, as “the red-pilled right”.

The phrase “red-pilled” is derived from the 1999 film The Matrix, set in a world where humans are unwittingly enslaved in a computer simulation. The character played by Keanu Reeves is offered a choice: take the blue pill and go back to his life of ignorance, or take the red pill and face the grim truth of his existence. He chooses the red pill. From then on, his mission is to destroy the secret cabal controlling the world. Now, “red-pilled” has become shorthand for the millions of people across the US who have been sucked in either by conspiracy theories, from QAnon to anti-vaxx propaganda, or by white supremacist or other extremist factions lurking in dark corners of the web. On 6th January 2021 this motley crew came together to try to overthrow US democracy. Meme Wars is the story of how they got there.

Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. What genes are to biology, memes are to culture: they reproduce or replicate ideas. Sometimes they signify membership of an in-group (like Maga moms). Sometimes they are an obscure in-joke (like Pepe the Frog, a once innocent cartoon character adopted by Trump supporters). What they always do is announce a position. Their power comes from being easy to remember and share, even if what they are communicating is complicated. In three short words, for instance, #StopTheSteal conveyed the complex notion that Biden is an illegitimate president, that Trump has been wronged by a powerful system subverting the will of the people and that the sharer of the hashtag is part of the Maga community. At the same time, they skirt over inconvenient truths. “Make America Great Again”—when was it actually great, and for whom? “Take Back Control”—control for whom, from what, and how?

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Meme Wars charts the history of how US movements over the past decade have deployed memes to both build power online and to attack the establishment. The authors start with the left-leaning Occupy movement, a horizontally organised protest against financial elites that emerged after 2008 (“We are the 99 per cent”). Then came Gamergate in 2014, a bizarre online attack against female developers in videogames, characterised by the types of misogynist trolling later deployed against Hillary Clinton. In 2017 there was the deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist riot in Charlottesville: real-world physical violence, planned and organised online, waged against race and social justice campaigners. This was followed by Pizzagate and QAnon (which claim that a cabal of powerful Satanic child-abusers plotted to overthrow Trump). The book is a rigorous, meticulously detailed narrative of how right-wing internet subcultures came to dominate US media and politics—and “memed” Trump into office.

If that last part sounds fanciful, consider that Trump’s staffers would lift slogans like “You can’t stump the Trump” straight from the anonymous message board 4chan. Or that users on Reddit circulated instruction manuals such as “The Bureau of Memetic Warfare” with advice like “find the means of normalising your message so it can blend in with the normalfags”. They succeeded, again and again, in forcing their agenda into the mainstream—“Hillary Clinton’s Health Scare: 9 Unanswered Questions” (NBC); “Hillary Clinton Denounces the Alt Right, and the Alt Right is Thrilled” (New York Times)—not to mention the relentless Fox coverage of the Benghazi investigation, Clinton’s emails and even what the television network called the “Clinton Body Count”. Capitol Hill insurgents on 6th January wore “Veteran of the Meme Wars” slogans on T-shirts.

Movements over the past decade have deployed memes to both build power online and to attack the establishment

These insurgents were, write Donovan, Dreyfuss and Friedberg, “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 add, “they disagreed on a lot”. Many, though, were united by a hatred of progressive identity politics. Take Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart provocateur whose “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses got him banned from Twitter, but who continued to command large audiences via other platforms. Yiannopoulos’s claims that feminism and Black Lives Matter are “chauvinistic, intended to belittle men and bring back segregation” underline how many members of these sometimes disparate 6th January groups were also united by the notion that they—and their leader Donald Trump—were the true victims.

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The authors are experts on media, politics and technology at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center (a grantee of Open Society Foundations, where I work). They are also, in their own words, “extremely online weirdos”. (Donovan is also a punk rocker who co-invented the beaver emoji.) Meme Wars is billed as a political thriller, but at times the plot better resembles a horror or disaster movie—as when Trump’s former social media manager, who had previously written his boss’s tweets for him, recalls the day in 2013 when he realised that Trump had learned how to log into Twitter himself. It was “comparable to the moment in Jurassic Park when Dr Grant realised that velociraptors could open doors,” he said.

At other times, the tale has echoes of Simon Schama’s history of the French Revolution, Citizens. Just as with Lafayette, Marat and then Robespierre, each successive wave of leaders became more extreme. For years, alt-right conspiracy peddler and Trump ally Alex Jones made a fortune broadcasting lies about everything from 9/11 to the Sandy Hook school massacre. Eventually he was upstaged by QAnon and, by the time he was exhorting the crowd to hold back on 6th January, no one was listening. White supremacist Richard Spencer was one of the key instigators of the violence in Charlottesville; by the time of the presidential election three years later, he’d been sidelined. Yet the movements that they helped to create kept growing. As Matthew told me in Georgia: “The people is awake. And the people have spoken.”

What to take from this? One obvious point is that the internet moves at lightspeed, much faster than society’s institutions—and that, under the right cultural conditions, it can drag those institutions (media, politics, policymaking) in increasingly deranged directions. The architecture of the web and particularly the incentive systems baked into social media—amplifying content that generates the most intense reaction through likes, shares, views, emojis or comments—offers the perfect breeding ground for mis- and disinformation, and therefore encourages the intensification of extreme belief systems. “Like a bacterial infection that grows in a compromised immune system,” they write, conspiracy theorists and extremists often build on real issues in the body politic (racial, social, economic) and real lies (like those about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) to corrode wider trust in politics and the media.

Inevitably, these toxic feedback loops end up hurting the meme warriors themselves. Stop the Steal had some of the open-source, horizontally distributed features of Occupy, but it was directed by and for a political elite. “Like the Tea Party, moneyed interests helped organise working-class white Americans’ grievances for their own gain, leaving patriots to foot the bill and serve the time,” the authors write. “The red-pilled right were merely the foot soldiers, cannon fodder.”

Deranged directions: Pepe the Frog appears at an anti-gun control rally in Virginia. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image

Much of this is not new. Militia movements, conspiracy theories and extremist sects have been features of American life since the birth of the nation—often producing shocking acts of violence, from Salem to Waco to the Oklahoma bombings. In the 1860s, half the country waged a bloody four-year war to defend its white supremacist way of life, and then spent the next 100 years entrenching racism in law.

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As the authors recognise, these deep, existential faultlines cannot be papered over merely by tweaking social media algorithms or passing new online speech laws. But that doesn’t mean that big tech shouldn’t be better regulated, or that we shouldn’t push for a fundamental rethink of how technology is owned, distributed and governed in democratic societies.

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Checking the power of big tech won’t, alone, solve the longstanding problems Meme Wars makes vivid. But inaction can make those problems worse. Time and again, from the US to Ethiopia to Myanmar, social platforms have been exploited by anti-democratic extremists—and the response from the big tech plutocracy (if it comes at all) is always too little, too late. As reporters at ProPublica have shown, the disbanding of Facebook’s civic integrity team soon after the 2020 US election turned out to be a disastrous mistake, allowing the Stop the Steal conspiracy theory to catch fire.

Silicon Valley has given many of us—including those on the violent fringes of society—the power to communicate and organise at a speed and scale unprecedented in human history. All the possible responses are complex and must balance different rights, responsibilities and risks, including those of government overreach; of billionaires deciding whose speech matters; of untold dangers as yet unforeseen. But we can no longer pretend that the oversight we demand of so many industries, from transport to telecoms, is unnecessary in the online speech world. Earlier this year, the EU introduced imperfect but groundbreaking laws to regulate social media, including mandatory audits and risk management. Britain has far inferior legislation pending, in the form of the Online Safety Bill (among the long litany of problems with the bill is the threat of government capture of the regulator). Yet, if done right, such laws need not be incompatible with free speech.

Above all, say the authors, we must recognise that social media “is no longer an emerging technology imbued with the possibility of fostering social change by giving voice to small groups; it has instead become a tool of the powerful used to dominate, harass and coerce vulnerable groups”. If we do not acknowledge this shift, they warn, we are in a “no-win game for democracy” where “the free-est speech will only benefit those who are already powerful”. With Trump polling double digits ahead of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination for 2024, their warnings could not be more urgent.

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