For those of us who prefer the written word, it’s easy to dismiss the prolific usage & application of memes as “childish” or “low-brow”. However, there are many benefits to the tactics that the broader Alt-Right have adopted in directly engaging both the elites & the public with a mix of rhetoric and memes. In demotic systems, when engaging in meta-politics in order to change the nature of the broader culture, I believe that memes are a more effective form of propaganda than articles, position papers, and treatises.
Human Attention Span
According to a fairly recent study from Microsoft, the presence of the internet has had a negative effect on human attention span. Most online viewers spend no more than 8-30 seconds mentally engaged with online content, depending on the content type. This means that you need highly visually stimulating content to attract and retain the viewer’s interest. Well-crafted memes enable one to do this with relative ease, as humans are naturally drawn to notice highly colorful, visually stimulating imagery (particularly as oppose to text). Those just quickly scanning a conversation are far more likely to see & think about your meme than to read your three paragraph refutation.
One concept that I think is useful for this topic is “information density”. When I use this term, I’m referring to the amount of information conveyed by a particular piece of media, be it video, photo, or a text based format. I would argue that text often provides us with far more specificity and clarity on any given subject, but that specificity & clarity comes at the cost of having a lower information density (the amount of information conveyed per word) than images. Humans are more likely to lose interest reading a long text than they are in looking at & absorbing a photo. Thus, the advantages provided by text is lost on most, because they never read & contemplate the full text in the first place.
Memes, and images in general, have an advantage over text-based media formats in that they can convey very complex ideas quickly. “A photo is worth a thousand words“, as they say, and I think memes have tapped into this truth. These quickly conveyed but complex ideas may be interpreted in an imprecise & “fuzzy” manner by the target, but many of the details are relatively unimportant relative to the overall theme of the intended message of the propaganda. Because humans are also wildly imprecise creatures, we often settle on “good enough” solutions. Fuzziness generally doesn’t bother most people. So long as the intended theme of the message is accurately transmitted, the propaganda can be said to have been effective.
The effort required to write a refutation of a leftist narrative is often substantially higher than the effort required to photoshop a simple meme which accomplishes a similar effect. For example, “Counter Signal Memes for Fashy Goys” uses crudely drawn MS Paint memes, mockery, and exaggeration to great effect on many leftist narratives. The subversive effect of humor has been well-known for years now, but that had primarily been the domain of the Left. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, et. al., used mockery & humor in targeting their ideological enemies, and were wildly successful in doing so. Counter Signal Memes for Fashy Goys has internalized this lesson, and the juxtaposition of the crude drawings, exaggerated features, and mockery & derision at an obviously flawed, but deeply held Leftist belief, forces one to laugh at the absurdity of the position being mocked. They’re very effective at deconstructing standard Leftist narratives.
Thus, from a standpoint of effectiveness per unit of effort, memes are where one should put the bulk of their effort when trying to reach those who occupy the persuadable center. That is not to say that the intellectual side of an ideological war isn’t necessary nor useful, as some people (particularly individuals with higher IQ) definitely respond more to dialectical methods than rhetorical methods, and any movement needs intellectual weight to convince and persuade those elites who might be brought into the fold. But, if your target is mass dissemination & persuasion, with the purpose of maximizing your effectiveness per unit of effort in the process of content creation, I think that memes provide the greatest return on investment for the budding propagandist.
The number of available transmission vectors for memes far outweigh those available for text-based argumentation. There are only so many places you can post an article, and it’s likely that only a few people will read it. Images in general can be posted in a plethora of places:
- Comment sections
- Discussion forums
- Social Media
One advantage of using these platforms as transmission vectors for your propaganda is that the interconnectivity of the people on the platform ensures that your content is seen by people outside of your ideological bubble, which is the entire point of memetics as propaganda that is meant for mass dissemination. This makes these social platforms (particularly Twitter) highly useful for these purposes, and the tight text requirements nearly forces the usage of memes.
Another advantage to using images over text blurb responses is that with the increasing moderation of sites to maintain a certain narrative, many tools have popped up to automate the removal of content that the moderators deem unacceptable. Most often, this takes the form of a word filter. If you post a comment that contains certain words or phrases, the comment can either be automatically removed, or simply flagged for review (which means a moderator will review your post, and potentially remove it if it goes up against their own beliefs). Memes are able to bypass this technological censorship by being computationally expensive & complex to parse. Beyond the mere recognition of letters within images to form text, computationally extracting meaning & layers of irony from an image is impossible. This task requires human intervention, and that’s assuming that the moderator even fully understands the meme’s exoteric & esoteric purpose. Thus, memes provide a better way to post edgy content without triggering automated filters.
Psychological response to humor
Beyond lowering one’s guard and making a person more open to persuasion, humans learn lessons from humor as well. Around 1900, the French-Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson developed a “theory of laughter”, in which he noted that there is an “educational” component to humor & laughter. He noted that:
Laughter is a social reaction which punishes and puts down deviant elements in man’s behavior and in various events.
Avner Ziv, another humor theorist, stated in Humor as a Social Corrective that:
Bergson’s theory operates on an assumption that a person or institution that serves as an object of laughter, mockery, & derision will take care in the future not to repeat the behavior that has evoked the social punishment. Moreover, the fear of becoming a target for mockery should be sufficient to prevent a person from again committing the deed that has led to a punitive reaction. Thus laughter should have the power to change not merely the personal behavior of one individual, but also the behavior of institutions and even whole societies.
I think both of these theorists were correct in their analysis of humor as a means of social punishment via harming someone’s social status. Hurting an opponent’s social status via humor is a particularly effective way for getting the “fickle middle” to not want their social status to be tied to the person or institution being made fun of. Social status is a big driver behind behaviors taken by many people, and memes are an excellent way to denigrate those things that the enemy use as a social status signal.
While memes often can be low-brow, they do have strategic advantages that written text does not. Their information density allows for complex ideas to be transmitted quickly and efficiently, even if the target interprets the meme in a “fuzzy” manner and doesn’t fully understand every bit of coded information in the meme. The large number of transmission vectors for images, combined with the social effect of bringing together eyes from different ideological circles, make those environments particularly good for mass propaganda dissemination (as one can see from the massive alt-right presence on Twitter). Lastly, far more people are likely to view your image than they are to read your comment response, and that likelihood increases with every sentence you add to the text. Overall, memes are a very useful tool in the online propaganda war, and the widespread usage of memes should continue in bringing down the Left’s narratives that have been built up over the years.