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Memes are no longer silly Internet jokes — they’re upending American politics

A woman wore a mask of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon figure appropriated by far-right groups, as she stood next to a woman with a US flag and a "Trump 2020" hat on May 14, 2020, during a protest rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Most of the world watched in shock as a group of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, aiming to prevent Joe Biden from becoming the next president.

Not Joan Donovan.

She had been studying the Internet for a decade, specifically disinformation and social movements. So she and her team of researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy had a good idea of what was coming.

The cover of "Meme Wars," a new book by Harvard researchers.Courtesy of Harvard

Her new book, “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America,” is the first in-depth account of how the Stop the Steal movement went from “wires to weeds” or from online subcultures to real life. She co-wrote it with Brian Friedberg, who studies online groups, and technology journalist Emily Dreyfuss. Both do research at the Shorenstein Center.

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Joan Donovan researches how disinformation campaigns spread among far-right groups on the web. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Donovan spoke with the Globe about “Meme Wars.” The interview was condensed and lightly edited for space and clarity.

When did you realize that you needed to write this book?

It was really the night of Jan 6. Many people were asking each other, “How could this have happened? How did this many people know about this kind of event?” They wanted to know about the symbols that were being used on flags and the slogans. As we were listening to reporters and others ask us these questions, we realized that we needed to write a book about the last decade of the Internet’s effect on society — politics, particularly.

Protesters outside the US Capitol on the day supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021. JASON ANDREW/NYT

You were in an all-day Zoom meeting with your team at Harvard on Jan. 6. What was that like?

Everybody had TVs on in the background, knowing that it was going to be a very busy day in terms of Internet fact-checking, as well as disinformation. We were all one eye in the meeting, one eye on the television as things started to really get intense at the Capitol. Each person on the team was watching different live streams and different pieces of media.

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We jumped into action mode and started taking screenshots, copying information from one place to another. We knew that there would be quite a large purge of content from platforms not too long after, because much of the stuff that was circulating violated terms of service agreements, and a lot of it was incredibly horrific in terms of the violence and the blood and the gore.

Authorities deployed tear gas as supporters of President Donald Trump swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. KENNY HOLSTON/NYT

I told my team, if it was too tough to handle, don’t feel like you have to watch. But by that time, I think the whole world was watching.

So, what are memes?

Most people think about memes [as] these silly little images that you see online that have some kind of quippy saying, or they point out some kind of irony or are very funny. Ultimately, they’re how we transmit culture. Memes come to stand in for very nuanced and complex concepts and issues.

Memes that come from the far right or come from the fringes are able to affect mainstream culture if they get enough attention. We don’t necessarily think of them as ways of doing politics right now, but our book makes the argument that politicians have really begun to adopt memes as a way of communicating with the public.

You reference a group called the “red-pilled” right. Where does that come from?

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We were really searching for terminology that wasn’t already in use. “Red pill” comes from the “Matrix” series, where if you took the red pill, you saw reality.

Men online, you know, they took the red pill and can now see, in a very misogynistic way, that women deny them love, deny them sex, deny them families. Racists who were red-pilled will talk about immigrants taking away their jobs.

Some people might refer to this group of people as the alt-right, but that means something very particular and historic to us as we’ve studied the Internet.

Are the red-pilled right winning the “Meme Wars?”

They are getting their messages out. More people are hearing and understanding their position. But when you look at, “Well, where are these people now?” what you’re finding is that while a few have made money, many of them are tied up in court cases. Some are in jail.

Do social media companies play a role in this?

They have a responsibility to learn about and monitor what’s happening on their platforms. Unfortunately, the platform companies are very late to understanding when something is starting to turn dangerous.

Apple iPhone 7 on a wooden table with icons of the social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat on the screen.ADOBE.STOCK.COM/Aleksei - stock.adobe.com

What’s a recent example of that?

Over the last several months, platform companies have slowly learned that far-right, anti-trans activists have purposely been singling out trans people by calling them “groomer,” instead of “pedophile.” The insult of pedophile is something where you’re accusing someone of a crime, whereas groomer doesn’t contain the same connotation.

Anti-trans activists have found each other through this meme of “OK, groomer,” [a riff on “OK, boomer”] and they are getting organized. They are targeting specific individuals, doxing doctors and hospitals. We’re starting to see the aftermath of that, including bomb threats to Boston Children’s Hospital.

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For a long time, platform companies did not consider groomer a slur, and as a result, didn’t take any action on it.

You study memes. Is the rest of America taking them as seriously?

Why would they? That’s the point. It’s meant to fool you. It’s meant to look ironic. It’s meant to be funny. And what we don’t really understand as a society is how those messages are internalized, how they create a flashpoint of coordination.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.