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The rise of the meme machines

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I wasn't all that surprised to learn that Palmer Luckey, founder of the Facebook-acquired VR firm Oculus, was, according to a Daily Beast headline, "The Facebook Near-Billionaire Secretly Funding Trump's Meme Machine."

The article revealed that Luckey had given $10,000 to a newly formed alt-right nonprofit called Nimble America. There's a name for the kind of consciously offensive and defamatory tactics the group specializes in, and I can't print it here, so let's just call it "doody-posting." According to a now-deleted announcment post on Reddit, Nimble America "a social welfare 501(c)4 nonprofit dedicated to [doody-posting] in real life."


This essentially means a lot more of the more savage brand of anti-Clinton memes that already flood your Facebook and Twitter feeds, but lining the roads on your way to work instead. Luckey told the Beast, "I thought it sounded like a real jolly good time." And in the apology he later posted to Facebook — hours after several VR developers started cutting ties with Oculus — he wrote he was merely intrigued by Nimble America's "fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters," denied any official role with the group (as well as his reported identity on Reddit threads as "NimbleRichMan"), and clarified that he was actually a Gary Johnson supporter.

Whatever just happened there, I was bummed but not shocked. Luckey is just the latest in a line of Silicon Valley executives – like Mozilla's ex-CEO Brendan Eich (who threw money into the anti-gay Prop 8 battle) and PayPal founder Peter Theil (the covert moneyman behind Hulk Hogan's ultimately Gawker-snuffing lawsuit) – who've demonstrated to me the ways my clicks often fund the things I'd rather drag to the trash.


What did surprise me about this story was the notion of the "meme machine," which seems to have abruptly graduated from the abstract.

We've been waist deep in political memes for a while. The initial wave that began to swell around the election in 2008 built into something like a crest by 2012, when every utterance from each campaign seemed destined for some goofy looping GIF or crassly captioned JPEG. Four years later, for exclusively the worse, political memes now dominate the discourse online.

There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, a meme is not a 1,000-word editorial — it requires no time and no facts — it owes no explanations nor attributions. A meme is a stance at a glance, it makes its point (however wrong) and moves on. For another, memes beget memes. The only way to counter them is to create more of them. Thus, in the unscrollable depths of Facebook groups like Bernie's Dank Meme Stash, you get a few laughs here and there, but mostly the clamor of an angry mob.

But there's also something weirdly American about political memes — their odd blend of mass production and individual quirk. Their doctored images and skewed statistics push the interests of larger engines of distortion (on both sides of the political divide), but their typos and bad Photoshop jobs feel resolutely handmade. Memes feel like they come from someone.

Whenever I come across a nasty, offensive meme — whether racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, fact-phobic, or whatever the case may be — my first impulse is to bristle and ignore it, but my second is to swab for traces of humanity. Hate, after all, is usually just repackaged fear or misery. And whether a meme horrifies me or not, I can't help but read it as real – some person's expression of rage, or frustration, or ignorance. If what a meme shows me is ugly, that accidental honesty is ultimately worth more than whatever lie it's attempting to spread.


Which is why this Luckey revelation feels especially gross. Ever since Twitter first became a thing, candidates from Obama to McCain to Romney to Clinton, and everyone in between have seeded the Internet with their own messaging memes. But this election has brought on rise of militarized meme factories — from the grassroots harvest of Bernie's Dank Meme Stash, to more focused and funded enterprises like Nimble America.

Is it strange that I suddenly feel protective of these things?

Trolling horrors aside, memes have played such a prominent role in capturing the finer points of this year's election (from the failed fatherly kisses of Ted Cruz, to the increasinly esoteric comparisons of "Bernie vs. Hillary," to Donald Trump's seemingly eternal spring of dogwhistle bigotry) that to watch the whole form covertly co-opted by armies of paid operatives seems like both a sham and a shame.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather hear absolute nonsense coming from my fellow citizens than endure targeted misinformation from moneyed super PACs and sneaky lobbyists. We could never count on memes to tell us the truth, but the unfiltered truth they show us is something we need to keep our eyes on.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.