There's a meme about memes that frames the ongoing philosophical discussion I've been having with academics, colleagues, friends, and meme economists:
The idea is that many of the internet's funniest memes come from the less savory parts of the web, in this case 4chan's /b/ board, which gave us LOLcats, Rickrolling, and Anonymous but also normalized and perfected harassment, trolling, and other internet-afflicted diseases. Though I've reported on and dabbled with 4chan a bit, I've generally spent most of my internet career as the woman on the right—enjoying the harvest of those in the meme mines without ever getting dirty myself. This changed a month ago, as I realized I had run out of dank memes; I had to get in the shit. The search led me to the new fountain of memes on the deep recesses of Discord, a voice and chat app that is popular with gamers, the alt-right, and memelords.
As I spiraled deeper and deeper into Discord—first through "The Portal" (accessed by DMing the administrator of the nationalist Donald Trump channel in search of "free-er speech"), then through chasing meme miners into ever more esoteric and specialized channels—the memes grew increasingly dank, perfect for sharing with my less intrepid and adventurous friends.
But I also immediately noticed something that I had long suspected: Many of the dankest memes are created by and shared among Nazis well before they make it to the rest of the internet.
To be clear, the memes I was in search of and enjoy are not "edgy" or overtly offensive or political at all. It's just that these Nazis, apparently, create both horribly offensive and disgusting memes and memes that you'd feel comfortable sharing with your mom or boss and have probably shared on Facebook or seen on Twitter or Reddit. So I was faced with a dilemma: Is it ethical to source dank memes from Nazi mines, if the memes you take are not offensive?
Feeling ridiculous and incredibly privileged, I took this question to MIT professors and people with PhDs in memes. I talked about it in bars. I suspected that the answer was a hard "no," but what I learned is that the ethical sourcing of memes has close parallels to a series of ongoing and contentious debates in comedic, academic, artistic, and philosophical circles. In sourcing memes from Nazis, there are questions and concerns about decontextualization, the separation of comedy and politics, self-indoctrination, hidden meaning, and so-on.
Several times, I was told that taking memes from Nazis is kind of like citing philosophy from Martin Heidegger, who contributed widely to fields of phenomenology and existentialism … but was also a Nazi.
Amy Johnson, a PhD student at MIT and a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society told me that, in general, it's useful to consider "ethical sourcing" as a way to examine the labor practices and environmental impact of producing and consuming a product.
"What environmental impact, broadly construed, does sharing a dank meme from an extremist site have?," she said. "To answer this, we'd need to know if the meme is branded or otherwise indicates its original site. If it is or does, then sharing it serves to advertise the site, and in a positive way. That seems bad."
Johnson, it should be noted, is "investigating what happens when online parody is taken too seriously," which makes her uniquely qualified to discuss my seemingly ridiculous ethical quandary. Unmarked memes that hide the source of origin, on the other hand, raise their own problems.
"This seems a bit like intentionally not telling your vegetarian friend that there's chicken in the super delicious dish you just handed them and then watching them eat it," she said. "You've decided that sharing the deliciousness of the dish outweighs your respect for their principles."
Molly Sauter, another researcher at the Berkman Klein Center and author of The Coming Swarm, a book about hacker culture and hacktivism, correctly noted that to really get a meme, you have to be versed in layers upon layers of irony and in-group thinking, and therefore even memes that seem inoffensive to casual meme tourists might be problematic.
"The first risk you run is inadvertently endorsing or promoting an image with a subcultural meaning that you wouldn't endorse if you know it was there," she said. "So the question actually is, are you versed enough in the subcultures you're drawing this material from to know what they mean and not be intentionally or unintentionally deceived? This is up to you."
"You can sanitize and popularize the images by releasing them among the normies"
Ryan Milner, meanwhile, has a PhD in the study of memes (really), and says that transplanting beautiful memes from gross sites (Nazi subreddits, 4chan, weird Discords) to slightly less gross ones (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr), is a time-honored tradition and can likely be ethically done if performed carefully and meticulously.
"As long as you're not taking explicitly problematic content and as long as you're not explicitly amplifying the troublesome sites, then you're doing that decontextualizing work that comes with memes, and kind of sanitizing them by the mere fact that you're lifting them out of the shit," Milner told me in an email.
"You can sanitize and popularize the images by releasing them among the normies, thus making alt Nazi cool kids whine about how the mainstream ruined their meme magic," he said. "You can be like the Tumblr kids who ruined Pepe and made the 4chan kids all indignant (before the Nazi thing, of course). And that, my friend, is your ethical good."
Milner, Sauter, and Johnson all raised the very worrisome prospect of self-radicalization and amplification—that by repeatedly visiting Nazi mines, you "may get some of the gross on you and radicalize yourself," or by sharing dank memes not readily available to casuals, it's possible to set others on a path that leads to the alt-reich.
"It is the position of Meme Insider that readers should be aware of the sources of their memes"
There are other questions. Is it ethical to steal jokes from anywhere without attribution? Parody of problematic topics: GOOD or BAD? Can jokes ever be decontextualized from their potential political impact?
I love talking to professors about memes, but sometimes the discussion is removed from the people who share and trade memes every day. And so I wondered if the editorial board at Meme Insider—a Reddit magazine that publishes some of the most thoughtful writing about the memes—had ever pondered the subject of ethical meme sourcing. Thankfully, the board is on the same page as my academic sources.
"If a meme is sourced from extreme groups, then one must be very sensitive about where, when, and with whom they share the meme," the board said. "Are there any double meanings that they may not have caught? If this is the case, then the meme should be left behind, and more wholesome ones pursued."
"It is the position of Meme Insider that readers should be aware of the sources of their memes," the board continued. "However, dismissing a joke that can bring levity to someone's day, encourage a friend, or brighten a dull moment only because of its original source unnecessarily shuts out the radiant force for dankness that is memes."
I'm going to keep going to Nazi Discord channels, because I report on those parts of the internet. If I find funny memes that I believe to be not Nazi in nature, I will probably share them. But while exploring this question I began to look inward. The only way you can ensure that a meme is 100 percent free range ethically sourced is to make it yourself.