This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
Instagram meme accounts are a balm. In today’s political climate, where every news story feels apocalyptic, logging in to the ‘gram to get your daily dose of lolz feels more essential each day. But nestled in among those innocuous pictures of dogs, celebrities and other wholesome content, something darker lurks.
“Some of the memes I see on Instagram are just shocking,” says Camille White, a 16-year-old from London. She says that while scrolling through her feed, she often encounters more sinister memes, specifically racist, homophobic, transphobic and sexist jokes. “They make bigoted behaviour seem okay,” she adds, “when in reality it’s not.”
Camille isn’t alone with these experiences on Instagram. For years, toxic and offensive memes have proliferated on social media. During the 2016 presidential election, it was Pepe the Frog who populated online. Pepe’s journey from harmless illustration to the favoured amphibian of the alt-right is well documented, but as researchers at Cornell University discovered last year, the spread of edgy, conservative memes extended beyond platforms like Reddit and 4Chan and on to more mainstream sites like Twitter and Instagram. “Fringe web communities have the power to twist the meaning of specific memes,” wrote co-author Emiliano De Cristofaro, a professor at UCL, “change their target context, and make them go viral on mainstream communities.”
According to De Cristofaro, these memes have been used as a “tool of political and ideological propaganda''. Worryingly, Camille feels that this has had a profound effect on her peers. “Alt-right content has desensitised a lot of my generation,” she says. “It’s definitely politicised people I know and others to develop quite right-wing views.”
While certain research suggests that Gen Z are set to be as liberally minded as millennials, this isn’t a given. A recent survey conducted by Business Outsider found that many weren’t sided as either liberal or conservative. They also discovered that social media, specifically Instagram, was how many young people consume their political commentary and news. This in itself isn’t concerning, but when you see how easy it is for alt-right content to propagate you have to worry about the influence these platforms have over our political beliefs.
Toxic and inflammatory memes seem designed to sow disillusion. But more specifically, they’re utilised to indoctrinate people. Josh Citarella, an artist from New York whose work has focused on the politicisation of memes, explains that there’s a cycle that this follows. Teens, he says, start off by posting a “Pepe-style meme in the style of [right wing commentator Ben Shapiro] that is inflammatory,” before going on to post memes, often (unbeknownst to them) aimed at to spread or ferment right wing and even fascist opinion.
This isn’t helped when YouTubers like Jacksepticeye and PewDiePie – who recently became the first solo YouTube creator to hit 100 million subscribers – seemingly endorse and even utilise, politically incorrect and even racist rhetoric.
When teens are called out for sharing these memes by their peers or even authority figures, there’s a sense of shame or embarrassment. This shame soon turns into bitterness against the system dictating what’s right and what’s wrong. This is compounded by the fact that Gen Z have more complex opinions when it comes to political correctness, with the Pew research centre suggesting that many feel that people are too “easily offended these days over the language that others use”. Nevertheless, as one 18-year-old told Business Insider, “A big part of this Instagram culture is just being, like, edgy and anti-PC, just for the sake of it."
For Citarella, any backlash against sharing these sorts of memes can lead people who are my age, and who might be apolitical, to “question the mainstream narrative – leaving them susceptible to new alt-right narratives”. This isn’t helped when YouTubers like Jacksepticeye and PewDiePie – who recently became the first solo YouTube creator to hit 100 million subscribers – seemingly endorse and even utilise, politically incorrect and even racist rhetoric. Theirs is the sort of worrying use of far right language and humour that, when presented to their millions of fans, can easily normalise it.
What’s worrying is that resistance and rejection of right wing content being shared can lead to a slippery slope. When people’s comments are labelled too extreme for Instagram and even Reddit, they head to more disturbing platforms such as 4chan and 8chan. And as we’ve seen over the past year, that can lead to tragic and horrific consequences.
While not every case is that extreme, examples of young people’s radicalisation are everywhere online. A 2019 piece in New Statesman profiled one 14-year-old female YouTuber, Lieutenant Corbis, who has 600,000 subscribers and whose “satirical” content, which is often racist and misogynistic, mirrors the humour used by those on the alt-right. “Gen Z have a very refreshing and interesting set of ideas,” she told Eleanor Peake, the New Statesman’s social media editor.
A search online brings up numerous horror stories of people in my generation becoming indoctrinated by the alt-right through memes and online content. This story in the Washingtonian details one mother’s story of her 13-year-old son’s descent into far-right political beliefs. Another mother of three, Los Angeles-based writer, media critic Joanna Schroeder, wrote a viral Twitter thread following the shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, about the radicalisation of young white boys through social media and memes, and what parents can do to intervene. “Propaganda makes extreme points of view seem normal by small amounts of exposure over time,” she wrote, “all for the purpose of converting people to more extremist points of view.”
Of course, it’s unfair to paint all teens with the same brush. 16-year-old Diana Khodurskaya agrees that there’s a toxic meme culture, but that there are limits. “People my age are mature enough to know it’s just a joke,” she says, “and we are less influenced by the slur-filled content than people younger than us are exposed to.”
With memes becoming alt-right propaganda, our digital spaces mutating into breeding grounds for hate speech, extremist content and harmful material. But it’s not too late to stop it.
Lizzie Riazanski, another Gen Z teen, agrees. “I’m old enough to distinguish between what’s offensive and what’s not, and what’s appropriate to say in public, and what’s not,” she argues. “I feel my generation is mature enough nowadays to see something offensive online and not take it seriously.”
Nevertheless, as is evident by reports and the experiences of people like Camille, these memes do have an impact on people of my generation. And for Camille, it’s the social media platforms themselves that have a duty to do something about it. “They need to take some form of action to stop more alt-right content on being spread,” she says. “They really aren’t doing enough.” Citarella believes that deplatforming is the answer, too. “Temporary bans depoliticise people,” he explains. “They won’t post this stuff if they lose contact with their friends [and followers].”
Indeed, as we’ve seen with the fall of popular alt-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and and the banning of Alex Jones’ InfoWars channel from YouTube and Facebook, deplatforming works. As Vice reported last year, studies have shown that banning toxic content online from sites like Reddit means that there’s less hate speech elsewhere on the platform. Likewise, as The Verge reported, when neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer was dropped by the webhosting site Go Daddy, its influence dipped, too.
Citarella also suggests that more left-wing counter messaging can be used to combat the deluge of far right content. People like YouTuber like ContraPoints, a left-wing transgender content maker, present left-wing talking points in a fun, informative and entirely engaging way, using sketches and philosophical thinking. She uses fake debates with herself, presenting the right-wing talking point and combating it with impactful liberal talking points. Not only is her content funny, but it is genuinely educational. The progressive movement needs to utilise this to its advantage and use it to combat Gen Z indoctrination.
Equally, it’s important that young people’s voices and perspectives are being heard on how they’re complicit in sharing right-wing content, or how they’re helping combat it. As a 16-year-old myself, I feel the internet should be a safe haven for my generation to speak with our peers. Instead, the opposite is occurring. With memes becoming alt-right propaganda, our digital spaces mutating into breeding grounds for hate speech, extremist content and harmful material. Clearly, it’s not too late to stop it. The power is in our hands and it’s our responsibility to act now.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.