Before she started posting memes on Instagram, the person behind the account @gayvapeshark “didn’t know shit about socialism,” she said
“I was raised by parents and society to think socialism was the worst possible thing,” she told me in a direct message on Instagram. However, like a growing number of millennials, the dominant pro-capitalist narrative left her feeling disillusioned. “I always had this sense that everything was wrong, and we lived in a sick world but I didn’t have any answers,” she said. “Eventually I started reading communist literature and began to purge myself of anti-communist rhetoric.”
Now, @gayvapeshark is part of a growing number of popular meme pages like @femme4memes and @nowhitesnomascs tearing down capitalist rhetoric on Instagram. Unlike many of their Insa-influencer peers that pedal sponsored posts for appetite-suppressant lollipops and diuretic teas, they’re radicalizing Instagram’s disenfranchised with Marxism and minion memes.
@gayvapeshark's Instagram posts critique a range of sociocultural tropes and pro-establishment ideals, satirizing white feminism, militant vegans, cops, transphobes, the prison industrial complex, and many others through a socialist lens. In her Instagram bio, she describes herself as “the most powerful troll on Instagram,” and credits the quote to VICE as a joke (VICE has not covered her until this story.) “I was definitely that kid who turned the stock photos in their text book into little comics,” she said. “That's not much different than what I'm doing today.”
Many leftist meme pages are gaining visibility in response to the damage done by alt-right content during the 2016 presidential election (like Pepe the Frog and memes made in Nazi forums) as well as the effects of capitalism, imperialism, and neoliberalism on the teen- and 20-something generations, more broadly. “I think people turn to memes because they are tired and frustrated of media outlets that pose as radical and progressive while having Rupert Murdoch sit on their boards,” said socialist memer @gangsterpopeye.
Leftist communities have always existed on Facebook and Twitter, though less so on Instagram. “Instagram honestly is not a good place for activism which is why it's the most fun place to post politically charged shit,” @gayvapeshark said.
According to Jenson Leonard, known online as @coryintheabyss, socialist Instagram is on the rise. “I see a new socialist meme page pop up everyday,” he told me. “Lots of people are getting radicalized and brought into political consciousness through memes, and I think the beauty of that is a real ambience of revolutionary intent is fomenting. At bare minimum it feels like an inevitable, dialectal moment of contestation.”
For some young socialists, meme pages serve as points of connection to others who feels ignored by the capitalist establishment, added memer @brainpain5000. As David Constable, who runs the leftist meme account @renaissance_man, told me: “A large amount of my followers are underemployed or unemployed, are educated and in debt, are uneducated and in debt, are addicted, or recovering, or marginalized or suicidal or just fucking angry. And when you can check one or more of those boxes, it’s real hard to live, laugh, love.”
Anyone with internet and a smartphone can make and share memes, and Leonard believes they “possess a socialist character.” As Constable said, “We steal, repurpose, re-examine, and ultimately redefine everything from celebrities to politicians to corporate logos and redistribute these skewed ideas to the public for free.” Memes are an easily accessible, widely shareable, and independent medium that exists outside the confines of cultural gatekeepers and media conglomerates, Leonard added. “Memes have an undeniable motility that you just don’t get from other mediums. They are mass media communes,” he said.
Leonard believes memes function as a form of “social corroboration,” an affirmation of a truth or moment that grows more powerful the more it’s shared, and often, more dangerous. Many of Instagram’s socialist meme pages share a DIY aesthetic that subverts and satirizes the hegemony of mega meme culture and its typical aesthetic format—black text on a white background above a photo or tweet. “Compared to most memes, mine are overproduced, labored over in the adobe suite for hours, sometimes weeks. I craft ‘auteur memes.’ I don’t like to follow meme trends, as that capitulates conformity,” Leonard said.
Popular meme pages like @fuckjerry and @thefatjewish belong to what Leonard calls “the white memer fraternity,” accounts with massive followings of 100K. Sometimes, these accounts plagiarize content or appropriate black slang, following a viral recipe for success that parodies blackness for profit.
Many of these pages carry a disturbing level of social and political influence. “The last presidential election wasn’t decided by memes, but memes played an integral role in shaping public opinion,” Leonard said. In May, Congress released more than 3,000 advertisements and memes used by Russian influencers leading up to the 2016 election. According to socialist memer @virginalvigilante, “Instagram treats anti-fascist and fascist media equally,” they wrote in an email, describing the platform’s tendency to shadowban accounts run by people of color.
“People are often quick to dismiss the real-world impact of memes, but it’s naive to not acknowledge the fact that memes, perhaps insidiously, influence society,” Constable said. “As a leftist, I feel like it’s my responsibility to use my platform to offer some sort of antidote to the conservative ideologies out there, and I’m not alone.”
For Leonard, memes are an expression of autonomy and resistance. “My work is a direct response to the tireless commodification of black affective labor. I strive to make work that can’t be replicated and is therefore opaque to the subsumption of racial capitalism,” he said. “I’m not interested in putting funny text over the appropriated image of a black teenager. I’d much rather put a meme of afrofuturist Sun Ra declaring his cosmological appetite for white vegans out into the world.”
Leftist memes offer an aesthetic chaos and comic relief for a broke, hopeless generation that finds humor in absurdist moth memes and worships socialist Gritty. “I see what I do as entertainment,” said @gayvapeshark. “A lot of my followers aren’t socialist. A lot of people just follow me to laugh, and not all my posts are heavily political. I'm a human being and this page is just diarrhea from my head that I've purged into another dimension.” She added, “I am an educator on a good day, but I am mostly a clown.”