Sunday, March 5, 2017

World War Meme - Why postings about Trump's lies are so important

Politico   [This article is about the current problem that it doesn't matter whether a story is true or not - the main thing is to have an impact and fun. This is the post-Truth i.e., Trump philosophy and it needs to be fought even within the frum community.]

Veterans of the Great Meme War brag that they won the election for Trump. Just about everyone else, if they’re aware of these efforts at all, assumes they amounted to little more than entertainment for bored geeks and some unpleasant episodes for the targets of its often racist and sexist harassment campaigns. After all, the idea that a swarm of socially alienated trolls played a meaningful role in a multibillion-dollar presidential campaign by, among other gambits, relentlessly spreading images of a cartoon frog is at least as ridiculous as the idea that a billionaire TV entertainer could win that campaign.

There is no real evidence that memes won the election, but there is little question they changed its tone, especially in the fast-moving and influential currents of social media. The meme battalions created a mass of pro-Trump iconography as powerful as the Obama “Hope” poster and far more adaptable; they relentlessly drew attention to the tawdriest and most sensational accusations against Clinton, forcing mainstream media outlets to address topics—like conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health—that they would otherwise ignore. And they provoked a variety of real-world reactions, from Clinton’s August speech denouncing the alt-right to the Anti-Defamation League’s designation of Pepe as a hate symbol to—after the election—the armed assault on a Washington pizzeria wrongly believed to be hiding sex slaves.

Part of the power of memes has always been their organic, grass-roots quality: They bubble up from the fever swamps of the internet, shrouded in anonymity, as agents of chaos and mockery. But in this election, something seemed to change. They began colliding with a real campaign operation and doing useful work, seemingly always pushing in one direction. Curious about what happened, I tracked down and interviewed a number of veterans of the Great Meme War, along with others who hung out in the same dark corners of the internet and watched it all unfold. It turns out that, as anonymous online pranksters go, they’re surprisingly organized and motivated. It also turns out that the Trump campaign, which spent relatively little on messaging, paid rapt attention to meme culture from the start. They took it seriously, even pushing some memes out to the candidate’s millions of Twitter followers.

Trump’s campaign will not be the last to tap into this subculture. Internet troll Charles Johnson, a self-commissioned general in the Great Meme War with close ties to Trump’s political operation, claimed he has fielded about a dozen post-election phone calls from the Washington area about the political potential of memes. “If you’re trying to win an election and you have a million dollars to spend on political ads or $100,000 to spend on trolling,” he said, “I would advise everyone to spend the hundred thousand on the troll.”

If the soldiers in the Great Meme War are even partly right about their capabilities, then their efforts have profound implications for the future of politics. But before tackling that question, it is worth asking how, in the first place, a community of some of the savviest, most subversive internet users became a hotbed of support for a 70-year-old white billionaire who refers to Apple products as “damn computers and things.” And for that matter, what exactly is a meme, anyway?

The concept of a “meme,” in its broadest sense, has been around for decades. The term was first coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who defined a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation”—essentially, a reproducible bit of the DNA of human culture. He saw the idea expansively; the most effective memes, like religious rituals and catchy melodies, worm their way into people’s brains, spreading across entire societies and shaping human behavior for generations.

The Jesus fish is an ancient meme, and Uncle Sam is an early American meme. The planking fad, in which people lie flat on their fronts in weird places and pose for photographs, is a recent behavioral meme. The term came into popular parlance with the advent of the “internet meme,” usually a photograph with a clever caption that is shared around the Web. Created anonymously, remixed endlessly and shared constantly, the most viral memes seem to materialize out of nowhere.

But the typical internet meme doesn’t exactly come from nowhere. Its very Darwinian life cycle often begins among thousands of other memes on a group of obscure message boards frequented by the internet’s most devoted users, mostly young men, who Photoshop captioned images for their own amusement. The most promising become popular on these boards, as users post their own variations on the theme, and end up crossing over to more mainstream platforms like Reddit and Tumblr, which are used by “normies,” or normal people, and often drive what’s popular on the internet at any given time. From there, the most successful memes start populating platforms that almost everyone uses, like Facebook, and a very select few, like LOLCats and Rickrolling, enter the cultural canon, becoming recognizable even to one’s parents.

The fighters in the Great Meme War took their intimate knowledge of this ecosystem and weaponized it, genetically engineering pro-Trump and anti-Clinton supermemes they designed to gain as much mainstream traction as possible. They juiced the rules on platforms like Reddit and created networks of fake accounts on Twitter to push the memes in front of as many eyeballs as possible as quickly as possible. The staging ground was an anonymous message board called “/pol/”—the “politically incorrect” section of 4Chan, which was founded in 2003 to host discussions about anime and has since evolved into a malignant hive mind with vast influence over online culture. The denizens of /pol/ believe that their efforts memed President Trump into existence, midwifing his presidency from a far-fetched fantasy into our current reality. Memes like “the Trump Train” were popularized by 4Chan, spread to the rest of the Web and then rapidly absorbed into official campaign messaging—sometimes reaching all the way to the candidate himself.[...]

Without a doubt, many participants are genuine Trump supporters. A person close to the Trump campaign introduced me to “Daniel,” a young man who professed to have friends in the White House. A frequent /pol/ and 8Chan poster, he told me he created several fake personas on Reddit and one on Twitter to post anti-Clinton agitprop. “The reason I fought in the meme war is that as Andrew Breitbart said we are at literal war with the left. There is an ideological Cold War going on right now and the victor will determine the fate of Western Civilization,” Daniel wrote in an email.

Other meme warriors simply think there is no greater cosmic joke than electing Trump president. “Most of the people who took part in the Great Meme War hate Trump a lot,” insisted Gregg Housh, a reformed hacker and active 4Chan user who did a stint in federal prison a decade ago and was an early ringleader of Anonymous. (Linking his real-world name to his online activity makes him a “namefag” in the eyes of /pol/, which is populated mostly by “anonfags.” In the world of /pol/, everyone is some sort of fag.)[...]

But its use of memes landed the Trump campaign in some pretty unsavory company. In November 2015, Trump tweeted a virulently racist image titled “USA CRIME STATISTICS ~ 2015” that depicted a menacing black man holding a gun alongside made-up statistics overstating the proportion of murders committed by black Americans. While the source of the chart was traced to a neo-Nazi Twitter account, the image of the gangbanger had been floating around on 4Chan for some time. In July, Trump’s campaign tweeted a picture that had been circulating on 8Chan that superimposed Hillary Clinton’s face on a background of $100 bills with the caption “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” written on a six-sided star that, given the boards’ anti-Semitic proclivities, was almost certainly a Star of David. (The Trump campaign insisted unconvincingly that it was a sheriff’s star.)

Democrats dabbled with memes—the Clinton campaign even built a meme generator that was quickly swarmed by pro-Trump trolls—but they were generally dismissive of these efforts. A former Clinton aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the requirements of a new job, scoffed at the notion that memes played a meaningful role in the campaign. “If you see a Nazi frog glorifying Donald Trump and you’re on the fence and you’re like, ‘OK, now I’m going to vote for Donald Trump,’ you were never going to vote for Hillary Clinton anyways,” said the aide. But the aide conceded that such efforts could have discouraged uncommitted voters from going to the polls, and others on the left view the meme ecosystem as a real asset to Trump.[...]

Like much else on /pol/, it is unclear to what extent posters were trolling and to what extent they genuinely believed they were sleuthing out a child sex ring. “Let’s meme this into reality, it’s too good,” wrote one user on one of the original Pizzagate threads. “It was absolutely a joke and a guy just made it up on the spot,” Housh said. “I was on the thread and people thought it was hilarious and halfway through they were like, ‘How can we get people to take this seriously?’” [...]

Take it seriously people did. Pizzagate quickly supplanted Spirit Cooking as the boards’ closing argument. /Pol/ users combed through Podesta’s emails for other references to pizza and developed an elaborate conspiracy theory positing a Clinton-linked sex ring run out of a D.C. pizzeria owned by Brock’s ex-boyfriend. They created memes and charts and pushed them to broader audiences on The_Donald subreddit. Twitter users with big followings like blogger Mike Cernovich and Pizza Party Ben began tweeting about the theory with the hashtag #PizzaGate.

Trump won the election, and the Chans and The_Donald took their victory laps. But Pizzagate continued to fester, and in December, an impressionable North Carolina man heard about the fake sex ring and began researching it online. Carrying an assault rifle, he stormed the D.C. pizzeria that he believed housed the sex slave ring. Finding only pizza, he surrendered to the police. (“I regret how I handled the situation,” the man told the New York Times from jail.) One other Pizzagate casualty was Michael Flynn Jr., the son of Trump’s since-ousted national security adviser who was fired from the Trump transition team for his role in spreading the bogus story.[...]

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