Why Old Tactics Can’t Combat the Alt-Right

On November 18, the Washington Post detailed the satirical resistance strategies of Christopher Blair against the far right. Blair runs America’s Last Line of Defense, a Facebook site that traffics in bombastic claims — often in the form of memes — to mock the far right. For Blair, the effort was an attempt to demean those who could so easily fall for such lies. Yet, what he discovered was that his lies spread quickly, taken as truth by those who were already immersed in far right echo chambers. The story was supposed to indicate the depths of modern American idiocracy. Yet, from our position as scholars investigating the influence of far right memes, this story is yet another example of how efforts to combat far right culture end up sustaining it.

In an attempt to explain the uptake of false claims online, the Washington Post insisted that Blair’s site was popular with white men over age 55 — seemingly blaming the incompetence of older generations as the reason Blair’s lies spread so quickly. Our research suggests that one specific audience alone doesn’t guarantee circulation or acceptance of a claim. Rather, obvious falsehoods are spread through interconnected and speedy networks that, through likes, retweets, and other forms of algorithmic amplification appear to offer legitimacy to even the wildest conspiracy.

Memes also don’t necessarily carry context with them — what’s apparent as satire on one meme page may not be read that way as it travels. One likely encounters the memes and other content from Blair’s page in a multitude of locales, including social media pages and foreign fake news sites. As such, social media users may not encounter the purported “14 disclaimers” warning them that everything on Blair’s singular Facebook page was not real. Because memes and other digital messages crisscross the internet, it is likely that users experienced these images just like every other believable post. But, more importantly, the satirical images looked and worked just like every other far right meme had: by creating an outlandish claim that could gain traction across digital networks. Given this weaponized infrastructure, it is hardly shocking that Blair’s stratagems failed.

Resistance Isn’t So Easy

More generally, efforts to persuade those with vicious beliefs tend to insist that learning the truth will set the wayward free. Yet, recent reports indicate that even when social media users were explicitly told they were sharing dangerous propaganda from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the revelation did not change their perspective. As communication scholar Dana Cloud insists, fact-checking is not an inherently persuasive tactic, particularly when the far right are largely convinced by gut-level, fear appeals.

Likewise, rebukes based in individual solutions fail to understand the ways networked content persuades. For instance, many public figures continue to insist that if individual users engage in “critical thinking,” that somehow they will not fall for digital propaganda. The problem is that far right users believe they are engaged in critical thinking. They are actively discovering the truth through their digital communities. Mockery of the far right does not undercut the rebellious feeling that often emboldens these discoveries. Teaching individuals how to decode propaganda may help them understand how such propaganda works but may not diminish their far right allegiance entirely.

The Amplification of the Alt-Right

 Critically, most attempts to weaken far right claims only help amplify them. Given that Blair’s content was adopted as gospel by those he attempted to ridicule, Blair unwittingly bolstered the reach of far right lies. More generally, in digital cultures where memes travel, anything that helps content spread helps the message. Far right communiques are bolstered by both appreciation and replication just as well as outrage and mockery. What all of this means is that many of us who so persistently battle the Alt-right are often complicit with the amplification of its message and reach.

Those who attempt to counter the far right often fail to anticipate what audiences may do with that content. For instance, this summer, legendary punk band Bad Religion released their first single in years. “The Kids are Alt-Right” is a political anthem railing against those who would wear MAGA hats, complete with a YouTube music video that deploys symbols heralded by the far right. Riffing on The Who’s “The Kids are Alright,” the song has been heralded as a “sharp takedown of the alt-right movement, captured in lyrics that cut to the core” that puts “today’s political climate under a microscope.” A cursory read of the YouTube page for the video will show that this song has already been adopted by the Alt-right (or at least those who would publicly proclaim Alt-right affinity) as an anthem. A few responses to the video read as follows: “This just makes me want to join the alt-right”; “And what I don’t get, is how this song is supposed to drive people away from the Alt-Right? It’s confusing. It’s like “we’re going to do the thing that drives people to the alt-right to stop people from going to the alt-right.” These comments demonstrate how progressives or the left — in this instance a punk band — continue to underestimate, and may unwittingly strengthen, the Alt-right as political adversaries.

New Tactics for Change

Overall, resistance strategies against far right claims must understand networked infrastructure. Old-school counter-arguments or even some forms of satire are simply ill-equipped to effectively diminish a set of ideas that gained ground through mockery and an anti-establishment spirit. Efforts that simply replicate those strategies are overwhelmingly ineffective. A better tactic is to engage in collaborative, community building solutions. As a case in point, Sassy Socialist Memes on Facebook boasts three times as many followers as America’s Last Line of Defense. Sassy Socialist Memes enacts social change by generating interest in labor politics. One need not advocate socialism proper to borrow some of this page’s meme-based tactics.

Successful social change requires more nuanced strategies of resistance. While we offer a full account of potential changes in our forthcoming volume, for now, we will suggest one key takeaway. Focusing public attention on virtues that bolster the public good will prove more useful than mockery — especially when that lampoon only helps the far right succeed. On Facebook, Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash gained a large following in the lead up to the 2016 election. Many of the memes on this page traffic in humorous, satirical claims. But, many also offer a welcoming ethos, encouraging people to recognize their shared struggles and to fight against those social ills. This meme stash thus identifies those public goods that can become a salient political rallying cry. Mimicking those memes that have tracked with wide audiences may open the door to rhetorical innovation. Learning how to meme, then, may be the next step if scholars and activists are to change the nature of public discourse.