“You don’t know which side is playing you”: The authors of Meme Wars have some advice for journalists



“The media treating Twitter like an assignment editor is one of the fundamental errors that enabled meme warriors to play everyone.”

In 2019, after BuzzFeed and Verizon Media announced a combined 1,000 layoffs on the same day, many people who had shared their layoffs on Twitter were inundated with replies telling them to “learn to code.”

It wasn’t just ill-timed career advice. It was a targeted harassment campaign against media workers that was organized on 4chan by people on the right who hate the mainstream media.

Memes have been used to target marginalized groups for at least a decade now. A new book by researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy documents how memes and the online communities that produce them sow disinformation and erode trust in the government and the mainstream media. Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America explains how the “Stop the Steal” movement — the false idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from former president Donald Trump — started online and resulted in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and used examples from Gamergate, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency to develop its playbook.

Meme wars are culture wars, the authors write — “accelerated and intensified because of the infrastructure and incentives of the internet, which trades outrage and extremity as currency, rewards speed and scale, and flatten the experience of the world into a never-ending scroll of images and words.”

In April 2020, co-authors Joan Donovan, the research director at Shorenstein, and Brian Friedberg, a Harvard ethnographer studying online fringe communities, launched a newsletter, “Meme War Weekly,” “that got really grim very quickly,” they told me. It was impossible to write about the political impact of memes on a week-by-week basis without noticing their significant social and political impacts over time. Their Media Manipulation Casebook, a series of case studies published in October 2020, was a precursor to their new book.

I caught up with Donovan, Friedberg, and Emily Dreyfuss, a technology journalist and 2018 Nieman Fellow, to talk about their book and what journalists can learn from the last 10 years of memes to inform their future coverage of American democracy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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