Memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins (1976), are “units of culture” that spread and evolve through the public discourse.1 Internet memes may take the form of any easily shared or repeated piece of media, including images, catchphrases, video clips, songs, etc. and are often (though not always) intended to be humorous.
As a meme spreads across various digital platforms and online communities, it is often “remixed,” or altered slightly by users other than the creator.2 Therefore, any one meme may have innumerable iterations, and is typically understood as “the collective property of the culture,” rather than belonging to any single user, group, or website.3
For this reason, internet memes are often employed by white supremacist groups such as the “Alt-Right” and other reactionary groups online as a strategic means of skirting online moderation tools and exposing more people to exclusionary politics under the guise of irony or humor.4 When memes are manipulated for purposes of political persuasion or community building, they are said to be weapons in a “meme war.”
A Casebook example of memes can be found in Viral Slogan: It’s OK to be White. In this case, a group of 4chan users led a formal campaign to turn a phrase rooted in racial prejudice and extremist, white supremacist rhetoric into a viral slogan, using memes, posters, and hashtags.
Memes are a Casebook value under the "Tactics" variable in the code book.
- 1. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
- 2. An Xiao Mina, Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019), http://www.beacon.org/Memes-to-Movements-P1410.aspx.
- 3. Joan Donovan, “How Memes Got Weaponized: A Short History,” MIT Technology Review, October 24, 2019, https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/10/24/132228/political-war-memes-disinformation/.
- 4. Viveca S. Greene, “‘Deplorable’ Satire: Alt-Right Memes, White Genocide Tweets, and Redpilling Normies,” Studies in American Humor 5, no. 1 (2019): 31–69, https://doi.org/10.5325/studamerhumor.5.1.0031.