Feels bad, man: how memes escape from their creators and fuel extremism.

Meme content is so contextually bound and temporally sensitive that yesterday’s viral sensation is today’s digital fossil. Writing about memes, then, is a delicate dance on a stage where every word and interpretation risks obsolescence as the cultural tide swiftly changes. To engage with meme culture is to enter a conversation that is perpetually in motion.

But memes are powerful and deserve analysis. So I’m going to risk it. Just this once.

Barbara*, a 67-year-old woman who had been gifted a tablet by her adult children, found herself navigating an online universe vastly different from the one she knew. The tablet, intended to connect Barbara with her family and the broader world, unexpectedly led her toward the fringe movement QAnon, lured by an innocuous meme of a green frog.

I spoke with her daughter after connecting on Mastodon and heard a story that has become more and more common — of an older generation influenced and shaped by viral content.

The progression was subtle at first. Barbara shared a Pepe meme — a cartoon frog with an array of human emotions — and triggered Facebook’s algorithms.

Social algorithms are indiscriminate; they promote content based on engagement without regard for its nature. When Barbara expressed interest in Pepe, she stepped towards a conveyor belt of increasingly extreme content, with some memes laced with QAnon messages.

Pepe the Frog started as an innocuous character in Matt Furie’s “Boy’s Club” comic in 2005. It was just a cartoon frog that became a canvas for a spectrum of human emotions online. Pepe memes ranged from expressions of sadness to smugness, providing users with a relatable and versatile figure to convey their feelings online. This relatability made Pepe famous, and for a while, it was just one of countless internet memes shared for a laugh or a moment of solidarity.

The trajectory of Pepe’s image took a sharp turn as it was coopted by various internet communities, most notably by alt-right groups during the tumultuous 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. Pepe was used as a vector for divisive ideologies, including racist and anti-Semitic messages.

This shift was so pronounced that the Anti-Defamation League was compelled to categorize specific versions of the Pepe meme as hate symbols. Furie, the artist behind Pepe, has since been on a mission to reclaim his character, engaging in legal battles and starting the #SavePepe campaign to restore the meme to its original intent of joy and humour.

Despite these efforts, the meme’s trajectory continued to veer in unexpected directions, evidenced by its adoption by the cryptocurrency community as a token called $PEPE.

The evolution of Pepe illustrates a broader phenomenon in digital culture: memes can rapidly shift from innocuous to influential, escaping their creators’ intent and distilling complex ideas into potent, shareable images that can both enlighten and misinform.

Their simplicity allows for widespread circulation, effectively capturing the public’s attention and shaping discourse in ways traditional media can’t.

For Barbara, memes were not just digital ephemera but signposts on a journey toward an ideology that stands in stark contrast to the harmless humour of a cartoon frog. Barbara’s family noticed a marked shift in her demeanour and conversations.

The device connecting her to her children now tied her to hollow conspiracy theories. This is the darker side of the internet, where the line between factual discourse and unfounded bullshit is too often blurred. For an older woman dealing with loneliness and the overwhelming nature of information overload, meme culture was an easy access point for extremism.

The story of Pepe, and by extension Barbara’s, sheds light on a critical aspect of digital culture: the fluidity of meaning. A single meme can be innocent in one context and dangerous in another. Interpretation hinges on the biases and intentions of those sharing it. The Pepe meme’s journey from a comic strip to a contentious political symbol underscores the lack of control content creators have once their work enters the digital realm. A meme becomes communal property, its message and impact shaped by a chorus of anonymous users.

Memes are the heartbeat of online culture — they are rapid, vibrant, and constantly ahead of critical analysis. Dissecting a meme often feels akin to performing an autopsy; the true essence of its appeal can be elusive, as its vitality is inherently tied to the current moment. Memes resonate because they are immediate and relatable; their life span is a flash of cultural relevance.

For individuals like Barbara, who venture into the digital world seeking connection, the simplicity and accessibility of memes can be a double-edged sword. They offer an easy entry point into digital communities but can also serve as a conduit to more extreme spaces. As Barbara’s story demonstrates, a meme’s ability to influence is not limited to the youth, who are typically seen as its primary architects and audience; it can just as readily affect an older generation seeking camaraderie in the often isolating expanse of cyberspace.

As she fell further into the rabbit hole, calls went unanswered, and visits were declined; Barbara’s digital immersion had ironically led to her social isolation. The ideology that had captivated her demanded unwavering belief, leaving little room for the messy complexities of family life. Ultimately, the allure of QAnon’s certainties proved stronger than the ties that had bound her to her family, leading to a painful and still ongoing separation.

Pepe is just one example of how a seemingly benign image can become laden with unexpected significance. The transformation of a meme into a vehicle for extremist views is not just about the image itself but about the ecosystems that form around these digital artefacts. As memes like Pepe travel through vast communities, they gather new meanings, becoming imprinted with the ideas and emotions of the communities they touch. At its heart, Pepe is an innocent image, character and a viral flash in the pan. But as a meme, it is imprinted by each community that adopts or coopts it, and the intent behind any meme’s creation can be entirely overrun by competing contexts. When used as propaganda, when used to disseminate harmful messages, memes can be a hugely destructive force.

Barbara’s descent into the world of QAnon through the deceptive innocence of Pepe the Frog is a stark warning about the pervasive power of digital culture. We face a growing need to critically examine meme literacy and how online content, as trivial as it may seem, can have profound real-world consequences. Through memes, the algorithms that cater to our online engagements are not benign content curators. They can be matchmakers, pairing individuals with ideologies that can upend lives. Barbara, whose initial interaction with a simple meme was intended for a moment of amusement, is now isolated from her family, a relationship severed not by choice alone but by the relentless pull of a belief system that capitalized on her vulnerability and desire for connection.

It’s a wake-up call for individuals to approach online content with scepticism and for families to engage in open discussions about the media they consume. And it’s a wake-up call for policymakers and tech companies to consider the societal implications of rapidly evolving extremist content and to take action to safeguard against the darker undercurrents of internet culture.

*Name changed for privacy.

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