‘It’s the information ecosystem, stupid’

This part of the chapter discusses the umbilical role that information disorders and the information ecosystem at large have played in the deep médiatisation of the extreme right (Maly 2019). Rather than attempting to be complete or exhaustive, this section looks at the three most pervasive information disorders used by the extreme right: (1) ‘fake news’ and propaganda, (2) memes and memetic warfare, and (3) digital platforms.

On fake news and propaganda

The first information disorder that has boosted the médiatisation of the extreme right is ‘fake news’.1 Apart from its deceptiveness, the most prominent feature of fake news is probably its vitality: the capacity to pollute the mediated public debate by spreading and transforming falsehoods and myths (see Venturini 2019). According to Mourao and Robertson (2019, 2077), fake news relies on ‘genre blending combining elements of traditional news with features that are exogenous to normative professional journalism: misinformation, sensationalism, clickbait and bias’. However, the assumption that fake news demonstrably and significantly undermines democracy is not a matter of agreement (Marda and Milan 2018). Nevertheless, while the total volume of fake news in comparison with real news is rather limited, at least in some cases, and very dependent on the topic or the event, it definitely needs studying — its existence, its design, and the machinery behind it (see Bayer et al. 2019). Not least because right-wing-inspired fake news stories have been found to outperform real news in terms of user engagement and popularity (Silverman 2016).

In line with their anti-establishment stance, (violent) extreme-right activists demand absolute free speech, no matter how offensive this may be to specific individuals or groups of people. In this respect the following elements in Bayer et al.s definition (2019) of disinformation and propaganda is important: this is content designed to be false, manipulated, or misleading (disinformation) disseminated using unethical persuasion techniques (propaganda) on a topic of public interest, with the intention of generating insecurity, inciting hostility, or disrupting democratic processes and often making use of automated dissemination techniques for amplifying purposes. In a context of growing international tensions, a critical challenge is to try to identify the sources of manipulation techniques such as lies, omission, exaggeration, and misdirection, used strategically to influence domestic and foreign population groups, governments, and news professionals.

On memes and memetic warfare

While memes may be viewed as trivial and mundane artefacts, they reflect deep social and cultural structures, and when used for subtle (or not-so-subtle) political purposes, they can be ‘deadly serious’. The extreme-right has no use for complex arguments and nuanced language: to persuade mass audiences, it knows it needs a sledgehammer rather than a feather. In other words, it favours simple, emotional, and dramatic language, including humour, ironic memes, and jokes. ‘Memes’are (often a set of) images, photographs, and text fragments, or a combination of these, which are posted online, shared, imitated, and transformed by users (Shifman 2013). Often shared and commented upon in online public spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, they are also very popular on more exclusive online forums such as cloaked Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, and channels on Discord, Reddit, 4chan and 8chan. Memes often take the form of so-called remixes, in which visual and textual elements are combined to send out a multimodal message and are usually a combination of content and design (Dancygier and Vandelanotte 2017; Heikkila 2017; Shifman 2013), which makes them an appropriate mode of communication for political-ideological purposes (e.g. Bbrzsei 2013; Shifman 2014).

One common characteristic of extreme-right memes is the ‘anomalous juxtaposition’, putting incongruous images together to make the message absurd or provocative. This is used for ‘maximising the susceptibility of the idea being passed from mind to mind’ (Knobel and Lankshear 2007, 215). The use of elements from visual and popular culture and the injection of humour helps the extreme-right internet memes appear innocent at first sight while they send a powerful message around the world through this ‘racial humour’ (Yoon 2016). According to Bogerts and Fielitz (2019), far-right actors are aware of this duality and use this ‘wolf in sheepskin’ strategy to make their message attractive to the wider public rather than just the already convinced: this boils down to ‘mainstreaming’an extreme message (Davey and Ebner 2017).

Bogerts and Fielitz (2019) investigated memes used by the German far right. They found that memes are often based on elements of popular culture, such as cartoons and video games, but also historical images (see also Boudana et al. 2017). Such memes mostly pertain to immigration, foreign politics, and the media but are also about the so-called naive leftists. Although memes are shared and commented upon at the micro level, they are capable of influencing society at the macro level (Gal, Shifman and Kampf 2016; Shifman 2013). A good example of this is the Christchurch mosque attack described earlier. Both the livestream video and the manifesto were drenched in references to a broader extreme-right internet culture. As noted by Davey and Ebner (2019, 24), the amount of intertextuality with the web’s extreme-right subculture gave the attack almost the character of one big ‘inside joke’. For instance, the background music that the attacker played in the car while driving to the first mosque was the song called ‘Remove

Kebab’, which was recorded by Bosnian Serb soldiers in the context of the Yugoslav wars and genocide against Bosnian Muslims and then became popular within the extreme right at large.

When the creation and dissemination of memes via social media are conducted on a large scale with the strategic intention of propagating a specific message or ideology, this is called memetic warfare (see e.g. Wall and Mitew 2018). This happened on a large scale during and after the 2016 US presidential election: a pro-Trump campaign was organised via memes that were crafted and pushed into the mainstream discourse from various online fringe communities such as Twitter, Reddit and 4chan (see e.g. Zannettou et al. 2018). More recent examples of the implementation of memes in (mainstream) political communication are the meme campaigns by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg in the first months of 2020, with the latter also using Instagram influencers to disseminate the memes (see e.g. Lorenz 2020).

One of the better-known internet memes used by the extreme right (and mainstreamed regularly) is that of‘Pepe the Frog’ (see e.g. Pelletier-Gagnon and Pérez Trujillo Diniz 2018). It is a 2005 creation by comic artist Matt Furie and was featured as a character in the popular comic series Boy’s Club. Because of Pepe’s popularity as an online meme, he was hijacked by extremeright movements in order to disseminate hate speech by depicting Pepe with a Hitler moustache or a long nose and a Jewish star. This practice was offensive enough for the Anti-Defamation League to include Pepe the Frog on its 2017 list of hate symbols. Authors and remixers of these memes injected humour through the funny-looking figure (Pepe is a green frog with bright red lips) in combination with familiar or historical settings and a tantalising quote. There is also the ‘clown world meme’, a derivative of Pepe which the extreme right uses to indicate that we live in an absurd, ‘left-wing’ ‘clown world’. The jocular use of a clown results in the meme being enthusiastically shared by both alt-right supporters and people who just like to provoke, gradually making more people familiar with far-right ideology.

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