Propaganda and Political Manipulation (Selectivity, Memes and Shitposts)


This is an excerpt from a chapter of my book, Women’s Voices in the BlueWave Resistance on Twitter: Cruel Optimism (Lexington Books, Rowman and Littlefield, 2023).  I thought this might be interesting or useful for people who are invested in working with political propaganda and memes. The book uses Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism” version of affect and gender theory to investigate political communities on Twitter during the period between 2015 and 2022, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with her work to get something out of this. The key idea from Berlant here is her idea of “impasse.”  I use the impasse to talk about memes as a kind of borderland, an impasse for holding emotions and various kind of attached meanings that lead to communication (and in some cases, the perpetuation of propaganda).


impasse (photo of wall)
Chabe01, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Political propaganda has been in the news for as long as scholars have written about how governments persuade their citizens. In recent years, the manipulation of emotions through social media platforms has been a major focus of these discussions. In 2020, the Oxford Internet Institute surveyed over 80 democratic countries, and found evidence of how social media manipulated public sentiment in all of them (“Social Media Manipulation,” 2021). Propagandistic information can be spread directly, through word of mouth and verbal statements, and in its simplest definition, it includes the use of facts to do so (although the simple spreading of facts is not normally what we associate with propaganda). Britannica defines it as “dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumours, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion” (Smith, et al., 2021). But more specifically, it is the manner in which these are used that make it propaganda: “the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth). Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas” (Smith, et al., 2021, italics mine). They elaborate on the popular means:

Contemporary propagandists with money and imagination can use a very wide range of signs, symbols, and media to convey their messages. Signs are simply stimuli—“information bits” capable of stimulating, in some way, the human organism. These include sounds, such as words, music, or a 21-gun salvo; gestures (a military salute, a thumbed nose); postures (a weary slump, folded arms, a sit-down, an aristocratic bearing); structures (a monument, a building); items of clothing (a uniform, a civilian suit); visual signs (a poster, a flag, a picket sign, a badge, a printed page, a commemorative postage stamp, a swastika scrawled on a wall); and so on and on. (Smith, et al., 2021)

In the era of social media, distribution through financial backing is not nearly as important as the ability to trigger bursts of imagination and cooperation between groups of people who are willing to spread propaganda. Nor is it necessary for those people to know that what they are doing is spreading propaganda. Propagandists often believe that they are educators or entertainers and that any selectivity or pressure they exert in their messaging is done simply to make their communications more effective. The difference between education and propaganda, according to Britannica’s Bruce Lannes Smith and others (2021), can be a relatively subtle one:

Educators try to present various sides of an issue—the grounds for doubting as well as the grounds for believing the statements they make, and the disadvantages as well as the advantages of every conceivable course of action. Education aims to induce reactors to collect and evaluate evidence for themselves and assists them in learning the techniques for doing so.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because conspiracy theorists have assumed the motives of educators for themselves (the phrase “do your own research” is a popular response of conspiracy-minded to those who challenge them in public forums). While education requires an acknowledgement of as many sides of an issue as possible in order to evaluate them, propaganda usually actively suppresses information that weakens its premise. While actively lying and/or twisting facts is not necessary, propaganda is always selective in what it presents, and there may be less active vetting of new messages that support the propagandistic messages. From this perspective, almost any political group is steeped in some kind of propaganda, including Twitter political groups such as the BlueWave Resistance. Propaganda is not always dangerous, but can become so when it is verifiably false and misleading.

Perhaps the premier form for propaganda in the age of social media is through the creation and spreading of political memes. Defined succinctly by Ryan Skinnell (in the working definition of the word–for a historical overview, see Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976)), “Memes are visual, often funny, snippets of communication — pictures and gifs — that can be easily shared on social media, text messages, and email” (2020). Journalist Douglas Haddow (2016) describes memes, referencing their use in the 2016 Presidential elections, as “now born from the swamps of the internet in real time, distributed from the bottom up…a form of anarchic folk propaganda.” Skinnell (2020) argues that memes are “counterproductive to some kinds of communication”–namely, what we think of as clear, direct, “unvarnished” communication– and that this is a feature of memes, not a bug. Memes, according to media scholar Henry Jenkins, are “spreadable” rather than “sticky” (Skinnell, 2020). This means that memes are fashioned to facilitate quick spreading more than attract and engage focused attention; in other words, they are not fashioned for extensive scrutiny, like a well-structured argument, or a Rembrandt painting. Stickiness is related to authorial/speaker/creator control over the message. (Think back to Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric and especially pathos, how pathos relates to the audience’s emotions as determined by the speaker and how the speaker shapes their discourse to that emotion, exercising authorial (or speaker) control.) Conceive of a well-structured argument as being like a laser beam. Within a small field of influence, it can be directed to a precise point and have a powerful impact as it meets its target. Now, think of a meme as being more like a virus (they don’t call popular memes viral for nothing). A virus spreads, replicates, and evolves, redesigning its host along the way until it takes over as much of the host body (in this case, the public consuming it) as possible. Like the great majority of viruses, memes are spread far more widely than they are damaging (most of us consume a meme and we may chuckle, wince, or cringe, but nothing else happens, although we might spread it to someone else out of interest or amusement). As Skinnell (2020) writes,

Although memes aren’t sticky, they’re nevertheless valuable because they can be altered and diffused widely. Ordinarily, people would want to control their messages and therefore prefer stickiness. With memes, though, the message is only part of what spreads [italics mine]. The reason memes are so important is they retain certain kinds of meaning even when the message is very different from what it was at the meme’s origin point…Memes don’t prevent or inhibit communication in a spreadable culture, but they do shift how — and with whom — we communicate. Memes cultivate narrow, ideological audiences by streamlining communication. Memes don’t prevent us from communicating with others; they reduce our conscious awareness of the communication that we’re engaged in. They reduce communicative friction.

Memes, like some other “gestures” of social media I’ve discussed in the paragraphs above (such as hashtags and the use of emoticons, which can also be indicative of memes and used in certain communities “to meme”), work in what Berlant refers to as the impasse (2011, 199). People have occasionally remarked to me that memes make people stupider, and perhaps this is related to the reduction of conscious awareness of communication that Skinnell refers to here. On the one hand, memes are appealing because they require so little intellectual energy to share; on the other, they gesture at a great deal of potential for affective impact in the impasse, where most of the time, not much happens. If there is no affective impact, there isn’t much motivation to spread the meme–although after a point, people may be spreading it simply because it is spreading, and that is ok, because “the message is only part of what spreads. Spreading memes is what Berlant calls a “spreading out” activity, one without a clear purpose or goal; her examples included activities like eating for pleasure or sex (Berlant, 2011, 98). The relationship of memeing to political activity is unique in that it is, in a certain way, the opposite of purposeful political activity. Berlant distinguishes this kind of activity from anything related to self-sovereignty (2011, 98). A meme doesn’t need to be fully understood, needs to be easy to spread, and needs to give some kind of pleasure (loosely defined) in spreading it.

Unlike some other kinds of social media posting that can be harnessed for propaganda purposes, like the active spreading of misinformation, memes are seldom direct enough to stand scrutiny of a factchecker or to violate terms of service. Memes are sleeper agents of political propaganda, infecting others while tossing and turning in the impasse as they dream. And infect they do. Memes are associated with a practice known as shitposting, and the relationship between the two help us to better understand memeing’s role in Berlant’s discussion of gestures, glitching, and the impasse–and how this can play a role in political social media culture. Financial Times defines shitposting as “posting ostentatiously inane and contextless content to an online forum or social network with the effect of derailing discussion” (Skinnell, 2020). In other words, it is a form of decomposition. Shitposting can be verbal or visual, but it’s always unreliable. As pointed out by Jillian Murphy, “[Shitposting] can also self-consciously and self-deprecatingly be used to present earnest thoughts or genuine effort in a way that seems less earnest and genuine” (Skinnell, 2020). To some readers/viewers, a shitpost may seem like a normal, innocuous post or comment, but it’s usually steeped in irony–or at least, some of the audience will read it as ironic. Then others will pick it up and start sharing it. One might see similar or identical phrasing or graphics (if it is visual) showing up in other discussions, forums, or message boards. A shitpost might, in fact, begin as a genuine or sincere message somewhere and be turned into something quite different over time. This happened with references to “an hero” and “I lost my iPod” when used in a context of reporting a suicide. The supposed origins of this shitposting meme is explained in the Urban Dictionary:

The term originated in a poorly written eulogy posted on the MySpace memorial page of a boy who shot himself after he lost his iPod. The poem frequently referred to the boy as “an hero.” Though the use of “an” with words beginning with “h” is acceptable when the letter is silent–as in many varieties of British English–it was incorrect in this case, since the author did not write the rest of the poem in British English. The use of “an” before “hero” might also be inferred to be a careless error from the many other instances of poor style and grammar found in the rest of the source material. The term subsequently gained wide acceptance as a means to refer to those, such as the aforementioned boy, who kill themselves. Though the term is frequently applied to people who kill themselves needlessly, many famous, easily justifiable suicides are regarded as an heroes (e.g. Adolf Hitler). (crummy_fingers, 2010)

The original poem seems to have, possibly, been a quite sincere although awkward attempt at a tribute by a young person to a dead classmate. The chaotic message board 4chan picked up on it first, and posters there turned it into a shitpost which has subsequently become one of the most well-known memes in existence. One can occasionally see references to “an hero” and “I lost my iPod” even today in Twitch chat or Reddit forums whenever a the topic of suicide comes up or some other random circumstances of grief, despair, or loss comes up (even if it is trivial).

One of the most well-known, well-traveled shitposting memes with considerable political impact has been Pepe the Frog, as summarized on Know Your Meme (Z, et al., 2016-2022). Pepe, the “sad frog” in his most familiar form, was created for the comic series Boy’s Club by Matt Furie in 2005 (Z, et al. 2016-2022). The frog first became a meme in 2008, after a comic was published that showed Pepe urinating blissfully while saying, “Feels Good Man;” this prompted sharing of the image of a happy Pepe saying the phrase on 4chan’s /b/ (random) board (Z, et al., 2016-2022). The image was posted by Jon Hendren on Something Awful in February 2008, and then edited by some unknown person to display a sad-faced Pepe captioned by “Feels Bad Man” (Z, et al., 2016-2022). From there, Pepe began to spread widely as a reaction image, and Tumblr blogs, Instagram feeds, subreddits, and a Facebook page followed over the next few years. There were popular tweets and Instagram posts using the meme by performers Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj in 2014 that garnered attention from the public. It is unknown how Donald J. Trump, in October 2015, became aware of Pepe–possibly through Katy Perry’s well-traveled tweet, which gained more than 17,000 likes and 10,500 retweets. However, he possibly may have been aware of the image created by Malaysian artist Maldraw, who on July 22, 2015 posted a Smug Pepe as Donald Trump “overlooking a face at the U.S.-Mexican border holding back sad Mexicans drawn as the Feels guy” on 4chan (Z, et al., 2016-2022). Use of this association between Trump and Pepe grew on 4chan and Reddit in the months to come. On October 13, 2015, Trump tweeted “an illustration of Pepe as himself standing at a podium with the President of the United States Seal….Within 16 months, the post gathered upwards of 11,000 likes and 8,100 retweets” (Z, et al., 2016-2022). Then, in response to Hillary Clinton’s September 8, 2016 speech at a fundraiser where she referred to half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” Trump tweeted an image based on a poster of the cast of the 2010 film The Expendables, featuring himself as Smug Pepe along with images of well-known conservators and retitled The Deplorables. The source was an Instagram post by his son, Donald Trump, Jr. (Kampeas, 2016). After this, it became habitual for mainstream media to refer to Pepe the Frog as a white nationalist symbol, notably after the Anti-Defamation League declared it one (Mele, 2016). The Daily Dot published an article that refuted Pepe’s associations, “Pepe the Frog is not a Nazi, no matter what the alt-right says,” which stated, “Pepe lacks political affiliation” (Klee, 2016). Pepe’s innocuous and humorous beginnings gave people enough room to use the image as they saw fit, to dither about it and with it–it was yet another example of a gesture in an impasse (Berlant, 2011, 170). Whenever people tried to assign him to a political ideology directly, those who had assigned other meanings (or no meanings) to him protested or said that they didn’t understand the problem. Actual shitposters, which Jessica Logsdon (an artist who was sued for selling a Pepe painting on eBay in 2017) most likely was, also publicly claimed they didn’t understand the negative associations, and hid their real motivation behind the unreliability of the icon’s “true” meaning (Z, et al., 2016-2022).

Another developing shitposting meme is “do your own research,” the phrase I mentioned earlier that is often invoked by conspiracy theorists. This one is a little trickier and one will not find it in Know Your Meme or the Urban Dictionary, although as of mid-2022, “The ‘I Did My Own Research Starter Pack,’ a collection of images, is in the Know Your Meme (2020) database, sourced to originate from a Reddit post by u/IRunFast24 in the subreddit r/starterpacks (2020). “Do your own research” is generally a stab at established, mainstream scientific advice and guidelines, or generally accepted mainstream scientific knowledge, significantly focusing on the safety or efficacy of vaccines, or the legitimacy of human-driven climate change–but it can also invoke the core beliefs of the MAGA cult QAnon (such as prominent Democrats being child traffickers who drink human blood to increase their lifespan) (Roose, 2021), flat earthers, doubts about Barack Obama’s birth as an American citizen, and rejection of the reality of the Jewish Holocaust, among other topics. The phrase is shitpost-worthy because, undoubtedly, some people are sincerely conspiracy theorists who believe that vaccines have microchips in them for tracking locations, or Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of infants–but there are other people who simply enjoy the outrage of those who are upset by such claims and will post the phrase just to cause unrest and discomfort. For some, “do your own research” is less advice than it is a signal to QAnon adherents or antivaxxers that they are on board with a certain set of beliefs, that they reject liberals or Black Lives Matter, for instance. Additionally, there is always the possibility that this innocuous phrase just means, literally, that someone needs to do research on a topic, such as a teacher talking about their students, or a scholar responding to a critic who they feel has not done sufficient information gathering on a subject. The context matters, but the phrase is now so often appearing in QAnon supporters that it is difficult to know how sincere or ironic someone who simply tosses off the phrase is being. In July 2020, Ethan Siegel published an article in Forbes, “You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research,’” which seriously and straightforwardly addresses the reasons why people should not “wing it” when it comes to science guidelines on serious health matters (2020). “Unless we start valuing the actual expertise that legitimate experts have spent lifetimes developing,” Siegel (2020) wrote, “‘doing our own research’ could lead to immeasurable, unnecessary suffering.”

In October 2021, The Greenville News reported that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environment Control began using an unrelated meme–red flag emoticons–to cast suspicion on the phrase “I’ve done my own research on Facebook” from their official Twitter account (Chhetri, 2021). The journal reported in an earlier article by Jordan Mendoza (2021), “The red flag meme you’re seeing on your screens is being used to convey what some people determine to be conversation deal-breakers. Users are sharing quotes — some real and others not — that they deem to be a warning sign of possible problematic behaviors or beliefs, and then following those quotes with several red flag emojis.” This is an example of how one meme can be used to qualify and adapt to another. The SCDHE is acknowledging that “do your own research” and its variants are problematic, repetitive content that casts incredulity on official vetted knowledge from scientists or other mainstream authorities, and they have responded by playing the game, getting into the impasse so to speak. Memeing and shitposting are communication techniques of the impasse, that space imagined by Berlant where communication essentially does a Heisenberg principle move–it communicates as it becomes less clear; it is decomposition rather than composition. “Do your own research” is not a particularly fun or entertaining meme (although the starter pack meme is making strides), but it is starting to trend that way as parties with ironic or critical perspectives begin using the phrase to lift it out of any kind of straightforward criticism of mainstream information.

Like emotional appeals (pathos) in general, memes can be seen as enthymemic in nature, perhaps in a more extreme way than most invitational emotional gestures. A meme begins as an invitation to “catch” it and use it, without much other stated agenda or nod to any kind of consequence. There may or may not be an intent behind the use of a meme, at least at first, but intentions may begin to drift around in the impasse in which memes dwell. Memes have the most power when any intentions attached to them are not widely apparent. We see this clearly with the Pepe meme; it gained popularity before the “normies” (a catch-all term for people who adhere to mainstream media and views, in this case primarily those who are too clueless to meme) became aware of it, and by the time a particular ideological community had adopted it, so many had been using it for such a wide variety of purposes that many rejected the fact that it could be used to support toxic behaviors. As a result, those using it for toxic behaviors, primarily the encouragement of normalizing white nationalism, were able to claim that they, too, were innocents just using a cute frog to support “free speech.” Intention is the part of the enthymeme that is not overt, not spoken, and to complicate matters with memes, intention is not always the same. It is only within a particular audience, as Skinnell (2020) points out, that the meme communicates a clear intention that they have agreed upon.

Memes, spread easily online, have changed the game of political propaganda forever. Their power comes from within the impasse, the place Berlant speaks about as being relatively free of consequentiality, at least initially. They do not require purposefulness to gain traction, nor understanding of any meaning that the public assigns to them. They do not require an investment of capital to go viral, and initially their popularity may arise in what seems a very random way; they require the ability to make some kind of affective impact, but that impact does not need to be what the creator of the meme intends. Once their impact gains traction within a particular ideological community, established influencers (such as political candidates or corporations) are free to use them for their own agendas, although doing this can also dampen the appeal of the meme as those not clearly affiliated with the ideology may reject it (as happened with Pepe the Frog). This doesn’t take into consideration those whose primary purpose is to disrupt any coherent political ideology entirely, who are instrumental in spreading memes.

To cite:
Davidson, Cynthia A.. Women’s Voices in the BlueWave Resistance on Twitter : Cruel Optimism, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central, 59-66.

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