In the wake of New Zealand’s mosque shooting, hearts are broken and people are angry. 49 people were murdered in the name of a vicious and poisonous ideology; we are right to be angry. But what the media seems to be running with is the memes the primary shooter shouted and the memes he engraved on his weapon. “Meme Culture” as the internet has dubbed it, has been associated with the right since its start as a sort of comedic underground. This fascination with memes is a modern mirroring of punk culture, which attracted neo-nazis in the 1970s-1990s. It is another example of “Comradery of the Accused”.
Although innocuous and used by nearly every young person, meme culture has a way of attaching itself to anti-semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, and racism. In late 2017, The Washington Post accused popular Youtuber “Pewdiepie” of antisemitism and racism, among other incendiary labels. He has, in some leftist circles, become known as a leader in the Alt-right movement. Except, the thing is, he isn’t a member of the Alt-right. What roped him into this was a joke he made, dressing up as and showing clips of Adolf Hitler— at the Nazi Party’s expense.
Pewdiepie’s jokes caught the attention of The Washington Post and their controversial nature took the internet by storm. His use of memes and jokes became associated with various hate movements. The media lumped him, the people who watched his content, and the people who used those memes into the category of Alt-right. Perfectly reasonable and almost always apolitical people began to reason that if the Alt-Right consisted of memes and internet trolls, it must not be as terrible as the media made it seem. The people both rightly and wrongly accused of racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia came together under the only thing they all share: Edgy memes.
At first glance, white nationalists and meme-lords have nothing in common other than creating memes and being accused of supporting fascism. It isn’t even an amalgamation of a community yet, but the Alt-right sees this as an opportunity to recruit. Being told you’re racist, hateful, and dangerous when you aren’t, hurts. And a real-life hate group can seem like the perfect remedy. The Alt-right isn’t oblivious to the power it holds and capitalizes on it.
We cannot treat this mainstream media crusade against meme culture as the simple result of washed up journalists being too heavy-handed. We cannot treat this as just “leftists throwing a fit”. When people accuse perfectly average citizens of belonging to hate groups, it makes it easier for the people who seriously belong to those groups to radicalize recently cast out young people. When journalists and organizations like the SPLC brand anything vaguely connected to hate groups as hate symbols, they are casting too wide of a net. They are playing directly into the hands of Nazis, the Alt-right, and whatever other hate groups decide to make an appearance as “definitely not Nazis”.
Softening the public to ideas and supposed symbols of white nationalism is exactly what hate groups want. There are genuine Alt-right and Nazi dog whistles. It is everyone’s responsibility to recognize them for what they are, and to shut them down. Some fascist dog whistles include the iron cross, the othala rune, a group of three feathers, and specific numbers or other symbols relating to regional racial hate groups. These are real, tangible, and specific symbols. The specificity, in particular, is what separates these genuine dog whistles from innocuous memes that the media have branded hate symbols. You won’t catch a highschooler tattoo an Aryan gang number on his wrist by accident. But, what you certainly will find is high schoolers all over the nation laughing at Pepe the frog or throwing up the “okay” sign.
The shooter’s actions not only constitute a hate crime, but they were also a calculated effort to perpetuate this cycle of accusation, comradery, and eventual membership. His tactics are well documented. We cannot and will not fall for them. He threw out references to every current meme for a reason. The truth is, Crab Rave, Candace Owens, Fortnite, Pewdiepie, and Spiro are not tools of the Alt-right or other radical movements, but the belief that they are certainly is. It is dangerous to let people believe these are alt-right symbols when they are so benign and meaningless.
When everyone is a Nazi, we allow the real anti-semites the real white supremacists and the real Nazis to slip under the radar, we allow them to execute their plans, allowed to enact violence, allowed to spread hate. We, the mainstream media, everyone; the left, the right, the center, must be able to recognize the Alt-right’s tactics for what they are. And we must be able to fight against them.
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