The mayhem on Jan. 6, 2021, featured a mob storming the U.S. Capitol, attacking police and spilling blood with fists, flag poles and stolen riot shields.
Amid the haze of smoke grenades and bear spray were recognizable symbols that have been adopted by far-right extremists: a noose and makeshift gallows; the Confederate stars and bars; and the coiled snake of the Gadsden flag with its “Don’t Tread On Me” warning.
But for those unfamiliar with certain Internet subcultures, less obvious but equally potent icons at the riot may have caused confusion. They included a green, anthropomorphic cartoon frog named Pepe on masks and clothing, and green flags with a black symbol spelling the word “Kek” waving above the crowd.
Both the frog and the flag — each associated with a fictional country called ‘Kekistan’ — are Internet memes that have come to represent ironic, tongue-in-cheek symbols of white nationalism. Although their origin stories are bizarre, they are emblematic of how messaging on the fringes of the digital world has made the leap into real-world instances of violence, underscoring the importance of recognizing the implicit and explicit threats they can represent.
USA TODAY reviewed thousands of Internet memes ranging from serious issues like the Jan. 6 hearings and the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, to absurd conspiracy theories concerning 5G and Jewish space lasers. The examination found that a seemingly endless supply of memes designed to sow discord and blur the lines between fact and fiction flourish unabated online despite pledges by social media companies to stamp out or at least flag such content with warnings. Experts USA TODAY interviewed said these online images, videos, hashtags and slogans have become a dominant form of communication in the digital age and have been weaponized to spread disinformation and polarize the population.
“Most people dismiss memes as just Internet humor or a passing laugh, but they have been used for decades in propaganda and as psychological warfare,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and co-author of the 2022 book “Meme Wars.”
Memes play a key role in almost every disinformation campaign of the digital age and feature prominently in the hate-filled screeds of mass shooters and in the playbooks of far-right operatives. As a result, organizations that monitor hate groups and extremism — like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti Defamation League — employ experts and dedicate other resources to studying and reporting on memes.
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