A few weeks ago, in the midst of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict, Andrew Yang, a mayoral candidate in New York, tweeted in support of Israel. The backlash came fast, and by the next day, #YangSupportsGenocide was trending on Twitter. The aggressive public shaming worked: Yang backtracked and issued a follow-up clarification. And now, politicians with progressive constituencies will likely think twice before publicly expressing support for Israel.
This is meme activism, a widespread and powerful force in contemporary politics. Here, I’m using the original definition of meme: an easily replicated unit of cultural knowledge or information that is spread by imitation. Today, most people hear “meme” and think of a funny photo with words on it. But the original concept—a way to understand how ideas travel and reproduce in a society—encompasses far more than quirky online humor.
Activists use political memes in the form of hashtags, symbols, catchphrases, and slogans to spread their message and build solidarity for their cause. And though memes can help activists, they have a dark and destructive potential. With the advent of the internet and social media’s ability to spread memes faster and further than ever, meme activism deserves closer scrutiny.
Here are three ways that meme activism corrupts our political conversations and endangers our democratic process.
1/ Meme activism encourages performative and fleeting action.
If you were online a decade ago, you probably remember #Kony2012. The hashtag went viral alongside a YouTube documentary calling for international action to arrest Joseph Kony, the Ugandan war criminal who abducted and trained child soldiers. The video’s call to action caught on: The organization that made the video, Invisible Children, raked in tens of millions of dollars, and millions of people shared the hashtag, signed the pledge calling for Kony’s arrest, and bought “Kony 2012 Action Kits.”
This activism was supposed to culminate with “Cover the Night,” an event where people across the world would plaster “every city, every block” with Kony 2012 stickers and posters. But the campaign was a flop, and it shows how meme activism is often too ephemeral to make a lasting change or, more cynically, is just a way for activists to demonstrate virtuousness. When it came time to take their action offline and into the real world, Kony activists either didn’t have the motivation or had lost interest. And though it may have had positive downstream impacts, this was effectively the end of the #StopKony movement.
2/ Meme activism silences dissent.
Take, for example, Black Lives Matter. The slogan itself is (or at least should be) obvious and uncontroversially true. But there’s also a more substantive movement and political program behind BLM, which is rightfully more controversial. Look at the 7 Demands of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the most prominent organization in the BLM movement. The first: Convict and ban Donald Trump from future political office. The fifth: Defund the police.
To be sure, not everyone involved in the Black Lives Matter movement supports the agenda of the Global Network. Still, most activists who use the meme “Black Lives Matter” deploy it as a stand-in for a political program—from criminal justice reform to a more expansive vision for economic equality. Whether or not you agree with these goals, Black Lives Matter clearly means more to most activists than “black people’s lives matter.”
Some activists manipulate this gap between the literal meaning of a meme and the political program that underpins the use of it. They take a broad and complex political movement, collapse it into a near-irrefutable slogan, and silence nuanced dissent by claiming that anyone who expresses concern about the movement as a whole must oppose the most attractive meaning of its core slogan. To ask these activists for clarification or specifics is to risk public shaming.
We also see this with terms such as “anti-racism” and “equity.” Most people have no problem saying that they are anti-racist or that they support equitable policies. But, as with Black Lives Matter, some people use these words to denote radical and far-reaching ideologies. According to Ibram Kendi, for example, “the only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” This makes it difficult for people who loath racism, but disagree with Kendi’s prescriptions for how to remedy it, to respond to a question like: “Are you an anti-racist?”
3/ Meme activism sanctions simplistic and naive political beliefs.
Take Trump’s triad of three-syllable campaign slogans: Build The Wall, Drain the Swamp, and Lock Her Up. Trump’s supporters enthusiastically chanted and spread these memes, but it’s doubtful that most have thought through the complexities of immigration enforcement, the best way to strengthen ethics in Washington, D.C., or the implications of using the executive office to prosecute political opponents.
And yet, these memes let them off the hook of doing so. In place of a well-reasoned argument, political activists can lean on pithy memes to demonstrate their political allegiances. But when people use memes as a shortcut, they sacrifice the process of testing and inspecting their opinions. Insight comes from challenging ideas, and memes allow people to skirt this process. As Plato wrote in The Republic, “opinions divorced from knowledge are ugly things.”
When beliefs are accepted without any skepticism, they become articles of faith that often lack evidence or logical coherence. Using slick memes like Build the Wall as a crutch, people can not only articulate a problem but also prescribe a specific solution. Slogans and hashtags, used as shortcuts, give people the tools to express what appear to be clear policy goals, even though they have hardly grappled with the issue in its complexity.
To be fair, meme activism has had its upsides. American and British abolitionists inscribed their slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” onto medallions and domestic objects, which they distributed to build support for their cause. In 2019 and 2020, activists took to social media with hashtags like #5DemandsNot1Less to generate pressure on the Chinese government to preserve the relative political freedom of Hong Kong.
But often, contemporary meme activism is performative, simplistic, and used as a tool to silence dissent. Given its dangerous potential, we should all be skeptical about using meme activism. Here’s how:
First, don’t let meme activism supplant real advocacy or political action. Engage in real-world action to elect representatives, pass legislation, or further causes you support.
Second, always look for the political program or movement behind a meme, especially when it appears benign and irrefutable. Don’t let rhetorical tricks silence thoughtful skepticism and discussion.
Third, don’t use memes as an intellectual shortcut. Think through your political opinions, expose them to criticism, and engage in constructive debate.
We need to establish a political culture that values nuance. We should embrace the world’s complexity and, in doing so, reject the simplistic world of meme activism.
Seth Moskowitz is an editor at Persuasion.