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Opinion Online memes may seem frivolous, but they normalize hate – with potentially deadly results

Daniel Panneton is a historian employed by the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde declared that the driving philosophy behind The Importance of Being Earnest was that “we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."

Although little may seem more trivial, it’s time to take memes seriously.

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White supremacists certainly are.

Prior to the Christchurch attack, the shooter posted a bizarre manifesto littered with memes. Unsure of how to handle the cryptic document, early coverage of the attack failed to decipher the obvious call-outs to internet culture and contextualize them for what they were: the real-world manifestation of an online ecosystem that has slowly but surely been radicalizing white internet users since the early 2000s.

Memes are more than the ephemeral scraps of lowbrow culture so detrimental to workplace productivity. They are a form of communication that is intended to be shared, and in a social-media environment, they can be hard to escape; it is that very ubiquity that gives memes power, as even the most repugnant views can be normalized through repetition. They can be used to deliberately build, spread and sustain narratives and worldviews. The narrative conveyed by memes may be explicitly political or essentially farcical, and bad-faith actors seek to make the two hard to tell apart.

Easy to produce, easier to remix and easiest to replicate, they are a product of a participatory internet culture that developed through message boards and social media. Liberated from social consequence by online anonymity, many internet users have grown to take delight in transgression in constructing an anti-PC space where the extreme was mirthful, and bigotry could be hand-waved away as off-colour humour, or in the parlance, “for the lulz.” So memes often play with taboo, making light of subjects such as death, sexual violence, gender and religion.

A particularly dark artifact to emerge from this libertine culture is the Holocaust meme. Few historical subjects are as controversial as the Holocaust, seen by many as the ultimate example of inhumanity; a catastrophe that transcends comparison and contextualization. So the reverence with which the Holocaust is held makes it an easy target for “lulz.”

Holocaust memes are illustrative of a new approach to Holocaust denial. The Holocaust deniers of the 1980s and ’90s are dying off, taking their quixotic crusade for academic and public legitimacy with them. But the new deniers are not concerned with what the respectable public thinks. Rather than trying to convince people that the Holocaust did not happen, the new deniers are instead using the memory of the Holocaust to desensitize the public to anti-Semitism through sustained and pervasive mockery. Most people exposed to Holocaust memes will not become deniers, but with each exposure, the hope is that laughter about genocide and the othering of Jews will elicit weaker and weaker reactions, creating more space for white supremacists.

Soon, there won’t be any living Holocaust witnesses. As the last survivors pass on, we lose a powerful anti-hate resource. Memories of the Holocaust and the Second World War will become more abstract and less grounded in the public consciousness. And as the immediacy of memory wanes, the wiggle room for mockery waxes, cultivated by an onslaught of memes that build the perception that the deaths of millions of Jews across Europe is worthy of lampoon.

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Holocaust memes are symptomatic of a much larger problem with intolerance. The anti-Semitism that drives Holocaust memes is rarely served straight. Rather, it’s often a single ingredient in a cocktail of bigotries. Where one finds Holocaust memes, there’s also likely to be content celebrating racism, misogyny, homophobia and Islamophobia. They exist to purvey and condition a worldview that is inherently hostile to the rights of people of colour, Indigenous people, the LGBTQ2S+ community, religious minorities and women.

Research into the ecosystems that generate and disseminate these memes reveals that many of the most hateful ones being spread widely, including those that celebrate or humanize Adolf Hitler, can be sourced to a handful of websites such as Gab, 4chan and Reddit. For example, one neo-Nazi blog encourages users to create memes on their weekly “memetic Monday,” which are intended for wider distribution.

These ecosystems produce narratives that have real consequences. The Quebec City shooter was described by peers as a moderate conservative who self-radicalized online, while the Charleston shooter’s internet history revealed frequent visits to extremist hubs. The Pittsburgh shooter regularly posted anti-Semitic memes on Gab, and the perpetrator of the Charlottesville car attack had posted numerous anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi memes to his Facebook page. These commonalities are not coincidence.

Holocaust memes are only one example of the much wider problem of those espousing white supremacy. The memes are out there, and the ecosystems are continually generating new ones. It’s impossible to prevent individuals from seeing them. Instead, we need to accept that memes have been “weaponized” and figure out ways to counter them.

Radicalization does not occur overnight. It’s a slow weathering – first with individuals, then society. Memes have been used effectively to indoctrinate individuals into white supremacy, and their influence is leading to bloodshed.

Even though memes may appear to be the height of triviality, that’s exactly what makes them such serious vectors for dangerous worldviews. Because they’re often composed of inside jokes and hidden references, the ability to read their subtext is now a form of cultural knowledge itself. Meme literacy, which would have been an improbable phrase just a few years ago, has become an essential skill that must be expected of educators, historians, journalists, politicians and law enforcement.

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We ignore these skills, and these memes, at our own peril.

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