“DON’T LET YOUR MEMES BE DREAMS!”: How the Alt-Right Uses Memes to Build and Further Their Dangerous Reach Online

Dillon Keenan

Author Info

Course: Anthropology Senior Seminar (ANTH 4900)

Professor: Maria Kromidas, Anthropology

Essay: “DON’T LET YOUR MEMES BE DREAMS!”: How the Alt-Right Uses Memes to Build and Further Their Dangerous Reach Online


Students in this course wrote a thesis, an endeavor intended as the culmination of their undergraduate education and representative of their political, professional, and personal interests in the broad, interesting and diverse field of anthropology. They chose a topic that aligned with the broad course theme and were required to conduct research that was empirically based.


For younger generations today, memes are essential components of communication and relaying humor, ideas, and other thoughts. In America, where hate groups are increasing in tandem with the presidency of Donald Trump, a new loosely connected white nationalist hate group known as the Alt-Right has been emerging over the past few years. On popular social media sites such as Reddit, and popular right-wing subreddits such as r/The_Donald, the Alt-Right has been using the power of memes to strengthen their online communities by spreading their white nationalist messages and ideologies through memes, posts, and comments where avenues of more extreme Alt-Right and Far-Right recruitment can occur.


Alt-Right, irony, online communities, memes, recruitment

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Three years ago, on May 13th, 2017, there was a rally in Boston where a few hundred people from the Far- Right were exercising their right to free speech. These individuals are white nationalists (people who want a whites-only ethno-state), bigoted racists, and align their beliefs very closely to Neo-Nazis, if they’re not Neo-Nazis already. In addition to the various well-established hate groups present in the Boston rally, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, there is another hate group that sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn’t have a defined name. This hate group is almost entirely filled with young people, ranging from teenagers to people in their early 20s, and at first glance doesn’t seem to be a hate group at all. There is not a confederate flag, shaved head, or swastika in sight. Instead, they are covered in heavy references to internet culture and memes, shouting slogans like ‘Normies Out!’ and waving green flags from a made-up land called ‘Kekistan’, dedicated to a Frog named ‘Kek’, who was reincarnated as ‘Pepe’, who they “worship”.

Confused? I would be too. This is not the typical look of a hate group, however, this is still a hate group filled with white nationalists, white supremacists, and Neo- Nazis. This is just a tiny example of what the Alt-Right can look like. The Alt-Right is an umbrella term for a large, leaderless and loose collection of people (mainly young white males) from the Far-Right, who support white supremacy, implicit and explicit racism, anti- Semitism, male superiority, and many more bigoted ideologies. What sets the Alt-Right apart from other ‘regular’ white nationalist hate groups is their emphasis on using references to internet culture and memes to disguise and further their ideologies, using these tools to communicate with other Alt-Right members online, and recruit new people.

Now that we know that online communication is essential for the Alt-Right, the next question should
be, ‘Where do they communicate online?’. You would think that the answer is simple; that the Alt-Right, like many Far-Right groups, communicate with each other within the darker corners of the internet; where they cannot be accidentally found by a casual user. That blanket statement is not entirely true though. Yes, more extreme Alt-Right and Far-Right people would be within the darkest corners of the web and unobtainable to the casual user; but as I’ve found, a lot of Alt-Right and Far- Right communities exist in fairly easy to reach places in popular sites on the internet. This is where a curious young user can possibly find them, and where Alt-Right users can post Alt-Right memes to a large audience and get away with it. Memes play such an important role in these Alt-Right online communities; where a user can post a hate-filled meme (often covered in sarcasm and irony) and fellow users can react to it, like it, and comment on it. The constant communication and social satisfaction from posting and commenting on memes strengthens the bonds that the Alt-Right users have to the Alt-Right community and vice versa.

‘So the Alt-Right are white nationalists and they exist online in easy to reach, fairly active communities. So why can’t they just be shut down?’. Well, it’s not that easy. Like I said before, members of the Alt-Right cover themselves in references to internet culture and memes to confuse outsiders into figuring out what their true message is. They do that deliberately; make no mistake their message is pure hatred. Thinking back to the Boston rally, the group of Alt-Right members looked out of place with their memes and inside jokes, even though they were surrounded by fellow white nationalists. The Alt-Right uses memes not only as a cover, but as a shroud and a shield to deflect any attempts to be labeled as white nationalists. It makes sense then that conversations from one Alt-Right member to another are deeply coded (members even have their own unique words) and are soaked in sarcasm, memes, and inside jokes and references. With the Alt-Right’s deliberate tactics of using lingo, memes and irony to spread their message without taking heavy criticisms, this makes it hard for a popular website to justify shutting down these communities.

As a 22 year old, I grew up around memes. Memes, internet references – that’s a big part of how people my age communicate. But at the same time, memes are abstract representations of our abstract world and are practically impossible to describe as just one thing. So to see that the Alt-Right has used this abstraction to create an invincibility shield around them and their ideologies, while also using it to increase their numbers is disheartening and scary. America does not have a defense for these Alt-Right and Far-Right memes and their real life effects. That is why when I was asked to choose any research topic I wanted I chose this one. My goal is to find a not so simple answer to the seemingly simple question ‘What do memes do for the Alt-Right?’. According to my research: memes help build and strengthen Alt-Right online communities by appealing to a user’s emotion and humor as well as facilitating the creation of the community’s own language. The Alt-Right also uses memes and irony as a cover and a weapon, using them to outmaneuver opponents and spread their message further. Finally, memes help recruit like-minded users into the Alt-Right community.

The Elephant in the Room

A few months after the Far-Right Boston rally, the ‘Unite the Right’ rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. For those who don’t know, the Unite the Right rally was a rally event created by white supremacist groups, Neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right, and other Far-Right groups to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee Confederate Statue (which was erected in 1924 during the Jim Crow Era). This rally was advertised in Alt-Right and Far-Right online communities everywhere and is one of the worst displays of white nationalism and bigoted hatred in recent American history. On the night of August 11th, about 250 members of the Alt-Right, wearing white polos and khakis, marched down Charlottesville with Tiki torches shouting Nazi slogans like “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”. The next day, August 12th, hundreds of white nationalists, Alt-Right and Far-Right members marched in Charlottesville with swastikas and Pepe faces aplenty. Civil Rights members, Charlottesville residents and church goers (who were all counter-protesting against these hate groups) were beaten, punched, and hit with clubs. The rally ended with a 20-year-old Far-Right white nationalist plowing his car into counter protestors, killing a woman and injuring 19 others; overall there were at least 33 counter-protestor injuries.

“For the fourth year in a row, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks hate groups – found a 30 percent increase in U.S hate groups over the past four years and a 7 percent increase in hate groups in 2018 alone,” (Fadel 2019). Hate groups and other forms of hatred have always been present in American history, and to hear that these groups are increasing drastically is demoralizing; but to someone like me, who has been paying attention to white nationalist hate groups and the general trends of hatred over the past few years, it’s not surprising.

White nationalists and other Far-Right hate groups have always been vying to be normalized and legitimized in mainstream society; that way, they can spread their hate-filled messages and ideologies to as many people as possible, which can have long lasting effects in both public policy and public opinion. Unfortunately, Far-Right messaging and ideology has slowly been creeping into mainstream society with the advent of social media and our current political landscape. In order to talk about how Far- Right messaging has been seeping into mainstream consciousness, I have to address the “elephant” in the room; Donald Trump.

When the Southern Poverty Law Center analyzed their findings on the increase of hate groups from 2015 to their current number in 2019, they cited “President Trump, his administration, right-wing media outlets, and the ease of spreading hate on social media platforms for the alarming increase” (Fadel 2019). There is no denying that over the past four years the ‘Overton Window’ or the “general conception of what is considered acceptable public discourse” (Crawford 2019) has shifted quite considerably to the right. As Trump’s election and his far right rhetoric on immigration, Islamophobia, sexism and racism has shifted the ‘window’ to the right, it makes sense to why these Far-Right groups such as the Alt-Right have come out of the woodwork and are becoming even more prominent in the public sphere on the news2. Now Trump is not the only reason as to why Far-Right messaging and ideology is becoming normalized; another big reason that the SPLC mentions is the increased spreading of hate online, and that is what I seek to address with my research on memes.

In order to do that, though, I need to explain what a ‘meme’ is for those who don’t know. Like I said before, a meme is essential to people my age. We use memes to communicate, relay humor, and make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense. A ‘meme’ can be a verb, adjective, or noun; it can be anything you want it to be, but in short, “memes are ‘small cultural units of transmission’” (Crawford 2019, 1) that transmit anything from point A to point B. Memes are an extremely efficient and quick way to transmit a thought, feeling, or emotion. By quick, I mean the process of understanding a meme, forming your opinion on it, and sharing it, only takes a few seconds. This process can become dangerous though if it were in the wrong hands like the Alt-Right’s. The Alt-Right could use memes and the meme’s advantage of transmitting information in seconds to spread hate-filled messages and ideologies through them.

The Road Less Traveled

You would think that with such a niche topic, the Alt- Right and how they use memes to their advantage wouldn’t have a lot of research dedicated to it. Thankfully though, there are a few scholars who have taken this road less traveled and have produced excellent pieces of eye-opening and important literature. Justin Ward has made important findings in the connections of how the rules of Reddit can enable communities like r/The_Donald to have posts that connect back to white nationalist hate and Far-Right conspiracy theories, making Reddit a recruiting ground for the Alt-Right (Ward 2018). Jason Wilson not only did research on what makes the Alt-Right different from other white nationalist hate groups, but also on how the Alt-Right can use irony and Poe’s Law online to stick to their white nationalist positions without having to claim them; shielding them from heavy criticism. (Wilson 2017)

Blyth Crawford’s M.A. Thesis from King’s College London about how memes can become vessels
of propaganda which manipulate and strengthen online communities as well as how Far-Right online communities such as 8chan (a social media site with Far Right ties) can influence acts of terrorism is an excellent piece of literature that really stuck in my mind and provided the lens through which I viewed my research (Crawford 2019). Finally, Ryan Switzer’s M.A. Thesis from Central European University details how the Alt-Right operates online using shitposts, ‘humor’ and “lulz” to recruit new members (Switzer 2019).

With all this amazing and thought-provoking scholarship detailing the Alt-Right’s connection to Reddit, how they weaponized irony and how they strengthen community, I wanted to analyze and combine these ideas to show directly how everything correlated and to show how prevalent these happenings were on Reddit communities.

The Wild Wild West

You would think that members of the Alt-Right and Far-Right are in the darkest corners of the internet, but that is not always true. As you will see, my research takes place on a very popular social media site called Reddit. Reddit is the 5th most viewed site in the U.S. and the 13th most in the world. Believe it or not, Reddit is actually more popular than Twitter as it has more users, and those users are more active on the site. When you first enter Reddit you are greeted to a “front page” of the day’s most popular posts such as articles, memes, and many more pieces of information from a multitude of different communities on the site. Posts become more popular when you ‘upvote’ them.

An ‘upvote’ is very similar to a ‘like’ on Facebook, however, Reddit also has a dislike button or a ‘downvote’ that users can use if they don’t like the post. Just like other popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the comment sections below the posts are where the majority of the communication goes down. Like the name says, the comment section is where you can find users reacting to memes, articles, etc. and commenting on them in any way, shape or form. These comments can then be liked by other users, who can then comment back. This creates a series of informal conversations involving hundreds and/or thousands of different users, both actively commenting and silently onlooking. For Reddit, when a user ‘upvotes’ a comment, it’s called a ‘point’.

Instead of Reddit administrators or ‘admins’ controlling the rules for the entire site like other social media sites do, Reddit strives for user independence and self- government meaning that every individual community on Reddit (also known as ‘subreddits’) are autonomous communities free to make their own rules. These subreddits are shown on Reddit as “r/...”, the ‘r’ referring to ‘Reddit’ and the ‘/’ referring to ‘subreddit’. Subreddits are run by moderators or ‘mods’ who enforce the rules of an individual subreddit. While being a part of these subreddits who are free to make their own rules can be a great experience and a direct way to make a user feel heard; these laissez-faire policies can sometimes make Reddit feel like the ‘Wild West’ where there are very few enforced rules, which can encourage hate subreddits to pop up.

Over the years, Reddit has been a host to a number of hate communities. Following the Unite The Right rally and other hate crimes and mass shootings, Reddit admins have been banning (or permanently deleting) these hate subreddits and the mods that controlled them. While many of the most infamous hate subreddits have been banned, like r/KKK, r/coontown and r/FatPeopleHate, there are still subreddits who feature hate content very similar to these. r/The_Donald, r/averageredditor, and r/Bruhfunny are the three such subreddits that display similar kinds of hatred that I conducted research on.

r/The_Donald is by far the largest right-wing subreddit on the site. It currently has at least 793 thousand members, and while it’s ranked the 393rd most popular subreddit, it’s ranked 29th in posts per day, and 16th in comments per day, making r/The_Donald a very active subreddit despite its size (Subredditstats 2020). While a lot of r/The_Donald consists of content such as posts, memes, and shitposts (memes that contain very minimal effort to produce) that do nothing but praise Trump, there is also a lot of content dedicated to hatred. In addition to being the largest ring-wing community, r/The_Donald is also the largest hub for Alt-Right and Far-Right activity throughout its history; posting content that is racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, etc. while also pushing various Far-Right conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, ‘white genocide’ and The Las Vegas Shooter not being real. Something that’s important to note is r/The_Donald has recently been quarantined (no relation to the pandemic). When a subreddit gets quarantined, it’s basically halfway to a ban by the admins; Subreddits are quarantined by the admins for any number of highly offensive and/or upsetting content that users repeatedly report. When a subreddit gets quarantined, there are multiple warnings before entering the community and you need an account in order to view the content. Following the Unite The Right rally, several moderators were banned and r/The_Donald was no longer allowed to be on the ‘front page’. The ongoing conflict between r/The_Donald mods and Reddit admins came to a head when r/The_Donald was quarantined following members and mods sending threats to public figures and police associated with the 2019 Oregon State Republican Walkouts (Robertson 2019).

r/Bruhfunny is another quarantined subreddit that I conducted research on. This community has around 20k members and is purely dedicated to users posting racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and other hateful memes; the more hateful the content is, the more it gets upvoted. A community like this is most likely home to many members of the Alt-Right and other Far-Right groups who display their hateful content for the thousands of members to view. Another community that I conducted research on is r/averageredditor. Unlike the other two subreddits, r/averageredditor has around 44k members and is not quarantined, so their content can be viewed by anyone. What’s interesting about this community is that it’s filled with a 50/50 mix of regular posting and Alt-Right shitposting, making this place a hotspot for Alt-Right recruitment activity.

While conducting my research, I always made sure that I was in incognito mode on google to prevent any tracing of my web history. I set up an appropriately named secondary email and Reddit account that reflected my research. Occasionally, while lurking on these Alt-Right subreddits and looking up Far-Right conspiracy theories, I typed “I am an anthropologist, don’t worry” in google to make sure that the FBI and NSA agents watching me knew I was all good. In addition to this, I made sure to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) that would make it harder for anyone trying to find my personal information. That is why I set up secondary accounts, not only because I don’t want white nationalist type searches associated with me, but also because I didn’t want anyone who might’ve been looking to have access to my personal accounts and information. Even on popular sites such as Reddit, your personal information is susceptible to being stolen and doxxed, or being put online for all to see, if you’re not being careful.

It’s not every day that a researcher would want to spend hours and hours looking at Alt-Right and Far- Right hate content, but that is what I did for my research. I have always been interested in these social and political problems plaguing our society. Like I said before, to see the rise of Far-Right communities, not only in America but the whole world, is disheartening but I want to try to understand why all this is happening which is why I’m so interested in it. Like many users of these subreddits and members of the Alt-Right, I am a young white cis-male, but other than that, I share nothing else in common with them. Every day, after lurking and looking at Alt-right content, I had to depersonalize and detach to cope with the things I was seeing. From these users, I am on the complete opposite end of the spectrum; I believe in a society where everyone is equal; I believe in racial equality, feminism, and freedom of all gender and sexual expressions. I believe in equal rights and I believe that America has systematically discriminated against and disadvantaged non-white peoples since its founding and continues to do so. I believe that America refuses to acknowledge the horrors it committed in the past by acting like everything is okay in the present. If me and an Alt-Right member were in the same room, it probably wouldn’t be a cordial conversation.

A Deep Dive

Like any online tight-knit community, inside jokes
and references are vital in user communication.
The difference between normal online communities and Alt-Right ones however is that these jokes and references are often referring to white nationalist and other hateful ideas. “Meme Magic is REAL. Let the tendies hit the floor. DONALD J. TRUMP WON. How does it feel centipedes? The God Emperor said that we would get tired of winning. ARE YOU TIRED OF WINNING YET?”. With over 66.7k upvotes, this is the top post on the r/The_Donald subreddit; and while this not your standard definition of a meme per say (in fact it’s more of a victory speech with ominous undertones), this post is meme-centric for sure as it’s filled with Alt-Right language and messaging. Before we get into the language though let’s talk about the emotion. This posts bleeds confidence and passion, and while it sounds ominous and militaristic to me, the users on this subreddit obviously feel what’s being said, as many comments reiterate passionate congratulations to Trump. This emotion is what gets users to like the post, comment back and return, building the online community. Now let’s talk about the Alt-Right language. Just like ‘Normies Out!’ was shouted by Alt- Right members in Boston, Alt-Right language acts as a tool to oust and reject others while also strengthening themselves. ‘Normies’ are anyone who isn’t the Alt- Right.

‘Meme magic’ are the first words that are said in this post and they represent a very important Alt-Right idea. Meme magic refers to the idea that memes can break through internet culture and have real-life consequences. In Alt-Right communities, meme magic is a big part of what put Trump in the White House, and without meme magic, he wouldn’t be there. Centipede is a term of endearment used to describe a fellow hardcore Trump supporter. God Emperor is a name given to Trump and is drenched in satire; it’s often used in context to make it seem like those using the term actually worship him and wouldn’t mind if he was an emperor. As we enter the comment section below, we find two users engaging in a “humorous” conversation about Hillary Clinton. Any of user’s usernames who I cited during this research have been changed to protect their identities. With user ‘fusnagfila’ suggesting Clinton didn’t do a final speech after losing because, “You wouldn’t expect a woman to give a speech while drunk and seizing, would you?” – 1.1k points, to which the user ‘campingintents’ replied, “They should have rolled her out and let her Magikarp on stage.” – 669 points (Magikarp is a fish Pokémon who just flops around). These two comments are engaging in the anti-feminist stereotype that women are controlled by emotion, while also suggesting Clinton should have a seizure on the floor. This isn’t funny, but to r/The_Donald it is, as the comments are appealing to a user’s emotion of misogyny and hating Clinton.

Further down the comment section there is another popular comment, “DON’T LET YOUR MEMES BE DREAMS!!! PRAISE BE TO KEK!! LONG LIVE PEPE!!!” – 137 points. This comment is actually a popular meme magic mantra. We also see this user praising Kek and Pepe, two flagship Alt-Right symbols which are “worshipped” to the point where an outsider doesn’t know if they’re being ironically or seriously worshipped. I just want to remind you that we are only one post into this subreddit and we are knee deep in Alt-Right lingo. The Alt-Right using and creating lingo strengthens the online community drastically. Since the lingo is usually referring to memes and sarcastic references, you have to be in on the joke. When Alt-Right members create new lingo, it soon starts to be used by others in the community who also want to be in on the joke, making it easier to distinguish more hardcore members from those who aren’t and oust others who are not in the community.

The #2 post on r/The_Donald is a meme. Having 34.4k upvotes, the meme titled “Press F to Pay Respect” shows a picture of a gravestone marked, “To honor all who served, MEME WAR 2015-2016” on top of a picture of Pepe sadly saluting “the fallen”. To an outside user who might stumble upon this meme, it makes no sense. But to this subreddit, this meme appeals to both the community’s emotions and their humor. ‘Press F to Pay Respect’ is actually a common internet joke originating from and still used in gaming communities, but the ‘Meme War’ is not. The Meme War is the precursor to ‘meme magic’. It’s a widely held belief by the Alt-Right that during the 2016 campaign, there was a battle going on (unbeknownst to the general public) where the Alt-Right turned Pepe into a hate symbol, battled the left with memes to support Donald Trump, and won. In addition to this post being ‘funny’ to the users, it’s supposed to elicit a response of ironic empathy for those who ‘fought’ and happiness for winning the war. The third most popular r/The_Donald post is a meme of a doctored photo. This meme shows Hillary Clinton embracing the late Senator Robert Byrd next to the doctored photo of Byrd in a KKK outfit1. Doctored and faked photos are commonly passed around Alt-Right and Far-Right communities for the purpose of spreading misinformation and manipulating the strong feelings users have when seeing them. When scrolling through memes and shitposts on r/The_ Donald, I must have seen this photo four or five times.

So far, we’ve seen memes, posts, and comments on r/ The_Donald appeal to the users emotion and humor; and while we’ve seen Alt-Right lingo which is evident of Alt-Right presence, there hasn’t really been any overt hatred equivalent to white nationalism that we see from the Alt-Right. Well, I’m about to change that. Like I said before, all online communities are brought together by a common interest, goal, and/or ideology; the Alt-Right’s is one of hatred and white nationalism and r/The_Donald is the largest hub for them. The sixth most popular post on r/The_Donald is a meme titled “Your Face When you realize America has been saved” (in response to Trump winning the election). It has 18.4k upvotes, and depicts Pepe in American Flag colors smiling. While Pepe is the main symbol of the Alt-Right, the actual hatred of the users gets revealed in the comments below. A deleted user comments, “Now we deal with Soros. The Clintons are his puppets, taking him down will save the world. Let’s get to it pedes!” – 42 points (pedes is a shortening of centipedes), to which the user ‘Pwnedgula’ says, “MEGA (Make Earth Great Again) – Take down God’s hated enemy, the demon possessed Soros and the Illuminati” – 23 points. This false idea that Jewish people run the world and are to blame for the world’s problems is an old and well-known Anti-Semitic conspiracy theory and ideology most commonly peddled by Neo-Nazis.

It gets even worse in another post. The post is just a meme of Pepe, with the poster saying ‘Every upvote = 1 prayer’; it seems relatively innocent so far, no blatant white nationalism just yet; that is, however, until you get to the comments. The comments quickly devolve into racist speech making fun of the stigma of African Americans, their stereotypical need for social programs, and their supposed lack of spelling ability. The comment saying ‘[Pepe] is a good boi’ turns into users commenting “WE NEED MORE MONEY FOR THEM SOCIAL PROGRAMS.”-15 points, “Heez wuz doin duh lawwwwwwwdz wurkz!” – 25 points, “Goinn church erryday spreadin da word of JESUS” – 26 points. This is pure racist hate speech commonly seen in many Far-Right sites that users who liked and commented found funny and relatable, as it appealed to their racist feelings on African Americans.

r/The_Donald is not the only subreddit that harbors these Alt-Right comments filled with white nationalism and other forms of hatred. The third most popular post on r/averageredditor is a meme of Bernie Sanders suspending his campaign. The top comment is from a user named ‘guitar14’ saying, “I guess you could call his story...my struggle” – 286 points to where ‘battleship17’ comments, “He should write a book” – 53 points. This is a joke to Mein Kampf (the English translation is ‘My Struggle’), an extremely anti-Semitic book written by Adolf Hitler, and the fact that Sanders is Jewish is supposed to make this funny. It shows that these users use humor to cover their blatant anti- Semitism, which you would need if you were to think that this was funny.

Finally, r/Bruhfunny contains racist comments in
its top post. The shitpost features a teenager with
a facial deformity about to have surgery on top
of a screenshot of someone using the r-word slur towards mentally disabled people. The top comments underneath this meme devolve immediately into racist comments like from user ‘forkmanll3’ who responds to someone who says ‘I’m black’ by saying, “Shut up n***. Most white girls actually don’t engage in bestiality.” – 87 points. This commenter just compared black people to animals and got 87 likes for it. Memes, posts and comments are building community by bringing like- minded people together to conversate and engage
in hatred, bigotry, and white nationalism, and from a small sample size of just three subreddits, we see how bad this problem can be.


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