Memes: A new form of old-school propaganda

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trump memesWe have to talk about memes.

I’m not joking, I swear. It’s kind of disturbing how much of political discourse on social media is dominated by pictures with uncited, vague statistics on them. But this sort of thing isn’t new. Below, I explain how the grandiose oratory of the twentieth century evolved into the misleading images and videos we see today.

I find myself frequently turning to George Orwell’s essays these days. The piece most relevant to today’s public affairs is his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell criticized the tendency of political writing to use jargon, passive voice, trite similes and metaphors, and other ways of obscuring meaning in order to justify atrocities. For example, he cites a communist pamphlet:

All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of  poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

It’s a prose poem, really. It makes use of Marxist jargon (“petty-bourgeoise”, “proletarian organizations”), as well as English or European common metaphors (“best people”, “gentlemen’s clubs” “medieval legends of poisoned wells”). For someone without prior knowledge of these concepts, the above paragraph is just about worthless. Not only does it make use of almost incomprehensible imagery, it contains no relevant information or policy prescription that a reader could advocate for. It’s merely meant to inspire hatred via pretty words.

This kind of ridiculous writing is still around, unfortunately. A glaring example from the present day: The Lion Guard, a tiny, pro-Trump, and pretty explicitly fascist group taking its name from a Mussolini quote, posted on its website:

The past week has revealed one singular conclusion, the politically correct mindset that dominates cultural, economic, social and political institutions must be disposed…Decision 2016 is a referendum on political correctness…While MAGA patriots were under attack in Arizona, another swarm of rootless barbarians sought to raise chaos in New York City, and shut down Manhattan from Columbus Circle to Trump Tower. While the horde ground mid-town Manhattan to a standstill, the organizers of the event, members of the NY Cosmos football club bragged the mainstream media advanced their cause by concealing the disorder caused by the “Cosmopolitan Anti-Fascist” march that quickly devolved into violent confrontations between police and neo-Spartacists, a group of militant communists that advocate a violent global revolution to establish their Trotskyite utopia.

Note the ancient terminology here: “rootless barbarians”, “horde”. The attempt to paint leftist demonstrators as Huns at the gates of Rome seems petty and few today would recognize the comparison. Also the far-right jargon: “MAGA” (Make America Great Again”), “neo-Spartacists” (not a real thing), and “Trotskyite” (technically the term is “Trostskyist”, but more to the point, no one cares about obscure communist sects). No theme is conveyed with the poetic and referential language beyond that of stirring up the emotions of those who already agree with its content.

But far-right groups like the Lion Guard aren’t really mainstream enough to make a difference. More importantly, various modern media outlets use quick videos and edited clips to make mainly emotional points. These short videos are the successors to the bad political writing of Orwell’s day. Call them memes if you want (I do, it’s funny), but political videos and images tend towards sensationalism and inaccuracy.

Watch this quick clip of Hillary Clinton “crushing” Donald Trump. It’s from AJ+, which on its Instagram page declares itself “news for the connected generation, sharing human stories and challenging the status quo”. Note how it uses a fun remix of early jazz (because we millennials love retro music), the way Clinton’s words visually appear to hammer home her points. Also note the quick gifs of Trump making silly faces, being attacked by an eagle, and finally, a short gif of Clinton at a separate event brushing off her shoulder, to indicate how cool her anti-Trump speech was.

Every single criticism Clinton makes of Trump in the clip is valid and accurate. That’s not my grievance with it. What I find troubling is the way the video uses music, imagery, and jokes to make a point as opposed to facts. This is the 21st-century equivalent of the bad communist pamphlet above.

AJ+ isn’t actually that bad. Frequently in their 90-second clips they include relevant statistics alongside the requisite cat gifs, and their longer-form documentaries are pretty cool (check out this disturbing one on anti-Muslim militias in Texas). But when I look on social media, the AJ+ posts I see tend to be sensationalist.

Obviously, biased, uncritical journalism is not the sole purview of the young left: Sites like Breitbart and The Blaze are equally obnoxious, with far worse ideals behind them. Breitbart even recently attempted to stir up hate because CNN used quotation marks in a way Breitbart didn’t like.

What we are seeing here, overall, is selective exposure at work: People seek out news that reinforces their preconceived notions of the world. Then, elements like poetic word choice, music, imagery, and video can be used to further cement the viewer’s feelings. Think back to the communist pamphlet Orwell cited: Whose mind was changed from reading that? What worker decided to become a communist after reading that trash? The same question needs to be applied to contemporary media: If it preaches to the choir, if it’s factual reporting does not have the capacity to educate, it’s not good journalism. Keep that in mind the next time you read an editorial or think piece.  Even this one.

Adam Levin (20 Posts)

Adam Levin writes about politics and media, is a board member of the United Nations Association of St. Louis, and is an accomplished trombonist.


  • Stacy Mergenthal

    Trump’s entire campaign and his supporters’ enthusiasm for fascism feels like an act, like a sideshow. Perhaps it is the boldness that makes it feel so. Political correctness seems like an incredibly shortsighted and absurd line to draw in the sand, doesn’t it? Of all the issues affecting us (global warming, poverty, militarized police, systemic racism, erosion of human and civil rights, etc.), they choose something that cannot be [constitutionally] legislated away. The choosing of ‘Lion Guard’ is telling but surprisingly forthright. Why advertise the fascism? Bizarre.

    I see this propaganda problem thus: People seek out information that reinforces thoughts and opinions already held. > The media happily complies because $$$; TV networks and print become more polarized. > The People stick with their favorite reinforcers, getting limited outside perspective and further entrenching them. > Media uses this power to aid and abet the people and ideas that benefit them financially. > The People vote for pre-approved candidates who work with media to continue the money parade. And so on.

    The question is: how to get us out of this vicious cycle? Break up these mega media corporations? Equal air time rules?