Such is the case when white supremacists began amplifying their message in a more public way on social media platforms. They have always been expressing their views on private chat platforms, such as Discord,70 but with the signal of tolerance from Donald Trump in his run up and subsequent presidential election in 2016, they began to surface in public. Trump’s many online and in-person racist, sexist, and homophobic comments emboldened such groups as the AltRight and NeoNazis, and social media became a fractious, polarizing battleground71 where debates about politics and race were hard to avoid.
It is no coincidence that 2016 coincides with a considerable increase in the politicization of memes. Both Trump and Clinton fully embraced and aggressively used social media platforms to reach the American voting public, who spent much of their time there. Those with smartphones and the capacity to share text jokes and/or create image remixes quickly, created the environment of what was referred to the “Meme Election.”72
Even though Trump was using Twitter heavily, his digital campaign manager, Brad Pascale, stated that Trump won the 2016 U.S. Presidential election because of their prolific Facebook usage.73 Pascale and his team created an average of 4,000 ads per month74 during the course of the campaign, many of which became Make America Great Again (#MAGA) memes. Trump’s slogan, a truncated version of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential slogan, became a new rallying cry for those in America with racist, homophobic, and sexist views, expressed best by an accurate remix of the phrase to “Make America White Again.” The application of #MAGA to the red “good ole’ boy” baseball cap, became the new iconic symbol of hate in America. #MAGA memes increased in usage by 1,224,800% from Jan 2016 to Jan 2017.75
It was within this environment that the #UniteTheRight movement gained traction in America. Social media’s community-raising and organizing functions were intentionally used for the 2017 Unite the Right march and rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Christopher Cantwell, one of the organizers, admitted to adopting tactics from the Black Lives Matter and Women’s movements, so they could “step off the internet, spread our memes, organize, and unveil our power level.”76 He cited Trayvon Martin as an impetus for his involvement and chanted “Jews will not replace us,” “Blood and soil,” and “White Lives Matter” with hundreds of other White nationalists at the march. Lending legitimacy to the movement, President Trump commented about the march, in part: “there were very fine people on both sides.”
Comments such as those continue to embolden white nationalists on and offline. Since the Trump election, hate crimes against Muslims jumped to 67%77 and swastika sightings have become a regular occurrence in New York City where they increased 76% from 2016 to 2018.78 The Pepe the Frog image, coopted by the NeoNazis to symbolize white nationalism, was mainstreamed by Trump when he retweeted a “Deplorables” poster, an image remix that featured Trump, prominent conservatives, and Pepe The Frog.79 Pepe The Frog became the first Internet meme to appear on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols in 2016.80
Sightings of hate symbols off line are often posted to social media, where they are widely shared and picked up as news stories for traditional news organizations. In an effort to condemn the message, the opposite may be true. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the anti-hate Simon Wiesenthal Center said, “Promoters of these hatreds can use internet technologies to drive the story, to target their victims, and to use the same symbols as a recruitment tool for their own 21st century version of hatred and bigotry.” Contagion of any affect can occur and John Esmerado, an assistant prosecutor in Union County, New Jersey said, in response to the uptick in swastika sightings, “I sometimes call it a hate contagion, like a fever, an infection, a hate virus, that’s spreading very quickly.”81