Cloaked in White Supremacy: How the Far-Right Uses Memes in Their Spread of Harmful Rhetoric

This is the first in a series of publications on the far-right and memes.

In February 2022, Canada’s capital faced an unprecedented occupation by truckers, far-right activists, and anti-government groups. The Freedom Convoy was held under the guise of truckers needing more support from the Trudeau government. However, these “protesters” quickly showed their true colours with the use of swastikas, confederate flags, hot tub parties, and “F🍁ck Trudeau” flags (See Luc Cousineau’s “On mandates, the convoy, and the Canadian pandemic Overton window” and Amy Mack’s “The Freedom Convoy is Done, What's Next for the Far-Right in Canada?” pieces for more detail on the Trucker Convoy).

Along with this “protest”, the rise of a lesser-known social media app called Telegram – which is a cross-platform, cloud-based instant messaging service similar to WhatsApp – came into mainstream spotlight as these truckers, far-right activists, anti-government, and other followers began to use the app as a mode of communication with one another. Users can create separate servers or channels where they can congregate. Due to this, we have seen a rise in what I refer to as “Freedom Channels” – this naming partially comes from the content of these channels, which centre on perceived threats to personal freedoms; while also referencing the naming styles of these channels such as Freedom Canada (4400 members), Freedom Fighters (25,000 members), and We Will Be Free (900 members) to name a few. These channels use carefully coded symbols and references to push cloaked white supremacist violence and narratives. The use of ‘humour’ within these images is key to understanding modern hate messages of the far-right, and allows researchers to understand the far-right’s ability to troll, mislead or spread “fake news”. This is not new for the far-right, as social media websites have become a key space for the spread of far-right rhetoric[1]. Often, these are spaces where individuals share various (mis)information with anti-vaccine narratives, conspiracy theories, and, most commonly, memes. But why memes?

Memes are a form of digital imagery that usually requires specific (sub)cultural knowledge for understanding. These may come in the form of pop-culture references such as films, television, or even video-game culture. These images are designed to grab the attention of viewers’ and evoke an emotional response that encourages them to share the image within – or outside – their social circle. Initially, the use of memes amongst members may appear to be harmless, or even humorous, but as more memes occupy these spaces, it is important to understand the true meaning and intentions behind these images. Though it is easy to dismiss memes as humourous, satirical, or “just a joke”, there is a much darker side to memes that may be overlooked by general viewers. Far-right groups have used this form of digital language – referred to as “fun” – in their attempts to spread harmful rhetoric.

What makes memes unique and appealing to the far-right is their ability to mix different forms of content that call to multiple audience groups. This means that memes that hold coded far-right ideology, may not appear to do so at first glance. Those who recognize these codes may see the true intention behind these memes, while those who do not have familiarity with such content may unknowingly spread and share far-right propaganda without realizing it.

Due to this, far-right groups experiment with their messaging to see what types of memes will go viral and which will not. Most notably, these have included: Satirical memes, memes with abstract depictions of violence, memes with specific depictions of violence, hypothetical memes that showcase ‘positive’ white nationhood, memes that make use of historical imagery of military battles and give them new meaning(s), and memes that mockingly compare modern depictions of nature and family with hegemonic Western values regarding nature and family.

In her book Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right, Cynthia Miller-Idriss suggested that memes have become one of the most common ways racist content gets shared online. The reason for this – as emphasized by researchers Tina Askaniusand Nadine Keller in their recent article Murder Fantasies in Memes: Fascist Aesthetics of Death Threats and the Banalization of White Supremacist Violenceis that memes allow posters to reject a commitment to extremist ideas while still promoting them. The far-right has been able to take ideologies that have been rejected from the mainstream public, such as Nazism or antisemitism, and re-introduce them using imagery more aesthetically attractive to wide circles and subcultures. Through co-opting other memes or images used in another context and that have no initial connections to the far-right, they can layer them with far-right symbolism. This ultimately makes far-right ideas appear less taboo.

By looking at the “Freedom Channels” on Telegram, we see a variety of memes including anti-government memes, anti-LGBTQ2+ memes, anti-vaccine memes, memes that incorporate pop culture icons, memes that engage with conspiracy theories such as the Great Reset, and memes that use religion as a method for [unofficially] encouraging violence. This to me, is one of the biggest concerns with the far-rights use of memes. The images chosen by users can display ambiguity and ambivalence around violence – and the far-right has used this in their spread of harmful rhetoric.

Memes are used by the far-right within these spaces to provide an opportunity for individuals to engage with a broader audience. It is a method being used to help the far-right repackage their ideologies so that they can blur social boundaries and broaden individual appeal to far-right ideological content. Due to their ability to be anonymously shared, the far-right has been able to experiment with the latest ideas and themes using memes, which would otherwise be prevented on most social media websites. These memes, which are presented in either coded or overt ways, thus serve as a medium to spread far-right ideologies to larger audiences[2].

As observers and critical consumers of content, we should ask ourselves this: what can we do to minimize the spread of these [far-right made] harmful images? And how can we educate ourselves to understand and notice the harmful intent behind memes that may appear innocent, but have harmful intent? These are some questions that I will be exploring in future posts in this series. The next will focus on coded-memes and explore how the far-right uses coded language and covert imagery in their memes.

[1] See Also: Back et al. (1996) Technology, Race and Neo-Fascism in a Digital Age - AND Carter VK. (1998) Computer-Assisted Racism: Toward an Understanding of "Cyberwhiteness" chapter in [2] Coded and overt memes will be further explored in future additions to this series.