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

This is the second in a series of posts on the far-right and memes.

In the previous installment of this series, I spoke about memes in a general sense; what they are, why they are important for researchers to examine, and most importantly, how they are used by the far-right in online spaces. I am hopeful my previous entry helped readers' understanding of how – and why – these far-right communities have begun to utilize memes and imagery in the spread of their harmful ideas. In this post I will examine how memes are used by the far-right to celebrate or promote violence in a more subtle way and elaborate on why it is important for us to be wary of the types of content we consume and spread online.

One of the primary issues with memes is their ability to showcase ambiguity and ambivalence around violence – which the far-right understands and uses strategically in their spread of online hate. They do this using what researchers call coded language, and these codes have become a popular strategy amongst online far-right communities. By using coded language, the far-right can not only disguise harmful ideas and potential calls for violence that are circulated in online spaces, but coded language also allows these users to bypass hate speech or Terms of Service rules on social media platforms.

Coded languages can be difficult to spot when presented in the form of a meme. Often the image may appear innocent or humourous. However, the “coded” aspect of these images often relates to the use of harmful stereotypes and common hate-motivated themes/templates that may go unnoticed at first glance. The far-right may opt to use symbolism and narratives alongside an image that presents pop-culture references and/or characters.

For instance, the following meme appears harmless because from the surface it is just an image from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and does not explicitly relate the Uruk-Hai to any real-life individuals. Yet, the coded language used here is key to understanding the hateful aspect of this meme.

Using pop culture or even historical images with a focus on military battles and combining them with a new meaning is a key strategy used by the far-right. By including words like “assimilate” or “Urukophobia” alongside images of a siege or invasion, we can understand that the user is trying to bring new meaning by associating it with phrases commonly used by the far-right in reference to Muslim communities, namely the use of “assimilate” here. There are commonalities with how the Uruk-Hai are spoken about in this image, and how the far-right often speaks about, mocks, or ‘warns’ people about Muslim communities. At its core, this post is a claim that Muslim communities are a civilizational threat to the West, and Western society needs to fight back. This is emphasized with the use of phrase “Urukophobia,” which is a clear play on Islamophobia.

Muslim communities are not the only ones attacked by the far-right in this way. Monkey memes are also a form of racist meme commonly found in far-right communities. While some are more explicit than others, these types of images often follow a template that contains references to slavery and Western colonialism. Anti-Semitic memes are also included here as they often portray a stereotyped version of Jewish men by drawing them with large noses, hunched backs, and bearded, and are presented as parasitic, devious, and/or greedy. This is presented in what the ADL refers to as the “Happy Merchant” meme. Often the far-right will use racial stereotypes in the presentation of their image while keeping the messages associated with it more coded and less explicit through the disguise of ‘humour’.

By using far-right symbols and narratives alongside an image that presents harmless pop-culture characters, the far-right can promote and celebrate harmful intent in a subtle – and not explicitly violent – way.

In the Freedom Channels mentioned in the previous post in this series, we see a lot of the same themes that are mentioned above. Although there are pop-culture characters such as Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, and some Game of Thrones references present in these channels, users mostly target celebrities, health professionals, and politicians with a specific reference to the Covid19 Vaccine, or anti-LGBTQ2+ narratives.

Telegram users within these “freedom channels” are using memes to target LGBTQ2+ communities and are also using memes to spread anti-vaccine narratives under the disguise of ‘humour.’ For instance, in the channels studied for this series, Mickey Mouse declares that “everything is fucked” while responding to vaccine information. In another instance, an AR-15 appears to look like a unicorn and demands that liberals not “assume its identity as a dangerous weapon.” Users also tend to post images of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with captions like “The party that says men can get pregnant … Wants to control misinformation on the internet.”

Not only are anti-vaccine and anti-LGBTQ2+ rhetorics being moulded together within these Telegram channels, but anti-LGBTQ2+ narratives are being pushed on their own as well. Often these involve associating the community with ‘grooming’ or pedophilia. While other times, memes such as the one presented here are being used to challenge and mock parents and their children for not conforming to gender stereotypes regarding appearance and dress. This is a common template for far-right memes that attack the LGBTQ2+ community, as it demonstrates a common theme that is used by the far-right: a belief that hegemonic Western values regarding nature and family are somehow under attack from the Left.

Previously, I asked readers how we, as observers and consumers of content, can help minimize the spread of the harmful images the far-right creates. The first thing that we can do is to engage with these images with a critical lens to understand the true intention behind their meanings. By understanding harmful stereotypes, and common themes/templates in imagery that promotes them, we can build a foundation for understanding the intention of the imagery that we are consuming online. To those with more awareness and familiarity with these harmful archetypes, we may already see the harmful intent behind their meaning. The second thing people can do is educate others about coded language to help stop the accidental spread of far-right memes. Additionally, through reporting and blocking these images, users can help mitigate their spread and stop them from reaching more mainstreamed consumers.

While some images may appear more discreet or coded in their presentation, others are much more explicit. In the next installment of this series, I will explore explicit memes and how the far-right also uses explicit language in their postings and what we can do to help diminish this.

Ryan’s research engages with social media platforms to analyze how far-right rhetoric spreads via online spaces. He has specific interest on discourses surrounding the themes of masculinity, [anti]immigration, white genocide, and mythology