The Russian Trolls Are Hard at Work, and It’s Working

A little over a week ago, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, William R. Evanina, released an update in the organization’s ongoing investigation into foreign efforts to influence American elections.

Among its conclusions was the following:

We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’…Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.

In short, the NCSC knows Russia is directly attempting to interfere in the 2020 election to help re-elect Trump, and one of the ways they’re doing it is through social media.

This is old news, of course. The National Intelligence agencies agreed in 2016 that Russian disinformation campaigns helped elect Donald Trump. In public reports that have come out since, we’ve learned in pretty specific detail that the Russians are invested heavily in troll farms that create bots and fake organizations, which they use to seed and spread disinformation on social media. Their goal was to inflame tension and intensify division in the United States and Europe.

Now, less than 90 days from the 2020 election, we can watch similar efforts in real time.

Memes are an important aspect of the Russian disinformation campaigns, and they’re what I want to focus on here. Rhetoric scholars like Kathleen Hall Jamieson (Cyberwar) and Heather Suzanne Woods and Leslie A. Hahner (Make America Meme Again) have done serious, researched, academic treatments of memes and shown how persuasive they are in American politics.

Although I have a PhD in rhetoric, my goal is not to do the serious academic thing here. Visual rhetoric isn’t my area of expertise. But it is something anyone can practice, and in an increasingly visual culture, it’s something we all should practice. So in this post, I plan to show (in a non-PhD mode) how memes work as what Woods and Hahner call “digital propaganda.”

In the last few weeks, I’ve begun to notice a pretty marked increase in disinformation memes in my social media feeds. It’s possible my social media experience is an anomaly, but I doubt it. And whether the increase is empirically true or not, the memes are still spreading.

Below, I’m going to analyze three memes that have crossed my feeds in the past few weeks, all of which are arguments to re-elect Trump.

Dead Biden

The first meme I chose is the most obviously political one. I’m calling it the “Dead Biden” meme.

This meme was posted in a public Facebook group dedicated to recalling California’s governor, Gavin Newsom. Though ostensibly for that central purpose, the group is a landing ground for all sorts of broadly anti-liberal memes like “Dead Biden.”

The argument in this meme isn’t particularly sophisticated. It’s straightforward fear-mongering. If Biden “can’t finish his term” (presumably because he’ll die because he’s old), then Harris would become the President. Why anyone should fear Harris isn’t spelled out, but anyone whose been watching Trump and his supporters react to her selection could be forgiven for thinking that it’s because she’s not a white guy.

Even scarier is that Pelosi would become VP! Pelosi is a lightning rod for Trump supporters, in particular, and for Republicans, in general. She ranks alongside Hillary Clinton as among the most hated Democrats. The reasons don’t especially matter for my purposes. What matters is that she raises people’s ire, and the thought of her in the White House is enraging. Indeed, the rage is the point in this meme.

But the rage depends on people not actually knowing how American government works.

If Joe Biden dies or becomes incapacitated, then it’s true that Harris becomes President. But Pelosi would not automatically become VP. Harris would choose a new Vice President. It could be Pelosi, if Harris chose her, but that’s pretty unlikely. There is a way that Pelosi could move into the White House automatically, but only if both Biden and Harris became incapacitated at the same time. The same is true right now if Trump and Pence both did, too.

What makes this meme so forceful, however, is not just the misunderstanding (or intentional misdirection) about the (sort of) complicated rules of succession. This meme works because it’s packaged in common sense. The sentence isn’t capitalized, there’s no punctuation at the end of it, and the ellipsis is missing a period.

The gambit is that this was written by an ordinary person. And maybe it was (I’ll come back to that). But it’s supposed to represent a plain, old American worrying about crazy liberals taking over the government illegitimately. The only recourse, of course, is to vote Trump. Even if you don’t like him, at least he’ll keep Pelosi out of the White House. The factual error gets buried in the rage even before most people will bother to notice it.

Remember the (White) Babies

The second meme I want to look at I’m calling the “Remember the (White) Babies” meme. Like “Dead Biden,” the “Remember the (White) Babies” meme just started circulating yesterday in the wake of a horrific murder in North Carolina. It’s actually significantly longer than what I’ve posted here, but this is enough to give an idea of what it’s doing.

Some things to know: Cannon Hinnant was murdered by Darius Sessoms. Hinnant was white, Sessoms is Black. Sessoms’ motive is still unclear. Those things are true, but the meme invests them with a form of political importance that never gets spoken outright, and that political importance is designed to influence our national politics.

“Remember the (White) Babies” also trades in rage, but the rage is much more complex than “Dead Biden.” In this case, the meme begins with pictures of a little, smiling boy — flashing a peace sign in one and riding a bike in the other. We’re invited to love this little, innocent, peace-loving boy even before we know anything about him (although the somewhat poor quality of the pictures already suggests that something bad happened). Then, the long block of text.

The text begins with an inclusive appeal to injustice — George Floyd’s “senseless and tragic death.” It then quickly turns into an appeal to hypocrisy. People marched for Floyd, and if they don’t do the same for Hinnant, they’re hypocrites. The text repeats multiple times that Hinnant was white and Sessoms is “a black male.” There’s no explanation of why race matters in this case. That’s all done by (not so subtle) implication, first by invoking Floyd’s “senseless and tragic” murder to deflect any accusations of racial hostility, but then by repeatedly noting the racial details of Hinnant and Sessoms. We’re meant to draw our own conclusions about why these details matter.

“Remember the (White) Babies” is meant to be enraging — rage at a child’s murder and rage at everyone else’s indifference. The rage is further heightened with a quick swipe at the media. Supposedly, “the news” didn’t report on the Hinnant murder, although it was reported on by lots of mainstream news outlets, including CNN and USA Today. Hinnant’s father was even interviewed by a CNN affiliate. But if you’re already enraged, there’s little motivation to search which stations carried the story. Their disinterest is plausible enough to be accepted.

The pictures, appeal to injustice, appeal to hypocrisy, and anti-media argument set readers up nicely for the much more subtle political argument that follows. The remainder of the meme (including parts I’ve cut off) are a return to and amplification of the earlier appeal to hypocrisy. Why does George Floyd’s death matter and Cannon Hinnant’s doesn’t? Why does Floyd get marching in the street and murals and Hinnant doesn’t? Why, the author wants to know, is Hinnant so unworthy of attention?

The implication is obvious — it’s because he’s white. The people who marched for Floyd, the meme implies, did so because he was Black. The protestors won’t march for Hinnant because they don’t care about justice, they only care about Black people.

In addition to the coded racial messages, “Remember the (White) Babies” relies on some serious sleight-of-hand: Floyd was (1) murdered by a policeman while he begged for his life and three other officers watched, (2) all four officers walked away without consequences until the protests caused the City of Minneapolis to re-evaluate, and (3) Floyd’s murder was a symbol of a political cause — stopping police brutality, which disproportionately affects Black people.

By contrast, (1) Hinnant was murdered by a neighbor, (2) the motive is unknown, and (3) the murderer was arrested immediately. No one had to protest to get the killer arrested. And, while Hinnant’s murder is undeniably tragic and horrific, based on the facts laid out in the meme, it’s not explicitly explained why Hinnant should be the symbol of a political cause.

It’s implicit, though.

The implicit political cause turns out to be a white supremacist trope — that Black people are naturally violent and are prone to attacking white people. That’s been a trope in America for centuries, and even though it’s factually indefensible, it’s a centerpiece of “Law and Order” and white supremacist rhetoric. And the politician currently claiming to stand for “Law and Order” and against the (ahem, Black) people who protested for George Floyd: Donald Trump.

This may seem like a thin thread to tie Hinnant’s murder to political support for Trump. And it would be if the meme didn’t do it for us. “Remember the (White) Babies” amplifies the racial connections, it amplifies the politics of law and order and the Floyd protests, and it amplifies things Trump harps on in his speeches (media = bad, the protestors are racist against white people, Black communities are violent). The meme puts Hinnant’s murder to work in support of a vision of America that Trump loudly campaigns for. As such, the meme doesn’t have to say “Vote for Trump.” It only has to get readers angry enough that they’ll draw the obvious connections for themselves.

America’s Footprint

I have one more meme to analyze. This one doesn’t appear to be in any way related to Trump or electoral politics. But it is. I’m calling it the “America’s Footprint” meme.

Again, the explicit argument isn’t exactly subtle. Apparently “somebody” said “the US has more cases than Germany, France, or Italy.” Presumably they’re referring to COVID cases. Sounds bad, right? But then, BOOM, when you put the map on the map, America’s so much bigger than any of those countries. Of course it has more cases! We’re worrying for nothing!

I want to begin this analysis with the misdirection. First, who is “somebody”? This is one of Trump’s rhetorical ticks. He says “people are saying” so he can deny that he said it. As Jennifer Mercieca points out in Demagogue for President, it’s one of the ways he avoids being held accountable. It’s doing the same thing here. “Somebody” else made the comparison, and this meme-maker is just trying to correct the record (even though it’s not clear that there is, in fact, a record that needs correcting).

Second, people get COVID, not land mass. Size in this meme is getting used as a representation of population, but the two are not the same thing. Russia is about 21 times larger than Pakistan, for instance, but it’s got about 40% fewer people. In other words, the physical size of the United States doesn’t actually have anything whatsoever to do with the number of cases. Clearly the meme maker didn’t expect us to dig this deeply.

Third, “America’s Footprint” relies on the perfectly reasonable common sense that you can’t compare a huge country like the US to a small country like Italy and expect to get good information. This is really important for this meme to work. Nearly all the COVID tracking charts I’ve seen compare country to country. You can see how many cases Germany or Italy or the US have. So, if anyone takes the time to do that, they’ll see that the comparisons are ridiculous, which reinforces the message of the meme.

The COVID trackers, however, often don’t compare countries (the US) to continents (Europe). If we want to take this meme at face value, we could look for that comparison. As of this writing, the US has 5.3 million confirmed cases, and the whole of Europe has 3.4 million. On a straight comparison of approximately equal land mass, the US is outpacing Europe by about 1/3.

But wait, dear reader, there’s more!

As I noted, land mass doesn’t equal population. In fact, Europe has over twice the population of the US. So their 3.4 million cases is for a population of 740 million people (less than one-half of one percent). The rate of cases in the US is triple what it is in Europe.

The math on this is really, really bad. Unfortunately, the persuasion is still good. And as I said, it’s working on Donald Trump’s behalf.

One clue is that it was posted to a Facebook group, “Progressives Say the Darndest Things.” Like the Gavin Newsom page, it’s a catchall for conservative memes, many of which are pro-Trump. By virtue of being posted to that group, “America’s Footprint” is pretty clearly working for a political goal. That part’s easy.

Another clue is that it wants viewers to question the notion that Americans should be taking COVID as seriously as they are. Like “Dead Biden” and “Remember the (White) Babies,” it does a lot of work by implication and inference. The people taking COVID too seriously — the ones shutting down their states, forcing people to wear masks, and refusing to open schools, for example — are Progressives, Liberals, and Democrats (or “Demoncrats,” as one poster so cleverly noted). If the Demoncrats are wrong, because (as this meme tells us) they’re comparing the US to Germany, then their opponent must be right. Look for the person demanding that we open the economy, calling masks a personal choice, and howling that we should send kids back to school, and you’ve got your hero.

In short, without so much as a perceptible nod in Trump’s direction, “America’s Footprint” is doing heavy-lifting to support his cause.

Recommendations

If you’ve read this far, you’re no doubt wondering what you’re supposed to take from these long rhetorical analyses of memes. I’ve got three recommendations, which I’ll try to keep brief.

Recommendation 1: Don’t take memes for granted

The three memes above don’t even scratch the surface of the millions (maybe billions?) of memes circulating to hundreds of millions of Americans. Nevertheless, they represent well the kind of political persuasion that memes can do.

Memes are incredibly sophisticated forms of digital propaganda, and though the ones here are working to support Trump’s re-election, memes do similar kinds of persuasion across the political spectrum. In fact, in 2016 the Russians produced thousands upon thousands of memes designed to appeal to Progressives and Democrats, too, all with the goal of exploiting tensions.

It’s easy to look at memes as simple, stupid, or trivial. But if memes are as sophisticated as I’m claiming (hint: they are), then we’d be wise to treat them with a little more respect and caution.

Recommendation 2: Learn to look carefully at memes

Although memes persuade in really sophisticated ways, perhaps their best trick is not looking sophisticated so that you won’t look too carefully at what they’re trying to persuade you to think or do. Often, they accomplish this magic trick through “regular person” camouflage. Memes are often intentionally made to look unpolished, for example, with spelling errors, typos, and other flaws so like they were made by a regular person.

The impression that memes are coming from regular people gets reinforced through repetition and change. All the memes above, for example, have come across my feeds in several different versions — different backgrounds, different wording and images, and different attributions. The “repetition with a change” is an important tactic because the messages can be repeated in multiple guises to appeal to different people in different ways. The effect is that a meme that takes lots of different forms suggests that lots of “regular people” came to a similar conclusion on their own. It’s not a genius insight — it’s common sense!

One of the nice things about common sense from regular people is that it encourages you not to look too carefully. If the meme reinforces your beliefs, you’re not inclined to fact-check it. If the meme contradicts your beliefs, it’s easy to be satisfied by noting the errant apostrophe or the wrong form of their, there, or they’re. But you should look carefully.

Recommendation 3: Learn how to read memes

If memes are serious business that demand close attention, you’d be well served by learning to read them. It’s not easy — they’re really sophisticated propaganda, after all. But it is possible, and it’s a little easier if you know that you should not take them for granted and you should look at them carefully.

One way is to look for the emotions they evoke. Often memes trade on really passionate emotional responses — shame, fear, anger, arousal, indignance, delight, and so forth. Passionate emotional responses are often conjured with blunt appeals to intelligence, patriotism, injustice, uniqueness, and so forth. They’re rarely hard to see if you’re looking for them. But the obvious appeals and emotions can often hide or reinforce more subtle feelings and beliefs, about who you should like or dislike, who you should vote for, who you should hate. Those implicit or even auxiliary messages are the real challenge, but they’re what we need most desperately to understand. They’re where the persuasion happens.

There are some tools for learning how to read memes in this essay. There are also some good examples in the news. And there’s at least one site, Reading the Pictures, that does this kind of reading on lots of different kinds of images. And there’s an endless supply of academic and educational resources if you search “visual rhetoric” and “visual culture.” It takes time and patience to do this, but as I said, once you know you can look for these things, it’s a lot easier to learn how.

Conclusion

As the election closes in, I expect pro-Trump memes like the ones above to become even more prominent. And they’re working. People I know to be real people are sharing them. Often they’re people with the best intentions, but best intentions don’t prevent spreading and reinforcing Russian propaganda.

To be sure, I don’t know that the above memes were made by Russians. But memes are the kind of political persuasion that Russian disinformation campaigns excel at, and the Russians are on-record as supporting Trump. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if one meme or another is Russian. What matters is that sophisticated propagandists are making memes by the millions. Even if they’re not individually persuasive, they flood the zone with misinformation to raise skepticism and exploit tension.

In many cases, the people who share them will think that they’re making some commonsense deductions based on straightforward information. But where memes are concerned, deductions are rarely common sense. And for anyone who wants to understand how people are moved to make political decisions, memes are crucial sources of analysis.

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