At the beginning of September, Facebook announced that they suspended five accounts affiliated with “Peace Data,” a news website launched by Russia’s social media propaganda wing, the Internet Research Agency. The IRA, of course, was instrumental in the Russian disinformation campaigns in the run-up to the 2016 election. This year, they even hired unwitting American freelance journalists to write for Peace Data.
Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, acknowledged that “Russian actors are trying to target the 2020 elections and public debate in the U.S.,” but he also sought to reassure Americans that “it’s not really working.”
Maybe he’s right. Probably he’s not.
In any case, an important aspect of “Peace Data” is that it was an attempt to “target progressive and left-wing audiences, including in the United States and United Kingdom.” Peace Data’s goal, similar to the IRA in 2016, is to drive a wedge between progressive and centrist Democrats, to heighten tensions between the two constituencies, to depress the vote, and to therefore negatively impact Joe Biden’s election chances.
Whether or not Peace Data had a marked impact, it’s a signature example of sowing division among Democrat-leaning voters, which is a key tactic of Russian trolls.
A draft Department of Homeland Security report recently released on Lawfare Blog summarizes the threat. (As an aside, the fact that it’s a draft released on a non-government site is its own fascinating, unsettling story). DHS declared that “Moscow’s primary aim is to weaken the United States through discord, division, and distraction” by exacerbating “US social, political, racial, and cultural fault lines.”
The way IRA exacerbated these fault lines in 2016 was through memes. A few weeks ago, I wrote two posts about Russian trolls and memes—one about conservative memes and one about Democrats/Liberals/Centrists memes. This post is about how memes can be used to target progressives and leftists (which are not the same, but which I will roll together under the heading of progressives for brevity sake).
Race, racism, and racial violence are central issues in the 2020 election, which is convenient for the Russians whose “chief target” in 2016 was “Black US voters.” Trump and the Republicans have exacerbated racial tensions in a number of blatant and egregious ways, so comparing Democrats to Republicans isn’t really a good tactic for anyone who wants to elect Republicans. But the Democrats are not without their baggage, so comparing Democrats to progressive ideals is. That’s the theme of these three memes.
My now-standard disclaimer again applies: I don’t know that these memes were created or circulated by Russians. Whether Russians are specifically involved with these memes or not, they’re still nicely aligned with the goals of inflaming tension and intensifying division.
My first meme is “Idiot Biden.” I want to acknowledge up-front that calling this meme “Idiot Biden” has the potential to turn some readers off because it’s ableist language that takes aim at people with intellectual disabilities. Ordinarily, I would try to avoid ableism, but I’ve used it here because it’s one of the central arguments of this meme.
Donald Trump has decided to focus his campaign, at least to a degree, on what he takes to be Joe Biden’s mental deterioriation. Attacking Biden’s mental health is also a prime tactic of the Russian disinformation campaigns. “Idiot Biden,” then, is a variation on the theme.
The variation is that Biden is not just mentally incapacitated, but that his mental incapacitation causes him to be unaware of, or incapable of assessing, the world around him. Moreover, at least by implication, Biden’s mentally incapacitation offers us a peek at his true nature. That is, if he can’t incorporate new information, he will tend to fall back on old habits. In this case, he chooses a “corrupt cop.” By making this argument, “Idiot Biden” effectively isolates pro-Biden centrists. If you support Biden, this meme implies, you support a mentally incapacitated tool of the corrupt establishment.
I can practically hear my progressive and conservative friends howling in agreement. However, I’d ask readers to set aside that impulse. As I mentioned in the Democrats/Liberals/Centrists post, memes are designed to confirm people’s biases, which is what makes them useful as propaganda.
Consider how “Idiot Biden” confirms progressive and conservative biases that neither group is inclined to accept when confronted with them directly.
“Idiot Biden” works in at least two important registers. It overtly plays on Americans’ anti-disability biases by not only implying that Biden is mentally incapacitated, but by laughing at it. This sort of mockery has tended to play well with the “anti-PC” crowd who like to “trigger the libs.” But it also connects that cultural bias to the assertion that Harris is a corrupt cop, which is a progressive critique of her.
Progressives sharing this meme opt to disregard or downplay the ableism, which is a serious violation of progressive values. Conservatives sharing this meme disregard or downplay the anti-police sentiment, which is strange given Trump and the RNC’s avowedly pro-police, law and order campaign. In either case, this meme invites viewers to set aside their stated values to dunk on centrists.
Note, I don’t know who the men in the meme are. That may add additional layers to the meaning, but knowing them isn’t a prerequisite for getting the message. In fact, not knowing who they are may give us a better sense of the underlying arguments.
The Profit Motive
Whereas “Idiot Biden” is ostensibly about corruption (but is actually about Biden’s mental capacity), “The Profit Motive” is directly about corruption under the banner of race.
First things first, “The Profit Motive” visually plays on a campaign poster. In so doing, it performs a useful kind of neutralization in that it strips away the candidates’ differences. That is, one of the main reasons Biden selected Harris as a running mate was to diversify the ticket and appeal to voters of color and women. This meme attempts to strip out the power of that decision by collapsing them both into the mass incarceration ticket.
Mass incarceration, of course, is not traditionally a concern for conservative voters. They’re not the audience here. Mass incarceration is a concern for progressives, and more recently, for centrists. In any case, “The Profit Motive” tries to neutralize the power of Harris’s race and gender for the people it was intended to appeal to—specifically, progressive voters.
As a result of this neutralization maneuver, the meme attempts to skirt what initially seems like an obvious irony. Kamala Harris is on the ticket, at least in part, to demonstrate that Democrats care about the lives and concerns of Black and brown people.
“The Profit Motive,” then, is a kind of visual “No True Scotsman.” Harris is not a real person of color. She’s traded in those bona fides for profit, just like Joe, who already represents the centrists. The progressives, and all the believe in, can expect bupkis.
“The Profit Motive” is a really clever meme, actually, because of how it collapses Harris.
The DHS report notes that one of the Russians’ goals is to depress minority voting. If Harris is on the ticket to energize minority voters, and if memes like this help convince voters who are supposed to be energized and mobilized by her presence of the ticket that they shouldn’t be because she won’t represent their interests (and will in fact distance herself from her own minoritized status for profit), then it’s doing yeoman’s work.
A Traitor Among Us
“A Traitor Among Us” continues the theme of “The Profit Motive”—Harris is not interested in or capable of representing or advancing the interests of voters of color.
“A Traitor Among Us” plays again on the notion of Harris and Biden’s inherent corruption, and it leans especially heavily on the corruption argument by adding that they jailed Black people for “victimless crimes.” Technically, this is a non-sequitur because, however you feel about a particular legal statute, a “victimless crime” is still a crime. Whether or not that thing should be a crime is not the same as whether or not it is.
That doesn’t really matter here, though. I doubt most people would even notice that little hiccup.
What is particularly interesting in “A Traitor Among Us,” though, is the arm identified as Harris. What viewers are obviously meant to register is that the two unidentified people attached to the clasped hands are a team. Again, Harris’s race and gender are neutralized.
But there’s a different valence that it worth noting. The arm that represents Harris (1) has a much darker skin tone than Harris, and (2) is more conventionally masculine than Harris.
There are a couple of ways to read these aspects of the meme. The darker skin tone could well conjure racist associations. This is a fairly common tactic in American politics. Lindsey Graham’s campaign, for example, recently released an ad in which images of his opponent, Jaime Harrison, were digitally altered to darken Harrison’s skin tone.
Racism is a significant problem among white progressives and liberals, whether they’re inclined to recognize it or not. But in this case, playing on skin tone among progressives is probably less reliable an appeal than among Republicans because the progressives Russians want to keep from the polls are people of color.
Likewise, the gender appeal is probably not as straightforward as it might seem. It could be a nod to the homophobic, transphobic, and racist conspiracy theories about Michelle Obama being a man. There’s a long, disgusting tradition of trying to demoralize Black women by calling them masculine. Again, however, this seems like pretty weak tea for a progressive audience.
I want to suggest a third option—the Harris arm is only tangentially about Harris. Rather, it’s a synecdoche for all Black supporters of Biden. Synecdoche is used in rhetoric to explain “understanding one thing with another; the use of a part for the whole, or the whole for the part,” like using “Hollywood” to represent the entire entertainment industry.
If Harris’s arm obviously isn’t Harris’s arm, it’s worth wondering what it might be standing in for.
Recall, Biden’s primary campaign appeared to be on the ropes in the early going until he secured a crucial endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC). Clyburn is the highest ranking African American Congressperson and an influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The CBC was literally invented to represent the issues and needs of Black Americans, and it has consistently championed racial justice efforts on behalf of Black and other racially minoritized communities.
If you’re still with me, it may be clear where I’m headed. Recall, Russian memes are supposed to inflame tension and intensify division. It’s a victory if they can do so within and among Democratic-leaning voter blocs. But if they can also introduce and/or aggravate tensions within racial groups, so much the better.
What if by aligning with Biden, like Harris, the CBC has abandoned their responsibility to Black and brown voters? Imagine the kind of tension and division that implication could intensify.
Less abstractly, it would not be unreasonable to read this meme as arguing that progressive voters of color cannot count on Harris to represent them, but also, they cannot count on any Black person who supports Biden.
By adding Harris’s name to an arm that clearly isn’t hers, this meme projects a much larger group of unreliable representatives who can be identified by their alliance with Biden. Supporting Biden becomes a kind of treason that eclipses a person racial identity.
I suspect that some readers will think this is a stretch, and maybe it is. But memers don’t have to positively prove a connection. They only have to plant the tiniest seed of doubt, and that happens in ways we don’t normally think about consciously. It happens through suggestion, implication, and repetition. In a two-party system, when there are really only two viable candidates, any effort to raise skepticism about one redounds to the benefit of the other.
My recommendations haven’t changed since the first post I wrote about memes.
Recommendation 1: Don’t take memes for granted
Recommendation 2: Learn to look carefully at memes
Recommendation 3: Learn how to read memes
And again, memes work best when they confirm people’s biases. Progressives have been skeptical and resentful of Democrats for decades (not necessarily unreasonably), which is why in progressive social media circles, the most withering attacks tend to be on liberals, not conservatives.
While many progressive critiques of centrists have a strong material basis, and while I am not here to advocate that progressives ignore or forget those critiques, I do think it’s worth keeping in mind that inflaming those tensions is what the Russians want to do. As sophisticated state actors, they’re well-trained and well-resourced to find the tensions and make them even worse than they might otherwise be.
So again, I want to emphasize the importance of learning to read against memes we agree with. Doing so is vital for understanding the social media waters we swim in and considering what people who don’t have our best interests in mind want us to do on their behalf.