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World War Meme

NEW YORK—Parked in front of a seductive portrait of Ann Coulter and an array of computer screens inside a home office in Harlem, Matt Braynard, former director of technology for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, welled up with emotion as he recounted his experience attending Trump’s inauguration a week earlier.

It was not the ceremony itself, but what happened afterward, when Braynard spotted a pale teenager in a red hat and a gray hoodie standing on a street corner near the Capitol holding a sign with a picture of a cartoon frog and the message, “LOVE NOT HATE.” Struck by the display, Braynard made a beeline for the kid, shook his hand and enlisted his wife to take a photograph of them together.

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“I felt like I had found a friend that I hadn’t spoken to in a long time,” recalled Trump’s misty-eyed one-time data guru, who had never met the teenager before in his life. “It was, like, immediate connection.”

The chance encounter was a rare in-real-life meeting of veterans of the Great Meme War. That’s the grandiose name given—only half ironically—to the decentralized efforts of a swarm of anonymous internet nerds to harass Trump’s detractors and flood the Web with pro-Trump, anti-Hillary Clinton propaganda. Their weapons of choicewere memes, bits of reproducible culture whose most recognizable form is sharable internet photos, like cats behaving adorably or Clinton sending a text message, with captions meant to be funny.

Braynard showed me a badge he ordered online to memorialize his service in the Great Meme War. It features Pepe the Frog—a cartoon symbol of mischievous fun or racist hatred, depending on whom you ask—and the name of his make-believe battalion, “The 1st Deplorables.”

Veterans of the Great Meme War brag that they won the election for Trump. Just about everyone else, if they’re aware of these efforts at all, assumes they amounted to little more than entertainment for bored geeks and some unpleasant episodes for the targets of its often racist and sexist harassment campaigns. After all, the idea that a swarm of socially alienated trolls played a meaningful role in a multibillion-dollar presidential campaign by, among other gambits, relentlessly spreading images of a cartoon frog is at least as ridiculous as the idea that a billionaire TV entertainer could win that campaign.

There is no real evidence that memes won the election, but there is little question they changed its tone, especially in the fast-moving and influential currents of social media. The meme battalions created a mass of pro-Trump iconography as powerful as the Obama “Hope” poster and far more adaptable; they relentlessly drew attention to the tawdriest and most sensational accusations against Clinton, forcing mainstream media outlets to address topics—like conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health—that they would otherwise ignore. And they provoked a variety of real-world reactions, from Clinton’s August speech denouncing the alt-right to the Anti-Defamation League’s designation of Pepe as a hate symbol to—after the election—the armed assault on a Washington pizzeria wrongly believed to be hiding sex slaves.

Part of the power of memes has always been their organic, grass-roots quality: They bubble up from the fever swamps of the internet, shrouded in anonymity, as agents of chaos and mockery. But in this election, something seemed to change. They began colliding with a real campaign operation and doing useful work, seemingly always pushing in one direction. Curious about what happened, I tracked down and interviewed a number of veterans of the Great Meme War, along with others who hung out in the same dark corners of the internet and watched it all unfold. It turns out that, as anonymous online pranksters go, they’re surprisingly organized and motivated. It also turns out that the Trump campaign, which spent relatively little on messaging, paid rapt attention to meme culture from the start. They took it seriously, even pushing some memes out to the candidate’s millions of Twitter followers.

As Donald Trump’s technology director, Matt Braynard, pictured at his home office in Harlem, was just one of several meme enthusiasts inside the candidate’s campaign headquarters.

As Donald Trump’s technology director, Matt Braynard, pictured at his home office in Harlem, was just one of several meme enthusiasts inside the candidate’s campaign headquarters. | Jesse Dittmar for Politico Magazine

Trump’s campaign will not be the last to tap into this subculture. Internet troll Charles Johnson, a self-commissioned general in the Great Meme War with close ties to Trump’s political operation, claimed he has fielded about a dozen post-election phone calls from the Washington area about the political potential of memes. “If you’re trying to win an election and you have a million dollars to spend on political ads or $ 100,000 to spend on trolling,” he said, “I would advise everyone to spend the hundred thousand on the troll.”

If the soldiers in the Great Meme War are even partly right about their capabilities, then their efforts have profound implications for the future of politics. But before tackling that question, it is worth asking how, in the first place, a community of some of the savviest, most subversive internet users became a hotbed of support for a 70-year-old white billionaire who refers to Apple products as “damn computers and things.” And for that matter, what exactly is a meme, anyway?

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The concept of a “meme,” in its broadest sense, has been around for decades. The term was first coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who defined a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation”—essentially, a reproducible bit of the DNA of human culture. He saw the idea expansively; the most effective memes, like religious rituals and catchy melodies, worm their way into people’s brains, spreading across entire societies and shaping human behavior for generations.

The Jesus fish is an ancient meme, and Uncle Sam is an early American meme. The planking fad, in which people lie flat on their fronts in weird places and pose for photographs, is a recent behavioral meme. The term came into popular parlance with the advent of the “internet meme,” usually a photograph with a clever caption that is shared around the Web. Created anonymously, remixed endlessly and shared constantly, the most viral memes seem to materialize out of nowhere.

But the typical internet meme doesn’t exactly come from nowhere. Its very Darwinian life cycle often begins among thousands of other memes on a group of obscure message boards frequented by the internet’s most devoted users, mostly young men, who Photoshop captioned images for their own amusement. The most promising become popular on these boards, as users post their own variations on the theme, and end up crossing over to more mainstream platforms like Reddit and Tumblr, which are used by “normies,” or normal people, and often drive what’s popular on the internet at any given time. From there, the most successful memes start populating platforms that almost everyone uses, like Facebook, and a very select few, like LOLCats and Rickrolling, enter the cultural canon, becoming recognizable even to one’s parents.

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The fighters in the Great Meme War took their intimate knowledge of this ecosystem and weaponized it, genetically engineering pro-Trump and anti-Clinton supermemes they designed to gain as much mainstream traction as possible. They juiced the rules on platforms like Reddit and created networks of fake accounts on Twitter to push the memes in front of as many eyeballs as possible as quickly as possible. The staging ground was an anonymous message board called “/pol/”—the “politically incorrect” section of 4Chan, which was founded in 2003 to host discussions about anime and has since evolved into a malignant hive mind with vast influence over online culture. The denizens of /pol/ believe that their efforts memed President Trump into existence, midwifing his presidency from a far-fetched fantasy into our current reality. Memes like “the Trump Train” were popularized by 4Chan, spread to the rest of the Web and then rapidly absorbed into official campaign messaging—sometimes reaching all the way to the candidate himself.

Braynard, who led Trump’s data team from October 2015 through March 2016, said younger staffers would regularly pass around memes as morale boosters. He cited a video called “You can’t stump the Trump,” a phrase first popularized on 4Chan, that mashed up Trump’s early primary debate highlights with a narrator from a nature documentary talking about centipedes and other campy effects, as a particular favorite of staffers. In October 2015, months before Pepe became a subject of campaign controversy, Trump tweeted a link to the video along with an illustration of the cartoon frog with Trump’s hair standing in front of the presidential seal. The clip has been viewed more than a million times.

But it wasn’t until the arrival months later of Steve Bannon, who brought with him an in-depth knowledge of the internet’s underbelly acquired while growing the anti-establishment Breitbart News, that the campaign’s engagement with the fever swamps reached its apogee. By the fall, a team in the war room at Trump Tower was monitoring social media trends, including The_Donald subreddit—a message board that acted as a conduit between 4Chan and the mainstream Web and refers to its users as “centipedes” in honor of the aforementioned video—and privately communicating with the most active users to seed new trends, according to two former Trump campaign officials. The team would bump up anything particularly catchy to social media director Dan Scavino. (Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said there were no staffers dedicated full-time to monitoring social media trends, and that Bannon was not involved in social media strategy.) But one former campaign official said the goal was to relentlessly tilt the prevailing sentiment on social media in favor of Trump: “He clearly won that war against Hillary Clinton day after day after day.”

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People who spend their days on internet message boards tend not to be political insiders, and even by internet standards 4Chan has always had an outsider bent, which might explain why it went so hard for a burn-it-all-down outsider like Trump. During the early 2000s, the boards were vehemently anti-George W. Bush, a hub for 9/11 truthers as well as for trolling religious conservatives. The vaguely leftist hacking collective Anonymous grew out of the Bush-era boards. Later, 4Chan fell for Ron Paul, helping fuel the quirky Texas congressman’s unlikely internet stardom. The boards also developed a culture of hard-core racist language; at first, this gratuitous bigotry was motivated primarily by a desire to get a rise out of normies, but it fostered an environment in which genuine racists felt at home, too.

Message board support for Trump “went from ironic to militant very quickly,” says “Marcus,” a former military intelligence officer who professionally monitors such sites at his home in Washington state.

Message board support for Trump “went from ironic to militant very quickly,” says “Marcus,” a former military intelligence officer who professionally monitors such sites at his home in Washington state. | Jonathan Vanderwelt for Politico Magazine

In 2011, 4Chan created /pol/, its politically incorrect board, in part to house racist threads and other rants that were polluting the rest of the site. The white nationalist alt-right was forged in the crucible of 4Chan and remains indelibly marked by its emergence from meme culture. Screenshots from hacked social media accounts belonging to the late Trayvon Martin first surfaced on /pol/ as part of a campaign of posthumous character assassination that painted the African-American teenager as a pot-smoking delinquent who had it coming.

The site has also grown increasingly preoccupied with gender politics. “If you’re young, white and male, you’re on 4Chan,” says Johnson, who recently tried to buy the website. That’s clearly an exaggeration, but 4Chan has demonstrated an alarming power to whip up misogyny against its perceived enemies. The “Gamergate” harassment campaigns against women in the video-game industry were often organized on 4Chan. That episode involved allegations that a female video-game developer was cheating on her boyfriend with multiple men in the industry, and thus ushered the term “cuck,” short for cuckold, into 4Chan parlance. (This, in turn, had profound linguistic consequences for the Republican presidential primary when “cuckservative” became the insult of choice for insufficiently Trumpian Republicans.) Gamergate also hardened anti-political correctness sentiment on 4Chan, and when administrators eventually banned discussion of the topic, it proved a boon to the nascent 8Chan—a sort of ISIS to 4Chan’s Al Qaeda, a splinter group whose founder believed 4Chan had grown too controlled.

These new strains festered on the boards until June 16, 2015, when beauty pageant owner and former Pizza Hut pitchman Donald Trump arrived on the scene like a gift from the troll gods. Announcing his presidential candidacy, Trump disparaged Mexican immigrants in comically insulting language as paid actors cheered him on. The Chans went wild.

Was ‘Pepe the Frog’ Trump most effective campaign surrogate?

Matt Braynard, former Trump 2016 director of technology, discusses the meme influence on the 2016 election and how a group of anonymous keyboard commandos conquered the internet for Donald Trump.