The media’s hysterical response to the meme Trump tweeted Sunday, shows just how out of touch they are with the mechanisms of internet culture.
After Trump posted a short video of himself wrestling/beating down a poorly shopped CNN logo, journalists quickly went into a fit of shrieking about how this was a call for violence against the media.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
"The President in no way form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence. If anything, quite the contrary." – @SHSanders45 6/29/17
— CNN Communications (@CNNPR) July 2, 2017
Then they traced down the origin of the “dangerous” meme to an edgelord Reddit account, that unsurprisingly partook in offensive shock humor through his anonymous account. Trump was accused by proxy of spreading the message of an Islamophobic/homophobic/racist internet troll, which somehow was supposed to make him look bad.
To top it all off, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski actually found the real identity of the meme maker, “HanAssholeSolo” and claimed CNN would release his identity if he continued his bad behavior.
The backlash against CNN was swift and severe. Many internet denizens were not happy the mainstream media went after an anonymous meme maker. Not just the Trump-supporter corner of Reddit, but mainstream Reddit communities as well, began making memes blasting CNN. A new subreddit was created, /r/CNNMemes, which quickly had posts popular enought to reach the frontpage of Reddit with their memes receiving tens of thousands of upvotes. 4chan declared all out “Meme War” on CNN, vowing to bomb their advertisers with angry emails and of course manufacture a massive amount of CNN memes. And #CNNBlackMail became the number one trending hashtag on Twitter for a short spell.
Since then, there’s been much disagreement, about who HanAssholeSolo actually is, whether CNN “blackmailed” him for an apology, and whether he was the creator of the original meme. That’s litigation for a different day.
What we should discuss is how this entire shitstorm could have been avoided if the media simply understood meme culture and how it works.
The origin of memes is not important or newsworthy.
Every meme Trump has posted, even during the election has received an intense amount of scrutiny by the media. Industrious journalists have scoured the internet trying to find if the source was vaguely racist or anti-Semitic.
But this is an affront to how memes are actually created.
The internet is full of memes. It is a thankless and most importantly anonymous job. Once the creator is done exporting the image from Photoshop he sends it out to the internet, and thus loses all ownership. The meme enters the soupy, amorphous mass of internet culture.
Memes are meant to be shared. They are meant to be stolen, re-purposed, mixed and skewed. There is no copyrighting of memes. They are jokes, expressions of ideas, where the intent is subject to whoever happens to post it.
Once the president posts a meme, he has taken ownership of it. The intention of the meme must be interpreted as the intention of the president, not some middle age dude from Poughkeepsie who bothered to actually make it.
Going after the anonymous creator of a meme violates the foundation of the meme economy. The worker bees at the base of the meme pyramid, make their memes on the condition they will not be outed publicly, putting their lives and careers in jeopardy. All the fun and enjoyment we get out of dumb internet jokes would be ruined if journalists started to go after the jokesters that fuel internet culture.
Memes are almost never earnest.
Many in the media had an outsized reaction to Trump’s tweet because they took it as an unironic call for violence against a media organization.
Those who believe that are about as obtuse as you can get.
The meme, as with almost all political memes, was a satirical and hyperbolic representation of current events. It was obviously not meant as a call for Trump supporters to clothes-line CNN employees, but to satirize the combative relationship between Trump and CNN. Many of the memes posted on Reddit’s /r/the_donald (the origin of the CNN meme) have this sense of irony.
Memes are not dangerous.
This is a statement so absurd, I can’t believe I actually have to type it.
But much like violent video games, comic books and even regular books at one point, moral crusaders love to claim new forms of entertainment are somehow harmful.
Much like the Jack Thompson crusades against video games in the 90s, we’re seeing a similar pattern, where media figures try to label memes as dangerous incitements of violence or racism.
A meme, can be essentially boiled down to a joke, and therefore resides in the fuzzy area between art and inanity. Like any form of art, someone can technically be inspired to violence from a meme as with books or video games, but those people are obviously insane.
That extremely unlikely eventuality is not an excuse for the out-of-touch cranks at CNN to go on tone-policing internet culture and publicly outing meme makers.
This CNN debacle has many similarities to the Pepe the Frog controversy of 2016, when multiple media outlets tried to unequivocally label a cartoon frog meme as a symbol of white supremacy. Pepe, like with all memes, could be mixed and mashed into many forms, some vile, but always kept its identity as an ironic absurdity.
Because memes are relatively new, and old media types don’t really understand them, they will, of course, irrationally fear them like scared dementia patients in an old folks home.
These attacks on internet culture turn young people off to the establishment media.
When the Wall Street Journal went after the YouTuber PewDiePie, damaging his career over his offensive jokes, they also made 50 million PewDiePie fans never want to read the Wall Street Journal again. These young people who would perhaps think about picking up the paper ten years down the road, were filled with contempt for the reputable media outlet. Young kids watching PewDiePie videos were turned on to anti-media ideas and talking points.
CNN just walked into the same bear trap. By going after people who make memes, they just proved to young people that their values are anathema to the internet’s.
And it’s not just rightwing media trolls who are mad at CNN. Half of Reddit, a notoriously leftwing social media platform, has been railing on CNN for the past few days. Young people get their news through the filter and curation of social media. If a platform as large as Reddit (8th most trafficked website in the world) has turned against a media organization, that is a huge blunder for CNN.
Hell, I was in a Brooklyn diner today and overheard some bushy bearded hipster talking about how petty it was for CNN to go after HanAssholeSolo. This was not a rightwinger by any means.
The backlash against CNN is pretty close to universal among young people of all political persuasions.
They messed with our memes and that is not cool.