The election of Donald Trump has caused an increase in xenophobic and racist vandalism across the country. And there’s perhaps no symbol that sums up hate more succinctly than the swastika. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used the hooked cross as a way to perpetuate their death cult and it has, ever since, been a design feature of white power movements. Unfortunately, swastikas, now used mostly to express anti-semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment, have been cropping up like graffiti weeds since the election of Trump, who spent much of his campaign stoking racial feels are deploying (barely) coded language.
Swastika graffiti isn’t a new thing, but it’s spread now seem to mirror it’s seeding in the dark corners of the internet, notably 4chan. Swastikas even made an appearance in the YouTube live chat feed of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. But has their proliferation in certain online spaces turned the symbol into a meme? And, if so, what exactly does that mean?
To understand the swastika’s role and effects on internet culture, Inverse talked to Know Your Meme Editor-in-Chief Brad Kim. He had a lot to say about the symbol’s online history, memes fueled by hate, and why so many trolls take pleasure in spamming the swastika.
Is the swastika a meme?
It is, unfortunately. Let’s stretch out the definition of meme from internet-specific meme to cultural meme in general. If we’re talking about any cultural symbol or imagery or icons, the swastika is a meme, yes. As are many other symbols that are considered controversial, like the confederate flag. Because of its ties to Nazism, something I definitely learned while going through the internet is that in a lot of anonymous communities that aren’t heavily moderated, there will always be someone that Nazifies memes or adds a swastika to something thats totally irrelevant.
If we talk about Pepe the Frog, that’s one example where we’ve seen it happen. We observed how Pepe the Frog memes spread across different boards on 4chan and evolved into different forms depending on the topic of the board. On the /tv/ subforum, Pepe the Frog gets dressed up as different television characters. If it ends up on /pol/ or the /b/ board — which is the random, everything goes board — that’s when somebody will make a Nazified Pepe. For any internet memes that are visual-oriented or character-based, there’s a good chance somebody will make a horrible racist or Nazi version of that.
Are swastikas on the internet one in the same as the ones that the Nazis used?
In online message boards, communities and mostly ones that are anonymous, they are mostly used as a flame base more than anything else. When you see somebody commenting with a swastika image or even an image of Hitler, it tends to have very little relevance to the actual political ideology and even white nationalism. It’s mostly just used as a flame bait, meaning it’s used to provoke.
I’m certainly not trying to sugarcoat or defend the use of swastikas in anyway, but it’s primarily used as a thing to provoke someone or start a flame war. There are also people who aren’t using this in the context of internet culture. There’s tons of racists who do congregate on the internet. I’m sure in their world it’s used differently. To be honest, I’m not really hooked into that part of the internet so it’s a little hard to say. It could be the case that they never use it because what we’ve been seeing is that the ones that do harbor and embrace extreme, radical, nationalist ideas, these heavily stigmatized ideas we’ve seen it through a couple of memes. There was Pepe but also the Echo signs, that was kind of the implied way of identifying somebody who has a Jewish background.
As far as the usage by straight up racists on the internet, they might actually be using more cryptic memes to express their ideas. It also comes with a huge risk of inviting backlash or getting banned from a community.
In certain cultures and religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, the swastika is a symbol of peace. Why is it when an internet symbol is ingrained with hate, that usually beats out the positive imagery?
Generally, at least in the past five years, there aren’t that many memes that have positive connotations. Even the ones that are supposedly positive always come with the subtext of sarcasm. There tends to be more popular memes that have negative connotations or critical notions. As far as why memes that get mixed up with hate symbols or hate speech get way more spotlight and exposure than the ones that are less stigmatized, it’s the shock factor that draws clicks for people to look at.
We observed that throughout the election cycle, with Pepe and other character-based memes. When a meme does turn into something controversial because of it’s hateful nature, were usually talking about a subbranch of a meme that has been perverted. When we look at the big picture of a meme and all of its self extensions and how it spawns derivatives, the portion of the hateful iterations gets disproportionately blown up in the media. It’s supposed to identify and shed a light on things that are concerning and problematic. But by doing so, it also exacerbates the growth of the meme. Pepe the Frog is a textbook case of that. We’ve been tracking Pepe since 2010 when it used to be the forever alone guy basically, or a symbol of the beta male commiserating. Once it entered the political arena and the headlines started connecting Pepe with the alt-right and white nationalism, thats when the volume of these examples of hateful Pepes exploded. Prior to that it was most likely a negligible development contained within a subforum on 4chan.
As the news media starts to shape the narrative of the meme, it does tend to go that way. It’s kind of like the Hawthorne effect that’s played out. Once the meme makers become aware of how their memes are portrayed in the media, they’ll go it and churn it out in that direction.
Anything else you want to add or touch on?
Something that I do think about sometimes is the internet’s long-standing obsession with discussing Nazism. Because it’s suppressed so much in real life and when you first learn about it in school, I think the internet serves as a place to talk about it. In public education here, it’s extreme but it’s also very short in how it’s covered for students. It’s almost a teaser education on the topic because it’s such a big stigma and taboo subject. There’s all this suppressed curiosity about the most horrible group of people to have ever lived on Earth, they want to talk about it somewhere.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.