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18 February 2017

Pepe Le Pen: Can the alt-right really "meme" Marine Le Pen to victory?

Underneath the irony, is there any truth in the claims that memes can swing an election?


Betteridge’s law of headlines states that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered succinctly by the word “no”. As an addition, I’d like to suggest that if you add the word “meme” into the very same headline, you’ll most likely get a few four letter words in response as well.

Memes aren’t taken very seriously – which is fair enough, because they’re memes. But over the last year, viral images have been “weaponised” by various internet fringes to become, whether you like it or not, a political tool. “We actually elected a meme as president,” wrote a user on the forum 4Chan’s controversial /pol/ board after Donald Trump’s election win. This was an example of what 4Channers call (somewhat ironically) “meme magic”– creating memes that rise up out of the internet to have real-life consequences.


These same fringes of the alt-right are now trying to use meme magic to secure the victory of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections. And why wouldn’t they? Events in 2016 have made memes a valid political tool. When the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol in September last year, meme magic got real. Fast.

Enter Pepe Le Pen (or, in some circles, Le PenPe). Alt-right groups are now memifying the presidential hopeful to resemble Pepe the Frog. “They’re trying to get the LePenPe squad ready, 100 per cent,” an insider of a right-wing Facebook group told me. “We’re gonna meme Marine Le Pen into office,” wrote a user on the group.

It’s undeniable that at first glance all of this falls on the high end of the “completely ridiculous” scale. Even those on 4Chan argue about whether they’re being ironic or not. Yet though memes can’t take sole responsibility for securing Trump’s place as the 45th leader of the free world, they undoubtedly had a part to play. Firstly, the left’s mockery of Trump via memes gave him far too much attention in the early days of his campaign, and then the right kicked off what they now call “The Great Meme War” – the use of viral images to sway popular opinion.


Images are funny, but memes become potent when they have a message too. As Buzzfeed News reported last month, online chatrooms are forming where Americans can learn about European culture in order to create more effective memes. By using different templates and giving one another advice, Buzzfeed argued the “trolls [could] appear French without actually needing to speak French".

Indeed, memes with messages – however flippant – are undeniably the new propaganda poster. Think of the right-wingers pasting images of refugees and terrorists side-by-side, and left-wingers using images to claim children were handcuffed because of Trump's "Muslim ban". There are no statistics for the number of people who get their political views from viral images but it’s safe to say – judging by Likes and Shares alone – that they have an effect. This kind of propaganda poster doesn't even require sellotape to stick. 


Many of these memes might not make their way out of the groups that contain them (such as 4Chan's /pol/ and Reddit's r/Le_Pen). But that doesn't make them any less significant. In the past, ex-4Channers have spoken out about using the forum slowly made them more racist and sexist. The radicalisation of the vulnerable, in turn, effects the political world.


The other danger, of course, is the media taking these ironic memes too seriously. The declaration that Pepe was a "white supremacist" symbol gave alt-right meme-makers both legitimacy and something to laugh about. It is foolish to lend "Pepe Le Pens" status they do not deserve. Such a premature response has its own consequences - even if Le Pen doesn't win in May, the trolls do.


These are the real ways, then, that memes can sway an election. Of course, there is some survivorship bias at work here. 4Chan can claim they helped Trump to win because, well, Trump won. The same will happen with Le Pen. If she wins, they can claim responsibility, if not, they can go back to adding MS Paint swastikas to frogs.

So can Le Pen really be memed to victory? Screw you, Betteridge. The answer is maybe”.