Meme game on fleek? Yeah, nah

thaddeus t. grugq on 2018-05-13

Russia’s 2016 memetic warfare is generating pearl clutching monographs

There is a lot of ink being spilled on how memes have been weaponised, or how to conduct meme warfare. Apparently in reaction to the perceived success of memes as propaganda tools used by Russian trolls to influence the US election in 2016. Rather unfortunately the whitepapers are being written by people who are not well versed in internet culture and who don’t truly understand memes, or even why the Russian influencers were using the content they used. I can’t explain memes, but I can at least clear up the Russian’s strategic use of image content in their online influence campaign.

That’s not a meme, THIS is a meme

This content posted by Russia’s IRA LLC has been called a meme. It is not. Personally, I view it as more of a propaganda leaflet targeting one’s own side to bolster cohesion. Also, I must admit, I am completely stumped by the reference to ghosts and how it links to refugees. Some other examples of not-memes from the same source.

This image, for example, expresses the opposite sentiment of what it purports to represent. Some more capable English speakers should have been involved in verifying and reviewing creative content before approval for distribution. Understandably quality will slip when you’re working on 24hr schedules with new directives issued each morning, but still, the lack of attention to detail is telling.

More telling is that the target audience didn’t even notice the bad grammar. The target audience of this content is not being persuaded to support a position, they already support that position, they are just looking for validation. Again, I would class this as a bad PSYOPS leaflet rather than a meme.

Some grammar fail, generic content, pitched straight to a target audience. This is not a meme, it is a social validation leaflet to bolster morale and increase cohesion of a bloc. There is no attempt to persuade in this content, merely a positive propaganda statement. Once again, no meme, just a bad PSYOPS leaflet.

This leaflet has a call to action, an attempt to actually get the consumer to do something proactive towards furthering Russia’s strategic goals (“follow @targeted_propaganda_account”). It is possible that this content was vaguely linked to the Texas secessionist movement that Russia was supporting. Russia supported a number of secessionist movements across the US and EU. The most plausible explanation is that this was to lend credibility to the Crimea “secession.” At any rate, this is, again, not a meme. This is a PSYOPS leaflet that roughly follows some basic PSYOPS rules.

  1. There is a clear target audience (Texans)
  2. There is an appeal that should resonate with that audience
  3. There is an action for the recipient to follow through on

This is pretty bread and butter psychological warfare leaflet content that any competent military PSYOPS unit could crank out in a no time.

This is one of the more effective leaflets I’ve seen so far. The prelude text is riddled with strange grammatical errors that would alert an observant reader, but this propaganda was not targeted at skeptical readers. It was delivered to a target audience that was already conservative. As propaganda this piece is pretty well done. There is a story that is relatable to the target audience (conservative Christians), and then a subtle call to action – “I am just like you, a Christian patriot, and I am going to vote for Trump!” Building on the unit cohesion and the hardening of the edges of the bloc, this sort of content makes sense in trying to persuade those who are not pro-Trump but were considering simply not voting.

That’s no meme…

These images make clear that the Russian meme game, so built up and terrifying in all the whitepapers and column inches, was really more of a propaganda leaflet campaign. This campaign seems to have had three primary goals

  1. Reinforce the bloc: the Republicans are pushed to extremes of partisanship, and the boundaries of the “conservative” identity are clearly and harshly defined. This was probably to create a stronger “us vs them” feeling, by ensuring that the in-group expresses extreme views and also positive associations with their peers.
  2. Nudge apathetic Republicans to vote: besides strengthening the in group bloc, the fliers attempt to persuade the targets that a failure to vote is letting their side down. Worse, it is actively aiding the opposition.
  3. Suppress Democratic voters: the content for dissuading Democratic voters was heavily targeted at African-Americans. The general idea was to suggest that voting changes nothing and that Clinton was a closet racist.

This is pure PSYOPS content, just distributed online. It is not some revolutionary new meme warfare that requires huge investments to develop sophisticated countermeasures.

Memes are a thing though

To be clear, meme warfare is definitely a thing. Memes are a significant component of how far right extremists recruit young men into white supremacy. Memes provide, via their veneer of humor, a deniable way to signal in group/out group status and also present an entry point for new members. They are “just jokes” except when they aren’t. There are interesting parallels to other techniques used by marginalized groups to identify each other within a hostile mainstream society.

The effectiveness of memes as recruitment tools for violent extremism demonstrates that there is absolutely a pressing need to understand how to engage in counter-meme warfare. This should probably be done by people under 30, who have a far better grasp of memes than the think tanks and officers writing all those papers.

Given that memes are an effective recruitment tool for neo nazis, they clearly have potential as PSYOPS weapons. How to create and deploy them is innately understood by 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Learning from those users would be an excellent first step towards developing a meme warfare doctrine.

Russia engaged in bog standard PSYOPS leaflet campaigns targeted at committed audiences. They had limited goals: bloc cohesion; encourage Republican voting; suppress Democratic voting. These were all done by simple well targeted messaging, not by employing memes to persuade or recruit arbitrary/undecided voters.

Compare the Russian leaflets with these classic WW2 propaganda messages to see how little has changed.

It is interesting to note that one of the blocs the Russians had the most difficulty penetrating was not the self identified Patriots, but the politically aware black activist communities that formed alongside Black Lives Matter. I suspect it is due to their experience of dealing with informants attempting to penetrate the groups leading to natural skepticism and vetting of unknown volunteers. My favorite example of this is an activist who became suspicious of the approach and quizzed the IRA LLC operator on African-American culture. The activist blocked them after they failed to answer “what is your favorite Prince album?”

Parting shots

The Russian troll army was effective at promoting content, creating personas, and establishing communities for self identifying groups. They then used basic PSYOPS leaflets (bad ones, at that) to strengthen unit cohesion, bolster morale, and clearly demarcate the boundaries of the group. I would describe this tactic as “hardening the bloc.” Simultaneously they began apply persuasive pressure towards the strategic goals for that particular group (e.g. vote Trump, or don’t vote.) Treating this online version of WW2 leaflet drops as some sort of amazing advancement in propaganda is bound to lead to this sort of ridiculous insanity:

Whatever disinformation and psychological warfare skills the Russians had and deployed in 2016, memes were not one of them.