Meme Wars: how the internet changed politics from Occupy to the insurrection

FRI, NOV 18, 2022

Memes have long been dismissed as inside jokes with no political importance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Memes are bedrock to the strategy of conspiracists such as Alex Jones, provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, white nationalists like Nick Fuentes, and tacticians like Roger Stone. While the media and most politicians struggle to harness the organizing power of the internet, the “redpill right” weaponizes memes, pushing conspiracy theories and disinformation into the mainstream to drag people down the rabbit hole.

These meme wars stir strong emotions, deepen partisanship, and get people off their keyboards and into the streets–and the steps of the US Capitol.

Join disinformation and media manipulation experts Dr. Joan Donovan and Brian Freidberg, from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, in a discussion about how far-right extremist communities online are using memes and social media to bring new people to their ideologies, and drive real-world actions.

Moderated by Technology and Innovation Boston Globe reporter, Anissa Gardizy.

+ BIO: Joan Donovan

Dr. Donovan is a leading public scholar and disinformation researcher, specializing in media manipulation, political movements, critical internet studies, and online extremism. She is the Research Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Director of the Technology and Social Change project (TaSC). Through TaSC, Dr. Donovan explores how media manipulation is a means to control public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society. TaSC conducts research, develops methods, and facilitates workshops for journalists, policy makers, technologists, and civil society organizations on how to detect, document, and debunk media manipulation campaigns.

Dr. Donovan is co-founder of Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review. Her research can be found in academic peer-reviewed journals such as Social Media + Society, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Information, Communication & Society, and Social Studies of Science. She is a columnist at MIT Technology Review, a regular contributor to the New York Times, The Guardian, NPR, and PBS, and is quoted often on radio and in print.

Dr. Donovan has laid out the philosophical frameworks for how to research, report on, and understand this moment in internet history and American politics. Her conceptualizations of strategic silence, meme wars, and media manipulation campaigns provide crucial frameworks for understanding how the US got to this point. She coined many of the terms that the disinformation research field and mainstream media use to understand technology’s impact on society.

Dr. Donovan is the co-creator of the beaver emoji.

+ BIO: Brian Friedberg

Brian Friedberg is the Senior Researcher of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Blending academic research and Open Source Intelligence techniques, Brian is an investigative ethnographer, focusing on the impacts alternative media, anonymous communities, and unpopular cultures have on political communication and organization.
Brian holds an MA in Cultural Production from Brandeis University.

+ BIO: Anissa Gardizy

Anissa Gardizy (pronounced Ah-knee-sah Gar-dee-zee) is a technology and innovation reporter at the Boston Globe. She focuses on emerging industries and trends, culture, and breaking news involving both startups and publicly traded tech firms.

She joined the Globe’s business desk in January 2020. Anissa’s byline has appeared in The Information, STAT, and the Telegram & Gazette. She graduated from Emerson College with a degree in journalism and has taken economics classes at Framingham State University.

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