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‘Weaponizing Memes: The Journalistic Mediation of Visual Politicization’
Chris Peters & Stuart Allan
This article develops the concept of “mimetic weaponization” for theory-building. Memes recurrently serve as identificatory markers of affiliation across social media platforms, with ensuing controversies potentially proving newsworthy. Our elaboration of weaponization refers to the purposeful deployment of memetic imagery to disrupt, undermine, attack, resist or reappropriate discursive positions pertaining to public affairs issues in the news. For alt-right memetic conflicts, impetuses range from “sharing a joke” to promoting “alternative facts,” rebuking “political correctness” or “wokeness,” defending preferred framings of “free speech,” or signalling cynicism, distrust or dissent with “mainstream” media, amongst other drivers. Of particular import, we argue, is the politics of othering at stake, including in the wider journalistic mediation of a meme’s public significance. Rendering problematic this contested process, this article focuses on Pepe the Frog as an exemplar, showing how and why variations of this mimetic cartoon have been selectively mobilized to help normalize – ostensibly through humour, parody or satire – rules of inclusion and exclusion consistent with hate-led agendas. Digital journalism, we conclude, must improve its capacity to identify and critique mimetic weaponization so as to avoid complicity in perpetuating visceral forms of prejudice and discrimination so often presented as “just a bit of fun.”
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