Unmasking the Dark Side of Humour: Far-Right Strategic Mainstreaming in Memes

By Ursula Schmid, Heidi Schulze and Antonia Drexel

Memes are an important part of social media communication, frequently associated with contemporary (pop)culture. Even though most people use memes for benign purposes, beneath the surface of seemingly innocent jokes lies a darker underbelly: there has been a substantial debate regarding the use of memes to spread hate, extremist ideologies, and disinformation. Far-right actors skillfully employ humor and memes to degrade (marginalized) social groups and propagate their extremist ideals in a way that appears more acceptable to a broad audience than blatant denigration.

However, the impact of such humorous disguise of far-right content remains under-researched. Our study delves into this phenomenon, analyzing how different content characteristics including humor influence the reach and effectiveness of far-right memes on less moderated platforms, like Telegram.

Memes, humor and strategic mainstreaming

The strategic use of ‘soft’ and humorous communication within memes can be seen as one aspect of the far-right’s strategic mainstreaming. The concept of strategic mainstreaming refers to the deliberate efforts by extremist groups to make their ideologies more palatable to a wider audience. This process often involves subtle, indirect communication styles designed to gradually shift public discourse and norms in favor of extremist views. Although this tactic is not new, the issue has grown in relevance as (far-right) multimodal social media content increases and humorous hate memes spread throughout all types of social media platforms. Recognizing memes’ persuasive and mainstreaming potential, far-right actors purposefully employ, amend, and politicize popular memes originally without any political or far-right connotations to desensitize people to make them more susceptible to radical viewpoints and violence as an appropriate action. In particular, the use of humor in memes pays off for them, considering that when hateful content is accompanied by humor elements, even non-involved recipients perceive it less negatively because it allows for a lighthearted interpretation. Seemingly amusing memes, which promote hate and jokes at the expense of others, can injure the people they target and harm democratic discourse while legitimizing potentially objectionable content by claiming it is ‘just a joke’. In the long run, such derogatory humor has the potential to preserve and enhance social hierarchies, as well as normalize prejudice, while simultaneously strengthening the far right’s group cohesion through collective laughter.

The current study: Far-right memes on Telegram

In light of the worrisome trend outlined above, we examined the co-presence of humor and far-right content characteristics in a total of 1,200 memes distributed in German-language far-right Telegram Channels in 2020-2021. The hybrid instant-messaging platform is today, because of its unique feature repertoire, one of the most relevant platforms for today’s far right facilitating all possible communication types (one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many) accompanied by little content-moderation efforts or deplatforming.

We built our analysis on the concept of strategic mainstreaming to examine the far right’s attempts of influencing public perception through social media communication in less extreme, implicit, or humorous rather than explicit manners. Based on the assumption that the less explicit the content, the more appealing and socially acceptable it is to a mainstream audience, we tested whether implicit and humorous communication was used and viewed more frequently. We conducted a quantitative content analysis of the memes, examining the presence of humor alongside various content characteristics that differ in the extremity and explicitness of far-right ideology. These characteristics ranged from far-right narratives, hate speech, and conspiracy theories to anti-elitism and ingroup appreciation. Moreover, to study the mainstreaming potential of these characteristics, we analyzed the reach of the memes, measured by Telegram view counts. We consider a high reach to be an essential indicator of mainstreaming processes, as it implies a large and likely broad audience.

The study’s findings reveal a complex relationship between the extremity of the content, the use of humor, and the reach of the memes:

  1. Implicit vs. explicit content: The analyses revealed a higher prevalence of humor and implicit content-related characteristics (e.g., anti-elitism) than explicit ones (e.g., far-right narratives such as xenophobia). In general, there was a tendency for explicit and extreme content to be associated with a reduced reach. These findings support the assumption that implicit compared to explicit content is less likely to be immediately recognized as problematic, which helps in subtly mainstreaming far-right ideology.
  2. Humorous content: Different types of humor had varying impacts on meme reach. Aggressive humor and parody/satire were the most common forms found in the memes, but when used alone, they reduced the reach of a meme.
  3. Humorous and explicit far-right content: Most interestingly, memes that combined explicit far-right narratives with humor achieved a significantly higher reach compared to those that contained only extreme narratives or humor alone. This finding highlights the insidious nature of far-right strategic mainstreaming through humor, which conceals extreme ideology behind seemingly harmless jokes, making it more palatable to a broader audience.

Our study shows that while memes are a popular and successful vehicle for communication and expression, they may also function as a Trojan horse for extreme views. This is particularly relevant for memes that combine extremist, here far-right, narratives with humor, a stance that allows for distance in the event of doubt and is known for making problematic messages appear more socially acceptable, potentially normalizing hostile ideology, and expanding the boundaries of what can be (publicly) said. To impede these mainstreaming processes, it is critical to sensitize internet users to the hazards of memetic, funny, and implicit far-right online communication.

Note: This blog post is based on the paper: Schmid, U. K., Schulze, H., & Drexel, A. (2024). Memes, humor, and the far right’s strategic mainstreaming. Information, Communication & Society. To learn more about this research, please see the original study, available at: DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2024.2329610.

Ursula Schmid is a Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Media and Communication at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU Munich). Ursula studies (digital) media effects with a particular emphasis on the perceptions of and reactions to online hate speech. In her PhD project, she focuses on the legitimization of hostility through the combination of humor and hate speech.

Heidi Schulze is a Research Associate at the Department of Media and Communication at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU Munich). Heidi studies radicalization dynamics in online environments within a large-scale research project. In her research, she focuses on radical/extremist (group) communication in alternative social platforms and fringe communities, as well as characteristics and audiences of hyperpartisan news websites.

Antonia Drexel is a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Human-Computer-Media at Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg (JMU Würzburg). Antonia studies media reception and effects focusing on persuasive communication.

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Image Credit: PEXELS

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