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2017-07-05 21:35:03
The Shift: How a CNN Investigation Set Off an Internet Meme War

As Americans relaxed over a long Fourth of July weekend, the pro-Trump meme factories were gearing up for war.

These online communities, which churn out lo-fi, shareable images and videos meant to amuse and energize President Trump’s social media supporters while provoking his enemies, were spurred to action by what, in their world, qualified as a series of seismic events.

The first shock came on Sunday morning, when President Trump tweeted a video that depicted him in a professional wrestling arena attacking a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head. The meme, or one very similar to it, had been created by a user on Reddit, the popular internet forum, and posted days earlier on /r/The_Donald, an active pro-Trump forum there, before making its way to the wider internet and, finally, to the 33.3 million Twitter followers of the leader of the free world.

In the world of meme creators, where getting a presidential tweet is akin to having your artwork hung on the wall of the Smithsonian, President Trump’s post was cause for celebration. “Wow!! I never expected my meme to be retweeted by the God Emperor himself!!!” wrote the creator, a frequent poster on Reddit whose user name combines a vulgarity with the Star Wars character Han Solo.

Days later, that Reddit user himself became a figure of national interest as news organizations checked his posting history and discovered that he had a record of creating memes that were racist and anti-Semitic.

On Monday, a CNN reporter tracked down the identity of the user, who quickly deleted his posts, renounced his meme-creating ways, and apologized in a long, seemingly sincere post to /r/The_Donald. CNN declined to name the user, but said, somewhat mysteriously, that it “reserves the right” to publish his identity in the future if he continued to create offensive content.

To many on the right, that caveat felt like a threat issued by a powerful news organization to a private citizen: Fall in line, or we’ll expose you.

CNN quickly clarified its intent, saying that it had “decided not to publish the name of the Reddit user out of concern for his safety,” but the battle had already begun. Right-wing Twitter users excoriated CNN for what they saw as a threat against the Reddit user, and the hashtag #CNNBlackmail began to spread as thousands of the network’s detractors began to pile on.

“A multibillion dollar TV network blackmailing a private citizen into not making funny videos about it is not journalism, CNN,” tweeted Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

To understand how Reddit memes could ignite a national controversy and put a multibillion-dollar media company on its heels, it helps to know that right-wing meme-makers are a particularly prolific and vocal internet subcommunity. They gather in clusters on Reddit, and similar sites like 4chan and Discord, in order to trade images and strategize about disseminating them to wide audiences.

Their goal isn’t necessarily political influence. For some, it’s a game whose only goal is to impress and entertain other meme enthusiasts; for others, it’s a more serious pursuit designed to push the limits of discourse, either by riling up the enemy camp or by creating something that becomes ammunition for their own side. A particularly clever creation (or “dank meme,” in the jargon of the trade) might be shared by a prominent alt-right Twitter user or, in rare cases, by a bona fide public figure.

But in instances where the meme-making community finds itself facing off against a clear antagonist, its tactics can be swift and brutal, and can catch large institutions off guard.

In these communities, a feud with CNN over the identity of a Reddit user provided a perfect storm of hot-button topics: speech policing, journalist ethics and the perceived bullying of right-wing sympathizers on social media. The fact that the media organization in question was CNN, which has been singled out for criticism in recent weeks by the Trump administration, only added fuel to the fire.

In a Reddit message, a user known as ShadowMan3001, one of the moderators of /r/The_Donald, told me that memes were “by far the fastest, and likely the most effective, means of spreading an idea” in today’s oversaturated media environment. He added that CNN’s statement about possibly releasing the identity of the Reddit meme-maker was “a glaring example of their absolute lack of not only journalistic integrity, but basic morality.”

That was certainly the theme of the right wing’s subterranean meme machines as they kicked into high gear Wednesday. The Reddit forum r/CNNmemes, a self-described outpost for “memes of CNN or other failing MSM networks,” began to fill with user-generated images. One user pasted CNN’s logo into a still image from what appeared to be an ISIS hostage video, implying that the network had coerced the Reddit user behind the pro-Trump meme into making an apology. Another user superimposed CNN’s logo onto the face of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator.

On Discord, a chat app for gamers where several right-wing factions congregate in private groups, the news of a new, high-profile feud was cause for celebration. Some even likened the effort to humiliate CNN to Peter Thiel’s well-publicized campaign to take down Gawker, another longtime enemy of the online right.

“I want to see CNN go down like Gawker,” wrote one user, posting to a pro-Trump Discord channel called Centipede Central.

“Fight the FAKE NEWS with all of your strength and all of your wit,” wrote another user.

Remarkably, the CNN episode has managed to unite the notoriously fractious right-wing meme community under a common cause. On 4chan, a message board known for off-color humor and offensive memes, one poster wrote: “Right now, Reddit and r/TheDonald are our allies. We may not like them but we don’t have to. We are fighting a common enemy ... everyone should be producing as many anti-CNN memes as possible.”

By midday on Wednesday, the meme armies on Reddit, 4chan, Discord and other right-wing enclaves had declared that “the second meme war” had begun. (Meme War I, according to these groups, was getting Mr. Trump elected in the first place.)

Eventually, as is all too common in these kinds of internet feuds, the meme community’s ironic, half-joking battle cries turned into serious discussions of tactics and strategies that would have real-world consequences for their enemies. Pro-Trump Twitter users began harassing Andrew Kaczynski, the CNN reporter who reported on the Reddit poster, as well as exposing the personal information of other CNN staff members. Others pledged to complain to CNN’s advertisers one by one about the network’s coverage. They would, they said, stop at nothing to inflict pain on the president’s media foes, one grainy image at a time.

“The next meme war is upon us,” wrote one Discord user, “and we will win.”