Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: Background and Related Workby@memeology
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Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: Background and Related Work

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In this study, we analyze the top-circulated Facebook memes relating to critical race theory (CRT) to investigate their visual and textual appeals.
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This paper is available on arxiv under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED license.


(1) Alyvia Walters, Rutgers University, USA;

(2) Tawfiq Ammaris, Rutgers University, USA;

(3) Kiran Garimella, Rutgers University, USA;

(4) Shagun Jhaver, Rutgers University, USA.

While Governor Youngkin may have brought critical race theory into public consciousness, it is evident that the sociolegal conceptualizations of CRT are not the same as those that are causing political divisiveness in our current climate. As such, our analysis is dependent on understanding a) what CRT is, really, b) how widely-circulating public discourse on CRT diverges from these established definitions of it, and c) how these public definitions are demarcating the bounds of political in-groups and out-groups in memes.

Critical discourse on race and social media is welldeveloped, and researchers in the field have investigated a range of pertinent topics, including how conversations on race and racism circulate online (Carney 2016; MatamorosFernández 2017; Moody-Ramirez et al. 2021) as well as the interpersonal (Cestone et al. 2022; Lee-Won et al. 2017) and social effects (Ray et al. 2017; Noble 2018) of these discourses. The current study aims to contribute to this literature by analyzing the rhetorical tools through which critical race theory was defined and circulated in Facebook memes, and ends in a discussion of the social significance of this process.

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical race theory (CRT) was established in the 1970s when a group of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars began questioning why the constitutional victories of the civil rights era were stalling, or even seemingly being disintegrated (Delgado and Stefancic 2023). In response to these concerns, CRT posits that the legal system, specifically, but political institutions at large are designed to support whites while marginalizing non-whites in both obvious and coded ways. As Cornel West defines it, CRT is “the historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy (and concomitant hierarchies of gender, class, and sexual orientation)” (West 1996, p. xii). Taking law as a political agent rather than a neutral power structure, critical race theorists investigate how social institutions create and uphold racism, and with a strong activist dimension, they also seek to change these conditions.

As will soon be evident, this legal studies definition is not materializing within most memes considered in this study. However, it does not do to simply state that these memes are incorrect. While they are technically incorrect in an institutional sense, they still make meaning for their audiences–and this community sense of CRT, which gained visibility via artifacts such as memes, may be more politically relevant than the lesser-known institutional definition.

How Communities Make Sense of Things: Knowledge-Building and Epistemology

Communities build knowledge through a shared understanding of the world and often a shared value system. However, in the current U.S. political climate, this shared knowledge building is often not based on credible fact, which has led scholars to develop notions of “post-truth” societies and “fake news” (Rose 2017). Ways of knowing, or epistemologies, are one lens through which we can discuss the construction of community-built knowledge, and in this case, grassroots understandings of critical race theory.

“Political epistemology” is a growing area of research that brings together scholars who are interested in the intersections of political philosophy and epistemology. This juncture provides fertile space to investigate topics such as misinformation, polarization, and the “epistemic virtues (and vices) of citizens, politicians, and political institutions” (Edenberg and Hannon 2021, p.1). The moment we are analyzing — one in which critical race theory is being politicized — lends itself well to theorizations of how political “ways of knowing” materialize and what stakes these epistemologies may have.

Of growing interest in studies of political discourse is what is referred to as the “post-truth” age. The conception of posttruth is directly tied to conceptions of political epistemology because many scholars argue that ways of knowing have been complicated by rising disregard, disbelief, or lack of interest in truth (McIntyre 2018). In a related vein, “bullshit” has also been theorized as a contemporary way of doing politics and can range, discursively, from rambling on about topics that one knows nothing about to crafting complex lies with specific end goals in mind (Cohen, 2002; Frankfurt, 2005; Lackey, 2007).

However, Cassam (2021) argues that the very ideas of “posttruth” or “bullshit” as tools of political epistemology hold far less weight than others suggest and likely do justice to neither the complicated rhetoric deployed by politicians nor to the public’s reaction to these techniques. He questions their effectiveness as tools of description or explanation in political discourse, and he argues that what is usually described as post-truth or bullshit is often far better captured through the lenses of hate speech or propaganda analysis. He writes, “It is a travesty to describe hate speech as mere bullshit since this does not even come close to capturing what is wrong with it and why it works.” Cassam (2021) is not arguing that posttruth and bullshit are not useful concepts, but rather that it is a grave mistake to subsume political epistemological analysis — particularly post-2016, when much discussion of the posttruth politics came to the fore — under the assumed post-truth umbrella. For the purposes of this study, we extend this notion to not only politicians but to those who are disseminating politicized information, as well. We question how useful it is to write off the mis-/disinformation provided in the memes under study as yet another manifestation of post-truth politics.

Political Memes as Objects of Sensemaking

Memes, as defined by Limor Shifman, are “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated, and transformed by individual Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience in the process” (Shifman 2013, p. 367). Due to the grassroots nature of memes, internet circulation of meme-based information stands in stark contrast to that of “media elites:” a status which may lend a level of authenticity not otherwise afforded to traditional media discourse (Burroughs, 2020). Political memes often work to make complex arguments more digestible for a broad audience. They are thus valuable to study for their ability to “[connect] the political to the popular, the political to emotionally charged, affective media” (Burroughs 2020, p. 192).

In what Lankshear and Knobel (2019) deem the “second wave” of online memes, the use of memes as political sensemaking tools, which are often weapons in sociocultural wars, looms large. In recent works, Ross and Rivers (2018) found that political memes reflected in-group tensions throughout the 2016 US presidential primaries, and were subsequently used to delegitimize both candidates–thus creating lines of in- and out-group online communities–in the general campaign cycle. Woods and Hahner (2020) analyzed how the alt-right uses memes to continually re-make what is deemed acceptable discourse on the political right, thus lending authority and sense to increasingly extreme rhetorics within the group bounds. In a study closely related to our own, Moody-Ramirez et al. (2021) investigated memes featuring information on race, oppression, and protest following the marches in response to George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020. They found that memes were a site in which competing senses of reality were being constructed, with often-racist framings of these protests coming to the fore.

As objects of sensemaking, the question of why memes are ripe sites for deepening political divides is pertinent. According to Dean (2018), memes have the potential to serve an Althusserian interpellative function. By this, he means they “ ‘hail’ the viewer into identifying with them, either by agreeing with the political sentiments expressed therein, or by finding them funny (or not).” He argues that memes can consolidate political allegiance, entrench antagonisms, and shape political discourse due to their punchy, shareable nature. Askanius (2021) agrees, noting that the visual aspect of memes makes them highly transmissible because images have the capacity to cut across cultural and linguistic barriers. This easy access can “foster a sense of community and belonging...allow[ing] a target audience to be ‘in’ on the joke and self-identify with the message of that meme.” (p. 116) In the case of fringe ideologies, this sense of belonging can serve as a “gateway” to deeper radicalization and divide (Askanius 2021) through similar appeals that analog, leaflet propaganda made: promises and affirmations of users’ sense of tribalism (Nieubuurt 2021).

The current study contributes to this literature through its attention to the sensemaking functions of memes following the political eruption of CRT in the early 2020s. Through a mixed-methods approach, we claim that these highlycirculated CRT memes compete for validity by using parallel rhetorical tools to define what CRT is, but ultimately land on vastly different definitions in order to accrue in-group approval and make sense of this political flashpoint.