While it’s long been said that 4Chan is where memes are born, we now have proof. The European Union funded the study “On the Origins of Memes by Means of Fringe Web Communities,” which focuses on how memes propagate, with specific interest in racist memes and alt-right memes. They discovered that while 4chan’s racist /pol/ board is the original source of many memes, it’s only once they get posted to the infamous r/The_Donald subreddit that those memes go viral.
The study looked at both mainstream communities (Twitter and Reddit as a whole) and alt-right communities (4chan’s /pol/, the r/The_Donald/ subreddit and Gab). Gab is a socialnetwork that prides itself on being a “champion” of free speech. According to the study, Gab’s userbase is primarily “alt-right users, conspiracy theorists and trolls” with “high volumes of hate speech.”
The researchers were able to identify where memes generally originated, and what caused them to go mainstream. The screenshot of the meme cluster above helps to illustrate the most popular memes they found, though the interactive version is more enlightening, showing the different iterations of memes and where they appeared.
While many of the memes are, on their face, innocuous, the study says the alt-right will often use them to trojan-horse in their ideas, converting them into racist memes and alt-right memes.
For example, the study included the above illustration of mutations to the “Dubs Guy/Check Em” meme. The original, based on a screen-cap from American Psycho, is in the center. As you can see, not all of the versions are racist. Some aren’t even objectionable.
According to Know Your Meme, the “Dubs Guy” meme began as a way to signal when a 4chan poster had made a post where the post ID ended in double-digits. The middle and middle-right are the most common original versions of the meme. From there, the meme mutated into the Rick and Morty and Shrek versions shown, among others.
But in addition to the innocuous versions of the meme, there are also versions with Adolf Hitler, the Trump-coiffed Pepe the Frog and an anti-semitic caricature of Anita Sarkeesian, a frequent target of #GamerGate, which many say evolved into the modern alt-right.
The study found that 4chan’s /pol/ board was the most influential when it comes to racist memes and alt-right memes. But /pol/ was the “least efficient” community when it came to propagating those memes to the mainstream. Instead the study found that r/The_Donald “is very successful in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream Web communities.”
The authors of the study hope their work can be used by social media platforms to help identify hateful content and keep it from spreading.
“Facebook is already taking steps to ban Pepe the Frog used in the context of hate, and our methodology can help them automatically identify hateful variants,” the study says.