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How Memes Became Weapons in the Culture Wars

MC: Well, it’s like an idea. Usually, a humorous joke. It’s something that gets passed around to a lot of people and becomes its own cultural touchstone. I don’t know. How am I doing?

LG: I think that’s pretty nebulous, but we’re bringing someone on the show who I hope can clear it up for us.

MC: Good. We need an expert.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

LG: Welcome to Gadget Lab. I’m Lauren Goode. I’m a senior writer at WIRED.

MC: I am Michael Calore. I’m a senior editor at WIRED.

LG: This week, we’re joined by Emily Dreyfuss. Emily is a senior editor at Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and she also happens to be a former colleague of ours at WIRED, where she wrote about the mBot, Alexa, cybersecurity issues, and much, much more. Emily, welcome back to Gadget Lab.

Emily Dreyfuss: Yay! I’m so happy to be here, you guys. I feel like I’m returning home for a minute.

MC: Aw.

LG: In many ways you are, because you were known for the mBot story in which you appeared virtually in a bunch of WIRED meetings, like courtesy of a robot. So now, we don’t have the mBot with us, but we have you on Zoom.

ED: Yeah. I feel like I was an early adopter of the virtual workspace situation. When everyone was freaking out in the beginning of coronavirus like, “How are we all going to get this done?” I was thinking, “Man, I’ve actually been working remotely alone in my home for going on a decade now.”

MC: Wow.

LG: So Emily has been living in the Metaverse much longer than the rest of us. I think that’s like a whole other podcast episode. We’ll talk about the Metaverse at some point, but today, we are talking about memes, because that’s the subject of a book that you and your team had been working on.

ED: Yes.

LG: So internet memes started out harmless enough, right? A few pictures of cats and maybe some grammatically incorrect texts. I mean, how bad could it be? But in reality, memes have been deployed as a weapon in culture wars for more than a decade, and they’re even more persuasive than most people realize. A well-placed meme on somebody’s social media timeline can lead them down a rabbit hole of radicalization, misinformation, even extremism. So, Emily, you’ve been working on this book. It’s called Drafted Into the Meme Wars, and it’s about how memes have fueled whole ideological factions and shaped our politics in the real world. But first, take us through the history of memes, and let’s go back to that question I asked Mike at the beginning of the show. What is a meme exactly, and when did they really become a thing?

ED: OK. Really good question. So I am writing this book with my team at Harvard, which is led by a sociologist named Joan Donovan. She’s a sociologist of techno culture and movements, and how they are fomented online, and the interaction between those movements and the internet. So she is really like a foremost and inspiring expert on how media online gets used to bring people together. Then, the other person we’re writing the book with is our senior researcher, a man named Brian Friedberg, and he’s an ethnographer who … He calls himself a digital ethnographer, an anthropologist, which means he basically lives inside the communities of the internet that use this media to become movements. So the process of writing this book for me has been learning about memes a lot, because as an internet reporter, I have to say that I ignored memes for far too long, because they seemed trivial, and they seemed like jokes, and they seemed like something I could didn’t have to pay attention to, because they didn’t carry real-world import.

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