Memetic Radicalization: Humor as a Violent Form of Politics

In the years leading up to the rise of Trumpism, Pepe the Frog, a popular internet meme, went viral among global right-wing populism. It was about a green anthropomorphic frog with a humanoid body that always said the same phrase: “Feels Good Man.” Unexpectedly, Pepe became a representative meme on the internet when his popularity skyrocketed on Myspace, Gaia Online, and 4chan in 2008. From then on, its use by Donald Trump supporters, especially alt-right and white supremacist groups, was so strong that many scholars consider it to be one of the indispensable memetic elements in the digital communication that propelled Trumpism to the U.S. Presidency.

Pepe the Frog soon made its way to Europe, where it was adopted by several right-wing populist groups, such as the Front National (now known as Rassemblement National) which linked Pepe to Marine Le Pen. The meme continued to travel quickly and represented different forms of irony and humor in Latin America, Africa, and Hong Kong. Its strength meant that it was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols alongside the swastika and the cross in the Ku Klux Klan’s drop of blood. The enormous power of this meme caused some scholars to start thinking about the importance of humor and meme imagery in the processes of globalization and political radicalization.

In 2021, Fielitz and Ahmed of the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) published a report for the European Commission entitled: “It’s not funny anymore. Far-right extremists’ use of humour.” The authors defended the importance of studying these forms of violent communication and the necessary learning that could be promoted from the study of different regions of the world, such as Latin American countries. Thus, during the recent Brazilian election campaign, I was able to continue studying the political behavior of the voters of President Jair Bolsonaro. In my current project, I study how this specific form of memetic communication contributes to understanding the normalization of violence in the Latin American far right.

In these months, thousands of images and short TikTok videos flooded social networks in Brazil. The memes incited an unknown pleasure that was not easy to decipher. The humor exercised in the electoral campaign was a violation of the dignity of LGTBIQ+, racialized or left-wing collectives, but this violence was presented in a code that made it seem like a benign action. Most Bolsonarist sympathizers found the jokes about these collectives funny, as they were somehow attacking a social and moral norm, what they called “politically correct”. Attacking these collectives made them laugh since the attack on this social and moral norm was simultaneously combined with a particular code that gave a benign character to the violation of this norm.

Thus, my informants laughed when observing caricatured images of future president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva being tortured, transformed into an animal, or denigrated: “It’s funny, they are laughing at a thief”. In the same way, the interviewees laughed at images showing dogs supporting Bolsonaro, given that these would be devoured by hordes of hungry supporters of PT (Worker’s Party); they also made fun of the body hair of feminist women or the numerous reproduction of Afro-Brazilian collectives that would like to receive social aids that the thousands of memes represented in their various forms.

Humor functions on the extreme right as a pleasurable way of disinhibiting prejudices. The process of political radicalization means that there is an increasing shift from the notion of malign violence, that is, violence that cannot be joked about, to benign violence, which would be the object of humor.

As racism, sexism, and other forms of violence became normalized in the rhetoric of Bolsonarism, the attack on these groups could be made explicit more naturally. Political adversaries were represented in an increasingly explicitly violent manner in the electoral campaign, in which it was possible to joke about their death, castration, amputation, and humiliation through pornographic or dehumanized assemblies.

In an era marked by online misinformation and increasing levels of social polarization, there is a growing interest in public debate about the appropriate role memetic communication should play in addressing harmful activities. The role of humor in the processes of political polarization and radicalization has so far not been sufficiently studied, although recent research shows the similarities with historical fascism: the construction of antagonists through burlesque images, specifically of Jewish people, gypsies, and the LGTBIQ+ community.

There is a fine line between laughter and humiliation, comedy and tragedy, and humor and harm. Humor becomes a fundamental code in understanding the cognitive dissonance of the far-right, for whom it functions as a form of veiled violence. In Latin America, the postcolonial condition implies that the elements of right-wing populism, such as authoritarianism, militarism, and racism, are encoded through particular communicative forms.

Memetic communication moves in the codes of humor and irony, where international regulations and norms are ambiguous. The internationalization of humorous culture is underway in the far-right of the Latin American environment, so it is urgent to study modes of regulation and education about the use of these “soft” codes, which play a central role in the processes of political radicalization.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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