White Supremacism as Meme: How Reddit is Breeding a New Generation of Violent Racism

“4chan is leaking.” This is what users of the link sharing website Reddit say when they see a certain sort of comment, typically a personal anecdote that begins plausibly but rapidly escalates into the outlandish and the perverse. It is a style characteristic of some of the message boards of 4chan, a more insular online forum whose community is drawn towards entertainment of the more shocking and/or titillating variety. To say that 4chan is leaking is to identify a Redditor as being a member of both communities, a dual citizen who carries to Reddit the distinctive discourse of 4chan.

If 4chan leaks then Reddit floods. In Facebook statuses, comment sections, and twitter streams the signifiers of Reddit abound, proliferated by its users. Sometimes it is the signature constellation of interests and topics that reveal a Redditor. She might be relaying some pithy slogan about the importance of digital freedom, the cultural significance of bacon, or the deeply flawed nature of Internet Explorer. Or she might be saying “For science!” or “tl;dr…” or “So brave!” or “I see what you did there!” or “I, for one, welcome our new _____ overlords,” or “Shut up and take my money!” or “An’ Frankly, I did Nazi that coming!” or “Faith in humanity restored!” or any of the other phrases peculiar to Reddit.

It is a strange feature of human sociality that a person’s online activity is revealed in her speech. We conceive of ourselves as free agents, yet channel the expressions and ideas of our associates to the point where our words serve as recognizable signs of group membership. In such communal expressions we see that culture is not merely an explanation for the strangeness of distant others, but, rather, is something universal, manifested in all of us.

But how does the community come to modify and inflect our behavior in this way? The answer lies in the iconography of Reddit, the pictures and bold white capital letters of the Internet meme. In the context of the Internet, a meme is an image or type of image accompanied by a caption that follows a formula particular to the meme. The classic example is the lolcat, a meme wherein text is superimposed over a picture of a cat to describe its present state from its own, half-witted perspective: “I can has prom date?” asks the kitten wearing the bow tie.

(Image source)

On Reddit, visitors will see more contemporary memes, ones particular to the site. Inarticulate cats have been replaced by a set of characters that pass on bits of Reddit conventional wisdom via macro text. Some relay explicit advice while others pick out everyday moments that are common but not often discussed, the airing of which lets viewers feel a shared sense of experience. It’s a new package on an old tradition, the latest not-so-funny reincarnation of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed…” monologues. More importantly, these images embody Reddit’s close association with “memes” as understood in a more technical sense: ideas (or behavior) that replicates through non-genetic transmission.

Reddit is an ideal platform for meme transmission. According to a recent Pew Poll, six percent of all American adults who use the Internet are Reddit users. This sizable audience represents an army of potential hosts for memes—a potential that is readily converted into actualized adoption and propagation via the participatory nature of Reddit. By having the audience contribute all of its content, Reddit encourages people to not merely consume its devices and truisms but to adopt them as their own, to internalize and redisseminate them like an animal regurgitating a recent meal so as to eat it again.


(Image source)


This recursive process is powered by a democratic points system wherein Redditors are awarded “karma” for each “upvote” that their submitted content receives. Content that draws a high number of upvotes will then float to the top of the site, giving it greater visibility. Through this system, Redditors are incentivized to post the content that they believe will garner upvotes—and the surest method for achieving this end is to mimic what has been successful in the past.


(Image source)

The most brazen form of content mimesis is the “repost,” where a Redditor resubmits someone else’s highly-upvoted content in the hope that it will be highly-upvoted once again. Beyond this blatant duplication, however, there are countless shades of karma-seeking imitation, ranging from the repackaging of a popular idea to the use of a popular package for a new idea. Thus, while only a few users resort to exact imitation, Reddit nonetheless ends up filled with the repeated catchphrases and concepts of the meme.

The spread of such concepts beyond the parameters of Reddit reflects the platform’s unparalleled ability to incubate memes. With its millions of users, the site has a huge pool of contributing talent to generate the content from which a meme might emerge. At the same time, the voting system provides users with near-instant feedback, allowing them to refine their submissions and perfect their intuitive sense of what will go viral. And, since the most popular content also becomes the most visible, users are provided with a gold standard to mimic and draw upon for inspiration. This combination results in a site capable of churning out highly-seductive and transmissible catchphrases—ones so powerful that they have spread far beyond the boundaries of Reddit to the anglophonic culture at large.

Indeed, the memes of Reddit are bred so strong that they easily displace locally-grown culture, filling up individuals’ cultural vocabularies at the expense of their own unique or subcultural expressions and ideas. The result is a striking homogenization of culture wherein New York Times columnists parrot the idioms of webcomics made by pre-teens, categories like the fedora-wearing “neckbeard” are widely-shared, and Reddit observations like the trite “deliciousness of bacon” meme are near-impossible to avoid. Although there are few quantitative measures that might confirm the observation, Redditisms seem ubiquitous in the broader cultural discourse to the point where they have begun to drown out localized cultural variation and diversity.

Whether this growing homogeneity seems worthy of lament will vary according to one’s taste. For those who thrive on novelty and originality, the Redditization of culture is a disaster, with cultural content devolving into an endless repetition of the same set of tired banalities. By contrast, those who enjoy familiarity and the sense of community that comes with shared expression will find comfort in a cultural world bound together by interlacing memes.

Such evenhandedness is harder to muster when it comes to Reddit’s mimetic influence on politics. Just as pictures of cats and affirmation of bacon circulate as memes, so, too, do ideology and political argument. Bits of reasoning are picked up and redeployed in debates by those who find them clarifying or whose presuppositions the arguments support. This circulation of ideas is particularly visible on Reddit where the same debates are had over and over again, each successive iteration providing participants with the opportunity to refine their arguments and try out whatever new ones they have picked up in the intervening period. The most appealing of these get then get upvoted, and the same meme-generating process that spews catch-phrases across the Internet manifests itself again, now with arguments as its object.

Were Reddit an ideologically-diverse site, the mimetic process might be understood as making dialectical progress, with different schools of thought co-evolving to the point where perhaps some reconciliation might be reached. In point of fact, however, the overwhelming majority of Redditors share a narrow set of ideological presuppositions—the result being a site that more closely resembles a crowd-sourced think tank generating ever more infectious arguments for dissemination to the masses.

Most of the ideologies promoted by Reddit are fairly benign—e.g., anti-interventionism, science-based skepticism, support for marijuana legalization, a distaste for intellectual property, and others. Reddit is not, as some have so glibly misdescribed it, a collection of “Ayn Rand Spark Notes,” but, rather, leans strongly towards economic populism, with large quantities of scorn regularly heaped on those who espouse even the slightest hint of Randianism or principled libertarianism. In more general terms, the Reddit Consensus lies somewhere on the leftward side of the Democratic Party with the average Redditor concerned about inequality, in favor of LGBT rights, and supportive of government spending and moderate redistribution.

What is troubling, though, is that such innocuous politics now coexist with a rising tide of racism that is slowly engulfing the site. Reddit has long been reactionary when it comes to the politics of race and gender, but typically that has taken the more-moderate form of the privileged person who petulantly drags his feet in resistance to the implication that he has done something wrong or is the beneficiary of injustice. Thus, while the average Redditor might have habitually bashed the /r/ShitRedditSays subreddit—a subforum whose subscribers call out problematic attitudes and speech—his attacks often seemed motivated more by a fear of one day being an ShitRedditSays target than an affirmation of sexist or racist tenets. Thus, while Redditors have disappointingly exhibited a greater ability to empathize with those who might be publicly embarrassed for holding oppressive opinions than those actually oppressed by such opinions, popular regard for the opinions themselves has always seemed limited to a few extremist subreddits.

Recently, however—and particularly on the subject of race—Reddit seems to be increasingly dominated by argument-memes that are explicitly anti-egalitarian with respect to identity. Whether it is the frequent discussions of “black crime,” KKK apologism (related: holocaust apologism), or just explicit bigotry, the comments on Reddit when race is brought up have come to resemble those found on explicitly white supremacist forums. Though difficult to quantify, it is a trend that many Redditors have noted—a proliferation of racism that appears to be less of an outside invasion than an internal mutation which, by means of mimesis, has spread like cancer throughout the body. Meanwhile, antiracists appear to have largely retreated from the most popular subreddits, abandoning the bulk of Reddit territory to their antagonists.

This process has been fueled by an active core of racist ideologues who devote significant time and attention to proselytizing on Reddit. These demagogues—who inhabit subreddits with charming names like /r/whiterights, /r/whitepride, and /r/niggers—seek to piggyback on Reddit’s anti-PC sentiment by passing off pernicious stereotypes as “I’m going to hell for this”-type jokes. And, of course, any time the white supremacist trope of “black crime” can be worked into a discussion, these extremists will be on hand to insert their propaganda.

These tactics are further augmented by “brigading”—a Reddit term for when an organized group of ideological Redditors swarm a given thread and vote up the comments they agree with and downvote those that contradict their views. Though the practice is officially outlawed on Reddit, it is difficult to prevent, and is proven in its effectiveness when it comes to swaying popular opinion. One recent study has shown that that people are more likely to upvote something that has already received an upvote—particularly when the subject pertains to politics, culture, and society. The implication is that brigading influences how people perceive a comment’s quality; by upvoting arguments en masse, ideological Redditors can make their views seem popular, reasonable, and moderate. At the same time, downvoting comments makes them less visible, effectively burying opposing views under ideologically-favorable material.


(A variant of this meme was once highly-upvoted on Reddit. Image Source)


While certain subreddits brigade spontaneously in knee-jerk outrage, the racists of Reddit have explicitly embraced the tactic as a means of popularizing their message. Indeed, the Reddit administrators recently banned /r/niggers for repeatedly and unapologetically engaging in the practice, while blocking some of the more vitriolic users from the site entirely. Whether the bans have been effective in curbing the racist brigades is unclear. However, even if effective, they seem too little, too late, with racist vote manipulation having apparently already established a grassroots racism that renders the practice superfluous.

Even more concerning is the possibility that the racist ideology on Reddit will be translated into violent practice. Reddit’s tendency to spawn outrage and malicious mobs is already well-documented. The medium is conducive to such behavior, spawning outrage through decontextualization. On Reddit, interested parties can present their side of the story as though it were the whole truth—a limited framing that obscures the complexity and mitigating factors that might exonerate the accused. In this way, complex human conflicts arising from legitimate differences are too often reduced to the sort of morality plays capable of inciting self-righteous mobs to seek vengeance. Combine this tendency with engrained racism and one cannot help but worry that IRL lynch mobs might emerge once again.


(Image source)

If this seems alarmist, consider the recent Reddit thread with the Stormfront-worthy title “Racist black kids bully white toddler” that had to shutter the comments section due to witch-hunting and the revelation of personal information. Or, the fact that when a video circulated of a (black) security guard tossing out a belligerent (black) woman and tasering her, Redditors heavily upvoted a post stating “If someone tells me this is black culture…. it needs to be eradicated,” before donating over $23,000 to better arm and equip him. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder, a white supremacist member of neighboring 4chan’s fringe-right /pol/ board hacked into Martin’s email in an effort to discredit the slain teen and exonerate his killer. These examples are just some of the more visible incidents and, while some are more clear-cut instances of violent white supremacism than others, they all lend substantial credence to the idea that an increasingly-racist Reddit might give rise to more organized racial harassment.

Beyond this terror, there is no small disappointment in witnessing the co-optation of what is otherwise a striking technological platform. On Reddit, millions of people with wildly different backgrounds come together to exchange ideas and debate politics as equals (insofar as one’s identity is protected). In this respect, it is an impressive realization of democratic communicative potential, the logical conclusion of the process that was first sparked by the invention of the printing press or even the written word. The fact that white supremacists have managed to subvert this emerging communicative space to further racial hatred is mortifying.

Yet the struggle for the future of Reddit—and, by extension, the public sphere—is not over. The political left has devoted much time and attention to critiquing Reddit, but it now needs to embrace the forum—to upvote early and often so as to sway the undecided away from the fringe right. At the same time, the comments section on Reddit provides the unique opportunity of reaching millions of people who would never think to pick up a copy of Dissent from a newsstand. The white supremacists are already capitalizing on this captive audience. It’s time the left pushed back.


~ Guest blogger Jesse Elias Spafford (@jessespafford) is a research assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University. He enjoys writing about power, politics, and culture.


Leave a Reply