Larry Bensky Original Review

Plague Journal #20: The Coming Memepocalypse

Of all the things 'going viral' which ones will matter the most?

Larry Bensky, a long-time radio and print journalist. has been writing his “Journal of the Plague Year” since mid-March for the Anderson Valley Advertiser and Scheerpost. He welcomes your comments and suggestions:

By Larry Bensky / Berkeley, August 3, 2020

On the same day as the present occupant of the White House informed us that the election which will determine whether he continues to reside there may or may not be held as scheduled on November 3, depending on whether he decides to postpone it, a curious article appeared, buried in the New York Times Business pages: “A Meme Campaign Seeks to Stop Trump’s Re-election.” (NY Times, 7/30/2020):

“This new meme campaign is primarily focused on vote-by-mail registration, which Mr. Trump has repeatedly falsely stated would lead to a “rigged” election,” reported the Times of the collab between Meme 2020, The Lincoln Project and Rhyme Combinator. “This week, it has begun rolling out across dozens of popular Instagram meme pages.”

With characteristic incoherence, President Trump quickly tried to roll back what he had said hours earlier on Twitter about postponing the election. “I just feel … I don’t want a delay … I want to have the election … but I also don’t want to have to wait for three months and then find out that the ballots are all missing and the election doesn’t mean anything. That’s what’s going to happen, see, that’s common sense. And everyone knows it. Smart people know it. Stupid people may not know it. And some people don’t want to talk about it. But these elections will be fixed, they’ll be fraudulent, they’ll be rigged.”

Even his staunchest supporters, like Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy and Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham quickly distanced themselves from Trump.

It turns out, however, that Trump was lucky. His Tweeted words were irrevocably there. But they won’t become a video meme. As they would have had he been taped saying them. Because such memes are weapons in a big, hidden battle now going on, centered on the technical contents of political speech.

So, what is a meme anyway?

It’s pretty simple. They’re images or video clips that are easily shared digitally, often with accompanying text and/or audio, which quickly, and usually humorously, convey a larger message. They are designed to “go viral.” The audio may be in sync with a speaker, though not necessarily authentic. Video memes have antecedents, as does every form of human behavior. In this case, “dubbing,” used to “translate” movies for audiences which don’t speak a film’s original language, has been used since the 1930’s. Earlier, there had been many pictorial examples of “doctored” images. It has been going on since its inception in the early 1860s, when a photo of President Lincoln’s head was combined with a photo of John C. Calhoun, a former vice-president and staunch slavery advocate.

Calhoun had died ten years earlier, but someone – it’s never been clear who – thought his strong posture was more “presidential” than Lincoln’s gaunt frame. Subsequently there were other photos and video clips that went “viral” and played key roles in the careers of such people as Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ, Richard Nixon, George Wallace and George H.W. Bush (“read my lips: no new taxes!”)

So why the concern now? Two main reasons. First, distribution via the internet is so fast and pervasive that it dwarfs anything previously known. Second, because an audience for just about any content now can be assembled and transferred, with less than ever regard for whether that content may or may not be stating its message “responsibly.” An old adage says the cure for bad speech is more speech. It was most notably stated in a 1927 Supreme Court opinion by Justice Louis B. Brandeis. “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

If there be time to expose through discussion….” is a BIG “if” however. Nowadays, there is no such time. Read it on screen, weep or laugh, millions of others are having immediate reactions, too. And there are weak, if any, “processes of education.” The mainstream media (MSM) giants like the Washington Post and the New York Times keep running track of the lies, omissions, and distortions by Trump. According to WashPo, the total is over 20K now. Some are ludicrous, some are harmless, but many are death sentences for anyone taking them in as truth (think about COVID-19 and masks).

It is not just political figures who abuse “speech,” however. The technology to do so is accessible. Just ask a recent New Jersey high school graduate, 17-year-old Graham Ivan Clark, who’s now facing 30 serious felony charges for sending out bogus tweets designed to look as if they came from some folks you may have heard of: Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Clark’s game was to pretend to be those people and send out “business” communications urging recipients to send money, which he promised to double. How many did so, and how much they sent, will become a matter for courts to take up if his case isn’t dropped or settled.

There’s also the astonishingly effective “ransomware” crew, which sends out warnings to state and local governments that unless they pay a ransom to get their data back, their systems for doing things like assessing taxes and registering voters will crash. The demands are relatively affordable (around $85,000) but taken together they are estimated to amount to $1.5 billion this year. The FBI and the department of Homeland Security have “issued advisories” and “recommendations” about the situation. But despite the all-pervasive multi-agency government snooping and scooping operations, no one has yet been arrested and no money has been recovered.

There’s more coming. This week’s New Yorker contains a long piece by a skilled young British researcher, Ed Ceasar, who’s spent several years looking into an abandoned World War II super-bunker outside a small, mostly unknown German city. It was empty for several years after Hitler’s demise, and then bought by a semi-vagabond from Holland, who dealt drugs and used quite a few himself. He started hanging out with fellow druggies who had computer skills. The rest, as they say, reads like fiction, although it’s hard to believe all but the most skilled fiction writers could invent such a story.

The vagabond renamed himself Xennt. He and his buddies set about creating what they thought were impenetrable levels of cybersecurity.

“Most people use only a small fraction of the internet,” Caesar writes. “A small percentage of Web content is accessed through search engines like Google, or discussion sites like Reddit or news sites like Beneath the ‘clear’ Web that most people use is a vast amount of non-searchable and password-protected content including government reports, scientific material, and medical records. This section of the internet is known as the “deep” Web. Beneath this level is the ‘dark’ Web which allows users to communicate without betraying their identities or addresses.” (“Underworld,” The New Yorker 8/3-10.)

Using deep and dark web tools, Trump memesters, according to the N.Y. Times article, are active. As are anti-Trump activists. For example, taking advantage of the public’s sudden and strong support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement, they’ve put together Trump’s calling BLM supporters “Thugs!” with an image of an elderly Black woman using a walker peacefully protesting.

And so those empty pizza boxes and crushed soda cans still decorate sparse offices in cheap buildings in Washington and elsewhere. But the pizza nibblers and soda guzzlers are more likely to be cobbling together memes on their laptops, rather than working on TV ads or mailing pieces.

After fake and distorted on-line material was seen to have been a factor in Trump’s tear-down of Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election, there was much babble about how serious it was, how anonymous it was, and how frightening it was to contemplate its presence in our clunky, money-drenched and unrepresentative political system. The babble went nowhere except into articles and books mostly read by the tiny percentage of people seriously interested in such matters.

Any discussion of meme methods gets buried in “real life” by endless reporting on the politics of pandemic panic. And a desperate media attempt to continue to provide the “entertainment” which is where they make the big bucks. All live performances, including made-for-TV shows, have been postponed or cancelled. Hollywood is out of business. And what does get on TV is severely compromised by virus-related technology limitations.

So, many of us, despite misgivings about how it’s presented on TV, eagerly awaited something. And what we got is the new, shortened nationally broadcast baseball and basketball seasons. With new rules designed to protect the health of players. Chief and most obvious among those 93 stipulations is that there be no spectators, a tacit acknowledgement that COVID-19 could have been ‘levelled out” months ago by reducing human interactions.

“Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas said 95% of all cases over the past three weeks were tied to social gatherings,” according to an article in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. “That should inform local public health policy,” he said, adding that “people are getting infected at birthday parties, weddings, and funerals.” (“Poor data collection hampers tracking” S.F. Chronicle 8/2/2020)

It was quickly apparent as baseball ran through a series of “Opening Days” that this lesson wasn’t being heeded. Players were shown sometimes wearing masks, sometimes not. Sometimes they sat in mixed groups, some masked, others not. Some teams had seats in the stands (otherwise occupied by “cutout” figures) for players not immediately needed in the dugouts and bullpens. Some players slapped (unprotected) hands, others used elbow to elbow greetings. Some teams danced around, hugging and shouting, when something they liked happened. In the heat of the moment, “We just forgot” was how they would explain their dangerous behavior.

The coronavirus, however, did not forget. Quickly there were cases reported on four teams, and games were cancelled. One team, the Miami Marlins, had 19 virus cases. Another team, The Toronto Blue Jays were told by Canadian authorities that if they travelled to the U.S. where most Major League games are played, they would have to go into 14-day isolation quarantines upon return, as would all teams from the U.S. if they arrived to play in Toronto.

The league schedule has become hopeless. Two teams have played a third of the games that others have played. And more infections are reported daily. In those pizza box and soda can retreats, laptops are clicking furiously, trying to put together for spreading via social media the Donald Trump, or Joe Biden, or Nancy Pelosi meme for Our National Pastime’s 2020 demise.

A bigger question is: does any of this meme-centered attitude manipulation really matter? There is no reliable data. But the most recent polling indicates that fewer then ten percent of those who intend to vote for president in November have yet to decide who to vote for. How many see memes? Moreover, with voting by mail estimated to jump to more than half the votes cast this year, from 26 percent in 2016, and with dates varying by state when ballots will be received by voters, and by which they have to be returned, it’s a massive puzzle and memes recede in potential effectiveness.

Add the possibility that some states will be unprepared to count a deluge of votes even weeks after Election Day. So, we then might have lawsuits which don’t have time to be fully litigated. And a Republican Supreme Court to decide who “won,” as it did in 2000. Leaving the merry meme-makers swimming in the same water (or sewer) as the rest of us. While the Putins and Erdogans and Orbans and Dutertes and Xi Jinpings point fingers and snicker about what our braggadocious “democracy” has come to. 

Sara Cooper does Trump lip syncs.

[To read previous entries of the “Journal of the Plague Year” click here]

Larry Bensky
Larry Bensky

Larry Bensky is a literary and political journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media, as well as a teacher and political activist. He is known for his work with Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and for the nationally-broadcast hearings he anchored for the Pacifica network

Copyright 2020 Larry Bensky