‘The perfect archetype of a meme leader’: Harvard scholars say internet culture propelled Trump to the presidency | New


Harvard professors and researchers discussed the role memes played in former President Donald Trump’s 2016 success at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum on Monday.

Garrett M. Graff ’03 — director of cyber initiatives at Aspen Digital — moderated the panel, which included Gabriella Coleman, professor of anthropology at Harvard; Joan Donovan, director of research at the Shorenstein Center; Emily Dreyfuss, editor of the Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project; and Brian Friedberg, principal investigator in the Technology and Social Change Project at the Shorenstein Center.

Donovan kicked off the event by discussing the effects of internet commercialization, which she says has led to diminished privacy and increased reliance on the virtual world.

“We could say the internet became a problem the first time someone bought a pizza from dominos.com,” Donovan said. “This layer of e-commerce takes us away from this free information space.”

The internet’s ability to track consumers across apps and search engines using their personal and financial information, coupled with society’s growing reliance on the internet, has led to what some scholars describe as “private capitalism”. surveillance,” according to Donovan.

“It could just be capitalism,” Donovan added. “But overall we’re dealing with a system that’s a bit of a rogue in the sense that it’s a lot of things for different people.”

For President Trump, the internet was a place where he found some of his earliest supporters.

Dreyfuss said a fringe internet movement that promoted its causes through popular culture and memes quickly embraced Trump because “he was and remains almost the perfect archetype of a meme leader.”

“His hair was already a meme,” Dreyfuss said. “He represented a certain type of New York wealth and power and masculinity to those communities, and then he also swore and was inappropriate and did crazy things.”

While members of this fringe movement did not all share political views and beliefs, they collectively embraced Trump because he was “ready to disrupt the system and push the limits of the system,” Dreyfuss said.

Far-right political operatives like Steve Bannon and Roger Stone also identified that Trump could appeal to those who felt disenfranchised by mainstream political movements, according to Dreyfuss.

“They understood that he would be catnip for these alternative media systems and for these people who wanted something different,” she said. “So they played them.”

Donovan said Trump’s success was also attributable, in part, to “a major dismantling of the DNC.”

“You had the birth of PizzaGate, which is a way to get people to pay attention to emails from Podesta,” she said, referring to a conspiracy theory that grew out of of leaked emails belonging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

While Clinton’s campaign was plagued by controversy, it lacked the virality that seemed to follow Trump.

“Hillary Clinton wasn’t memorable, nor was she good at memes,” Donovan said.

Since Clinton’s defeat in 2016, the Democratic Party has increasingly embraced the use of memes in political campaigns. Harvard Kennedy School graduate John K. Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Senate candidate, has drawn attention for his social media accounts, which embrace pop culture memes and trends.

But Dreyfuss cautioned Democrats against embracing meme wars as an effective political strategy to win the election.

“Ideally, meme wars wouldn’t be what drives our politics,” Dreyfuss said.

—Editor Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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