Florian Cramer gave a stimulating, insightful and discerning speech into 21st century visual culture and its recent political affiliations. Topics included fascist imagery and trolling culture online, exploring websites such as ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘The Daily Stormer’ as well as the increasing affiliation between Breitbart and the alt-right. The event highlighted the problematic notion of ‘anonymous posting’ online, opening up dialogues and consideration into what it might mean to preserve identities online and provide a space that gives users the ability to create content unattached to personal information.
Meme warfare, the use of online alt-right language, hate symbols, and the Gamergate controversy involving sexism, online harassment and video game culture were also discussed. Cramer identified the potential uses of image board sites such as 4chan and 8chan - in their nature, these sites allow for the creation of anonymous posting as one of the last places of ‘anarchy’ on the internet. Yet this also creates a space for the production of visual images displaying graphic, racist and sexist images, enhancing the ‘spreadability’ of alt-right ideologies. It should be noted that it is also problematic to pin an ideology onto an anonymous image board that in fact has no set ideals or goals, especially since the term ‘alt-right’ currently lacks a formal definition. Cramer noted that due to the nature of the medium, anti-politically correct sentiment is often rife within image board forums. He asked the audience to consider the difficulty in separating those engaging in this online culture for entertainment and those engaging in alt-right ideological discourse.
One audience member asked whether there might be a potential space for ‘Leftist memes’, to which Cramer discussed the historical use of other visual political attacks. The sustainability of the '15 minutes of fame' -type meme culture was critiqued by some audience members who questioned its longevity in the political spectrum. It was widely recognised during the event that the tactical genius of the alt-right’s online visual warfare stemmed from the fact that it often pre-empts its own parody. The recent controversy concerning the ‘alt-right art show’ displayed at a London art gallery linked well with the discussion as the gallery in question faced heavy criticism for providing a platform for fascist imagery, ideology and individuals identifying with the white supremacist movement. Cramer suggested to the audience to consider whether allowing such a public art show was necessarily negative. He acknowledged that by exposing certain images people might become more aware of the visual culture of the alt-right and its propagandistic tactics. What I enjoyed most about the discussion was that issues were left open to interpretation and consideration – audience members were encouraged to form their own opinions.
What also struck me the most about the event was how recognisable several memes and visual images were – almost everyone in the audience was familiar with ‘Pepe the frog’. The lack of context inherent in the general public’s understanding of meme culture for me was the most concerning aspect – people were aware of the images without understanding their potential political connotations. This idea linked back to the problematic notion of the lack of media literacy within the general public. The spreading of fake news and misinformation, alternative facts and the rising ‘culture of mistrust’ that we hear so much about these days all relate back to the idea of media illiteracy. This in turn feeds into widespread anxieties surrounding digital media as a whole. At the end of the discussion, I left the event considering the possibilities of media literacy – or as it were – ‘meme literacy’. How plausible would it be to create a general consciousness among internet users regarding source-checking, fact-checking and awareness of how information is spread online? The event highlighted the potential for arts organisations and educational institutions to foster the initiative demonstrated by FACT in organising events designed to spread awareness, or at least encourage dialogues, about the importance of media literacy.
The question still remains as to whether a higher level of media literacy can be achieved amongst the general public in order to combat, or merely understand, the potentials of online media platforms in the ‘post-modern political age’ of irony, ambiguity and propagandistic tactics.
Find out about other activities relating to How much of this is fiction., showcased at FACT until 21 May, here.