Leslie Hahner was in the process of finishing her book “To Become An American,” a study of propaganda directed toward immigrants during World War I, when she started to realize there was a new form of propaganda forming in society — memes.
This idea of memes acting as propaganda inspired her second book “Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right.” The book was co-written by Hahner and Heather Woods, and it was published in January of 2019. On Oct. 3, Hahner and Woods will discuss “Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right” at 3:30 p.m. in the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center Ubuntu Room 202.
Hahner is an associate professor in the communication department with an expertise in visual rhetoric at Baylor University, and Woods is an assistant professor of communications with a specialty in digital rhetoric at Kansas State University. Their final draft of “Make America Meme Again” took nearly 2 years to complete. The book focuses on the idea of how the so-called alt-right, a white nationalist movement, used strategies involving memes to significantly shift the focus of the 2016 presidential election to seemingly harmless, comedic images. Hahner particularly pointed out their focus on neo-Nazis.
During Hahner’s research, she noticed that memes on websites like Reddit would take less than four days before they showed up in the news. Hahner said the idea that these images could be moved from one relatively small community to the wider public in less than a week was fascinating to her.
“I wanted to understand what was happening and how these people were getting the message out so quickly and, unfortunately, effectively,” she said. “They were doing good rhetorical work, but it was horrifying to me to learn that they had done so well with very little resources.”
Hahner explains that meme propaganda is different than propaganda used in the past. Historically, propaganda was used as a way to change people’s way of thinking. Memes, she said, don’t necessarily do the same.
“They tend to shift the focus of public discussion,” Hahner said. “They tend to change how we process information, and they tend to change our behavior — even if they don't change what we actually think.”
During the presentation at UNL, Hahner and Woods will discuss the purpose of their book and the message they are trying to convey. A part of this theme is ways the public could prevent themselves from being influenced by this propaganda.
“For instance, college students certainly know what memes are, and they know how saturated our lives are with them,” Hahner said. “But they may not be as readily able to tell you the types of disinformation that are going on.”
According to Woods, memes are often dismissed as something that can’t make much of a difference to a person’s actions, but research shows that memes are having a significant impact on our society and on how people treat certain issues such as racism or white supremacy.
“Sometimes memes seem to not be saying anything, but we have to take them seriously so we can understand their persuasive capacity,” Woods said. “Taking memes seriously is the first step to understanding their influence.”
Casey Kelly, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the communication studies department is excited to work with the English Department and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities to host a discussion with Hahner and Woods on the influence of places like Reddit and how the language, particularly memes, is used to spread hate.
“College students both consume and create memes,” Kelly said. “So, because memes have become a very powerful form of communication, it's interesting to think about this darker side of these new kinds of communication
Hahner and Woods said they are excited to talk with the students and faculty at UNL and to gain new insight into what may be in store for society in the future.
“We want to understand your perspective, what you are thinking about and what you are seeing,” Hahner said. “We want to know what the next edge of this information strategy is and part of that is talking to y'all.”