We’re used to thinking of the internet as neutral territory — a virtual town square where everyone gathers together to process things collectively. It’s where we can learn about lifestyles and world-views entirely foreign to our own. While our “real” lives tend to keep us around like-minded people with whom we often share a location, education, and background, the internet can serve to expand our horizons and bring us profile-to-profile with someone entirely different from us.
But, alas, that’s rarely ever actually the case. Social media is algorithmically designed to keep us within our communities and works overtime to curate content specifically “for us.” While it's worth celebrating that these platforms can do things like make small-town queer youth, for example, feel less alone, these echo chambers also give some people all the ammunition they need to dig their heels in deeper and become hostile to difference. Case in point: Supporters of President Donald Trump, who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, wreaking havoc because they truly believe Trump was robbed of a second term and are steadfast in their conviction because their online and in-person communities share those views. It makes sense that this conflict — born out of a divide that exists online and off — manifested in both spheres as well, producing moments of real-life absurdity that translated into a variety of memes, all with with very different goals.
The memes came from both sides of the political divide. On one hand, there were memes about the people who watched the news aghast at what was unfolding in D.C., those who went on Twitter to quickly point out how lenient law enforcement was being with white supremacists versus Black Lives Matter activists, and those who started sharing links to mutual aid funds in the D.C. area. It wasn’t long before memes parodying the familiar pattern of performative online activism began to emerge.
But there were also those people who shared the same horrified sentiments about the siege and yet processed and synthesized these events through memes and jokes — a time-honored tradition that basically defined 2020. For this especially productive part of the internet, the day started with joke-rumors about Jeffree Star and Kanye West but once the siege started, TikTok naturally devolved into a Capitol Hill meme-fest. For better or worse, a lot of us were, once again, meme-ing our way through a national crisis. (Although, while it’s fine to make fun of the attackers rampaging federal buildings, it’s not okay to make sick jokes about disabled people.)
Nobody wants to admit the degree to which memes help them understand what’s going on — and hopefully, nobody relies on them as their sole source of information. But sometimes, the biting humor and sharp observations of some of the best memes are more effective in conveying the nature of these events than the defanged statements official outlets often provide. For people who are just doing their best to get through hard times, memes can really help, and that's ok to recognize.
On the other hand, the insurrection also revealed where memes fall short, as it became clear that so much of what Trump’s supporters were doing inside the Capitol was simply demonstrating that, for them, capturing content was just as important as taking up space. Notable alt-right figures like Nick Fuentes and “Baked Alaska” were caught live-streaming the event, and Twitch and Facebook even struggled to moderate the influx of live streams coming from within the Capitol, some of which were monetized or redirecting viewers to GoFundMe campaigns. Law enforcement officials, whose job is, ostensibly, to protect national buildings and representatives from such intrusions, were seen taking selfies with the attackers. And of course, there’s the infamous photo of one of the attackers leaning back in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chair with his boots comfortably propped up on her desk. Was this, then, a real siege? Was it just an opportunity to create content and generate new followers? Or was it a horrible combination of both? It’s scary to think that there might not even be a difference.
As we saw with the memes that followed the killing of Breonna Taylor, sometimes memes can remove essential context from serious events. And we can't forget that people memed and laughed at Trump’s first presidential campaign and at the rage of his supporters — they also made light of any threat of a coup. But now, here we are, wrapping our minds around the fact that hundreds of white nationalists stormed the Capitol.
Wednesday’s attack has been compared to the Black Lives Matter uprisings from this past summer, with many pointing out that the thousands of white supremacists stormed the Capitol faced little police pushback and few arrests, while BLM protestors are met with violent amount of law enforcement and have been arrested by the thousands. Unlike at BLM protests, there was nary a mask in sight yesterday. While we know Trump supporters don’t usually care about COVID precautions, you’d think they’d want to cover their faces during acts of civil unrest, especially illegal ones. But maybe the one universal online rule we all ascribe to is at work here: images with faces always perform better.
The people who stormed the Capitol and those who watched their live streams inhabit an internet that finds nobility in brazenly attacking a federal building just to take selfies with the guards, making the siege yesterday a major meme moment for some, and a huge photo-op for others. The internet as a neutral town square has never felt less real, but what recent years have shown us is that “real” life doesn’t have any of those spaces either — it’s neutrality that’s become the illusion, and memes that have become our reality.