On December 17, 2013, Facebook announced that videos on your News Feed would start autoplaying. They would mute on default and, at the end of the video, it’d have a carousel featuring related videos you might want to watch. A few days later, on Christmas Day, rugby player Ross Samson uploaded a video from his family home in Edinburgh, Scotland. He looked into his cell phone camera and said, “I nominate all of you whose birthday it’s not. Merry Christmas," and then downed a bottle of beer in one gulp. It went viral and inspired the “neck and nominate” meme, which would eventually be known as “neknominate.”
The meme was a video chain letter. Once you were nominated, you’d have to chug a full bottle of beer on camera, and then nominate someone else — bros icing bros for the social video age. Things eventually spiraled out of control as people tried to one-up each other. By February 2014, at least five people had died in what were believed to be neknominate-related deaths.
If the neknominate mechanics sound familiar, it’s because it laid the groundwork for something much larger that appeared only a few months later: the Ice Bucket Challenge. After the neknominate craze, the meme grammar of video nominations floated around on social media for a while, largely participated in by athletes and sports fans.
Chris Kennedy, a golfer from Sarasota, Florida, was nominated in July 2014. Kennedy did the Ice Bucket Challenge, uploaded it on YouTube, tweeted it, and nominated his friend Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Senerchia posted a video response on her Facebook in what appears to be the explosive moment when ALS charities, the act of dumping ice water on yourself, and Facebook’s autoplaying video feature swirled together into a perfect storm. Over the summer of 2014, more than 2.4 million Ice Bucket Challenge videos were shared on Facebook and ALS charities received close to $100 million in donations.
Some monumental things happened in global politics that year. The far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain grabbed enough votes to gain major-party status for the first time. France’s far-right party, the National Front, pulled off a historic win and went from a fringe conservative movement to a serious political force. In the US, the tea party had successfully altered the Republican Party. That summer, the tea party unseated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Later in the same year, ISIS announced a new massive media outlet that planned to use social media, particularly videos, as an aggressive recruitment tool. A culture shift was happening that we are only now seeing the effects of.
The sheer size of the impact of a meme like the Ice Bucket Challenge was the first big indication that Facebook had drastically changed the structure of popular culture. Two years later, we are finally beginning to see the consequences of this all around the world.
Donald Trump will enter the White House in January, Britain has voted to leave the EU, and ultra-conservative politician Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency in the Philippines. And before the end of next year, Austria, France, and Italy might be electing their own nationalist, populist, anti-EU leaderships. That leaves Angela Merkel as one of the few centrist, pro-EU politicians left in western Europe, just as the far-right Alternative for Germany party under the control of Frauke Petry continues to grow steadily.
Although it would be simplistic to hang the global surge of nationalism and far-right thinking on Facebook’s algorithms alone, it is undeniable how fast these nationalist far-right political movements are growing, thanks to some key changes Facebook made to its News Feed in 2014.
Two years ago, Facebook announced that it was tweaking the algorithm, ironically, in an effort to defeat clickbait, to favor things like time spent on your News Feed. That meant comments and engagement mattered more than they used to, which meant content that favored identity became even more valuable. It was a watershed moment for Facebook’s ecosystem — its first aggressive step toward resembling apps like Instagram and Snapchat.
According to the New York Times this week, top-level executives at Facebook are just now beginning to consider the role they played in Trump’s presidential victory. Mark Zuckerberg initially described the idea that the fake news currently being shared in huge numbers across its network impacted the election as a “pretty crazy idea.” So there’s a good chance that Facebook’s higher-ups didn’t actually consider what this algorithmic tweak would actually mean in the long run.
Polarized online spaces in the West like Anonymous, Gamergate, and the men’s rights movement have a single root: frustrated young men who think their place in the society is shrinking. These fringe movements would eventually break through, hit Facebook, go mainstream, and spread around the world.
At the same time, male-driven online communities typically used for sharing memes are mobilizing politically. In the UK, football “banter” culture — which has long held an unspoken connection to racism and sexism — or meme pages like Meninist Posts act as a gateway that can lead young men to more radical alt-right figures like Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, or Facebook pages more closely aligned with traditional right-wing ideology, like Britain First. Yiannopoulos positioned himself as an early bridge between Gamergate, men’s rights activists, anti-EU sentiment, and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Yiannopoulos and his followers realized that Trump’s “Make America Great Again" could be abbreviated as #MAGA, a hashtag that has been used in the UK primarily by British lads to abbreviate Magaluf, a Spanish island resort popular for clubbing. There are currently rumors swirling that Yiannopoulos is being considered for press secretary.
But this connection between burgeoning far-right movements and toxic masculinity is happening everywhere. France has racist meme pages, and Florian Philippot, one of the five party vice presidents acting under the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, has a real Milo Yiannopoulos vibe to him. It also has its own Breibart-like far-right mouthpiece called Fdesouche. In Russia, isolated young men post memes on conservative VK pages and then go on to join the pro-Putin troll farms that dominate Russian media. Australia has a constellation of anti-immigration Facebook groups that connect Australian nationalism and male empowerment, the most notorious being United Patriots Front. Even Japan’s increasingly conservative government is aided by the neto-uyo, an anonymous army of right-wing nationalist trolls who attack anyone who criticizes the government.
Writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa summed up this global phenomenon succinctly in a recent Twitter thread about white male radicalization. “These college-educated young men were then ripe enough to be sold [the] idea that Trump represented a return to Men Being Real Men,” Mohutsiwa wrote. “They are told that feminism is why they can't get girlfriends, that ‘feminization’ of schools is why they didn't do well in high school.”
But their memes have appeal and the most viral ones go mainstream. Their Facebook pages get bigger. Algorithms identify that a user likes one particular page and suggest others, creating an echo-chamber effect that can lead to some pretty scary places. For instance, after a user likes the Australian United Patriots Front page, Facebook suggests more pages to like, such as the National Democratic Party of Australia and Stop The Mosque In Narre Warren. The Britain First page lists Christian Fightback News and Donald Trump as pages you should like next. Facebook’s recommendation engines appear to promote political ideology like any other kind of content, pushing users even deeper.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Facebook to ask whether or not it has safeguards in place for users who become radicalized. At the time of publishing, Facebook has not responded.
A perfect example of this meme gateway is the confounding evolution of Pepe the Frog. Originally created by artist Matt Furie in 2005, the good-natured cartoon frog traveled the dark corners of the internet for almost a decade, mutating and being remixed, though usually staying an apolitical mascot for communities like Reddit and 4chan. When America’s alt-right rose out of those messageboards, Pepe the Frog came with them. Pepe was adapted by far-right trolls into grotesque depictions of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. The most viral examples of those memes broke through the Facebook bubble — and thus popular culture — in such a major way that Hillary Clinton’s website had to write an explainer.
Hossein Derakhshan noticed this phenomenon earlier than most. Derakhshan, a 41-year-old blogger from Iran, was imprisoned in Tehran for six years for what he was publishing on his blog. When he was freed in 2014, he realized the internet had changed drastically. Instead of being the web of the mid-aughts, the blogs and independent platforms connected by hyperlinks that he had left behind were replaced with a select handful of barely connected, gated social networks like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Last year, he wrote about how this worried him. Could social media giants like Facebook be trusted to properly give people an accurate depiction of the world around them? Last year, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Internet Explorer podcast, he said he believed Facebook’s content bubbles were quietly radicalizing users.
“[Facebook’s News Feed] silences the minorities because if you don’t have a popular opinion or popular post, that opinion won't even be seen by your own friends,” he said. “When minorities are not heard, especially — it’s very important now — within the context of the ISIS and all the tragedy in Paris and other cities, it makes it hugely important in terms of politics.”
Derakhshan continued, saying that he believed the process that was connecting young Muslim men and women who were being radicalized was most likely happening in other communities as well. “Because [the News Feed] is re-enforcing our views, or your views, or anywhere you are, it definitely works the same way for them,” he said. “So, instead of them being exposed to different views and discussions, it will only be stuck in their own kind of mindset.”
Last month, Derakhshan wrote another blog post, warning that Facebook’s continued journey into video would lead to, as he put it, “more Trumps and Berlusconis around the world" — and called the decline of text online in general as a threat to democracy.
In an interview this week with BuzzFeed News, Derakhshan said that what he noticed in 2015 has only gotten more pronounced, and that Facebook had created “comfort cocoons.”
“People are happy because they only see what they want,” he said. “And they only see what they agree with.”
While Facebook’s algorithm appears to emphasize newness and popularity, it has also done everything to make sure users stay within the app for as long as possible. For websites, this means the competition to create shareable content that can go viral is fierce. And that’s how Facebook, where almost half of all Americans get their news, has become awash with fake news.
According to Gizmodo, the original human editors who were running the site’s trending section may have been suppressing stories from more conservative news outlets. As outrage ensued among right-wing publishers and politicians, Facebook fired its entire team of human trending topic editors and automated the process, hoping to skirt accusations of bias.
Two days later, a fake story about Fox News’ Megyn Kelly being fired made the Trending list. Since then, fake news has regularly circulated in huge numbers across Facebook’s network. Fake news is so easy to make trend on Facebook that Macedonian teens are earning up to $3,000 a day duping Trump supporters with viral fake stories that confirm their viewpoints.
“Facebook doesn’t want to challenge you, they don't want to upset you, because they know that if you're challenged on their platform, you wouldn't want to use it as much,” Derakhshan said. “The very fact that you cannot show your reaction to anything you see on Facebook by saying that you agree or disagree or that it's true or false and you can only show your emotions to it is very telling.”
Trump’s victory last week was the moment when something bubbling along the fringe for nearly two years hit the mainstream with the same intensity of a Facebook meme. His campaign has synthesized the most effective parts of Gamergate, men’s rights activism, the tea party, the anti-EU movement, everything that came before him, and distilled it into something that can reach the most number of eyeballs. Trump’s victory is the moment the participants of a meme become aware that it’s a meme.
On November 9, France’s Marine Le Pen tweeted, “Congratulations to the new president of the United States Of America Donald Trump and the free American people!” Viktor Orbán, the nationalist leader of Hungary, wrote on Facebook, “Democracy is still alive.” Frauke Petry in Germany called Trump’s victory encouraging. Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders tweeted, “The people are taking their country back. So will we.”
While conservatives were celebrating Trump on Tuesday, the conversation on 4chan was also rapidly shifting. When it first seemed like Hillary Clinton might win, there was panic across the messageboard. “I’m fucking shaking right now, bros,” one user wrote. “How did we lose? KEK was supposed to make MAGA a reality.” As it started to become clear that Trump was going to win, the mood changed. British users poured in to congratulate the Americans. “God bless the anglosphere,” one of them wrote.
Then finally, there was an even greater understanding of what had just happened. "I'm fucking trembling out of excitement, brahs," one user wrote. "We actually elected a meme as president."