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Pepe Le Pen: Can the alt-right really "meme" Marine Le Pen to victory?

Underneath the irony, is there any truth in the claims that memes can swing an election? 

Betteridge’s law of headlines states that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered succinctly by the word “no”. As an addition, I’d like to suggest that if you add the word “meme” into the very same headline, you’ll most likely get a few four letter words in response as well.

Memes aren’t taken very seriously – which is fair enough, because they’re memes. But over the last year, viral images have been "weaponised" by various internet fringes to become, whether you like it or not, a political tool. “We actually elected a meme as president,” wrote a user on the forum 4Chan’s controversial /pol/ board after Donald Trump’s election win. This was an example of what 4Channers call (somewhat ironically) “meme magic”– creating memes that rise up out of the internet to have real-life consequences.

These same fringes of the alt-right are now trying to use meme magic to secure the victory of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections. And why wouldn’t they? Events in 2016 have made memes a valid political tool. When the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a hate symbol in September last year, meme magic got real. Fast.

Enter Pepe Le Pen (or, in some circles, Le PenPe). Alt-right groups are now memifying the presidential hopeful to resemble Pepe the Frog. “They’re trying to get the LePenPe squad ready, 100 per cent,” an insider of a right-wing Facebook group told me. “We’re gonna meme Marine Le Pen into office,” wrote a user on the group.

It’s undeniable that at first glance all of this falls on the high end of the “completely ridiculous” scale. Even those on 4Chan argue about whether they’re being ironic or not. Yet though memes can’t take sole responsibility for securing Trump’s place as the 45th leader of the free world, they undoubtedly had a part to play. Firstly, the left’s mockery of Trump via memes gave him far too much attention in the early days of his campaign, and then the right kicked off what they now call “The Great Meme War” – the use of viral images to sway popular opinion.

Images are funny, but memes become potent when they have a message too. As Buzzfeed News reported last month, online chatrooms are forming where Americans can learn about European culture in order to create more effective memes. By using different templates and giving one another advice, Buzzfeed argued the “trolls [could] appear French without actually needing to speak French".

Indeed, memes with messages – however flippant – are undeniably the new propaganda poster. Think of the right-wingers pasting images of refugees and terrorists side-by-side, and left-wingers using images to claim children were handcuffed because of Trump's "Muslim ban". There are no statistics for the number of people who get their political views from viral images but it’s safe to say – judging by Likes and Shares alone – that they have an effect. This kind of propaganda poster doesn't even require sellotape to stick. 

Many of these memes might not make their way out of the groups that contain them (such as 4Chan's /pol/ and Reddit's r/Le_Pen). But that doesn't make them any less significant. In the past, ex-4Channers have spoken out about using the forum slowly made them more racist and sexist. The radicalisation of the vulnerable, in turn, effects the political world.

The other danger, of course, is the media taking these ironic memes too seriously. The declaration that Pepe was a "white supremacist" symbol gave alt-right meme-makers both legitimacy and something to laugh about. It is foolish to lend "Pepe Le Pens" status they do not deserve. Such a premature response has its own consequences - even if Le Pen doesn't win in May, the trolls do.

These are the real ways, then, that memes can sway an election. Of course, there is some survivorship bias at work here. 4Chan can claim they helped Trump to win because, well, Trump won. The same will happen with Le Pen. If she wins, they can claim responsibility, if not, they can go back to adding MS Paint swastikas to frogs.

So can Le Pen really be memed to victory? Screw you, Betteridge. The answer is “maybe”. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times