Anna Wagner, Christian Schwarzenegger, A Populism of Lulz: The Proliferation of Humor, Satire, and Memes as Populist Communication in Digital Culture in:

Benjamin Krämer, Christina Holtz-Bacha (Ed.)

Perspectives on Populism and the Media, page 313 - 332

Avenues for Research

1. Edition 2020, ISBN print: 978-3-8487-5561-5, ISBN online: 978-3-8452-9739-2,

Series: International Studies on Populism, vol. 7

Bibliographic information
A Populism of Lulz: The Proliferation of Humor, Satire, and Memes as Populist Communication in Digital Culture Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger Humor in political communication has always been about more than bringing fun and entertainment to serious matters. Humor can help to popularize one’s positions or stultify divergent opinions. It can also help to win the hearts of the masses and to wound the image as well as chances of opposing candidates or factions. Especially in the witty guise of satire or parody, humor has long been a channel for voicing critique against social and political elites, as well as for making the hidden truths and impertinences of political normality visible. In that light, “Satire is capable of intervening in social conditioning and enlivening democracy” (Hill, 2013, p. 333). Likewise, political humor is regarded as “helping teach us how to think about political issues and... to understand our role as citizens” (Mc- Clennen & Maisel, 2014, p. 31). Therefore, “Scholars should not assume that democracy needs only the right forms of serious public discourse” (Hariman, 2008, p. 248). After all, popular, entertaining means of political expression are also needed in democracies, not only to keep interest in democracy alive but also to make political processes and the abstract implications of policymaking accessible and understood. According to Haugerud (2013, p. 19), as a form of political humor, satire has effects that “are typically difficult to trace,” though there “can be little doubt that satire can reshape political imaginations in ways dictators and other leaders have long found threatening, and ordinary citizens have found inspiriting.” Whereas the radical or reformist potential of political humor continues to be debated, it has become widely acknowledged as vital to the political imagination and how people make meaning of politics in their daily lives (Haugerud, 2013; Street, 2011). It is thus no wonder that humorous criticism, polemic diatribes, and uncompromising rants are increasingly prominent in the toolboxes of populist political communication and activists, though they are by no means exclusively bound to the populist realm of communication. In this chapter, we present a perspective on populism and the media focusing on the uses of political humor, especially satire, as a sociable means of spreading invectives and populist worldviews, which normalizes opaque 313 positions in public discourse or mainstreams them (Cammaerts, 2018; Munn, 2019; Önnerfors, 2017; Schwarzenegger & Wagner, 2018; Wodak, 2018). We develop our argument for the perspective in three steps. First, we describe characteristics of humor as a lubricant or combustive agent for populist communication and highlight the strategic values of using humorous content to cloak political messages. We also elaborate upon why edgy, dark humor can serve as a powerful vessel for disseminating and propagating bigotry, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and various other forms of hate (Billig, 2001). Humorous media content enables the spread of worldviews and, at the same time, allows audiences to dissociate from it and its potentially offensive character. Second, we discuss the extent to which features of humorous populist communication align neatly with features of digital culture and the dynamics of online realms and communities. Third, departing from there, we address ways and formats of spreading populist humor, especially in digital media environments, by focusing on memes in particular. We conclude the chapter by highlighting some themes with ample potential as to be used in populist humor and satire as well as illuminating how populist humor is fueled by references to popular culture, current affairs, and history. Humor as the Populist’s Glue: Why Humor and Satire are Ripe for Populist Purposes Using humor to facilitate the dissemination of populist messages and catalyze populist rhetoric is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, mobilizing edgy humor and irreverent jokes in public speeches or mediated debate has been a longstanding part of populist communication strategies, the most recent iterations of which appear in social media posts. Those humorous expressions, often disguising calculated transgressions of boundaries, help to entertain responsive crowds at speeches and social media followers alike, as well as to stimulate intensive reporting about what was said and its fallout. In those cases, having cloaked offenses as attempts at humor allows discrediting any criticism as an oversensitive reaction by alltoo-politically correct nitpickers who won’t let a harmless joke be just that: a joke. Whereas political humor, even for populists, does not necessarily rely on media coverage, media reports about attempts at humor, either affirmative or critical, help to amplify the reach, potential impact, and attention that such humor enjoys. As researchers have addressed, in the interplay between populist political communication and the media’s responsiveness to 1. Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger 314 populism (Krämer, 2014; Phillips, 2015), controversial humor provides a prime example of how populist communication strategies can exploit media populism and the logics of the attention economy to their benefit. However, once shared, the original incident or content forms only a part of the communicative dimension of (populist) political humor, because “political humor, wit, satire, parody, and the like is accompanied by periodic commentary,” including reportage on roasts, reviews of comedy or cabaret acts, letters to the editor, or other contemporary forms of user expressions (Hariman, 2008, p. 248). In that sense, making a joke or witty commentary is often just the spark that ignites a broad media fire. Current means of communication in digital media environments make it easier for citizens, (political) activists, and everyday media users to participate in circulating certain types of messages and in producing or modifying satirical content. That shift, from having to rely on traditional mass media outlets and institutions to being able to engage in decentralized, participatory content production, has opened up possibilities for creating and sharing one’s own satirical content, particularly in ways that circumvent the filters, controls, and critiques of professional media production (Engesser, S., Ernst, N., Esser, F., & Büchel, F., 2016; Ernst, N., Engesser, S., Büchel, F., Blassnig, S., & Esser, F., 2017). Among such means of content production, social media platforms are often used and available to use for disseminating alternative or populist political positions, for they have the potential to allow straightforward participation and direct forms of communication (Krämer, 2017). Because digital spaces of communication are thus heavily occupied by the communicative efforts of right- and leftwing political groups (Downey & Fenton, 2003), populist parties and groups have established their own social media satellites (Schwarzenegger, 2019) and formed a discursive parallel universe for direct communication with their supporters. By extension, as populists around the world seek to govern media space (Block & Negrine, 2017), they increasingly employ popular communicative strategies such as humor and entertainment to criticize political, media, and economic elites and, in the process, position themselves against an alleged establishment or mainstream. As a consequence, activist groups from the far political left to the radical right can readily be seen using humorous cartoons, memes, caricatures, and the like to assert as well as conceal their political goals (Doerr, 2017; Schwarzenegger & Wagner, 2018). The blatant use of humor by the populist radical right (Betz, 2018), especially in Western societies, continues to perplex academic communities. One reason is the established tradition in research on media and communications, as well as in other fields, of conceiving satire and witty political A populism of lulz 315 commentary as the domain of progressive political groups. Indeed, according to some normative conceptualizations, satire is intrinsically progressive, for it gives voice to the politically powerless and oppressed, a classic segment of the population imagined to be associated with the left. Several scholars have thus called for a normative assessment of political satire that appraises its quality according to its pro-democratic effects (Hill, 2013; Holbert, 2013), and in such normative understandings, right-wing populist satire would not be conceivable. For the same reason, most communications studies on political satire have focused on its potential to affect positive social change at the micro level (e.g., on political attitudes, knowledge, participation, and engagement) and macro level (e.g., on the public agenda and on the assertion of alternative political interests). In line with that argumentation, established legacy media satirists are commonly called “socio-critical authorities” (Behrmann, 2002; Simpson, 2003) and “opinion leaders” in public political discourses (Crittenden, Hopkins, & Simmons, 2011). In some contexts, especially among younger people, satirical media content is even ascribed greater credibility than classical journalism and viewed as a trusted, valid source of political information (Feldman, 2007; Harrington, 2011). As Hill (2013) has observed, a major function of satire is providing counter-narratives that “challenge a culture’s predominant sense-making strategies,” which makes the satirical mode an “important and dangerous weapon for questioning established power structures,” precisely “because it is capable of creating new insights through the use of humor” (pp. 328–329). Particularly within authoritarian regimes across the globe, political satire has been conceptualized as giving a voice to the powerless and enabling various forms of political protest. As a more or less subtle form of art, political satire has the power to criticize aspects of the political establishment by concealing its actual political purpose. Research on political satire as a vehicle for political protest and social change has been investigated in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Belarus, Ukraine, India, Iran, and Lebanon (El Marzouki, 2015; Ibrahim & Eltantawy, 2017; Kumar, 2015; Miazhevich, 2015; Punathambekar, 2015; Rahimi, 2015; Riegert & Ramsay, 2012). By providing counter-narratives and counter-discourses to dominant political narratives conveyed by the allegedly “mainstream” media, satirical content, especially memes and parody sites on the web and in social media, are regarded as subversive measures of fighting suppressive regimes that seek to silence their citizens. Thus, the significance of political satire as a “vital communicative form” (Punathambekar, 2015, p. 400) for activism and its “politically subversive effect... [for] social movements globally” (Kumar, 2015, p. 235) has been emphasized time and again. Miazhe- Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger 316 vich (2015, p. 422) has even identified “grassroots political satire” as manifesting a “counter hegemonic force.” At the same time, though, satire in democratic Western societies, especially democratic ones, has mostly been observed through an affirming lens. Neverteheless, satire stands as a mode that enjoys special, far-ranging freedoms in terms of expression and in using means of expression that may be deemed offensive or politically incorrect in other contexts. In societies that permit the art form, however, political agendas and their contents can be artfully disguised by using political satire as a trusted, well-informed mode of communication. Beyond that, because humorous, entertaining content appeals to people susceptible to populist communicative strategies (Hameleers et al., 2017), and hence provides a breeding ground for the political objectives of radical activists. After all, digital communication practices and strategies are not bound to certain agendas, and right-wing activists and other alternative groups can easily mobilize satirical strategies to articulate their political messages and slogans. Despite its immense popularity and widespread use in research, the concept of satire has been described as “notoriously difficult to define” (Yang & Jiang, 2015, p. 216). Nevertheless, a plethora of definitions are readily available, from which three general components of political satire can be identified: criticism or attack, indirectness or play (which can include a humorous style), and reference to a norm or ideal (Brummack, 1971). Beyond that, Simpson (2003) has conceptualized satire as a triadic discursive practice, in which a satirist communicates the critique of a satirical object—the satirized—to an audience—the satiree—with the ultimate goal of winning the audience over to his or her side. For the same reasons, regardless of confusion about whether they qualify as satire or not, humorous critical interventions using the forms and styles of satire can also be seen as a perfectly fitting means for (right-wing) populist communication. Although an authoritarian, oppressive regime may not be in power in a Western democracy, populist communication strategies propagate the delusion that such might eventually be the case. Most commonly, populist strategies, regardless of their political orientation, comprise the narrative of an oppressed people set against an oppressing establishment (Engesser et al., 2016; Krämer, 2017; Wodak, 2017). Block and Negrine (2017, p. 183) have identified, for example, a “bullying” anti-establishment rhetoric by which populist actors deliberately take an outsider position. In so doing, populist groups assume the position of the powerless and of the oppressed underdog who has to fight against the established system or else advocates for those deprived of their rights by corrupt elites. Thus, in the praxis of populist communication, antielitism, A populism of lulz 317 people-centrism, and the restoration of allegedly lost sovereignty due to the ill intent of elites together constitute the essential pillars of right- and left-leaning political populism (Ernst et al., 2017). In the same process, a collective group identity and sense of belonging to a community are formed by the accumulated images constructed of the enemy (Wodak, 2017), which, in the case of right-wing populists, often manifests in uninhibited animosity against foreigners and immigrants, who are at odds with the nostalgic ideal of a better past (Betz & Johnson, 2004; Menke & Schwarzenegger, 2016). Along those lines, five prominent populist strategies can be identified—emphasizing the sovereignty of the people, advocating for the people, attacking elites, ostracizing others, and invoking the heartland (Engesser et al., 2016)—all of which can be effectively pursued via irreverence, lampooning, and mockery on and off the internet. Falling on the Fertile Ground of Digital Culture: Populists’ Strategic Uses of Humor in Online Environments The web is a funny place, in more than only one sense. Although real, genuine fun can be found and had on the internet, a host of confusing, bewildering, even disturbing activities are happening online at the same time. According to Milner (2013), digital culture is “undergirded by a ‘logic of lulz’ that favours distanced irony and critique.” That culture, Milner (2013) explains, often works at the expense of core identity categories such as race and gender to afford participatory collectives the opportunity for detached, dissociated amusement at others’ distress (cf. Makhortykh, 2015; Phillips, 2016). In such a culture of lulz, much of the humor found in as well as produced and shared by online collectives is willfully absurd and offensive. That trend becomes most visible in the subcultural practice of trolling, defined as “using humor and antagonism to rile angry responses and shift the content and tone of the conversations” (Milner, 2013, p. 66). According to Phillips (2019), trolling overlaps with the “nebulous discursive category of internet culture,” which is imagined as being characterized by “overwhelming irony and detached, fetishized laughter.” In sum, following Highfield (2015), we can thus maintain that not everything that happens online is political or aimed at anything other than being fun but at the same time in digital culture “the trivial and political can be easily combined.” In that sense, the populist political humor that we discuss in this chapter is not exceptional. On the contrary, it neatly amalgamates with cultural practices and communication patterns that have been established apart 2. Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger 318 from political communication and cannot be subsumed as the work of populists, radical activist groups, or dubious subcultures alone. As mentioned, on the internet populist political communication can find a communicative culture, one that allows derogatory humor for diverse communicative ends, including political agitation, to thrive. At the same time, populist communication is also not exceptional in online media environments but might instead be banal and hence familiar, just as anything else once deemed harmless and fun, and thus be able to easily hijack communicative practices (Phillips, 2019). Understanding the banality of populist online humor could therefore be key to understanding the success of such populist communicative strategies. In current publications concerned with right-wing populism in Western societies, a perceived rise of controversial, populist dark humor has been heralded as the “recent reactionary turn” (Tuters & Hagen, 2019) in web (sub)culture or as an “extremist turn of the Trump-era internet” (Phillips, 2019). For that reason, Phillips (2019) has argued, the web is no longer a fun place, because it is ostensibly populated with far-right extremism, conspiracy theories, information pollution, and media manipulation. However, was the internet truly a fun, funny place until the alleged turn? Phillips (2019) has helped to clarify that such accounts are characterized by ahistorical presentism and overemphasize the mythologized harmlessness of the so-called “fun” to be had online in the past. The rise of controversial, polarizing humor is thus erroneously discussed as a recent phenomenon, for “exclusionary laughter” (Phillips, 2019) has characterized the internet and meme culture since their advent. Moreover, he writes, a twisted sense of irony, parody, innuendo, and mockery are key elements of digital culture and digital sociability: The ability to disconnect from consequence, from specificity, from anything but one’s own desire to remain amused forever, kept the ugliness that was always tucked into the folds of internet culture nebulous. At best, it kept the nastiest bits “just”-ed away—at least for the people who got to pick and choose what got to be fun. For those whose identities were targeted and corroded by all that ironic, arm’s length laughter, or whose personal and professional lives were under constant threat, often for the sin of not being a white man in public, the ugliness of the forest wasn’t so easily obscured by the fun of the trees. People tend to see the things that have the potential to harm them. (Phillips, 2019) Nevertheless, few studies to date have focused on the use of political satire and humor by right-wing activist groups (e.g., Doerr, 2017; Lobinger et al., A populism of lulz 319 2019; Pérez, 2017; Schwarzenegger & Wagner, 2018). In contribution, we here discuss four modes in which the motivations and tactics of using humor as a communication strategy for populist activism online play out. Although the modes were identified based on studies focusing on right-wing populism in Western democratic societies, they are applicable, at least in principal, to all kinds of populist communication in various contexts. The first one is in fact not separated from the other three, but still shall be named. The first mode is amplification: using humorous, irreverent means of expression online to increase the reach of and attention to populist frameworks and worldviews. Amplification can boost the visibility and circulation of supposedly funny content and, in that way, allow content to cross boundaries from far-right online enclaves into broader public perception. Second is the mode of adaption, in which political topics are disguised in memes or other humorous web content for the purpose of making political commentary in the guise of a common element of digital culture. Doerr (2017) has investigated the use of adaption in cartoon images ridiculing foreigners by far-right activists in order to forge transnational alliances against immigrants. Among her conclusions, she writes, “With the growing importance of digital and social media, visual images represent an increasingly attractive medium for far-right political entrepreneurs to mobilize supporters and mainstream voters in the context of increasing polarization and widespread fears of immigrants and refugees” (Doerr, 2017, p. 3). Added to that, Weidacher (2019) has investigated the use of sarcastic memes in discourse about the so-called “refugee crisis.” Both studies reveal that populist agitation can dwell and bloom in digital media spaces as well as adapt to its surrounding culture and use the logics and cultural practices typical of digital realms. For a third mode of populist strategies in online environments, we have identified the appropriation of cultural artifacts and objects. Examining a prominent case in point, Lobinger et al. (2019) reconstructed the journey of Pepe the Frog from being an amusing, harmless internet meme without any political implications to becoming a mascot of the alt-right movement and even a Nazi symbol. In the process of appropriation, Pepe was deprived of his initially innocuous role in digital communication and can no longer be used without triggering references to the self-proclaimed alternative right in the United States. Decontextualized from its original meanings and re-embedded in right-wing agitation, cultural objects such as Pepe become appropriated, and by hijacking symbols and digital objects for political use, populist communication can build upon the previous popularity and familiarity of already established cultural artifacts. Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger 320 Last, the fourth mode is attraction. Humor in general, satire in particular, and memes as forms of humorous communication allow (right-wing) populist groups to attract users and citizens to their content and, in turn, their political mind-sets. In a paper presented at the 2018 ICA conference in Prague (Wagner & Schwarzenegger, 2018), we analyzed practices of attraction as “digital political activism in disguise” as well as described links between far-right populist political parties and right-wing satire shared via social media pages and groups. By scrutinizing content on as well as contributors to Facebook pages for groups from Germany, Austria, the United States, and Canada, all ostensibly practicing satire but in fact clearly promoting right-wing politics, we could identify close personal links or continuities between meme sharing and online political outlets more explicit in their topical dedication as well as radicalism. Thus, the same people were partly responsible for the “funny” content as well as the more serious farright populist communication and purported “analysis and commentary” about current affairs. Whereas the fun content was supposed to attract users to the page or facilitate its own circulation, the commentaries often furnished links to the political platforms, blogs, and groups. Elsewhere, we have described that interrelationship between published content ostensibly supposed to be fun and user comments upon the content as discursive ensembles, which at times propagate populist and extreme positions only when paired (Schwarzenegger & Wagner, 2018). Attracting users to populist communication and worldviews via edgy humor has been identified as a potentially important access point to a “pipeline of radicalization” (Munn, 2019). In that pipeline, the act of attracting individuals to potentially radical content is described as “redpilling” (Lewis & Marwick, 2017), a reference to the 1999 film The Matrix, in which the protagonist is given the choice to take either a red pill and discover the truth or a blue pill and remain in a manipulative sleep. The term redpilling is also used as shorthand for far-right radicalization, and in far-right circles, one is considered to have been redpilled when he or she starts believing in a truth counterfactual to mainstream belief. Typically, such beliefs take root about a specific topic or experience and spread from there. The doubleness (Highfield, 2015) of humor that is experienced as dark, edgy, and transgressive can be an important catalyst for redpilling. “Irony provides plausible deniability, a key benefit for alt-right initiates within a contested and highly controversial space. Intentions are shrouded online. The distinction between seriousness and satire becomes vague and uncertain” (Munn, 2019). Topinka (2017) has described the dynamic of how hateful humor also allows hiding in plain sight and winkingly dissociating from offensive content. Moreover, while hiding in the open, the A populism of lulz 321 cloaked nastiness of such humor can promote a sense of belonging to a community of connoisseurs who alone can decipher the humorous content accurately. Although humor may obscure the malicious intent of some posts, it does not operate with a difficult-to-break code or jargon accessible only to a core ingroup but instead allows identifying the message, feeling adept, and being privy to somewhat secret concerns. According to Munn (2019), humor and irony play vital roles in normalizing populist as well as radical political agendas and frameworks. Discussing far-right radicalization as an exemplary case, Munn (2019) explains: By themselves, concepts like the supremacy of the white race or the solution to the “Jewish Question” are too blunt, too forthright. While red-pillers pride themselves on having uncovered the harsh race-based reality, for those at the beginning of this journey, such overtly racist beliefs are repulsive. This ideology needs to be repackaged in the visual vernacular of the Web: animated GIFs, dumb memes, and clever references. The idea tumbler of the Internet provides the perfect environment for image or language play, for absurd juxtapositions and insider jokes. Impish and jocular, such practices trivialize and thus normalize racism and xenophobia. Following that clarification, we can again observe how populist political humor in digital media environments is nothing extraordinary but can nevertheless make strategic use of established cultural artifacts and codes as well as embrace them for political purposes. Memes and provocative humor shared online can thus leverage the visibility of agitating content (Lewis & Marwick, 2017), as a result of which “memes are posted, adapted and reposted, being seen again and again” (Munn, 2019). According to Munn (2019), the normalization of certain types of content is followed by a cognitive phase of acclimation, in which “the sheer volume of right-wing content and the velocity at which it is posted ensures that each claim and counterclaim can never be individually assessed”: “Acclimation to one stage establishes a new cognitive baseline for what is acceptable,” Munn (2019) states, which transforms potentially radical political content from a “noticeable glitch to an environmental default.” As the next and final step down the “pipeline of online radicalization,” Munn (2019) names the dehumanization of others, which legitimates more extreme stances following a “memetic antagonism nebulous othering” (Tuters & Hagen, 2019). It is important to note that engaging with toxic online humor is neither unavoidably contagious nor an inevitable precursor to radicalization or the adoption of a far-right (or far-left) mind- Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger 322 set on the way to becoming susceptible to political manipulation. However, being attracted by humor with a populist political intention can guide individuals down pathways toward populist communication as well as normalize a certain style of insensitive, belligerent communication as the background of public debate. It should also be observed that research on the uses of humor in digital cultures and contexts of populist communication makes it uncomfortably clear that offensive content is often considered to be funny not despite of but because of the fact that it is offensive, dark and sometimes even openly hateful. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that some users participate in digital communication partly because they have ghoulish goals or, following Quandt (2018), are wicked actors with sinister motives and despicable objectives in communicating with others online. In our view, it is thus vital to comprehend the consequences of redpilling, not only concerning its influence on the composition and potential reconfiguration of the media and information repertoire of individuals but also on (digital) political communication culture at large. Forms and Formats of Populist Humor: The Prominent Example of Memes So far, we have argued that humor in general and satire in particular, as combustive agents and lubricants of populist communication, seamlessly connect with so-called “internet culture,” which often demonstrates the use of dark irony, silliness, and parody as approaches to understanding any serious topic, including political ones. According to Highfield (2015), the parody or mockery of all kind of matters and important topics for the sake of fun has become part of the fabric of internet culture. From a more general perspective, Hariman (2008) has argued that “parody and related forms of political humor are essential resources for sustaining public culture” (p. 248). Even so, in what topics and forms does edgy political humor typically manifest? The short, simple answer is that nearly everything can become a topic that is lampooned or made into an object of political humor. After all, and as mentioned, not everything online intended to be fun is about politics, though the topics typical of particular accounts can easily relate to political topics. For an example Ferrari (2018) has discussed the fraudulent fake accounts and practices of individuals engaged in political faking, as an activist intervention in which users impersonate politicians in order to criticize their politics (Ferrari, 2018). Although such fake or parody accounts can be read as humorous, even and subversive political interventions. However, depending on who uses the mechanism for what goals, in so do- 3. A populism of lulz 323 ing gradually draws a thin line between critical intervention versus political agitation. In other words, fake accounts can be a means of online populism but does not have to be. Vice versa, parody accounts can be a stimulating resource for public debate and diversified online discourse; however, they can also be stealth vessels of political malice. In general, parody accounts represent an inventory of social media environments; though topical political content may not form the majority of a parody account’s tweets, the posts can appeal to a wider audience and attract more attention than everyday tweets (Highfield, 2015). While not all parody accounts remain relevant or attract large audiences, their continued presence on the internet reinforces the popularity of humor, play, and silliness online, including as devices for presenting topical comments (Highfield, 2015). According to Highfield (2015), Western politics—particularly UK and US politics, though such emphasis may be due to the sample and approach used—ranks among the major topics of parody accounts on Twitter aside from popular culture and celebrity news, and all three topical realms are often linked. More somber news topics, however, were not identified as a dominant part of regular parody accounts on Twitter (Highfield, 2015). That circumstance may identify accounts that use parody as an active strategy to propel serious and somber topics or to critically comment on political or cultural elites. Even more significantly than being a culture of parodies, online digital culture is a memetic one, in which humorous political memes enjoy ever increasing attention (Bülow & Johann, 2019). In general, memes reuse, modify, and reinterpret content from popular sources. In the context of political communication, they are seen as a means of political commentary and are widely discussed for their potential to promote emancipatory political participation in the digital sphere. In that context, they often are considered to be an increasingly widespread form of “vernacular creativity” (Milner, 2013) or “vernacular criticism” (Literat & van den Berg, 2017) making “ordinary voices” visible, being easily circulated means of political participation, articulation and persuasion (Shifman, 2014). When used by political populist groups or radical activist ones, the humorous expression of hate and political propaganda are exactly what make it easier to swallow the “bitter pill” (Pérez, 2017). Because internet memes continue to be dismissed as mischief, nonsense (Katz & Shifman, 2017), or a harmless, funny online phenomenon, they conceal their political potential to amplify, adapt, appropriate, and attract to populist voices. In that way, visually communicated humor can become a highly efficient but also difficult-to-criticize tool for conveying controversial topics (Shifman & Lemish, 2011, p. 253). Memes often use a technique Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger 324 that can be described as “calculated ambivalence” (Engel & Wodak, 2009) —that is, when a controversial visual text conveys ambiguous messages and thus becomes open to multiple readings that can subsequently be used to reject any responsibility for a misunderstood message. The lack of an explicit propositional syntax for the comprehension of memes may actually be one of their fundamental strengths when containing images used as a means of political propaganda (Hawhee & Messaris, 2009; Messaris & Abraham, 2001). Political memes also often use metaphors, which prompt “an audience to compare two unlike images and laugh at the comparison,” which requires users to “understand both images of a comparison, and consequently, the images used must be easily understood” (Dagnes, 2012, p. 17). In turn, that dynamic can contribute to the sense of belonging and the formation of a community, as described above, because individuals who know how to decipher a metaphor tend to feel that they share a skill or trait that differentiates them from others. The feeling of belonging to and being accepted by a community can be even more important for participating in online communities and digital practices than the actual topics or content through which communities bond. In a recent study, Schwarzenegger (2020) found that when asked why they use certain media, users of purportedly “alternative media,” but in fact populist media, frequently referred not to political orientation but to the sense of belonging and the coziness of the communities they find around these media and their affiliated discussion forums or social media groups. Although nearly every topic can be lampooned and addressed in an overly ironic way in digital cultures, memes typically reuse, remix, and reframe content from a pool of cultural references, and the same is true for their use in populist communication. We have already discussed the strategy of appropriation of cultural objects, which is an especially common motive in using memes, whose very nature is to be decontextualized and recontextualized in a new thematic setting. In other work, Wagner, Schwarzenegger, Brantner, and Lobinger (2019) have analyzed the cultural reservoirs that right- and left-wing political groups from Germany, Austria, and the United States refer to in their social media communication. Among their results, they found that memes originating from typical pools of memetic culture, with references to popular culture (e.g., superhero franchises, Star Wars, and games), current affairs, and history, had been used by left- and right-wing populists alike. In many instances, multiple topical pools had been combined—for example, ascribing to historical figures such as Hitler or Stalin, either of which frequently appears in media from both political camps, superhero powers or illustrating the Russian A populism of lulz 325 Revolution in Star Wars fashion as “Tsar Wars”). As a field of reference, history was especially mobilized for propagating populist agendas. Wagner et al. (2019) found that strategies of using the past include the reinterpretation or revisionism of historical events and the re-evaluation of historical figures and personalities. On top of that, downplaying historical events by relating history to current events was another strategy, as was dramatizing current events by relating them to dramatic events from the past. History is often used to project an idealized past that must be defended or restored— in the case of far-right groups, via conservative, restorative, anti-liberal politics. World War II (Makhortykh, 2015) is central to many historical references, albeit not such that, for instance, the radical right emphasizes the Third Reich, which would be too obvious and trivial. On the contrary, memes shared by right-wing populists frequently refer to the values and virtues that Allied soldiers represented in their fight to free Europe, now claimed to lie on the altar of liberal politics. Common threats to the once-safeguarded Europe can readily be seen in a so-called “Muslim invasion” following the right-wing extremist narrative of the Great Replacement. Memes can also juxtapose the virtues of the past with today’s hedonism and decadence, represented in homophobic tropes. In terms of historical personalities, however, references are typically made to oppressive figures, either as a threat or an ideal, not to positive historical figures, and history in general is cast as a boogeyman for the purposes of fearmongering. A Populism of Lulz: The Dark and Light Sides of Humor In all sorts of populist political communication, humor, satire, parody, and irony allow individuals to espouse particular views, normalize certain ways of thinking, and articulate critiques under the protective cloak of “calculated ambivalence”—that is, sharing a position while denying identification with it. In this chapter, we have sought to clarify that types of political humor are building blocks of democratic discourse and take many forms beyond the realm of populism. Whether lampooning events and persons or making irreverent jokes serves democratic ends or is used for populist demagogy remains a question about the gradual difference or communicative intentions pursued with a particular communicative act. At the same time, wit, parody, and over-the-top comparisons as means of expression cannot be prohibited for use by legitimate political groups. Sharing their particular sense of humor or political orientation can’t define whether their attempts on humor are legitimate or not. 4. Anna Wagner & Christian Schwarzenegger 326 From our perspective, the arguments presented here suggest different avenues for future research. For instance, from a normative standpoint, much of what comes in the guise of ironic critique may not qualify as satire or gregarious political humor but as agitation and defamation. More conceptual and empirical work is needed, however, to elaborate upon the differences and commonalities between either form of political humor. Normativity is important for providing orientation and evaluating the potential impacts and consequences of particular uses of humor. After all, positive political campaigns as well as malevolent agitation both amalgamate efficiently with general features of digital culture. Thus, following Quandt (2018), research cannot be guided only by its aspiration for positive humor on “the light side” and to vilify the temptations of “the dark side.” Instead of focusing exclusively on either side, it is important for researchers to understand how media users and citizens make sense of both sides while navigating digital space and to comprehend the shades of gray that come to color their political views. When discussing pathways to online radicalization, researchers have recently stressed the role of platforms and their algorithms—for example, YouTube’s role in directing users into increasingly more extreme spheres of communication and confronting them with politically radical content. Although the role of platforms and their technological affordances clearly form an important part of the conversation, looking for only “the devil in the machine,” so to speak, will barely illuminate part of the picture. 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This volume assembles a wide range of perspectives on populism and the media, bringing together various disciplinary and theoretical approaches, authors and examples from different continents and a wide range of topical issues. The chapters discuss the contexts of populist communication, communication by populist actors, different types of populist messages (populist communication in traditional and new media, populist criticism of the media, populist discourses related to different topics, etc.), the effects and consequences of populist communication, populist media policy and anti-populist discourses. The contributions synthesise existing research on this subject, propose new approaches to it or present new findings on the relationship between populism and the media. With contibutions by Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz


Der Band vereint ein breites Spektrum von Perspektiven auf das Thema Populismus und Medien. Er bringt verschiedene fachliche und theoretische Ansätze, Beitragende und Beispiele von mehreren Kontinenten und ein breites Spektrum aktueller Themen und Herausforderungen zusammen. Die Kapitel behandeln den Kontext populistischer Kommunikation, Kommunikation durch populistische Akteure, verschiedene Typen populistischer Botschaften (populistische Kommunikation in traditionellen und neuen Medien, populistische Medienkritik, populistische Diskurse zu verschiedenen Themen), Wirkungen und Konsequenzen populistischer Kommunikation, populistische Medienpolitik, aber auch antipopulistische Diskurse. Die Beiträge systematisieren vorhandene Forschung, schlagen neue Ansätze vor oder präsentieren neue Befunde zum Verhältnis von Populismus und Medien. Mit Beiträgen von Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz