‘Make America Meme Again’: Professor breaks down political memes in new book

Heather Woods, assistant professor of communication studies, co-authored "Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right," published in December 2018. It is now on display in a trophy case in Nichols Hall. (Melanie White | Collegian Media Group)

Does looking at memes make you a white supremacist?

Not necessarily, but Heather Woods, assistant professor of communication studies, said memes have the potential to make extremist ideals seem normal in the political landscape.

To explore this question further, Woods wrote a book, “Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right,” with co-author Leslie Hahner, associate professor of communication studies at Baylor University. The book was published in December 2018.

“Make America Meme Again” discusses the impact that memes can have on public discourse and perceptions of political ideals, specifically in the context of the 2016 presidential election.

Woods and Hahner argue that memes capture attention and can be used to direct the public to politicians’ agendas, often promoting the radicalization of ideas.

“Things that used to stick sort of on the outside fringes are now becoming more mainstream,” Woods said.

Woods said she wanted to figure out why and how memes in favor of certain candidates gained more traction than others during the 2016 election. She noticed the quicker a political group was to utilize memes, the more political traction they gained over opponents online.

“There were discussions about the vision for the nation occurring in these meme formats,” Woods said.

Woods said memes have evolved from simple pictures of cats with bold text around them to an increasingly important communication tool, one that is important enough to write a whole book about.

“Memes create communities,” Woods said. “If you understand a meme, you’re a part of a community.”

Hahner was one of Woods’ advisors for her graduate research at Baylor. Now, the two are co-authors.

“Individually, we had started to see patterns of memes showing up in places that we hadn’t seen before,” Hahner said. “We were trying to trace how images got created and how they traveled across different social media sites.”

The pair had been texting about memes and their effects on communication sheerly out of fascination, but Hahner said they eventually realized just how important their observations could be.

“I texted Heather and was like, ‘We have to write this,’” Hahner said.

The internet moves fast, but both Woods and Hahner said their goal was to write a book with ideas that could stand the test of time.

“We wrote it quickly on purpose because we knew that meme formats shift so quickly that the memes that we wrote about may not have the same traction a year later,” Woods said.

Even with its challenges, Woods said co-authoring a book was a wonderful experience.

“It’s hard work, because you have to wrestle with two sets of ideas and kind of compete with one another, but I found that our research expertise really complemented one another,” Woods said.

No one knows memes like college students, and Woods said she had discussed her research with her students to understand how various groups of people are affected by the media they consume.

“[The book] has academic structure, but we wrote it to be accessible to most people,” Woods said. “We want it to speak to different audiences.”

Woods said it matters that students and people in general be able to recognize the persuasive nature of memes, “even if they seem silly.”

Tom McClain, junior in economics, said that while some memes are clearly meant to be political, he never considered that some could be sending more subtle messages.

“I think they are designed to oversimplify and take information out of context,” McClain said.

Woods and Hahner said it’s important to challenge the thought that we’re too smart for our opinions to be altered as a result of social media.

“People need to understand that even if they think they’re beyond being influenced by propaganda or are too smart for it, we are affected in subtle ways that we may not fully understand yet,” Hahner said.

Woods said anyone who enjoys politics or engages in social or digital media may be interested in reading “Make America Meme Again.” Both she and Hahner said they hope to impress upon people that memes are a form of communication that should be taken seriously, even if they appear innocent.

“They matter, and they influence,” Woods said.