Illustration by Dave van Patten

When the Memes Strike Back

Can a ‘Meme Alliance’ fight Facebook censorship by denying their fans the LOLs (and lulz)?

If you follow a cadre of “weird meme” pages on Facebook — ones like “Lettuce Dog,” “i play KORN to my DMT plants, smoke blunts all day & do sex stuff” and “The Best of Starter Pack Memes” — you perhaps have noticed fans and promoters of these pages spreading a certain image: that of an upside-down red version of the Facebook logo. It’s not immediately obvious what the purpose or origin of the picture is. Is it a joke? A meme? Some kind of ironic subversion? Also, why is it everywhere?

But if you pay attention to the nuances of meme pages, you might already know that the logo is a symbol of what’s now being called the “Meme Alliance”. “We make up a collective of over 100 Facebook pages [f]eaturing the work of more than 175 content creators [t]hat all want to know…WHAT’S THE DEAL MARK?” reads their About Me page. Over the course of a few months, this ramshackle group of friends (both digital and corporeal), meme-spreading Facebook page owners and sympathetic meme consumers has consolidated into something bigger. Meme Alliance member Ted Pallas calls it, “a digital grassroots thing.”

In an interview with Pallas, Jawn Camunez (admin of “Shithead Snake”), Kenneth Blackwell (admin of “Jerbus Franklin” and “antisocial lads with desire to get laid”) and the admin of “I play KORN to my DMT plants, smoke blunts all day & do sex stuff” (who has asked to remain anonymous), the group laid out exactly what’s happening within the confines of the Meme Alliance.

The group formed after many meme pages began to be shut down, told by Facebook that they were violating the platform’s Community Standards. After a series of high-profile pages like “Gangster Popeye,” “Ni**az Still Wilin,” and “Kevin 3” got the boot, a group of meme page owners began to work together to draw attention to Facebook’s uneven process of banning their content. “The deleted pages aren’t violating clearly stated terms of use. They aren’t publishing gore or racism,” says Pallas. “The most biting satire is on a level with a edgy WSJ cartoon. In a good way.”

But considering the anarchic tone of the memes these groups share — the largest page involved, with 1 million likes, is “Nihilist Memes” — it’s surprising how seriously they’re approaching their cause. “This isn’t just about memes,” said Camunez, “This is about Facebook’s reporting process, which affects a lot of people.” Adds the anonymous admin: “It’s more about a chilling new form of censorship — the automated kind.”

The group’s list of demands is extensive and incisive: included are pleas for Facebook to “cease the automated and outsourced censorship of small content creators”; offer “the option to customize their feed and turn off the hidden filters which manipulate their experience”; “stop forcing users to reveal their offline identities, thereby discriminating against minorities such as Native Americans and transgender people, as well as putting victims of abuse at risk”; and “cease the political censorship of journalists, pages, and the rest of its usership worldwide.”

So far, they’ve got ideological support from the right places: Jacobin Magazine recently published a piece on the political power of algorithms and ostensibly objective methods of reporting, saying that “challenging WMDs [“weapons of math destruction,” or algorithms that are unintentionally destructive] will require a movement of people who refuse to bow down to the algorithmic gods, who band together, collect evidence of their harm, and demand better laws from policy-makers.” Not a week after that, Silicon Valley billionaire Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus (he sold it to Facebook in 2014) was found to be one of the primary funders of “Nimble America,” a pro-Trump nonprofit committed to its belief that “shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real,” according to The Daily Beast.

And despite the rise of the now-racist and anti-semitic Pepe the Frog meme — seemingly hijacked by the alt-right — in the Meme Alliance there’s a surprising amount of cross-political agreement. As eye roll-inducing as it might seem, the potential for protest, political action, and censorship through the medium of memes is more relevant now than ever. No matter their political differences, they all agree on one thing: on Facebook, how does my content and, more importantly, my voice get managed, and shouldn’t I have a say in this?

After a lot of memes, a lot of talk and, apparently, some planning, the Meme Alliance decided on their revolt. Calling it “Zuxit” (“Brexit” meets “Zuckerberg”, naturally), the most popular meme pages associated with the movement would deactivate for three days. It was scheduled for September 28-30, but nothing much appears to have happened on these days — except for a few self-referential, tongue-in-cheek Facebook posts. There were some write-ups of Zuxit on the eve before, at places like The Observer, The Daily Dot, and Metro, but the event seemed all too easy to miss on Facebook itself. Gaps in one’s feed can easily be replaced by just more content, unbeknownst to all but the most attentive Facebook users (and users already these boycotting meme groups).

“Everyone’s like ‘what did the zuxit even do?’ And ‘what was the point’ And I’m over here like duhhhh we won!” reads a post from Camunez, seemingly unconcerned with the limited scope of the group’s protest. Perhaps it was a funny, self-aware joke around the situation. But that’s kind of the problem, in a way.

Most, if not all of these meme groups are at their most potent when they subvert the expectations not just of “polite society” on Facebook (i.e., your mom and dad; your friend who still posts “is [doing activity]” as their status), but also the people who think they’re “in the know.” According to the The New Yorker’s Hua Hsu, memes are most effective when they’re “reappropriating the culture around us and short-circuiting meanings.” Maybe at their best, memes bring power or celebrity or influence down to the level of the crowd. For all their sneering and self-deprecation, within the confines of Facebook, the Meme Alliance does belong to the avant-garde.

Which is why their supposed revolt, with all its ridiculousness, feels like self-sabotage. By denying people their memes, they’re engaging in the kind of slacktivism that lacks the disruptive power that gave these pages a following in the first place. For all the mental and aesthetic gymnastics around the pointlessness of the Zuxit, it all feels somewhat hollow.

Perhaps what makes these mostly slacktivist revolts so amusing isn’t their commitment to a political cause — it’s the fact that many nonprofits or political organizations, ones with a headquarters and bunches of employees, believe that the performative and self-conscious world of Facebook — where meme pages thrive — is also a valid space for political action. (The other joke is that sometimes they’re not wrong).

If the Meme Alliance really hopes to bring their demands straight to the door of Facebook’s Palo Alto offices, they’re going to have to get beyond the memes.