Agitprop online is not a meme
These are propaganda posters. They are not “internet memes” as we understand them. They simply espouse an ideology, an extremist ideology, but they’re still just propaganda posters.
This is a meme
Although “meme” as a term developed by Dawkins certainly applies to propaganda images, I still think it is more useful to see the imagery for what it is — agitprop.
For example, this image from the Russian IRA is almost literally just Rosy the Riveter. It’s practically copyright infringement.
Having access to only the content of the propaganda images removes almost all the most important metadata that guided the RIRA as they churned out images. The images are out of context.
Analyzing propaganda images out of context is less useful than having a clear view of how they were part of the political discourse. There are two main issues that would clarify this: a timeline showing the agitprop alongside politically hot topics at the time; with engagement metrics, corrected for follower count. These two data items would allow for an inspection of how the propagandists’ saw their agitprop and its impact on political discourse, and how they adjusted their messaging accordingly.
Agile Method Propaganda
This is important because the true value of online propaganda is the real time response from the audience. The real-time response is what enabled the RIRA to iterate on messaging, refining and changing it based on data analytics. If the timeline and engagement data was available with the content, it would be possible to observe them iterating and refining their propaganda.
My belief is that the reason RIRA were able to maintain their velocity was because they had the feedback metric and an organization that allowed them to “course correct” in near real time. They were operating around the clock and iterating their messaging every 24 hours. They can even A/B test propaganda.
The real time response is what the internet adds. Enabling RIRA to iterate really fast. In WW2 a response (a “comeback”) could take months. Now it takes hours.
Propaganda is communication, and communication has a response. The RIRA got it in real time, and — critically — were able to exploit it.
Propaganda is communication from the sender (a) to the receiver (b), optionally via an intermediary (c). That communication is not necessarily in the best interests of (b) the receiver, but in the interests of (a) the sender. Propaganda can be about a third party target (x).
The target (x) only comes up in some propaganda, but what we mostly see is facilitative propaganda. Building an audience and establishing credibility. A perfect example is the famous TEN_GOP Twitter account.
Most of the time the facilitative propaganda (sometimes called subpropaganda) is basically just ideological content such as imagery and/or text. Its purpose is to establish the bonafides of the sender. As the content stakes out more extreme positions, it pushes the group towards extremism.
There’s nothing special about Russians info war, except they aren’t very good at it but they try hard.