Mastering memes: Baylor professor co-writes a book analyzing the 2016 election

Baylor professor Dr. Leslie Hahner and Kansas State professor Dr. Heather Woods combined their skills and areas of expertise to publish "Make America Meme Again" which analyzes the use of memes as a method of persuasion for fringe alt-right groups.

By Bridget Sjoberg | Staff Writer

Baylor professor Dr. Leslie Hahner and Kansas State professor Dr. Heather Woods combined their skills and areas of expertise to publish a book about memes and the impact they can have on social media and society.

Their book, Make America Meme Again, specifically looks at the 2016 presidential election and analyzes the use of memes as a method of persuasion for fringe alt-right groups. Hahner’s expertise lies in the use of propaganda and persuasive sources, and Woods acts as a digital rhetorician, where she uses rhetoric as a way to study digital communication. Hahner views their combined areas of knowledge as having created a successful starting ground to research material for the book.

“The book is about how alt-right memes were strategized to court more people to join this very far-right worldview and direct the public’s attention to the issues that that particular group wanted to be at the forefront,” Hahner said. “We were trying to get a sense of how it is that those memes worked persuasively since many people didn’t understand them as persuasive. Dr. Woods and I had been seeing memes pop up in places that I didn’t expect them to and being created to make certain claims and arguments. It was great to partner with someone who had similar areas of expertise to mine but who knew more about digital networks. It created a wealth of information that allowed us to move in directions that neither of us could have done on our own.”

Hahner said the research process for the book involved observing internet behavior and discovering how memes that began in obscure extremist areas of the web moved into mainstream media platforms.

“I know a lot about propaganda in general and a lot about visual culture, as well as a lot about memes,” Hahner said. “I thought I knew a lot, but any research project will definitely humble you. We began research by hanging out in dark corners of sites like Reddit and Breitbart and watching as the memes created there began showing up on Facebook and Twitter. We started to figure out how those images moved, what audiences they were trying to address and the different messages they were communicating.”

Although both Hahner and Woods are knowledgeable about and have a background in studying digital trends like memes, Hahner said she was surprised to see the ways in which memes acted as sources of persuasion.

“I was surprised to figure out exactly how they were persuasive,” Hahner said. “Memes are persuasive because they direct your attention — distraction is a very valuable skill in a digital environment. If you can get a meme to talk about whatever scandal you want the pubic to focus on, that’s what they’ll focus on as opposed to actual policy initiatives.”

Hahner and Woods chose the 2016 Presidential Election to focus on for their book, as Hahner pointed out that the election was the first time where memes specifically played a role in persuasion and online communication.

Woods said that many candidates themselves began using memes, and that the election served as an example where memes proved to act as significant ways to display opinions visually.

“As we write in the book, presidents and candidates have long used various forms of media to communicate with prospective voters and constituents,” Woods said. “We noticed that memes were an increasingly important medium for the 2016 candidates and their supporters to communicate with prospective voters, and that many people didn’t take them seriously. We also noticed that some candidates appeared to mobilize memes more effectively than others and wanted to figure out how and why.”

Woods pointed out how this book is especially relevant for college-aged students who are beginning to vote or have been voting, and that students were considered when writing the book.

“We wrote the book with our students in mind — Both Dr. Hahner and I teach memes as a form of political and visual communication in our classes,” Woods said. “In the book, we mention conversations we’ve had with our students about analyzing memes as a part of digital literacy — a set of skills we think will serve college students long after they graduate. Studying communication in general and rhetoric in particular can help students understand the world around them as well as create it—we hope that our book can help students decode and craft memetic messaging.”

Hahner clarified that the extremist alt-right groups discussed in the book are completely separate from mainstream conservative ideologies and the Republican party. She said the best way to purchase the book is as an ebook in the Baylor library, or to ask a local library to purchase it.