Last week,The New York Timespublished a piece about an insular 4chan meme that had started to bleed over into political Twitter. At the time, NPC — an acronym for the gaming term “non-playable character” — had been weaponized by trolls in an attempt to “own the libs” by calling them automatons, but it was still a relatively niche meme very few outlets had touched.
Along with a couple of stories before it, theTimes’article kicked off a domino effect: its publication prompted popular members of the alt-right — including Paul Joseph Watson and Infowars — to amplify the meme to their audiences through YouTube videos, articles, and tweets. Search results for “NPC” increased, according to Google Trends. The second most looked-up term: 4chan, the notorious forum where the meme originated. A quick search on YouTube for “NPC meme” returns a cascade of videos, most, if not all, uploaded within the last week.
Don Caldwell,Know Your Meme’s managing editor, says he’s perplexed by the rise of the NPC meme. It was born in the gaming community, like so many are, but it’s so run-of-the-mill that Caldwell can’t believe it picked up traction the way it did.
That was right around the timeKotakupublished one of the earliest pieces on the NPC meme, which it describes as an attempt to “dehumanize SJWs.” The story, published on October 5th, led to an incremental increase in search traffic for the meme onKnow Your Meme, says Caldwell. Interest peaked 10 days later whenTheNew York Timespiece was published. TheTimes’ explanation of the meme — “the Pro-Trump Internet’s New Favorite Insult” — compounded by news that Twitter’s Trust and Safety team had recently banned 1,500 accounts created using the NPC formula, only heightened interest.
It’s a double-edged sword that news organizations have contended with over the past few years: is it possible to explain a seemingly cryptic meme, especially one as insular and niche as this, to your readership without broadening its reach?
Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University whose research focuses on internet culture, published a report earlier this year on the effect of media coverage on bad actors and harmful memes. For “The Oxygen of Amplification,” Phillips uses interviews with a number of journalists about covering trolls and dangerous content to parse the delicate line between explaining a particular trend to your audience, which often provides necessary contextual insight, and bringing more attention to a possibly harmful movement that can increase hate speech and harassment online.
In some cases, like the NPC meme, it can also lead to misinformation and fabricated facts spreading across popular conversational platforms like Twitter.TheNew York Timesreports that after people on Reddit’s r/The_Donald subreddit decided to create fake NPC accounts to troll liberals, “a few of the accounts started posting misleading information about the midterm elections, including encouraging liberals to vote on Nov. 7.” (Election Day is November 6th.) This violated Twitter’s guidelines concerning “intentionally misleading election-related content.” Although theTimesalso notes it’s unlikely trolls behind the meme on Twitter were anything other than “attention-starved gamers looking to impress one another by ‘triggering the libs’ with edgy memes,” misinformation still spread.
Pepe the Frog is touted as the best recent example of a meme that went from being a harmless cartoon to an avatar for hate, both on and offline. Matt Furie’s frog character was politicized and became a symbol for the alt-right and white supremacists. Segal says his organization is aware of the NPC meme, but he doesn’t think it’s breached into harmful territory just yet. Context, Segal argued, is key to understanding when a meme is just a meme, and when it could become something more important.
“We mostly focus on circulating content. And certainly, once we saw this meme circulating, it [had] gained some popularity,” Segal tellsThe Verge. “We saw white supremacists and others were tracking and [catching] on to the meme and creating their own. [But] I don’t think it’s necessarily an extremist meme. It’s … being used by a lot of people, and it certainly seems to be a meme that’s politically motivated, but it’s notentirelypolitically motivated. It just so happens that young, white supremacists are very much in-tune with what’s happening on social media and pop culture, so they’ve [caught] on to it as well.”
Trolling, according to Phillips, has one purpose: to become bigger than what it started as. That’s why 4chan’s insular activity always seems to be kicking up a new storm, slowly gathering attention from more and more people until it spills over into the mainstream. 4chan trolling behavior is how we got Pedobear and LOLcats and the best Spider-Man meme. “Trolling on and around 4chan was the most influential cultural force most people didn’t realize they were actually quite familiar with,” reads Phillips’ report.
By the time the 2016 presidential election rolled around, that stealth pipeline was primed for maximum impact.
“The fact that 4chan’s participants could be funny and creative and profoundly (if stealthily) influential on the broader popular culture cannot, should not, and must not be separated out from the grotesque bigotries, targeted antagonisms, and glaring instances of myopia that were equally characteristic of the young subculture,” Phillips writes. “Trolls did real damage, and could be — often were — extremely dangerous.”
The election dramatically shifted the way the media covers memes, not to mention how the general population interacts with them. Because many journalists failed to take memes seriously at first, hypersensitivity has now made many susceptible to overcorrection, which supercharges that aforementioned pipeline. Niche memes that wouldn’t have caught the attention of internet-centric blogs five or six years ago now appear onTheNew York Times’ website. Segal isn’t surprised.
“[W]e must flood Twitter and other social media websites . . . claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy,” the document reads. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy. We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that [expletive].”
The issue, according to Segal, is that it’s impossible to prove intent. Reporting it as a blatant anti-Semitic symbol plays into the 4chan trolls’ game, but ignoring that some self-identified white nationalists are using the gesture is equally harmful. The answer is still unclear, but it helps explain why niche memes and radicalization attempts are on the front pages ofTheNew York Times,TheWashington Post,orTheBoston Globe.
“When the volume of use includes much hateful content, when it’s being used as a tool to harass, when the meme itself is being embraced by extremists, at that point, we consider the data and function of it and decide whether or not to include it in our list of hate symbols,” Segal said. “It’s very important, whether we’re talking about Pepe the Frog, the OK symbol, or this new meme today, to remember context is key.”
Some used the NPC meme to spread false information. Others embraced it as a way to make fun of people. There’s a good reason whyKotakuandTheNew York Timesdecided to report on it. It’s slightly confusing, but knowing its meaning helps explain larger narratives in American political culture. But even within this context, the NPC meme isn’t on the same level as Pepe the Frog. To parse the rate trolls cycle through memes requires the context Segal stresses: what they mean, yes, but also when their use can’t be avoided.
“I’ve seen instances where it’s being used as a hateful meme, but that doesn’t automatically make it a hate symbol,” Segal said. “Even if there’s a huge volume and some of the criteria is met, it doesn’t mean that every use of it is a hate symbol.”
The NPC meme became a story notbecause it was worth explaining why a bunch of 4chan trolls were comparing liberals to sub-humanoid beings, but because a major social media platform took action to stop a meme that was spreading misinformation. That difference is crucial for both journalists and readers to understand: when memes are explained, they will also be amplified. By engaging with toxicity, we risk increasing that toxicity.