Review: Are Memes Upending Democracy?

In Meme Wars, so-called "disinformation" experts call for the suppression of more ideas and speakers to protect democracy.


In the Trump era, prankster reactionaries went online aiming to perplex and unnerve the olds and normies. In their book Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America, a trio of academic and journalistic experts in "disinformation" and "fringe political communities online"—Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, and Brian Friedberg—survey the ideas and techniques of that world, and they do so in a way that does not require already being Extremely Online to follow.

The book provides a decently informed and properly colorful guide to the world of the Chans (4 and 8), absurdist "meme magic," Pepe the Frog, QAnon, Groypers, red pills, and the racialist obsession with "human biodiversity." It tends to assume rather than prove that all this online MAGAism has a substantial effect on electoral results.

As that phrase "upending democracy" in the subtitle shows, the authors want not just to explain, but to defeat. Unable to admit that the efficient online spread of even terrible ideas is part of democracy, they end with illiberal calls for communications networks to suppress more ideas and speakers, as if the results of "meme magic" can be made to just disappear.