Journalists improve coverage of memes with careful reporting

It was the moment memes are made of.

“Who is this 4chan person or website?”

CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin made the fatal mistake of not knowing what 4chan is. Her guest, CNN tech analyst Brett Larson, didn’t help, describing 4chan as maybe “a systems administrator who knew his away around and how to hack things.”

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Brooke Baldwin asks “Who is this 4chan?” in a segment that quickly became a meme. Source: CNN


It was 2014 and 4chan, an anonymous internet forum known for its lax rules, had just released a massive number of nude photos of female celebrities in an event that would soon be dubbed “The Fappening” (fap is an internet slang word referring to masturbation).

Media coverage of internet culture in general and memes in particular has often been terrible, and “the hacker known as 4chan” meme is the apotheosis of that failure.

Memes are cultural artifacts found primarily on the internet. The modern use of the word “meme” originates from Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” where a meme is defined as a discrete unit of gossip, knowledge, jokes, and so on; the cultural analogue to a gene. This definition of meme, and its corresponding field of study, memetics, is rarely used in modern contexts, which instead refer to internet memes, internet-based jokes that come in a variety of media.

Memes traffic in familiarity. They combine pop-culture references, internet slang, and in-jokes. Over time, memes take on a life of their own. They become pop-cultural mainstays, create their own slang, and become templates and references for future memes. In this way, memes spawn their own culture: meme culture.

It’s no mystery as to why media often gets memes wrong. Meme culture is notoriously impenetrable to outsiders, by design, as many of the most popular memes originate from the most insular corners of the internet. When meme culture was covered by mainstream media in the past, it led to blunders so infamous they remain well-known to this day, best exemplified with “The hacker known as 4chan” segment.

“When journalists only superficially report on memes, they don’t go anywhere,” said Myojung Chung, an assistant professor of strategic communications at the University of San Francisco. “Instead, journalists should provide the broader context behind the memes as well as look into the wider implications of them.”

Coverage like CNN’s, which failed to report on the surrounding details of the phenomenon and instead speculated based on only the most basic information: that photos were stolen and posted on the web. By doing this, Chung said, CNN only contributed to spreading the harm the hack created.

Reporting on internet memes isn’t just about explaining them to an audience that doesn’t understand them. It’s also about not becoming a part of them.  

2015 and 2016 were odd years for Luke O’Brien. An assignment to report on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump morphed into a safari through the fever swamp that would soon become known as the alt-right.

The fruit of his labor, “My Journey to the Center of the Alt-Right,” published in the HuffPost on Nov. 3, 2016, is a deep dive into a subculture that went from tiny fringe to household name in a matter of months. And it all began with a failed assignment.

Shortly after Trump announced his candidacy, Politico Magazine hired O’Brien to write a ride-along piece about the campaign. Hope Hicks, the campaign’s spokesperson, refused to allow O’Brien anywhere near the president unless he was willing to pay up – $30,000 for a single flight on Trump’s private jet, for example.

“As I was trying to come up with plan B to salvage the Trump story I noticed, just doing some basic background research on the campaign, that quite a few far-right extremists were endorsing the Trump candidacy very early on,” O’Brien said in an interview.

O’Brien’s goal from the outset was to immerse himself in the world of the alt-right. He began browsing 4chan, The Daily Stormer and the seedier parts of Reddit and taking copious notes. Over time, O’Brien said, he began to see prominent figures emerge in the movement. His eventual piece would focus on three young leaders from different corners of the alt-right world.

Getting people like Richard Spencer, a self-avowed “white nationalist” who coined the term alt-right; Andrew Anglin, founder of The Daily Stormer and notorious internet troll; and Matthew Heimbach, heir apparent to David Duke; was easy – the figureheads were desperate for the attention and legitimacy of mainstream coverage. The difficult part was sifting through their nonsense.

“These guys are all pretty media savvy, and they’re all looking to use the media and I’ve seen a lot of credulous reporters engage with them and platform their views,” O’Brien said. “All they really want is to have these ideas circulating in the public consciousness, to expand the Overton window, as it were.”

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A recent example of the New York Times taking bad-faith actors at faith value. Source: New York Times

The Overton Window of Political Possibilities, often simply referred to as the Overton Window, refers to the range – or window – of political policies that are considered acceptable enough for a politician to pursue them. To shift or expand the Overton window is to alter what’s policies

O’Brien, an investigative reporter, found success with a “just-the-facts” approach. If he couldn’t substantiate a remark or easily disprove it, he wouldn’t report it. This also gives the piece a somewhat humorous tone.

After Matthew Heimbach complained that the supposed diversification of his hometown had destroyed the interconnectedness of the community, O’Brien found that, over the past decade, only 22 non-white people had moved into the town. “He was probably as close as he was ever going to get to his homogenous high-trust society,” O’Brien wrote.

O’Brien’s work also heavily incorporated memes, an important part of alt-right culture. Only after months steeped in the web’s cesspools did he began to see patterns emerge in the seemingly random postings.

“There’s a lot of toxic material, you’re processing a lot of crap, basically, a lot of it is nonsense,” O’Brien said. “But, if you immerse yourself, you start to see connections and you start to see these pathways for disinformation to move closer to the mainstream.”

It was much easier to follow those pathways from the outside in, O’Brien said. Writing about a meme alone isn’t doing it justice – you need to write about the ideas and people who express themselves through the meme, and the best way to do that is by talking to people.

“Pepe the frog is the obvious example everyone points to but it’s a pretty good one because it’s something the average American would have no idea about three years ago.” O’Brien said. “The story isn’t that this innocent cartoon frog is somehow a hate symbol, it’s the path it took to become the de-facto mascot of the alt-right.”

“It was Anglin who elevated Nazi Pepe from 4chan and made him a presence on The Daily Stormer. The ecosystem did the rest,” O’Brien explained in “Journey.” “In October, Trump retweeted an image of himself with the face of Pepe standing behind a presidential lectern. Later, the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe a hate symbol.”

While the fact that meme culture is so omnipresent in modern society may make it seem like an obvious choice to grant it coverage, the implications of playing into a meme’s virality must be considered. John Carroll, a media critic, warns of extending the life of objectionable content.

“I don’t think it necessarily has to be covered. Just because some graphic or some meme takes off on social media, doesn’t mean it’s worthy of wider circulation,” Carroll said. “This about giving an afterlife to a certain type of content.”

Indeed, the phenomenon of using seemingly innocuous memes to provoke criticism is part of a common alt-right tactic sardonically referred to as “meme-magic,” as O’Brien points out in “Journey.”

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is in the “It’s OK to be white” campaign, which reached its zenith in Australia earlier this month when the Senate voted for a motion put forward by Senator and right-wing provocateur Pauline Hanson declaring as such and decrying “the deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilization.”

The campaign originated on 4chan as a tool to paint left-wing groups as out of line, as an Australian Broadcasting Corporation story revealed.

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The original 4chan post encouraging people to post “it’s okay to be white” posters around college campuses. Source: Internet Archive

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Pauline Hanson’s motion inspired by the campaign. It failed 28 – 31. Source: Pauline Hanson’s One Nation

“They’re trying to wedge their political opponents. Somebody says, ‘It’s OK to be white, don’t you agree?’ If you say, ‘No I don’t agree’, oh well what — so you’re against white people?” said Dr. Kaz Ross, a lecturer in global cultures and languages, in that article. “And if you say I do agree, they say, ‘Oh OK, then so basically there’s no such thing as white privilege and that white people can be treated badly like minorities.”

Another common issue is in taking things too literally. Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review, believes that memes must be viewed through a critical lens.

“I think the risk with any subculture, but particularly memes, is there’s often kind of a performative affect to them. In particular, on places like 4chan, things are done ‘for the lulz,’” Ingram said. “You need to look at them as a kind of performance in front of one’s peers that may not be something they believe deep down.”

It’s also important to debunk any disinformation found in memes. This was especially problematic in the 2016 election, said Tish Grier, a freelance journalist social media expert.

“Find the source, show where it came from, or show that it is untrue in another way,” Grier said. “All memes have sources and many of those sources aren’t hackers, so blaming hackers for memes is merely scapegoating one group.”

Covering memes isn’t the same as covering other pop-culture phenomena. Simply reporting on observations isn’t acceptable, according to Chung, the communications professor.

“I believe journalists should take memes more seriously to understand why and how people use memes to engage in politics,” Chung said.

In other words, memes demand serious, comprehensive reporting, and the only way to achieve that is by immersing oneself completely in the subculture they wish to understand.



Unusually active midterm election excites politicos, some students

Residential Assistant Bryce Krause

Residential Assistant Bryce Krause says most of his college friends are excited about midterm elections in states other than Massachusetts.

NBC’s Decision Desk, housed on the fourth floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, was abuzz with activity. The computers were booted, the coffee was hot, and the team was ready to go. It was 3:00 PM.

“It was intense. We have several rehearsals where we do mock elections so that we can get used to the pace of it and refamiliarize ourselves with the computer equipment,” said Costas Panagopoulos, director of big data and quantitative initiatives and professor of political science at Northeastern University, who has served on the Desk since 2006.But on election night itself, once the votes start coming in and the exit poll data is sent to the team, it’s a mad rush to analyze the data in a way that’s quick and accurate.”

For journalists and politicos alike, election day is something of a holiday. They prepare statistical models, order pizza, and spend the night poring over the results as they come in. For others, it’s among the least interesting of political events.

“On Tuesday we have RA staff meetings, so before the meeting me and some of the RAs were looking at the live results on our laptops or phones.” Michelle Chan, a fourth-year nursing student and residential assistant. “I fell asleep when the meeting was over.”

But the 2018 election might be different. Turnout this year was over 49 percent of the voting-eligible population, a massive increase over the 36.7 percent turnout in the 2014 midterms.

Viewership was also much higher, with 36.1 million people watching this cycle on television as opposed to the 22.7 million who watched in 2014, according to Nielsen. Chan believes the Trump presidency has caused a resurgence in civic responsibility.

“I think people thought if they had voted in the 2016 elections the country would be doing a lot better,” Chan said.

While Chan was sleeping, Panagopoulos and the rest of the Desk continued turning out predictions. At 11:07PM, NBC and MSNBC (which both use the NBC desk) predicted that Democrats would take the House, the second to do so after Fox.

Aaron Moskowitz, a first-year data science graduate student, was watching the coverage live with the Young Democrats of Massachusetts. While his club friends were enthusiastic, he found others’ reactions to be muted.

“If someone isn’t very engaged in politics, their strongest opinion seemed to be, for example, why they support [Charlie] Baker,” Moskovitz said. “For the midterms themselves people didn’t seem to care very much, at least for the federal ones.”

Bryce Krause, a second-year civil engineering major and residential assistant, had the opposite experience. Most of the people he had spoken to were more excited about elections across the country than in their home states.

“People I’ve talked to, those in Massachusetts at least, have been focused on elections going on in even different states, things that have no repercussions on them,” Krause said. “But I do feel that state government, especially in Massachusetts, is a very important issue and people are very energized about it.”

Ultimately, as excited as the public was about the 2018 midterms, the number of people following the live coverage was relatively small. For many, the election simply wasn’t exciting or engaging enough to spend hours watching.

Alexandria Batiste, a second-year architecture major, spent election night working on a project in the Architecture Studio underneath Ruggles Station. She voted, by absentee, but didn’t follow the election directly. Instead, most of what she saw was via Twitter and other social media. While she expressed apathy about the current political situation, she had some regret about not involving herself further.

“I probably should be involved,” Batiste said. “That’s probably just on my part, the fact that I’m not as involved as I should be”



Student voters tepid about midterms

With the electoral midterms only weeks away, political journalists are preparing statistical models, think pieces, and guest panels for what looks to be an especially exciting cycle. But for many students, whose involvement in the political process is limited to a single vote out of millions, the upcoming election elicits a more subdued reaction.


“I just filled out the form and they sent me a ballot,” said Pamela Guerra, a fourth-year cell and molecular biology major from New York. “I filled that out and sent it back and I was done. The whole thing was really easy. I’m glad I participated but ultimately I don’t have much control over what happens.”

The news surrounding the election has painted it as extraordinary – record voter registration, two fired up parties, and a record number of retirees in congress – but that belies the fact that midterms themselves generally aren’t very exciting.

Republicans, currently in control of all three branches of government, are expected to lose seats in the House and may gain or lose one or two seats in the Senate. This is normal for midterms, where voters almost always give the House to the opposition party, said Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science and director of big data and quantitative initiatives at Northeastern.

The far more interesting side of the midterm elections is occurring at the state level, where many governors and state congress seats are up for grabs. Valentina Barral, a fourth-year communications studies major from Florida, has been carefully watching her state’s gubernatorial race.

“It’s the first time in Florida that Rick Scott, who’s been our governor forever, is not running,” Barral said. “There’s finally a chance for a new candidate and the democratic candidate [Andrew Gillum] is great.”

While previous midterm elections have largely been decided by the most reliable voters – old, middle-to-upper class white people – a variety of campaigns have made it their goal to bring younger, more diverse voices into the fray.

When famously apolitical pop star Taylor Swift made a last minute plea to encourage her fans to register before several state deadlines, voter registration site observed a surge of activity, 42 percent of it coming from the 18 to 24 demographic.

How substantial the increase in young voters registering is remains to be seen, and registering to vote is not the same thing as voting, which young people are unlikely to do during a midterm election, said Panagopoulos. It won’t be possible to tell how many young people voted until after the election.

Still, the feeling of civic duty that younger generations seem to lack is alive and well in the people who feel galvanized by the state of politics over the last few years.

Anna Davis-Noe, a second-year human services and international affairs combined major from Vermont, has been an increasingly firm believer in the importance of voting since she first cast her ballot in last year’s presidential election. This time, however, she isn’t immediately sure of who she’ll support.

“I haven’t been really keeping up with this as much as I should,” Davis-Noe said. “I still have to do research on who I’m going to vote for.”


Concern about Drug Addicts Aired at Clifford Park Renovation Meeting

Concern about drug users dominated a hearing held by the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation to share ideas about renovations to a park in Roxbury.

Clifford Park has a long history that tracks closely with the surrounding community. In decades past, the park was a place where children could play without fear – even with the smoke of burning cars clouding the horizon, said Domingos DaRosa, a local baseball coach.

“But in the last six years or so, the park has been overrun with druggies,” DaRosa said at the meeting. “There are needles in the grass, in the [wood] chips, on the slide, there are condoms and tampons and poop – and the city does nothing to clean it up.”

Marchelle Jacques-Yarde, outreach coordinator for design and construction at Parks and Recreation, disagreed. The city does clean up the park, she said. A team is sent in every weekday to pick up needles, sanitize the equipment, and shoo away squatters. But daily cleanings aren’t enough.

“The parks department simply can’t keep up with the amount of needles showing up,” Jacques-Yarde said. “It’s not for lack of effort, it’s not for lack of trying, there’s just simply too much.”

In an interview after the meeting, Jacques-Yard said that Parks and Recreation has only 275 employees, despite administering 340 parks. There simply aren’t enough resources to go around, she said.

Drug paraphernalia isn’t Clifford’s only problem. Homeless people also sleep, bathe and have sex in the park, and local residents are left to clean up the mess – even though they aren’t equipped to handle the potentially hazardous material, said Jackie, a local teacher who declined to give her last name.

While Roxbury has had problems for decades, the opioid epidemic has hit it particularly hard. Residents described growing up in an area whose rough edges were smoothed out by a vigilant and caring community. In recent years, however, the massive influx of addicts has proven overwhelming.

Jeremiah Ancrum, a 14-year-old aspiring football player, described the constant anxiety he feels playing in the park, knowing that at any point he could fall on a drug-tipped needle. In recent weeks, another problem creeped into his practices.

“I can’t even run my laps. There are people sleeping in the middle of the track,” Ancrum said. “I’m afraid of what my young friends will think of football if this is what they have to play it in.”

Clifford Park is within walking distance of Methadone Mile, an area on Massachusetts Avenue which contains a variety of drug clinics, homeless shelters, and an open air drug market, attracting drug addicts from all over.

A majority of needle pickup requests in Boston are made around Methadone Mile, and Clifford Park is a part of that area, further exacerbating the issue.

The meeting was intended to gather ideas for renovation following the purchase of buildings surrounding the park by a local baseball and college readiness nonprofit, The Base, but residents were skeptical that any renovation would last for long.

“We want it, what we’re worried about is that it’ll fail,” DaRosa said. “That you’ll forget about us, let [the addicts] take over again.”

Some suggested fencing and guards to enforce the park’s dusk-to-dawn schedule, while others suggested replacing the wood chips with a rubberized surface – both to minimize injury from falls and make needles easier to spot. Robert Rottenbucher, director of the design and construction division at parks and recreation, took detailed notes on each.

While residents like DaRosa wanted to install new security measures immediately, even willing to pay out of pocket, Rottenbucher explained in an interview after the meeting that doing so wouldn’t necessarily be faster than rebuilding the whole park.

“The time it takes to get all of the paperwork we need to replace the fencing, grass, and so on, is close to the time it’ll take to prepare to renovate the entire park,” Rottenbucher said. “It would be pointless to do that.”

Coming out of the meeting, residents felt ignored by the city, believing it to favor other parks in wealthier areas. While appreciative of the attention from the department of parks and recreation, resident Marla Smith said it would have been better if representatives from public safety and the public works were there to address her most pressing concerns.

“Our park doesn’t feel like it matters to anybody except the people who live there,” Smith said. “What the city is saying to us is ‘You’re a dump.’”



Trump-Era Changes to Sex Assault Policy Spark Controversy

Amid a heated political environment, the Trump administration’s proposals to change how colleges and universities police sexual assault has been a source of consternation – and hope – among activists and lawyers.

Following a string of national controversies involving rape on campus, the Obama administration implemented a series of guidelines intended to force campuses to investigate accusations of sexual assault.

Under the Obama administration guidelines, laid out first in a “Dear Colleague” letter, colleges and universities were required to adjudicate sexual assault cases using a preponderance of evidence, which the letter defines as “more likely than not,” or 50 percent plus one. The Trump administration’s proposed changes, leaked to the NYTimes last month, would shift the evidentiary threshold to “clear and convincing,” a higher burden of proof.

“I don’t think that would help. Only, what, 2% of sexual assaults are actually reported?” said Lucia Surraco, a fourth year physical therapy major. “Sexual assault is already so underreported. Requiring more evidence will just deter more people from speaking up.”

Alison Natter, another fourth year physical therapy major and Natter’s friend, agreed. “It’s such a big issue right now, victims not coming forward. Most of the time there aren’t any witnesses, it’s already so hard to prove. Why make that harder?”

The Obama administration also discouraged schools from sharing the charges alleged perpetrators are accused of. While intended to protect victims from retaliation, the policy left one party almost completely in the dark, unable to defend themselves.


“I feel like it would be more fair to provide more details rather than obfuscating what happened,” said Bryce DeWitt, a Northeastern student.

One final major change proposed by the Trump administration is allowing the two parties to cross-examine each other if a hearing is held. This was discouraged under the previous guidelines to avoid further traumatizing the alleged victim.

“I think it’s fair to let them ask each other questions,” said Sterlin Hirsch, a Northeastern student. “It definitely wouldn’t be an objective process, but it would be fair.”

While the Obama guidelines required schools to respond to sexual assault, they were given wide discretion in how they handled cases. Everything is up to the Title IX office, including whether or not the claimant and defendant can access legal counsel, what information can be shared, what restrictions can be placed on the accused during the investigation, and the ultimate decision of guilt or innocence.

“If a measure imposes a hardship on either party, they can certainly raise that with the Title IX office,” said Naomi Shatz, a lawyer at Zalkind, Duncan & Bernstein LLP who specializes in Title IX cases. “How receptive the office is to those requests really just depends on the people in that particular office.”

The likelihood of the proposed regulations actually creating change is slim, however, according to Shatz. “Schools have put millions of dollars into developing these Title IX offices and these processes and I don’t think they’ll change until they’re actually required to do so,” she said.

There are no easy answers when it comes to sexual assault policy. Notifying the alleged perpetrator of the specific charges against them, and who filed them, exposes the alleged victim to potential abuse. Allowing for cross-examination would require tapping into potentially traumatic memories. And yet a system that doesn’t allow for these things denies the due process needed to temper abuse.

Public Records

I visited Boston City Hall on Friday, Sept. 28. My mind had conflated City Hall with the State House, so when I exited Government Center and saw the brutalist monster looming a block ahead of me I suddenly understood why I’d heard so many awful things about the place. If they stuck a giant plaster bust of Il Duce’s face to the front of the building I doubt anybody would notice.

Upon walking in I was pleased to discover that the building’s interior was no less demoralizing than its exterior. Perhaps this is why the man behind the information desk was especially terse with me, or perhaps he was having a long day, since everyone else was extremely kind.

After passing through the metal detector, I made my way to room 301 for property records. A nice woman with a golden crucifix necklace asked me what I needed. I told her I needed a property assessment and taxes for the residence of one Joseph A. Aoun on 34 Beacon Street and she printed out the former and directed me to a booth a short walk away from her office to collect the latter.

The women at the taxes booth took the papers I’d printed out and returned with them and the property’s most recent tax filing. Turns out the land alone is worth $1,530,800! Also the property taxes for the last quarter were $56,966.39

I wasn’t sure where to go next so I went up to Public Records in room 601. The stairway was incredibly cramped, with about six flights per floor. I ended up taking the elevator.

The people at public records directed me downstairs to room 241, which was located two floors beneath the third floor, because there’s inexplicably a floor “M.” Anyways, the woman in the voting records office asked me to provide a name and a birthdate, and I gave my grandmother’s. She returned with the papers a mere five minutes later.

Overall the trip wasn’t particularly eventful and everything went as planned. I was bit uncomfortable doing the whole thing, but that had more to do with me being in foreign territory than any difficulties I ran into.

Aoun’s house is owned by the university and was purchased in 2006 for $7,500,000. It has a $4,460 jacuzzi and $60,000 “private elevator,” which is apparently different enough from a public elevator to be listed differently in the special features/amenities section. These could be stories about largesse or something, but they don’t seem particularly interesting.


Making an award-winning film in seven days

iLabs, Inc. won big at Campus Movie Fest Northeastern University 2018, taking home best actress and the Jury award, the latter of which entails it to a screening and Q&A at the TERMINUS film festival in Atlanta, Georgia.

iLabs, like the other films at CMF, was created in only a week, with a majority of the scenes shot in a single day. Peter Lysogorsky, the film’s director, originally planned the shot list with a gimbal in mind, but he wasn’t able to calibrate the device. But Lysogorsky wasn’t dismayed by this setback.

“It kind of has these vibrations sometimes, but at the same time you can consider that that’s why it’s not so clear what’s going on, maybe it isn’t that vivid for a reason,” he said.

Like a lot of zero-budget projects, the imperfections – and the stories behind them – are a part of the film’s charm.

Lysogorsky borrowed the lab coat from a supplies store and returned it the next day. The implant, a button cell, was the product of a laborious search through CVS, chosen at the last minute after a variety of screws and buttons didn’t hit the mark.

Lysogorsky and his team hope their little film will continue to win over the judges when they head to Atlanta this summer.