How to Go Viral (2019) - full transcript

Art historian Professor Richard Clay immerses us in the febrile world of viral media, exploring the popularity and meaning of internet memes, from LOL cats to emoji, pratfall videos to 'dank' alt-Right satire. Playfully fusing the conventions of a BBC authored documentary with a throwaway Youtube video style, the film examines the rise and rise of this new visual language and asks what makes a few memes cut through and spread so intensely, while the vast majority fall quietly by the wayside. To explore this question, Richard Clay experiments with devising and releasing his own memes, applying what he finds out in interviews with meme creators and influencers. These include Tom Walker, the comedian who plays YouTube sensation Jonathan Pie; Amanda Brennan, meme 'librarian' at Tumblr; Richard Dawkins, the biologist who coined the word 'meme'; Christopher Blair, a self-proclaimed liberal troll and Sam Oakley from LADbible, a video creator company that reaches a billion people a month. Referencing the work of artists and critics such as Roland Barthes, Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamps, and comparing and contrasting internet fads with historic memes such as the Christian cross and the V-sign, Richard Clay argues internet memes should be celebrated as the latest incarnation of a rich culture of symbols running through human history. He builds a powerful and provocative thesis through the film that memes don't just reflect what we think, they have always also shaped how we think.

[intriguing electronic music]

Voiceover: Do you glance around

and wonder what everyone's
looking at?

What they're looking for?

By 2021, it's estimated
more people around the world

will have smartphones than
running water.

On the face of it, we seem

and fragmented by digital

but are we perhaps craving
connection in new ways?

Creating, sharing,
reacting as never before?

As we film this, every second,

8,000 tweets are send
into the Twittersphere,

850 Instagram photos
are uploaded,

and there are 68,000 Google

In amongst the digital

millions of jokes, videos,
music samples, and images

are being shared
from friend to friend

or anonymously
on message boards.

These are memes.

[upbeat electronic music]

Internet memes can often
appear frivolous,

sometimes almost random

and frequently uncomfortable.

But they're being churned
out 24 hours a day,

competing in an attention

that draws web traffic
and advertising revenue.

The circumstances
of what it means

to be a human being
that's connected

in this world has completely

I think it's exciting
and weird

and strange and interesting.

It is a bit scary, though.

Voiceover: To try to grapple
with this brave new world,

I'm going to experiment with

and distributing some memes

meeting anyone
from scientists...

That would be a good meme.

And internet gurus...

- It's posted. Yes!
- It's gone!

Voiceover: To YouTube stars...

Oh, that's disgusting,

Voiceover: ..and a troll...

Meme shared.

- Meme shared.

Voiceover: ..will tell me
how to get more shares.

How do we make something
go viral? [laughs]

To understand our world

I think we need
to decode memes,

how they've worked and spread
in the past,

and how they work and spread

with dizzying speed in
the present,

how they don't just
represent what we think

but also shape what we think.

[soft electronic music]

Memes have been around a lot
longer than the internet.

[ecstatic music]

You can copy this at home if
you like.

The V sign, said to have
started 600 years ago

at the Battle of Agincourt,

when English archers
defiantly showed the French

the fingers they'd used to
draw longbows against them.

It became a gesture of abuse,

but then had a new lease of
life in the Second World War.

[planes whirring]

Churchill adopted
the V as a symbol

of resistance to fascism.

The Allies used mass

to encourage people across
occupied Europe

to graffiti Vs for victory
as a symbol of defiance.

["Symphony No. 5"
by Beethoven]

When American president
Richard Nixon

started using V for victory as
he wound up the Vietnam War,

hippie protestors recycled
it as a symbol of peace, man.

So up yours, victory, peace.

A catchy cultural symbol that
caught on

with different generations and
spread from person to person,

mutating, changing its

and being passed on again.

In today's terminology,
it's a meme.

The intriguing questions
is, why do certain memes,

like the V sign, become so

subject to seemingly endless
reuse and reinterpretation,

while most memes are just


Today, technology
and mass literacy

mean we produce and consume
memes as never before.

But which internet memes are
gonna have

the viral success of
something like the V sign?

Luckily, someone is cataloguing
the needles

in the internet haystack.

[horn honking]

Launched in 2008,
'Know Your Meme'

is a kind of Wikipedia
of memes

but, more than that,
a benchmark.

When Know Your Meme
catalogues a new meme,

it gives it official status
as a notable cultural event.

[intriguing electronic music]

So perhaps editor Brad Kim
can tell me

what's going on,
and why, just why.

Why should we take memes

- You don't necessarily have
to take memes seriously.

But to be serious,
we have a daily craving

for things that
are just so...

dumb that it leaves you with
the feeling

I laughed a little harder
than I should have.

I think it's an escapism.

Certain literary devices
that are used in memes

are timeless.

Non-sequiturs, for instance,

not making sense

going against logic, WTF.

One of my favourite videos
on the internet is actually

a five-second video of
a waffle falling over.

The name of the video is
"Waffle Falling Over."

The reason why I love
it is it's very compact

in setting up all the right

which is you click on a video
that says

"Waffle Falling Over,"
and you're anticipating,

you're trying to imagine
what this is gonna be like.

It's exactly what it is, and
you're left with this feeling

that's kind of empty,
but it's also like,

what else did I really expect?

Do you have any advice
for me in making a meme?

- Hey, this is a
people-approved idea.

Don't try to focus
too much about

how far it's going to go.

Intent shows through,

if it doesn't deliver.

Then it's the worst-case

which is it's the try hard,

failing at an attempt
to make virals.

Voiceover: I like that notion
of the meme

as a people-approved idea,

a unitive culture that lives
or dies

depending on whether people
share it.

This is the key to the
internet's irresistible rise.

It's been driven be here
today, gone tomorrow fads,

unpredictable moments when
jokes and technology collide

and capture the imagination
of internet crowds.

The history of memes is
littered with unlikely hits.

Look at this.

[upbeat electronic music]

This is dancing baby
from 1996.

[record scratching]

Actually, this isn't
dancing baby from 1996,

but you get the rough idea.

A bit like the waffle,

we couldn't actually
source or afford the clip,

because this is regulated TV,

not the unregulated internet.

This is dancing baby from

a short repeating clip, known
as a GIF, or is it a JIF?

There's a whole website
devoted to the debate

of how to pronounce it?

10 years later, this video of
a boy biting

his brother's finger was
watched by 766 million people.

Similar pratfalls
and epic fails

have become a staple of
internet culture.

Original content started to be

which generated fads that
simultaneously existed

in the real world and
online, for example planking,

which exploded across
the internet after 2011.

And remember this, the
ice bucket challenge,

that went viral in 2014?

Crucially, the web gave users
the tools

to copy original work,
images, and music,

mash it up, remix, and share,

sometimes reaching millions
more people

than the original work did.

- It's a bit like when Andy

took mass-produced
and iconic photos

from popular culture and
turned them into garish,

exclusive, limited edition

To me, Warhol's prints
aren't a million miles away

from internet memes that
use existing content online.

These DIY graphics,
image macros,

pictures combined with text,

have become so common

that they're often simply
referred to as being memes.

To millions of people,
this is what a meme is:

easy to share, easy to create
or change.

On the internet, the
boyfriend is distracted.

Movie star Ryan Gosling says,
"Hey girl."

And poor Harold grimaces
for a vast range of reasons.

But why do these macros need
text when Warhol didn't?

Back in the 1960s, the French
philosopher Roland Barthes

offered us a way to
understand this phenomenon.

Barthes deconstructed a pasta

paying it the attention
usually reserved

for an art masterpiece,

exploring the ways in which
rich and complex meanings

were conveyed by the deceptively
simple combination

of words and images.

The text, he argued, helps us

to anchor the meaning
of the image.

It's all a bit like
Marcel Duchamp's 1919 take

on the singular
masterpiece, The Mona Lisa.

He took a mass-produced poster
of this one-off painting,

added a moustache, and anchored
and relayed new meanings

with text: L.H.O.O.Q,

or in French,
'Elle a chaud au cul'.

In other words, she's
got a fine posterior,

which Duchamp said
helped explain her smile.

On the internet, everybody
is doing a Duchamp,

using pictures and text.

The difference now
is that we own

the means of production
and dissemination.

Now audiences can be
reached by almost anyone

at a previously unimaginable

Back in Duchamp's time,
or even Warhol's,

you needed huge amounts of

and often a lot
of political influence

to get to that tipping point.

Just as a quick aside, with
my art historian hat on.

Perhaps that's why we visit

in unprecedented numbers

hungry for a one-to-one

with a unique, unanchored

Museums, like a clearing in
the forest of modern symbols.

Thanks for indulging me there.

Now back to the memes.

These are arguable

the most famous picture

and text combos: the lolcats.

Laugh out loud cats.

It's simple: a picture of a
cat and a superimposed type.

It'd be easy to dismiss them
as trivia,

but this simple format has
spawned a complex subculture

with its own rules and norms,

popularising new spellings and

[energetic electronic music]

Amanda Brennan is the
meme librarian at Tumbler,

and she's a big lolcat fan,

even though she's
actually allergic to cats.

Lolcats were a great way
for people

who weren't very
into computers

to experience meme culture
for the first time.

The format of image macros,

where text on the bottom,

text on the top,

that really comes out

of lolcats.

I think it does resonate
with people wanting

to find their expressive
part of themselves

and really express themselves
in ways

that they might not be able
to do in their everyday life.

And a lot of people identify
with cats

because they have such
strong personalities.

A lot of meme culture is
about finding your identity,

figuring out who you are.

And if you can do it

through the expressive
nature of a cat,

whether it be through lolspeak

or in a GIF or video,
a lot of people

can just explore their

in a really playful way
with cats.

- What is lolspeak?

- Well, the LOL part is
"laugh out loud."

And "speak" is the
structure of the language

around a lolcat.

Lolcats came up in a time when

wanted to be way less serious
about the internet.

The image didn't really

it was more about the text
and learning the lexicon,

showing that you know it,
taking these typical words

like "eat," "human,"
and flipping them

into something like "eated,"
very cutesy.

It's like when you step out

and you get into a good
book or a good movie.

In lolspeak you're getting
into the world of lolcats

and that kind of freedom
that lolspeak provides.

Voiceover: Before meeting
Amanda, I made some lolcats.

Now I'm not sure
I got them right.

- Is this your first time
making a lolcat?

- Yeah.
- All right. No shame.

It's everyone's first time

So this first one,
this is a great image.

It's very stark.
It's gonna draw someone in.

That paw's really good.

The text, unfortunately,
is totally off.

It definitely needs to
feel a little more cutesy.

So I would scrap this text

and make it something
about like a high five.

Like, "invisible high five!"

Or like, "I'm ready for
my high five human!"

But spelled human with OO
instead of U.

- So how about this one?

We take a bit of
a political turn?

- Politics doesn't always
really work in a cat meme.

You want to stick with
something more wholesome,

more positive,

and that's really what
resonates the best.

It would probably be a caption
about like,

"I can be prezident instead!"

'Cause I'm sure people on

would want a cat to be

Voiceover: So we've had a go at
a meta meme.

- I love this.
- Lolcat. You love this one?

I do. I love meta.

I love memes that are
making fun of other memes.

'Cause meme culture,
when you think about it,

is just absurd.

It's fun and it's playful,
and so is this.

This picture is incredible.

This cat's face, on point.

The language can just be...

Cute it up a bit.

- So have you got a

- Maybe something like
"I can haz meta meme?"

To make it even funnier,

just really playing on
this incredible photo.

We're gonna send the good one.


it's posted!
- It's gone!

- Yes!
So excited!

- Lolcats have got pedigree.

Cats were a popular subject
for early photography

in the 19th century, featuring
as part

of a craze for picture

In the 1870s, a Brighton
photographer, Harry Pointer,

started photographing cats in
funny ways.

He doubled down on the
joke with written captions.

But he could have made a

if he'd known about lolspeak.

Let's explore this a bit more.

The internet is so a part of
our lives

that the norms and behaviours
we associate with it

beg the question,
how new is all of this?

After all, as we've seen,
throughout human history,

communities form, give
themselves identity,

and accord meaning around
visual symbols.

Very sticky symbols have
always been flexible enough

to be interpreted in new
ways as the world changes

and still make sense,

sometimes over the course of

Take the skull and crossbones.

We all know immediately
what it means: danger.

But it's hugely flexible
in describing that danger.

- You can't
trust anyone these day.

- Or what about the Christian
cross or the Islamic crescent?

Both are centuries old
and it's been argued

were adopted from
even earlier cultures.

Both were flexible enough in
their meaning

to be valued by diverse groups
of people

with different worldviews
at the same time.

Like many other sticky

they are rallying signs.

They help people figure
out who else is same,

and who is other.

Talking of which...

[grandiose music]

Flags are among the most
recognisable symbols

of the modern world, used
and abused endlessly.

Like the best memes, flags
have different meanings

to different people
who value the symbolism

for often radically
different reasons.

Taking a longer view,
biologists would argue

that our ability
to generate memes

has been a motor of change,
so beneficial to us over time

that our genes have adapted
to make us really good at it.

- Do we have to go to distant

to find other kinds of

and other consequent kinds
of evolution?

I think that a new kind
of replicator

has recently emerged on this
very planet.

It is staring us in the face.

[relaxed hip hop music]

Voiceover: In his 1976
book The Selfish Gene,

the biologist Richard Dawkins
used memes

as a way to explain how

folk tunes, ways of making
pots, and even origami

spread over generations,
long before the web.

Already it is achieving
evolutionary change

at a rate which leads the
old gene panting far behind.

The whole point about The
Selfish Gene

was it all about
natural selection

at the level of genes
becoming more numerous

in the gene pool,

more numerous in
the population.

I wanted to make the point
at the end of the book

that genes are not
the only possible replicator

that could serve as a
unit of natural selection.

So instead I use cultural

I actually called them mind

And then said I want a noun
that sounds a bit like gene,

and so coined meme.

My meme comes from a suitable
Greek root,

but I want a monosyllable
that sounds a bit like gene.

I hope my classicist
friends will forgive me

if I abbreviate
my meme to meme.

[heavenly music]

Do you think that,

there are groups of people
who've been

very successful at generating

- Absolutely.

Just as Genghis Kahn was
incredibly adapt

at propagating his genes,
almost an entire world

is descended from
Genghis Kahn,

there are extremely fertile
meme fountains

who are giving off memes
all the time,

people like Martin Luther,

These are immensely
productive generators of memes

which have spread throughout
the world

in the same kind of way
as Genghis Kahn's genes.

- Do you think that,
in early human history,

our ability to transmit
cultural information

gave us a survival advantage?

If you take something

like a really important
cultural invention,

like the wheel, or fire,

or something like that,
once that had been invented,

it would have spread
as a meme,

and would certainly have

to survival of civilisations
and individuals,

and to the survival of
the meme itself.

Memes are competing for brain
space or something like that.

It's a revolutionary way of
looking at it,

because one
naturally thinks of it

as a competition
between people.

But just as I changed that,
in the biological world,

to competition between
genes, I suppose I'm trying

to do the same thing
at the level of memes.

Susan Blackmore has actually

that it has changed
the way our brains are.

- Once people started to
imitate each other...

[upbeat hip-hop music]

Then you would acquire status
by being good at imitating.

I mean, if you were the one
who could light the fire

or keep the fire going,
you would acquire status,

probably better mates, and
pass on

whatever genes you had for
that ability.

- There's a kind of

between genes and memes.

- This is my argument for
how we got such huge brains.

- This is a big idea,

that memes might have evolved
in parallel

with our genes
to give humans big brains,

big enough to make lolcats

and do planking,

big enough today, perhaps,

to filter out and disregard

annoying, or unhelpful memes.

Perhaps this is why some
memes stick and others don't,

a Darwinian
survival of the fittest.

Creating a successful meme

is certainly an iterative

99 out of 100 don't work.

The meme world is red in tooth
and claw.

- Why can't I clean the stains

off my dental plates
with toothpaste.

Voiceover: Nowhere
has there been

a more exacting testing
ground for memes

than advertising,
a daily dirty battle

between clever meme creators

and our limited and readily
distractible attention.

[relaxed hip hop music]

Robin Wight
is an advertising legend.

He knows.

When Richard Dawkins

the concept of memes
in the mid-'70s,

he was explaining what ad men

had been practising

The idea of jingles, the idea
of slogans.

People had found out by trial
and error

that some things work better
than others.

This was, if you like,
an evolutionary battle

which the strongest memes won.

You remember a jingle,
a brand,

and a slogan even after
the brand is dead.

One we created back in '94

was "the future's bright,
the future's orange."

That brand is now dead,
but in service,

the ninth
best remembered slogan

is "the future's bright,
the future's orange."

Can you give me an
example from your career

of something that really stuck

and what made it sticky?

- We were given 118 118,

and we knew there'd be
lots of other brands,

all starting with 118.

How can we make ours stand out

where we are helped
by the numbers?

So, first of all, twinning
is an iconic concept.

Castor and Pollux.

Twins are already special.

So we made our brand

echoing the 118 118.

And then we made them

We put moustaches on them.

We made them iconic.

We made then runners.

We used
some other mimetic tricks.


Got your number,
got your number,

got your number,
got your number.

Then we used Rocky,
the music of Rocky.

We borrowed iconography,
so a lot of a message

is adding all sorts of
layers and symbolism

to the core brand proposition.

Voiceover: Symbolism,
layers of meaning,

humans-built connections.

These are all clearly staples
of a successful meme.

But back in the digital world,

if we were to translate those

would this be the result?

Simple, hackneyed, weird.

Emoji are said to be used
more frequently on Twitter

than hyphens or the numeral 5.

Here are the eye worms of
our 21st century lives.

- I think the official number

is something like six
billion or so per day.

- Six billion?
- Yes.

- Amazing.

[energetic electronic music]

I'm sitting for my emoji

by the pioneering UK emoji
designer Emma Hopkins.

- Now, if you'll just
look to the right.

And slightly
turn your head up.

And give me a smile.

OK, I think we're done,

if you want to come
and have a look.

- Yes, please.


It's a Clay emoji.

Does that really look like me?

[Emma laughing]

- For a difference in

- Yeah, that's much
more me.

[Emma laughing]

I look about 12.

The set expands and grows

as society calls
for a new emoji.

Last year, an avocado emoji
was released,

and it was because
there was such a demand.

Like, it makes major
headline news.

- Lovers have successfully
wooed one another with emoji.

Recruiters for ISIS, sometimes
also known

as Daech or Islamic State,

have used emoji in their
promotional tweets.

Someone even translated
Moby Dick into emoji Dick.

- Living in such
a digital age,

we have most of our

over WhatsApp or
messengers or social media.

I think it's important to add

an emotive cue to what
we're trying to say.

They add atmosphere to a

For instance, if I am
sending you a message

and I'm trying to joke around
or I'm being sarcastic,

you might not necessarily
understand that tone.

But if I put a little
laughing face on the end,

you'll be like,
"Oh, she's only joking,"

whereas otherwise it could
be perceived as quite blunt.

So are emojis doing the
work that body language

and facial expression do in

Yes. Yeah.

A 2015 survey by Bangor

found that almost
three-quarters of participants

aged between 18 and 25
felt more comfortable

expressing themselves
using emoji than words.

So what do you think
the future of emojis is?

Samsung and Google
now have apps

where you can create
your own emoji

based on like a picture
of your face.

So it will scan the image of

It will scan your hair
length and your eye colour

and the shape of your face,

and then that will become your

- This is the most massive

of self-portraiture in

- [Emma] Yeah.

Like lolcats, emoji aren't
as new as you might think.

The philosopher Ludwig

during a lecture in the 1930s,

argued simple expression
can convey emotion

far more articulately
than people using words.

He sketched
three simple faces.

He said, in fact, if we want
to be exact,

we use a gesture or a facial

From cats to Darwin,

from advertising
to little pixelated faces,

here's what I'm discovering
about why internet memes

snaffle our attention,

tug at our emotions, or make
them want to pass them on.

It begins with the blueprint
of mimetic engineering.

[energetic electronic music]

Voiceover: Simplicity.

Keep it simple, stupid.

The best memes are direct
and very simple

with a low barrier to entry.

Many successful image macros
and GIFs

have got punchlines already,

and people can easily
rework them

by simply creating a new
and surprising feed line.

It's the same in political

Simple gestures that
can be easily replicated

can be hugely powerful.

A clenched fist symbol,

or kneeling during
the American national anthem,

is authentic and not approved.

It's by the people,
for the people.

And it's an effective, free,
repeatable symbol

anyone can imitate.



Meme humour plays with our

giving us what we want,
like the imagined dialogue

between Barack Obama
and Joe Biden,

or it plays against

from pratfalls to
something a little edgier.

- Humour is the way that people

have been talking back
to power for millennia.

[relaxed electronic music]

The whole point of the
court jester was to couch

sharp critiques
in a humorous way.

Voiceover: Insight.

Memes don't always have to be

They can offer quite serious

observations about human nature.

A meme can tell us a
truth about ourselves.

"This is fine" is a
two-panel image of a dog

trying to reassure itself
that everything is fine,

despite sitting in a room
that's engulfed in flames,

playing on self-denial in the
face of a hopeless situation.

It speaks to something deep
in the human condition.

We copy things to other

'cause we want to show off,

'cause we want to be liked,
because we frightened.

We just will go on
pouring stuff out there.

The most successful
internet memes

communicate using
visual content.

Too long; didn't read.

That's the common response
to the sheer volume

and complexity of material
on the internet.

Quick and direct,
images beat text

in the competition
for attention spans.

Humans were a visual species
long before we started to talk

and well before we started to

It's estimated that the
first cave paintings

were created 40,000 years ago,

the first writing 5,000 years

Some visual memes echo through

Here are the precursors
of Hollywood CGI monsters

and hard-bitten heroes.

Pictures have a way of

allowing us to read between
the lines and tell a story.

Controversy and debate.

Remember this?

An interrupted financial

that went viral in 2017?

It was simple, visual,
unexpectedly funny.

But the thing that really
sent it stratospheric

was the furious debate that

about why people
assumed the women

snatching her children away
was a nanny, not a wife.

- My apologies. [chuckling]

- When there
are two opposing camps,

there will always be a longer
trail of memes left behind.

Voiceover: Great memes are
memes you want to share.

They say something to
your peers, your in-group,

about your personality and
crucially what you feel.

Many people feel that
little says more about them

than the videos
they choose to share.

[energetic electronic music]

That's the theory anyway,

for the people who call
themselves social publishers.

These are the offices
of Lad Bible.

One of the top three

of viral content globally,

Lab Bible reaches a
billion people a month.

- Elle's just put a video out.

So, very quickly she'll
be able to ascertain

how it's doing compared to
previous pieces of content

we've done, and just by
looking at

the engagement rates we've
gotten so far.

- So, we've just put
out a video

of a dog rolling in
the mud, basically.

It's a submission, so one of
our audience has sent it in,

and it's got seven shares,

- So what would you be
hoping for after five minutes?

- Usually about 200 comments,

They're the main things that
we focus on.

- And every one of
those shares

could lead to hundreds
more shares?

- Yeah, yeah, yeah.

- And it just goes viral
by that point, right?

- Exactly.

So this video should do,
after 24 hours,

do about three million,
three and a half million?

- Yeah, something
along those lines.

2.5 to three mill
it should do.

- And that's just another
day at the office.

- Yeah, it's another good
day at the office, yeah.


[electronic music]

Social publishing's
very much driven

and led by the audience.

If they engage with your
content, if they comment,

if they share, they click,
you know within seconds,

and you know to do more of

So, a lot of content
online can seem really niche,

but it actually reaches
a massive audience.

What do you think that reveals
about us?

I think a lot of us can
sometimes think

that maybe individually we're
about weird

or we might be interested in

that maybe other people

I think the internet is

a bit of like a lens

for actually other
people who like

the same weird
things that we do.

And you want to share
that and be proud of it.

It becomes almost like
a social badge of honour

that you and 10 million other
people feel exactly the same.

Some people think that
social media is quite shallow.

Do you think that's fair?

Voiceover: The reason I ask this
is that I've been impressed

by their editorial meeting

- Next, original ideas.

Who wants to kick us off?

- We have a veterans retreat,

which has actually been opened
to victims of terrorism.

- We haven't done anything
on Ed Gein before.

He's the guy who's literally

the movie Psycho, Texas
Chainsaw Massacre.

- We could speak to a
mental health charity

and see if there was
a rise in phone calls

and things last week.

- Looking into Crocs
and the material

they're made from being found
not to be biodegradable.

- Veganism is not
cruelty free, apparently.

- All right, yes.
Good ideas today, guys.

So, we'll get our hustle on
and have a good day, yeah?

I think when we talk about
our editorial tone of voice

or what we cover, someone
positioned it as

you want to hang out with
someone that can be funny,

can be serious, can have an

can host a conversation

all at the same time
and kinda mix it up.

If someone tries to
be funny all the time,

they get annoying.

If someone's really serious,
they're too heavy,

and you're not gonna hang
out with them too much.

So how do you get a video
to go viral?

- We've done a few pieces
where we've got

people who you wouldn't
expect to be together.

I think there's a piece of
Judi Dench and Lethal Bizzle.

One's kind of a beloved
actress, one's a grime artist.

♪ One more time, let's go!

♪ Pow yeah
I'm Ju to the di ♪

♪ Pow if you
don't know about me ♪

♪ Pow.

It's just things you
wouldn't imagine to see

in your day to day that kind
of tap into a feeling that,

because it's so
out of the ordinary,

you share it with your
friends, go,

"Have you seen this?"

♪ Pow.

It's that, "Have you seen
this?" kind of essence

that translates across
the internet.

Voiceover: OK.
Time for our next meme.

I'm going to pitch Lab Bible
an idea for a viral video.

It'll involve another national
treasure we've just met:

Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins invented the
notion of the meme in 1976.

Do you think we can make a
viral film about Dawkins?

I think one of the
really important things

is the first 10 seconds.

So, those 10 seconds are where
you need to capture the user.

No, I don't know.

It's like the headline of an

so you pick the biggest hook,

put the best part
of the video,

show a tiny clip of it at
the start, get 'em hooked.

You can say that again.

It's gotta be snappy.

It's gotta have imagery
that they're gonna be hooked

on watching and they're
gonna watch to the end.

If the last clip is

that you really engage with,

then that's gonna be
the feeling

that you carry through after
that, into your actions.

So that's the bit that's
gonna make you share it.

- How long do
you think it should be?

Maybe like a minute and a
half to two minutes,

I would say.

- So it's like
the Charlatans said:

always leave them wanting

- Yeah.


- So here goes.


- Nobody knows what the
[bleep] a meme is anymore.

[light-hearted music]

It should be pronounced
to rhyme with cream.

Meme, you keep using
that word.

I do not think it means
what you think it means.

So that's a bad meme.

I coined the word meme,
but now it just means

some text over an image.

You can say that again.

Voiceover: So we've seen how
memes evolved.

We've found out that they
appeal to our emotions

and help us build connections.

Now the big question is,
what does it all mean?

How do these global cultures
of memes

impact on our societies
and politics,

especially our politics?

Perhaps the answer lies
once again

in symbols from the past.

Long before the internet,
before TV and radio,

another technological change
spread a meme

to powerful effect.

In 1830s France,
Charles Philipon,

a Parisian publisher of

began to answer cheap, popular

that depicted King Louis
Philippe as a pear.

The pear quickly became
a popular image

scrawled on the walls
of Paris.

Lithographs had amplified
the spread of a meme

in the streets in the form of

Today, the pear has its

in literally millions
of images and cartoons

proliferating across
the internet.

And graffiti and the internet

sometimes still feed
each other,

rather like lithographs
and graffiti of pears,

like the radio and scrawled Vs

on walls
in Nazi-occupied Europe.

There's always been a
potential multiplier effect

between mass media
and the street.

- Come close to hear your

You're really,
really pathetic.

Do you people see this loser?

Get him outta here!

Voiceover: At the Design Museum
in London,

this exhibition explores
a shift in political memes

since the election of
Barack Obama in 2008.

It traces how the so-called

on anonymous message boards,

took children's cartoons
like Pepe the Frog

and turned them into symbols
of hate.

With their directness, appeal
to tribalism and emotions,

memes are deployed as weapons
to get a rise or reaction.

The exhibition,
titled Hope to Nope,

hints at how online and
offline politics and culture

have become intertwined.

It's almost like TV turned
politics into entertainment,

and social media's turned it
into a virtual playground

full of funny kids,
bullies, victims,

using memes as their means
of attack and defence.

These rival factions are

what some see
as a culture war,

raging through the
disruptions of Brexit,

and Donald Trump's election
to the U.S. presidency.

Digital entrepreneur
Kenyatta Cheese

sees 2016 as the critical
turning point

when the internet meme
hit the mainstream.

That was the moment.

[upbeat electronic music]

Where all of a sudden you have
U.S. presidential candidates

talking about Pepe the Frog
being a symbol of hate.

You have memes being turned...

Image macros being turned into

sort of ideological IEDs and
being spread

in places like Facebook.

You have a lot of people who
have never seen this before,

who have never really truly
understood the cultures

that went along with it,

or understood what people were
actually doing with memes,

coming in and all of a
sudden passing judgment,

but also having a lot of
fear around these things,

the idea that image macros,

that viral videos
can be taken and used

in a different context

in order to try to sway

It's been happening forever,

But here was a time where
it felt like it mattered.

- I don't care.
I really don't.

There's a lot of anxiety,

especially in the
mainstream press nowadays,

around information bubbles,

that people just get
fed the same old thing.

I don't think it's
a negative, though.

I don't think it's a bug;
it's a feature.

It's how we find commonality

and we maintain
those connections.

To me, the difference
between our grandparents,

sort of in their own groups,
reading the same information,

the effect that you
could have on the world

was fairly limited,
where now,

we're all nodes on a giant

It is really easy

to get an idea
from St. Petersburg, Russia

to the Facebook feed of
somebody in Kansas, right?

Almost any symbol
can become a weapon

in anyone's efforts to shape
other people's thoughts

and feelings: just cut,
paste, and share online.

I wonder if this is
the awkward teenage years

of the global society, right?

It's the time where you start
to question who you are.

All of a sudden, you
start using these labels

in order to not just
identify yourself

but identify other as well.

And so, if I'm labelling the

I'm maybe gonna call them

Voiceover: Normie.

- Or if I'm politically
right, but I'm not going to,

I don't want to identify with
the 60-year-old politicians,

maybe I call myself the

Voiceover: Alt-right.

- You have a group of people
who feel disaffected.

You have a group of people
who, whether justified or not,

feel as if their identity
is being challenged,

and they're trying to
find ways to express it.

The alt-right and the people
who are affiliated with that

are people who have been
engaging in meme making

and are sort of at the
heart of the culture

that spawned meme culture,
so there is this deep level

of digital, cultural
literacy that was happening.

The spread of memes

has always meant trouble
for someone.

They're recycled to cause
outrage or to provoke debate.

Is offence
just part of the process?

On the internet,
these heavily ironic

and edgy memes
are called dank.

[upbeat electronic music]

Voiceover: I'm meeting YouTube
comedian Tom Walker

to explore
the boundaries of humour,

satire, and politics
on the internet.

Where is dankness leading us?

- I think there is a general
anarchy to it

by its very nature of people
just throw stuff out there

and see what kinda happens.

It doesn't have to go through
this filter of this sort of

political correctness

and commissioning editor
before it ends up

in this very diluted manner on

So, maybe that's
what's distinctive;

it's that it's unfiltered,
that it can be offensive,

that it can be brilliant,
that it can be immediate,

that it can actually just be a
bit shoddy.

In other news, Muslims
are bad, China's bad,

but not as bad as it used to
be, and Russia is always bad!

Voiceover: This is Tom
Walker's comic creation,

the irascible reporter
Jonathan Pie.

A way of sending up the news

that has scored
millions of hits.

- What Pie allows people to do
is they go,

"This is what I think."

He's venting their
frustrations about Brexit,

about Trump, about the
Tories, to a certain extent

about the Left
and their censoriousness

and their snowflakiness,
if you like.

- No, no, no, no, no!
I'm doing, no,

I'm doing the new--
I'm doing the [bleep] news!

Look at this piece of satire,
but this...

He represents my brand.

That's what makes him sticky.

A kind of identity shortcut?

In a way, yeah, yeah.

This guy believes in what I

I think, also, people thought
it was real.

Right, look at this
British journalist losing it.

Morning, Tim!
Morning! Howdy!

How was Washington?

The biggest video by far
that I've and will ever have

is my response to Trump
winning the White House.

- And that's on how
many now?

- Over all the platforms,
it's roughly 150 million.

It's crazy.

Hillary Clinton!
Don't get me wrong,

I wanted Hillary to win.

I'd personally vote for
Lucifer over Donald Trump.

Trump! The pussy-grabbing,



shit-spewing demagogue!

How shit have you got
to be to lose to that?

So why did this one do so

- It blamed everyone,
so annoyed everyone,

so it got a discussion going.

It's a vent.

The reason this one
worked so well

is because me and my co-writer
didn't think it would work.

We decided to let go.

We decided we'll write
what we think we believe

rather than what we think
other people will believe.

Intent shows through.

Voiceover: Thanks, Brad.

A fascinating question is

all this venting and irony can
go too far.

Is there a too far?

Well there is a too far,

who you're talking to.

Offence and humour are so
closely linked.

It's subjective.

What makes you laugh
might not make him laugh.

Neither of you are wrong.

A real laugh,
as well as a real [groans],

so closely linked.

But it is an emotional
reaction that you can't hide.

Lots of inane comments
like "lol".

Voiceover: Memes can
certainly split opinion.

A distinctive element of our
culture today

often seems to be visceral

Tom defends the right to
free speech on the internet,

but he's been attacked
bitterly for it.

- It was a [bleep] joke,
you [beep].

You think
slightly differently to me

when it comes to freedom of

therefore you must be

therefore you must be a Nazi

There's no way to win a
political debate

going, "You're a bigot,
la, la, la, la, la."

That seems to
be their modus operandi:

if you disagree with us,
you must be a bigot.


Voiceover: The world of memes
is direct.

It provokes emotional

and it can polarise;

a perfect environment

for those who like to shout
"boo" anonymously

and run away.

[startling music]

We used to think of trolls
as sad, lone individuals

taking out their personal
issues on the world

under a cloak on online

Trolls have gone mainstream.

Sometimes a troll is a
paid social media user

twisting online discussions.

Other times, a troll is
actually an automated bot

rapidly spreading invective
and disinformation online.

Some regimes have cottoned
onto the idea

of using trolls to
manipulate public information

and disinformation
in rival states,

influencing people to
support their interests.

- I've had email chains
smearing me.

I've had troll attacks
on Twitter,

harassment on Facebook.

[upbeat music]

Voiceover: The Finnish
journalist Jessikka Aro

has been investigating
the impact

of Russian propaganda
in Finland since 2014.

- A thing that the trolls and
propagandists wanted to do

was silence me,
to make me so scared

that I would stop myself of
continuing my investigations.

But instead of that, I did the

As the months and years went
on, more and more hate speech

was all the time produced
about me.

I was being sent memes
all the time.

So here they are saying
that I make home visits.

They basically frame me
as a prostitute.

Here, trolls made music video.

[singing in a foreign

They are framing me as some
kind of mentally ill person

who has made up all this
Russian troll phenomenon

only from my imagination.

Another photo manipulation,
the trolls say

and the neo-Nazis say
that I am restricting

their freedom of speech.

How does all this
make you feel.

- Well, how would you feel,

when you had a text message
from your dead father

who's observing you,

unknown people sending you
death threats

because they have been just
reading trash about you

and believing in it?
Obviously, it's nasty.

The Russian information
operations are designed

to target my emotions,

to target everyone's emotions.

Whatever they write online,

I understand that
they get paid for it.

And I get paid for what I do,

so we have
these different jobs,

and I really feel pity
that they have such jobs.

Voiceover: Jessikka Aro's is
an extreme case amongst many.

Trolling with fake news

is the new currency
of politics

in the mimetic age.

- The dishonest, lying media!

- The sad thing is
it's effective.

A 2018 MIT study found
that fake news

can spread faster and
deeper than real news.

Analysing 126,000 contested
news stories

over 10 years on Twitter,

tweeted by
three million users,

it found hoax and rumour were
more widely shared than truth.

On the internet,
it would seem noise wins.

Then again, have we ever lived
in a time of truthful news?

All news is

just a representation
of actual events,

a selective take.

To explore this further,

I went to actually meet
a troll under a bridge,

a troll on a mission to combat
online racism and xenophobia.

A troll is somebody
who goes on the internet

just to make people upset.

A liberal troll is somebody
who goes on the internet

to make a conservative upset.

Christopher Blair,
aka Busta Troll,

is a self-proclaimed
liberal troll

who makes a living
publishing fake news stories

that might appeal to
the alt-right.

He puts in plausible content
out there

to provoke a reaction.

The alt-right unwittingly
steal his satirical posts,

sharing them online
without irony.

After the economy crashed
in 2008,

I was left with a family
of four, without a job,

after working construction
for 20-some-odd years.

I was angry.
Angry at my government.

So I took the anger, I went to

and I started a page, and
I started to make memes,

liberal memes,
supporting liberal causes.

And the conservative trolls
started to come to my page.

They started attacking me.

So I had to create a persona
to fight off the trolls,

which is where I came up
with Busta Troll.

We market our page at

in the are of 60 years old
and better.

They are extremely biased,

they are
extremely uneducated.

And what we do, we pull
them into the comments,

because these are some
of the worst racists

and xenophobes on Facebook.

They comment racist things.

The trolls that are patrolling
the page report them.

They get their little Facebook

It may seem trivial,

but when you do that
30, 40, 50 times

in a day or a week,

you're eliminating a lot
of hate from Facebook.

So that's one of the
reasons we do what we do.

- Can you show me a recent

of the kind of thing
you've done?

- Yeah,
this is a great one here.

Illinois state senator
introduced legislation

that would give Wakandan
refugees a sanctuary city

of Chicago a monthly income
of $2,000.

Of course,
Wakanda is the fake country

in the new Black Panther

It's an absolutely ridiculous

that was shared
almost 400 times

by people who don't care
that it's ridiculous;

it confirms their bias
that they hate refugees

and so on and so forth.

This is probably the greatest,

our greatest meme of all time.

Sharia law must be stopped.

If you mention Sharia law,
these people go crazy.

Under Governor Brown,
students in California

are now required to learn
Arabic numerals.

That's right,
zero through nine.

Comment one to 10 how
much this angers you.

Oh, the irony.

You can see
all the angry reacts

from all the 36,000 people
who think their poor children

are gonna have to learn how
to right zero through nine.



"I'm so angry about Sharia

"and all of their habits.

"You come to my country you
obey my countries laws."

3.6 thousand people hit
the love react on that,

because they agree with this

It's amazing how absolutely
uneducated people can be

over something so simple.

And this isn't something
that you couldn't Google

in five seconds.

- Your site's a satire,

but your critics say
that they're fake news.

- It's funny, 'cause I get
emails from reporters

all the time wanting
my sources. [chuckles]

And I tell them, my source is
in my head.

You are fact
checking fiction.

This is satire;
I made it up.

So when over 100,000 people
share one of your parodies,

how does it make you
feel about human nature?

It makes me sad.

That there can be so many

that would be so willing
to just believe something

and send it along so easily.

The one bit of solace
that I get out of that is

it doesn't last long.

People believe them,
and then they get told

by reasonable people who
say no, this is not real.

My reason for hope
doesn't come from my page;

it comes from my kid.

I've got a 16-year-old

who lobbied me to take her

to March for Your Lives in

So my reason for hope lies
with the younger generation.

- So, Chris, we've been trying
to cook up

some memes of our own, see
whether we can get a response.

Do you want to have a look?

- Sure.

- So here's our first

What do you make of that?
Is it gonna go viral?

- Feminazis are running
British TV.

God bless America.

That's wonderful.
I love that.

The problem that you're gonna
have is,

see all this stuff here?

These are words, syllables,
and they mean things.

This is what we call TL;DR.
Too long; didn't read.

Your average American liberal
will read 200 to 300 words.

Your average American

will read
six to eight syllables.

- So we keep the headline

- You keep the headline,

you put a picture of a cat
wearing an American flag,

and you're good to go.

- OK. So, second time,

- Sure.

- This one's a bit more

- OK.
Oh, that's much better.

British PC madness.

BBC bosses enforce Ramadan
dress code.

Welcome to Britainistan.
They're gonna love that.

Ooh boy, you know?

What you've done here is
you've taken 16 syllables

and you've put them together
in a way

that really will appeal
to your average...

ignorant American.

So it's powerful imagery.

You've got a woman in a hijab.

You've got a reference
to Muslims.

The fact that it's British
and BBC may...

decrease the amount that
this could go viral,

but that absolutely could
work, without a doubt.

- That would be a good meme.

- So we put it out there and

whether people pick up on it?

Sure. We can.
I'd be happy to.

You'll know within the first
10, maybe 15 minutes, tops,

if you've got something
that's gonna go places.

I mean, this looks like a
great meme,

but it could get zero shares.

So you're out there now.

Your meme has been presented
to about 400,000 people.

- Meme shared.
- Meme shared.

Voiceover: As Busta thought,
the British angle

meant that our Britainistan

didn't do so well across the

But Busta then re-versioned
it for an American audience,

and it got traction.

And as a quick roundup
for full disclosure,

our Richard Dawkins video

on Lab Bible, and our
lolcat got five like.

So that's a bad meme.

Voiceover: Well, I'm more of
a dog person anyway.

- In the long term, I have
a lot of faith in people.

I have a lot of faith in us.
We learn.

Billions of people
on the planet

choosing to watch this
and not that,

or to pass on this
and not pass on that,

or to take that and go,
"I'll do a little quirk,"

and pass that on.

So, here is the most amazing,

evolutionary explosion of

Memes come and go in
a culture so sped up

as to sometimes seem almost

But that production and
reception are

and always have been
a window into popular culture

as it really is:

impulsive, derisive,
bawdy, contested,

sceptical of experts and of

Memes are also testimony
to human inventiveness

and playfulness.

At their best, memes are
about engaging people,

about our senses of belonging.

They're little packets
of digital information

flying around.

But also deeply human.

["Never Gonna Give you Up"
By Rick Astley]

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♪ We're no strangers
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♪ You know the rules
and so do I... ♪

Captions edited by Ai-Media