Despite the widespread belief that meme-warriors won the election through tactical shitposting of photoshopped Pepe the Frogs in Nazi arm-bands, the reality is a lot more complicated.
A trio of troll scholars, including the oft-cited-here Gabriella Coleman (previously), who literally wrote the book on Anonymous, take on the narrative of memetic superiority of the Trump camp, laying out a powerful case that even calling the alt-right's self-described meme-warriors as "trolls" does a disservice to trolling.
It is certainly true that the alt-right's pro-Trump "shitposting"—the act of flooding social media with memes and commentary designed to bolster their "God Emperor" Trump—raised the public visibility of the alt-right and its memetic handiwork. And it is also true that this uptick in public visibility forced people to focus on Trump more than they would have otherwise. The shitpost connection reached critical mass in August 2016, when Hillary Clinton held a press conference (precipitated, in part, by Pepe the Frog) denouncing Trump's ties to the white nationalist group—much to the delight of precisely those white nationalists. Without a doubt, this speech and all the alt-right activity that preceded and followed it contributed to the overall momentum of Trump's campaign.
But that activity didn't happen in a vacuum, and wasn't self-propelling. "Trolls" and the alt-right may have played a prominent role in the 2016 election, but that fact is dependent upon and cannot be untangled from journalistic coverage that amplified their messaging—shitpost memes very much included. Phillips describes how media coverage—even coverage condemning alt-right antagonisms—helped conjure this monster, and how that conjuring, in turn, helped amplify Trump's overall platform (which itself was a series of memes).
The fact that alt-right participants received so much coverage speaks to an even deeper issue, perhaps the weightiest issue, influencing Donald Trump's rise. More than fake news, more than filter bubbles, more than insane conspiracy theories about child sex rings operating out of the backs of Washington DC pizza shops, the biggest media story to emerge from the 2016 election was the degree to which far-right media were able to set the narrative agenda for mainstream media outlets. (This point is ably argued by internet scholars Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman).
Trolling Scholars Debunk the Idea That the Alt-Right’s Shitposters Have Magic Powers
[Whitney Phillips, Jessica Beyer and Gabriella Coleman/Motherboard]