Disclaimer: The situation on PixelCanvas is constantly changing due to raids from both sides. The figures in this article represent the state as of April 2020.
In the politicized digital environment, the superiority of the alt-right’s weaponization of memes is often taken for granted. As summarized in the buzzword-phrase “the left can’t meme”, the digital engagements of self-identified leftist activists are usually seen as less effective than the ones of the right: their attempts at utilizing Internet culture described as too “politically correct” and “devoid of humour”. This supposedly “immutable law of the Internet” (Dankulous Memeulon) often found confirmation in research.
Described by Phillips and Milner, Internet culture – “a highly insular clique”, now seeping into popular culture – is by design rooted in liberalism and fetishized sight. Through its principles of “free speech”, “harmless fun”, and dehumanizing detachment of memes from real-life production and consequence, meme-sharing was enabling deception, “bigoted pollution”, and reinforcing white racial frames, regardless of intentions (Phillips and Milner). From Andersson to Nagle, many come to the conclusion that the left’s presence online is simply not organized, not active, not transgressive enough to appeal to the sensibilities of Internet culture. Meanwhile, the playful, deceptive online engagements of the alt-right are found to be increasingly viral, set to recruit numerous young rebels, hence upholding a cultural hegemony which has already transcended over to the offline world. This online right style is one where a rejection of morality and nihilistic nonconformity reign supreme – all packaged in carnivalesque laughter and identity-bending “trolling” (Nagle 28-39). Even if counterculture and transgression used to be domains of the left, nowadays the nihilistic, fetishizing landscape of online humour is popularized via alt-right aligned message boards like 4chan (Nagle 28-39).
Left-wing alternatives, encompassed by Nagle in the term “Tumblr liberalism”, were often described as “fragmented” through identitarianism and call-out-culture, enclosed in echo chambers, “nannying, language policing, and authoritarian” (68-85). This categorization has been rightfully criticized for reductionism that lumps together diverse political strands, focuses on form only, and omits the importance of subcultural logic in its caricature of the censorious left (Davies). However, it would be difficult to deny that this is exactly how the online left is, unfortunately, often perceived by the right and liberals/centrists alike, evidenced by its niche quality.
The solutions to the problem of the right’s dominance in the memeosphere – and their Gramscian cultural hegemony – offered by Phillips and Milner could include disavowing fetishized sight while maintaining “slapdash, quippy, and Internet Ugly” qualities to deconstruct meme culture’s whiteness; Davies suggests that “if the left is to have the same degree of success in translating online cultures into political movements then it needs to understand both the online world and its own IRL history”.
Nonetheless, some strands of the online left have been rather close in style and form to the ones of the alt-right, despite their clear difference of “stance” (Shifman 367). In this article, I demonstrate an example of a multi-faceted, united, witty, and countercultural meme leftism on PixelCanvas.io (PixelCanvas): a nearly unlimited online canvas, where anyone can place coloured pixels with an obligatory cooldown time after each. Intended for creative expression, PixelCanvas became a site of click-battles between organized dichotomous extremes of the left and the alt-right, and is swarmed with political imagery. The right’s use of this platform has been already examined by Thibault, well-fitting into the consensus about the efficiency of right-wing online activity. My focus is the rebuttal of alt-right imagery that the radical left replaces with their own.
With a brief account of PixelCanvas’s affordances and recounting the recent history of its culture wars, I trace the hybrid leftist activity on PixelCanvas to argue that it is comparably grounded in dissimulation and transgression to the alt-right’s. Based on the case study, I explore how certain strands of online left might reappropriate the carnivalesque, deceptive, and countercultural meme culture sensibilities and forms, while simultaneously rejecting its “bigoted pollution” (Phillips and Milner) aspects. While arguably problematic, these new strategies might be necessary to combat the alt-right’s hegemony in the meme environment – and by extension, in popular culture.
PixelCanvas as a Metapolitical Platform of Culture Wars
PixelCanvas affords a blend of 4chan-style open-access, no-login anonymity and the importance of organized collective effort. As described by Thibault, it is an “online ‘game’ that allows players to colour pixels ..., either collaborating or competing for the control of the shared space” (102). The obligatory cooldown period on PixelCanvas results in most of the works requiring either dedication of long periods of time or collaboration: as such, the majority of canvas art has a “shared authorship” (102). As a space for creative expression, PixelCanvas encourages expressing aspects of genuine personal identity (political views, sexuality, etc.) albeit reduced to symbols and memes that rarely remain personal. Although the primary medium of information transfer on the platform is visual, brief written catchphrases are also utilized. While the canvas is not lacking in free areas, competition for space is prevalent: between political viewpoints, nationalist groups (Bakalım), and other communities (PixelCanvas.io).
Given this setup, it might be expected that battling for hegemony took over the game. The affordances of PixelCanvas as accepting anonymous unmoderated expressions of identity/political views encourage dissimulation similarly to boards such as 4chan; its immediate visual/one-liner focus overlaps with the prerequisites of meme culture. Meanwhile, the game’s competition aspect leads to large-scale organization of polarized metapolitical groups and to imagery that is increasingly larger, more taboo-breaking, and playful: meant to catch the eye of a viewer before the opponents do. PixelCanvas, as such, is a platform fitting into transgressive, trolling, fetishizing, and “liberal” affordances of Internet culture: the same affordances that made it, according to Nagle or Phillips and Milner, into a space of desensitized white supremacy and right-wing dominance.
Such a setup may seem to work in favour of the 4chan-style raids and against the supposed identitarianism of “Tumblr liberalism”. One could recall the importance of united collective efforts on 4chan: from meme-sharing to Gamergate raids (Beran). Meanwhile, suggested by Citarella, a problem of the online left is its fragmentation, and its “poorly organized and smaller followings” (10). As he observed on Politigram, “DemSocs, Syndicalists, ML’s, AnComs, … and so on, all hated each other. The online right was equally divided but managed to coordinate cultural agitations” (Citarella 10).
Indeed, the platform displayed the effects of alt-right virality multiple times, involving creations of self-identified Kekistanis (KnowYourMeme), anarcho-capitalists, 4chan-aligned “bronies” (My Little Pony fans), etc. However, since 2017, the left joined the game, becoming another example of a united, well-organized and strongly participatory group, which continuously resists alt-right attacks and establishes its own raids, often gaining an upper hand.
Named “Battle of Pixelgrad”, the influx of leftist activity began to combat the forming Reich Iron Cross posted by “a user on 4chan's /pol/” which has caught the attention of Leftbook/meme groups and subreddits (PLK Wiki) (Wrigley). The groups involved spanned “all beliefs under a unified socialist umbrella” (Pixel Liberation Front) ranging from communism through anarchism subtypes to identity politics: all associating with the “left unity” flag that they replaced the Iron Cross with. Their efforts against alt-right raids were coordinated through Discord servers and a public Facebook group. Soon, a Facebook page for Left Unity Fighting Front (LUFF) was set up, with the PixelCanvas flag in the banner and the description: “We decided to form the new rival of 4chan, LUFF. We are the new united front of the internet. Promoting left unity, trolling Nazis, and taking on sectarianism.”
Figure 1: The ’Left Unity’ flag. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-1554,3594.
The concept of left unity has been criticised before, as one that would lead to “the co-optation of anarchism under a Marxist leadership”, charged with the history of anarchist-Bolshevik clashes in USSR, and marred by a “lack of willingness among some Marxists to actually engage with anarchists in legitimate debate” (Springer). Still, the PixelCanvas left unity is one of the rare instances of Marxist, anarchist, and other leftist online groups working together on rather equal grounds, without cracking down on discourse and historical contexts: which is afforded by a subcultural logic and focus on combating a common enemy. The PixelCanvas leftists support common projects, readily bending their beliefs/ identity to create an efficient community that can resist 4chan: self-identifying as an “allyship” with anonymous “soldiers”/comrades belonging together on the left side of the pixel “war” (Pixel Liberation Front). While the diversity of their beliefs is made clear through the variously aligned flags/thinkers they choose to represent with pixels, the union stands without in-fighting, emulating simplistic versions of history as a dichotomous struggle between left and right (which deliberately rejects centrism): from Nazi/communist battles to Cold War imagery. Although reductionist, this us/them thinking is especially necessary in the visual, time-sensitive, and competitive space of PixelCanvas. No matter how extreme the common projects are, what matters in the pixel war is camaraderie and defeating the enemy in the most striking manner possible. After all, the setup of the platform (and the immediacy of Internet culture) supports attention- grabbing transgression and memes better than nuanced discourse.
As of April 2020, hardly any Nazi/4chan/ancap imagery on PixelCanvas stands without being challenged by the Left Unity. Although some of the groups involved in Pixelgrad do not exist anymore, Discord servers (e.g. RedPixel) and Pixel Liberation Front (PLF) Facebook group remain, defending the platform from continued raids. These coordinating bodies are easily accessible to anyone willing to contribute (shall one wish for complete anonymity, they are also free to participate without joining the servers). Their efforts could be understood as “clicktivism” (Halupka); however, the involved leftists view it as a “war” (PLF) or “Memeolution” (Wrigley), an important way in which the “virality of right-wing populism” (Thibault) must be resisted. This use of language highlights their serious awareness of the need for combating the right’s digital hegemony, no matter how playful their activity seems.
Even if this phenomenon is specific to PixelCanvas, one should acknowledge that the identity-bending unity of the left has been enough to challenge continued raids. Niche practices, as seen through 4chan, might break into the mainstream: according to Hobson and Modi, online spaces “are a rich recruiting ground for previously antithetical/apolitical young people” (345) who find refuge in memes and trolling. The agenda of the PixelCanvas left (counterplatforming activism) in this case differs from 4chan’s. However, the forms they assume to reach their goal are often “pithy, funny, or particularly striking” enough to potentially make one “pause to think, and/or laugh” (Hobson and Modi 345) regardless of political alignment.
The Form, Content, and Stance of PixelCanvas Left Activity
Despite the unity in the organization of the PixelCanvas left, the approaches/strategies of its various pixel artworks are far from uniform. At the first sight, the creations of RedPixel members already appear as a multi-faceted (and potentially confusing) mixture of serious real-life agenda and playful Internet culture. Guided by Shifman’s communication-oriented typology of memes, I analyze the different “contents, forms, and stances” (367) that the PixelCanvas left displays in its creations. For analytical clarity, I distinguish three main approaches which overlap and play various roles in contributing to the collective image of RedPixel as simultaneously activist, serious, inclusive, and Internet-culture-savvy, transgressive, deceptive.
The first approach of PixelCanvas leftist creations is most serious and least grounded in Internet culture. A portion of RedPixel activity directly reproduces real-life protest chants, posters, flags, murals, movement symbols, and portraits of leftist icons, with little alteration to the form other than pixelating. The contents of such creations vary, however, they remain serious and focused on real-life issues: voicing support for contemporary leftist movements (Black Lives Matter, pro-refugee, Rojava liberation, etc.), celebrating the countercultural, class-centric leftist history (anarchist, communist, socialist victories, thinkers, and revolutionaries), and representing a plethora of identities within hyper-inclusive flag clusters (of various sexualities, genders, and ethnicities). The stance of these images can be plausibly interpreted as charged with serious/genuine “keying” (Shifman 367), and “conative” (imperative) or “emotive” (367) functions. Within those images, the meme culture’s problematic affordances (“fetishization” and “liberalism” (Phillips and Milner)) are disavowed clearly: exemplified by a banner on the site suggesting that “just a meme” mentality created a shield for “meme Nazis” that led to the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting. Although this strand of RedPixel’s works could be criticized as “humourless” and rather detached from the platform’s affordances, its role lies in displaying the connection to the real world with potential suggestions for mobilization, the awareness of meme culture’s problematic nature, and the image of radical left cooperation.
Figure 4: Posters and symbols in support of Rojava, Palestine liberation, and Black Lives Matter. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@5340,4121.
Figure 5: Early Paris Commune poster reproduced on PixelCanvas. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@7629,2134.
Figure 6: Example of a PixelCanvas hyper-inclusive flag cluster. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@2741,-3508.
The second approach, while similar in the diversity of content, adopts memetic forms, and the light-hearted “harmless fun” of Internet culture. Through popular meme formats (molded to call for action), slang expressions, pop-cultural references (anime/cartoon/video game characters), to adopting “cutesy” aesthetics, these creations present identity politics, anti-fascism, and anti-capitalism in a light, aestheticized form. Popular characters, colourful art, and repetitive base colour schemes (red, black, rainbow) are likely to attract attention; recognition of the pop-cultural references, and of known meme formats might sustain it, urging one to focus on the only uncertain element: the politics behind it. Being visually and contextually appealing to online youth, this political-memetic imagery is well-adapted to the platform. Simultaneously, the carnivalesque forms contrast with the frequently more transgressive contents this approach employs. As a result, the tone of their work seems lighthearted even in its incitement to “kill the Nazis” and “eat the rich”. Clearly aware of the language of its opposition, RedPixel reacts similarly to how 4chan reacted to Tumblr liberalism: responding to “lightly thrown accusations” (Nagle) by intensifying them to the point where they can be seen as “owning” the labels they have been given – instead of “getting offended”. Through memes and reappropriated posters they present themselves as “Red Menace,” as a direct threat to 4channers, and as a “trigger-warning” club, using the existing criticisms to self-identify as formidable enemies of the right. While the transgression in RedPixel style often remains acceptable by radical left standards, it is certainly not the same as “virtue signalling”, “hypersensitive”, “vulnerable” Tumblr liberalism (Nagle 68–85); and it might be shocking or amoral to some. Much of their imagery is provocative: inciting violence, glorifying deeply problematic parts of communist history, using religious symbols in a potentially blasphemous way, supporting occultism/ Satanism, and explicitly amplifying (queer) sexuality. In the mix of (sometimes) extreme contents and forms that suggest a light-hearted attitude, it might be difficult to determine the keying of their stance. Although it is unlikely that RedPixel would avow politics they do not actually believe (given the activist, anti-fetishizing agenda of their first approach), their political choices are frequently amplified to their full “tankie” form, and even up to Stalin support: raising the question how much of it is serious intent masked with humour, and what could be written off as deliberate identity play, deceptive “trolling” and jokes, similar in style to 4chan’s.
Figure 7: Revolution-inciting appropriation of a popular meme format. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-1765,3376.
Figure 8: Fictional characters Stevonnie (Steven Universe) and Cirno (Touhou) with leftist captions. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-847,-748.
Figure 9: Call for fighting fascism referencing a Pacman video game and Karl Marx. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-712,-395.
Figure 10: Joseph Stalin reimagined as a My Little Pony character. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-1197,966.
Figure 11: “A spectre is haunting Kekistan.” Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-2196,3248.
Figure 12: “Trigger Warning Gun Club” badge. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@2741,-3508.
Figure 13: “Have you heard that Nazis get vored?” anime catgirl. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@1684,928.
Figure 14: Rainbow genitals on a former Kekistan flag. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-2513,3221.
The third approach can be read as a subset of the second: however, what distinguishes it is a clearly parodic stance and reappropriating of 4chan’s forms. The PixelCanvas activists, unlike the supposed “anti-free speech” left (Lukianoff and Haidt) do not try to get the alt-right imagery removed by others, and do not fully erase it. Instead, they repurpose 4chan memes and flags, ridiculing them or making them stand for leftist views. An unaware viewer could mistake their parodies of 4chan for parodies of the left made by 4chaners; the true stance sometimes only suggested by their placement within RedPixel-reclaimed areas. Communist and LGBTQ+ Pepes or Ponies, modified Kekistan flags, and even claiming that “the right can’t meme” all point to an interesting trend that instead of banning symbols associated with alt-right groups wants to exploit the malleability of memes: confusing and parodying their original content and stance while maintaining the form and style. This aim is perhaps best exemplified in the image The Greatest Game of Capture the Flag where Pepes in anarcho-communist, communist, and transgender Pride hoodies are escaping from a crying white man while carrying a 4chan flag. Interpreted in context, this image summarizes the new direction that leftists take against 4chan. This is a direction of left unity (with various strands of radical left maintaining their identities but establishing an overarching collective “allyship” identification), of mixing identity politics with classic ideologies, of reconciling Internet culture with IRL socio-political awareness, and finally, of reappropriating proven-effective play, dissimulation, and transgression from 4chan.
Figure 16: Pride flag cluster with Pride-coloured Pepes. Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-1599,3516.
Figure 18: “The Right Can’t Meme.” Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-1885,3203.
Figure 20: “The Greatest Game of Capture the Flag.” Source: https://pixelcanvas.io/@-1885,3203.
The PixelCanvas left can serve as an example of a united stronghold which managed to counterplatform the alt-right: assuming dominance in 2017 to later rebuild and expand their pixel spheres of influence after each 4chan raid. Online culture wars are nowadays recognized as Gramscian in their roots: according to Burton, “the young people confronting this reactionary shift head-on with memes normalizing are … on the front lines of a culture war with global repercussions” (13). By far, this “war” for digital hegemony has been overwhelmingly evaluated as one that the alt-right is simply better at, due to the natural affordances of Internet culture. However, the “united front of the internet” “promoting left unity and trolling Nazis” (LUFF) exemplifies a possible direction which the online radical left could follow to take on 4chan’s digital dominance. This direction is complex and hybrid: with overlapping/combined approaches. The activities of PixelCanvas left include practices that are well-adapted to the immediate meme culture and those based on IRL movements; practices similar to 4chan’s problematic transgression and those that are activist, disavowing fetishized sight; serious practices and deceptive/ironic ones. Their 2017 PixelCanvas victory and later resistance persisting despite continuing raids might suggest that this strategy works, with the key to its coordination laying in the subcultural logic of an “allyship” that privileges fast-paced mobilization and swift comebacks over careful nuance: necessitated by meme culture affordances. Although only time can prove if this new left digital language will become more widespread, it has the potential to become an alternative to “hypersensitive Tumblr liberalism” and to challenge the idea that meme culture is doomed to be right-wing.
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