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A ‘disjointed’ culture war: How a Romanian meme page proves that the left can meme

Name: Robert Cristian Baciu

Supervisor: Dhr. dr. S.C.J. (Stijn) Peeters

Second reader: Dhr. prof. dr. T. (Thomas) Poell

Media Studies (research): New Media and Digital Culture University of Amsterdam

22 June 2021

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Abstract

The concept of ‘culture wars’ has been at the forefront of the 2016 United States elections, where memes played an important role (Nagle, 2017). It has been theorized as a battle between opposing political factions in the US – progressives and conservatives (Rodgers, 2011). Most of the literature is focused on the United States or specific European countries: United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland. In this context, Euroscepticism is presented as a conflict between national values and those of the European Union (Furedi, 2017). Thus, the focus of this thesis is placed upon an under-researched area: the online culture war in post-communist Eastern Europe. In order to carry this analysis, I have created a definition of the culture war which is not inherently tied to the United States and can be extrapolated to other countries’ political particularities in the culture war.

Using Dezarticulat, a Romanian left-wing meme page, as an example for how the online culture war is carried in Romania, the thesis contributes to the debate around the concept of

‘culture war’ and tackles the ‘the left can’t meme’ meme. By undertaking both a qualitative and a quantitative analysis (Venturini & Latour, 2010), the thesis focuses on how the online culture war is manifested in Eastern Europe and what are the main differences from its American counterpart. In this sense, Dezarticulat are the main carrier of the online Romanian culture war – which is inherently asymmetrical due to the prevailing anti-communist sentiment in Romania and the failures of left-wing parties to properly organize. By using meme theory (Milner, 2016; Shifman, 2014a) and an adaptation of Chagas et al.’s (2019) categorization of political memes, the thesis offers a generalized perspective of the memes posted by Dezarticulat between 2015 and 2021. The quantitative analysis serves as a means to understand larger trends in memes and how they refer to the political, cultural and social specificities of Romanian life. Conversely, an in-depth analysis of a set of memes is carried with the aim of dissecting them to recognize the finer particularities of the Romanian online culture war.

Keywords: Romanian online culture war, Dezarticulat, meme theory, subcultures, political memes

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my partner, Varvara, for always supporting me throughout this journey, as well as the CC2 ‘Twitch chat’ for making things more bearable in these extraordinary circumstances.

My gratitude also goes out to Stijn Peeters for supervising the thesis and always offering insightful and valuable feedback. Finally, I want to thank Thomas Poell for taking the time to read this thesis.

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Table of Contents

Introduction ... 5

Theoretical framework ... 9

Culture wars ... 9

Memeology and subcultures ... 19

Methodology ... 26

Findings and analysis ... 31

General findings ... 31

Dezarticulat – general meme overview ... 34

In-depth meme analysis ... 42

Discussion ... 58

Conclusion ... 66

Appendix ... 68

Bibliography ... 69

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Introduction

On the 6th of December 2020, Romania held legislative elections, after a series of discussions which proposed that they should be postponed until early 2021, amidst worries that the elections would cause a surge in COVID-19 cases (Petrescu, 2020). The election saw the creation of a coalition between the two largest right-wing factions in Romania, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and an alliance between two relatively new parties, Save Romania Union (USR) and the Freedom, Unity and Solidarity Party (PLUS). However, the 2020 elections also saw another newly-found and rather unknown party receive 9% of the popular vote – the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR). Catalogued as a far-right party (McGrath, 2020), the election of AUR in the Romanian Parliament was unexpected by most people, as they built their electoral platform on a general mistrust of the COVID-19 pandemic, on anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown restrictions. Generally, the rise of ‘new’ parties in Romania is built upon a general dissatisfaction with the political class, boosted by the austerity measures taken as a result of the 2008 financial crisis (Stoiciu, 2012), as well as the various issues of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) – which won the previous elections – such as the instability caused by the dismissal of its three cabinets by a vote of no confidence, along with the sentencing to prison for three and a half years of its then-leader, Liviu Dragnea. All of these events culminated with a series of protests between 2017-2019, sparking the biggest anti-corruption protest ever since the 1989 Romanian Revolution (Marinas & Ilie, 2017).

This is the backdrop on which Dezarticulat (in rough translation, Disjointed) was born.

Dezarticulat is a leftist Romanian Facebook meme page and represents a unique phenomenon as one of the most visible and relevant left-wing projects in Romania. The page presents itself as an alternative to the hegemonic political discourse in Romania which has been shifting towards the right ever since the 1989 Revolution. The Dezarticulat case poses serious questions regarding the Romanian political sphere, as left-wing parties have been lackluster in the recent years. Demos, a progressive party, has failed to raise enough signatures to participate in both the 2020 local elections, as well as in the 2019 European Parliament elections, where it managed to only raise 12.000 signatures out of the 200.000 required participate (Biroul Electoral Central, 2019). On the other hand, the Socialist Party of Romania

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(PSR) only received 40.000 votes in the same elections, failing to secure any seats. This context serves as a background for this thesis, in order to understand the role that Dezarticulat plays in the political/meme sphere. The group pushes leftist ideas in the realm of online subcultures through memes, as well as other forms of media: a dedicated subreddit, a podcast, a YouTube channel and a recently-published book, satirizing financial education works such as Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad and adapting them to a Romanian context.

The aim of this thesis is meant to contribute to the debate around the concept of ‘culture war’, while also challenging the ‘the left can’t meme’ meme. The specificity of this project resides in the fact that these ideas, as they are usually articulated, are mostly oriented towards the United States. The definition of the culture war that is used in the thesis stems from James Davison Hunter and Daniel T. Rodgers; building upon the conceptualization of the culture war as understood in Age of Fracture (Rodgers, 2011), I will create a definition which is broader and allows for an interpretation of the culture war for other regions apart from the United States. In turn, I propose to look at the way these ideas are developed in an Eastern European, post-communist context. The research argues that these concepts are manifested differently compared to the US or West Europe, due to the pervasive anti-communist feeling in Romania.

Thus, the main research question of the thesis is what does the online culture war look like in post- communist Eastern Europe and how does it differ from its American counterpart? In this sense, a second question is needed, which serves as an operationalization for the former: how is Dezarticulat using memes to normalize the leftist discourse in the Romanian political and meme sphere?

In order to answer these questions, the first chapter will lay the theoretical framework of the paper, which will first cover an overview of the culture war as a concept, which is tightly related to the “reactionary turn in chan culture” (de Zeeuw & Tuters, 2020, p. 16), intertwinement set in the context of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Furthermore, it has been argued that memes play an important role in the culture war (Beran, 2019; Nagle, 2017); as such, the implications of this event speak about the importance that memes have in online (sub)cultures, where groups throughout the political compass employ memes to their advantage (Penney, 2019). This is what Dezarticulat does in the Romanian context; one of the hypotheses that the thesis is built upon is that because of the lack of an

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established left-wing movement, the group is using memes to normalize left-wing ideals and mock the Romanian middle-class and liberal ethos on social media platforms.

The next section of the theoretical framework looks at meme theory and subcultures. The two main concepts used in this section will be meme genre and style; I argue that leftist memes have some specificities, to which Dezarticulat also adheres. The style of their memes includes a multitude of references to both current events and leftist theory; they make use of lots of text and require a specific literacy to decipher their code. Meme genres operate according to particular cultural logics (Shifman, 2014b), so this implies a certain familiarity is needed with the specific style in order to properly understand the essence of the memes. The name of the page itself, meaning literally disjointed, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the specificity of the memes, showing a high level of awareness.

The second chapter concerns the methodology of this research. I will create a genealogy of the page’s memes, with the purpose of showcasing where the memes come from, how they are presented to the page’s audience and how they changed over time. Next, I will select some of the most relevant memes in terms of number of likes, but also keeping in mind the engagement and discussions arising in the comments section. I will employ a system of classification (Chagas et al., 2019) which will allow for a more systematic and data-driven analysis of the memes. Next, a close reading will be employed to gain a deeper insight of both the memes and how they are received by the page’s followers. Thus, the research will offer both a general overview of the page and its evolution throughout the years and also zoom in to highlight the particularities of the page’s memes.

Chapter 3 consists of an overview of the findings based on the chosen methodology. It will cover what types of memes are present on the page and how the style and genre of the memes have changed over the years, based on Shifman’s argument that genres are changing “in response to social, political and technological ecologies” (2014b, p. 342). Out of this dataset, I will pick the memes based on the criteria established in the methodology for the close reading.

The chapter will then cover a substantive interpretation of the selected memes, correlated to both meme theory and the culture war. The purpose is to develop an understanding of the memes posted by Dezarticulat built upon the theoretical framework; on one hand, this serves to understand how the group is using memes to bring forward certain underlying issues of

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the Romanian society, e.g., inequalities, misogyny or neoliberal critique. On the other hand, it explains the particularities of the culture war in Romania and how the lack of an institutionalized left-wing political movement affects the general consensus upon social problems. Thus, I argue that Dezarticulat plays a significant role in the Romanian online culture war through its weaponizing of memes – sometimes in a cutting way – with the objective of developing a stronger presence in the Romanian online left-wing sphere.

The thesis concludes by wrapping up the discussion and summarizing the answers to the research questions. The main working hypothesis of the research is that while Dezarticulat does manage to construct a community around leftist ideas and successfully propagates memes through different media in order to raise awareness and win ground in the culture war, the lack of any real Romanian left-wing political parties or groups hinders its ability to become part of a larger and more visible cultural movement.

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Theoretical framework

Culture wars

The concept of ‘culture war’ has been at the forefront of the 2016 United States presidential elections, with Donald Trump as the main protagonist, and online trolls stemming from 4chan’s politically incorrect (/pol/) board doing the groundwork to ‘meme’ Donald Trump into office (Nagle, 2017). 4chan’s /pol/ board has played an important role in the contemporary online culture wars as representatives of a group standing against the perceived threat of progressivism and multiculturalism attacking America’s core values. The culture war, however, does not only stand for Pepe the Frog memes and online subcultures going to war with one another. It is a complex concept with multiple undertones which has defined modern United States politics for the past decades.

In order to dissect the implications of the online Romanian culture war, this chapter aims to initially position the culture war not as just a manifestation of the ‘meme war’ caused by the 2016 presidential elections, but rather as an important pillar in the recent politics of the United States, with general implications for the overall understanding of the concept. The US culture war offers a unique perspective: on one hand, it showcases the cultural divide between what is generally called ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’, but at the same time it also addresses the underlying normativity regarding the question ‘how should the American life be lived?’.

The culture war, thus, becomes an issue of values and morality. Although the United States is a secular country, religion is deeply rooted in the construction of its values (Hartman, 2015, pp. 201–202).

The body of literature surrounding the concept of ‘culture war’ is largely focused on its expression in the United States. This is caused, in part, by the aforementioned presidential elections along with all the attention it has received from the mainstream media. While Donald Trump’s win came as a surprise for some, it also brought to light numerous people which have been largely ignored. As it stands, in order to understand how the concept of culture war is manifested in Romania, it must first be unpacked in its US context. This will serve as a base layer for understanding the Romanian culture war and the key differences from its US counterpart. Apart from dissecting the US culture war, this chapter will also look

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towards understanding the European iteration as well, which is manifested as the dichotomy between the Eastern and Western Europe. These differences have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the adherence of many Eastern and Central European countries to the European Union. Thus, in order to present an accurate depiction of the Romanian culture war and how it diverges from the US and EU conceptualizations, a general overview of the concept must first be introduced.

The contemporary online culture war is analyzed by Angela Nagle in Kill All Normies, a book which tackles the rise of the alt-right in the United States (Nagle, 2017); the foundation of the alt-right’s popularization is tightly related to the “reactionary turn in chan culture” (de Zeeuw

& Tuters, 2020, p. 16). This concept refers to the emergence of alt-right on fringe platforms as a result of dissimulative identity play and a disdain for mainstream platforms (de Zeeuw &

Tuters, 2020). Consequently, the alt-right has managed to co-opt members of such platforms, such as 4chan. An event which unearthed this reactionary side was Gamergate, an online controversy involving video games enthusiasts decrying the threat of feminism and progressivism interfering with their favorite pastime. Gamergate can be thus seen as a more

‘informal’ expression of the culture war, seemingly with less ideological implications.

Long before the likes of Jordan Peterson decried the ascent of ‘postmodernism’ and

‘neomarxism’ as manifestations of progressivism, another conservative figure was discussing the “culture wars”: in his 1992 speech, Patrick Buchanan asked if “«the Judeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this national was built» would survive” (Hartman, 2015, p. 1), signaling the perceived issues caused by the deep cultural divide between progressives and conservatives. The discourse of the culture wars is focused around a set of often-controversial issues, such as abortion, gay rights, racial equality or feminism (M. Davis, 2018). The idea of

“culture wars” is strongly tied to the rise of counterculture in the 1960s, characterized by its

“rejection of authority, its transgression of rules and standards, and its antipathy to anything mainstream” (Hartman, 2015, p. 15). To understand the culture wars, one must understand what sits at the core of the discrepancies between the two antagonistic groups – that is, issues of morality, ideology and identity. Mark Davis argues that for Buchanan, politics “is not about the distribution of resources but is about identity, values and a commensurate difference in belief systems” (2018). The creation of the antagonism between ‘us’ and ‘them’ offers valuable

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insight in understanding the depth of the culture war. Citing James Davison Hunter, Daniel Rodgers argues that the culture war in the United States represents a “battle over the very foundations of morality: between those who thought of ethics as adaptive, progressive, and socially constructed and those who thought of morals as fixed, timeless, and non-negotiable”

(Rodgers, 2011, p. 145). Thus, the culture war becomes not an issue of politics, policies or winners and losers, but rather it encompasses the near-impossibility for these two groups to co-exist.

So far, the discussion has revolved mainly on the culture war in the United States, with most of the attention being directed towards the events following Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency. What this entails is a largely US-centric interpretation of the concept, with highly context-dependent characteristics. However, the culture war – understood as an antagonism between two groups (or more, in the context of the EU) regarding how the Union should be conducted in terms of values and principles – is present in Europe as well, albeit not benefiting from the same popularity as it does in the United States. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that the culture war is not as popular in the European mainstream media as it is in the United States. Certainly, while there are plenty of articles and research on the emergence of a European culture war, i.e., the effects of Brexit, the influence of right-wing movements in Poland and Hungary, these are not nearly as popular – as in popular as a culture war – as the American counterpart. This difference is mainly caused by the different nature of the European states and how they perceive the culture war. Certain issues are common for both instances of the culture war – abortion, for example, historically represents a key concern regarding morality in both the EU and the US. Yet besides highly-controversial subjects, the European culture war has particular areas where it differs from the one portrayed in Kill All Normies.

Apart from the issue of abortion, which has religious and morality connotations, a key departure from the US-centric view on the culture war is represented by a focus not on how to live ‘the European life’, but rather on the tension between the national and the supranational – the latter referring to the European Union. The culture wars can “help clarify the tension in Europe between the EU and populism” (Furedi, 2017, p. 3). In this scenario, the two main actors are represented by Eurosceptics – conventionally, Eurosceptics are

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considered to be right-wing, whereas the other camp consists of advocates of liberalism, who support the EU as a supranational body. Yet in cases such as Brexit, the European culture war is not constrained to the left-right dichotomy (Stewart, 2016), but it is rather “about class, and income, and education” as well as “culture, race, nationalism” (Bush, 2016). Euroscepticism is most commonly presented as being typical of people “who are irrational, uneducated, [...] and nationalist” (Furedi, 2017, p. 1). This is in line with Insa Koch’s argument that “Brexit and Trump voters are driven by identity politics, of which their anti-immigrant sentiments are a central feature” (Koch, 2017, p. 226). This conceptualization of identity politics is different from its US counterpart; in this case, the identity which is at stake is built on values and the sense of belonging to a certain nation. Thus, in Europe, the culture wars are much more institutionalized – they are less memetic and not particularly manifested in online forums or imageboards. One reason for this is the diversity of languages in Europe; while in the US, the entire population can go sites such as 4chan, whereas in Europe it is more difficult to engage in a wider discussion at the level of the entire continent. Overall, the EU culture war boils down to politics and how the existence of the EU impacts national sovereignty regarding controversial issues.

The European culture war can be understood through another lens – the differences between Eastern and Western Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the relative divide between the two regions in areas such as labor (Kováts & Zacharenko, 2020; Zacharenko, 2020), yet the disharmony between the East and West runs deeper. The gap in values between the two regions showcases the fact that integration for all members of the EU might not be easy to attain, considering the already-existing polarization on both social values and judiciary issues (Trofimov, 2019). Countries such as Poland, Hungary or Romania have received attention for divisive policies and proposals on issues such as reproductive rights and LGBT rights (Kováts & Zacharenko, 2020; Trofimov, 2019), while economic implications have been pushed away from the foreground. In this scenario, the culture war is being fought over by liberal and conservative forces over Europe’s values and future (Strzelecki & Jefferson, 2019). However, there is a contradiction at play: although the European culture war is more institutionalized compared to the United States, it is not reflected in the same way among the population. While in the US the same inflammatory style is present in both the political and grassroots level, in the EU things appear to behave differently.

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As with the US, religion plays an important role in the Eastern European culture war.

Romania, for example, is one of the most religious countries in Europe (Tarta, 2015, p. 33), yet participation in religious activities is much lower. Another similarity with the United States is that the Orthodox Church is seen in Romania “as a carrier of national identity” (Tarta, 2015, p. 34), although both countries are officially secular. By juxtaposing religion with national identity, it results that the culture war becomes an issue of morality in Romania, as well. The interference of religion with the national identity goes beyond simply an ideological level: it is also tied to social and cultural groups. Vasile Ernu argues that the 2014 Romanian presidential elections saw the fragmentation of the Romanian society: upper and middle-class people started a discursive war against those whom they perceived as inferior (Ernu, 2014).

The two candidates represent near-perfect metaphors for the Romanian culture war – the social democrat, Victor Ponta, “got votes from the poor, religious, uneducated, and rural Romanians from the southeast, while the current president, Klaus Iohannis, got the votes of the richer, urban, more educated Romanians from the Transylvania region” (Tarta, 2015, p.

37). Klaus Iohannis’ win over the Social Democratic Party (PSD) stood as a landmark win against what the ‘educated’ middle-class perceived as a threat for Romania – PSD, historically, has been involved in numerous affairs involving corruption (Mânzac, 2018) and has been critiqued for merely using the social-democrat label as a means to receive votes, while pushing a nationalist and populist agenda (Hasselbach, 2019). The Romanian culture war is focused mostly around societal issues, which stem from the rough transition to a pluralist democracy.

However, the culture war as a self-standing concept is not articulated as a priority for Romania. This is also reflected in the lack of literature on the subject, yet the culture war does manifest itself in Romania through issues of national identity and the tension caused by Euroscepticism.

Turning back to the United States, in the context of progressive principles of the 1960s being brought to the foreground, conservatives understood that in order to win over the central discourse of political and cultural life they had to find specific avenues for the propagation of their ideas. This led to the creation of “conscious incubators of new conservative ideas, publicizing books and sponsoring authors, subsidizing student organizations and newspapers” and, moreover, the establishment of conservatives on “television cable news and talk shows” (Rodgers, 2011, p. 7). However, the proliferation of conservative media wasn’t

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strictly tied to the Reagan era; right-wing radio and television emerged as early as the 1940s and 1950s (Hemmer, 2016). The difference is, however, that the new era ushered in figures such as Rush Limbaugh, who “did not have the polished pedigree of his predecessors in conservative media” and was rather “ribald and profane, meant to provoke as much as proselytize” (Hemmer, 2016, p. 260). The deregulation of the communication industry in the United States permitted this tradition of inflammatory political commentary, championed by Limbaugh, to blossom. Today, it is felt through the likes of conservative figures such as Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder, who employ a similarly antagonistic style.

While these media were mainly used to push conservative ideas to the masses, they also carried the explicit purpose of attacking progressivism. Similarly to Ronald Reagan, Limbaugh also considered that ‘big government’ was the problem, thus launching attacks against this idea. Through his rhetorical style, Rush Limbaugh mobilized emotion in order to continuously push a divide between Democrats and Republicans (Jamieson & Cappella, 2010, pp. 126–127). By emphasizing this divide and understanding that exposing oneself to partisan news “increased campaign activity over time and encouraged an earlier decision time, while exposure to conflicting news had exactly the opposite effects” (Dilliplane, 2011, p. 304), an echo chamber is created. In this context, an echo chamber refers to “a bounded, enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal” (Jamieson & Cappella, 2010, p. 76). Discussing the US right-wing media ecosystem in particular, Yochai Benkler et al. argue that it “behaves precisely as the echo-chamber models predict – exhibiting high insularity, susceptibility to information cascades, rumor and conspiracy theory, and drift toward more extreme versions of itself”

(2018, p. 74). What these actors do is offer explanations for the “current epistemic crisis”

(Benkler et al., 2018, p. 11), at the core of which sits the culture war and its implications, as understood by Rodgers. By engaging in the production of an echo chamber, the actors can use its effects as a means to legitimize themselves, further propagating their ideology.

It has been argued that social media does a similar thing – by algorithmically feeding people news that they want to hear, they contribute to the strengthening of such echo chambers (Jamieson & Cappella, 2010). On the other hand, one does not necessarily need to be on Facebook to receive their share of confirmation bias. Online subcultural platforms such as

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4chan or reddit are also culpable of partaking in the creation of an echo chamber. While authors such as Nagle highlight the importance of 4chan for the popularization of the alt- right, the reactionary turn in chan culture refers precisely to the fact that 4chan used to be much more politically apathetic and an “ironical in-jokey maze of meaning” (Nagle, 2017, p.

11). Dezarticulat has been influenced by chan culture, mainly because of the fact 4chan is heavily engaged in the creation of memes. Certain memes posted by Dezarticulat can be considered a ‘maze of meaning’ due to the intricacy involved in both the layering of the memes itself, i.e., the plethora of references which are usually present in their memes, and the literacy needed to decipher these memes. On the other hand, while Dezarticulat makes constant use of sarcasm and in-jokes, it is not politically apathetic and this represents the departure point from how 4chan used to manifest itself.

Under the pretense of ‘doing it for the lulz’, meaning “a detached and dissociated amusement at other’s distress” (Milner, 2013, p. 66), 4chan users have historically engaged in posting all sorts of offensive language and media on the boards. One of the reasons for the creation of an echo chamber on 4chan is the ephemerality attribute of the imageboard. Ephemerality is manifested here through the fact that “no matter how popular a discussion might be, once having reached the bump-limit threads expire” (Tuters et al., 2018). When a post on 4chan receives a reply, it gets moved on the first page of a particular board. As posts receive less comments, or they hit the hard limit on the number of comments they can receive, they start being replaced by other posts, until they get removed from the board completely. This absence of algorithmic filtering, coupled with very lax moderation rules, allows 4chan to easily become an echo chamber. Ryan Milner argues that while the “rampant use of the racial slurs on 4chan may have just been ‘for the lulz, [...] it still represented a hacked social dynamic, one that favored a white centrality” (2013, p. 75). However, it is precisely the fact that free speech is embedded in 4chan that has allowed extreme right-wing speech to blossom, and “even if trolls adopt extremist ideas only for the lulz, they can have the same impact of promoting these ideas into wider circulation” (Aspray, 2019, p. 157).

As mentioned earlier, the Gamergate controversy represents one of the main catalysts which cemented the reactionary turn in chan culture. For some 4chan users, “video games were the last line of retreat” (Beran, 2019, " Gamergate: 4chan’s Depression Quest"), so people such as

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Anita Sarkeesian have been victims of a sustained harassment campaign just for creating a YouTube series consisting of feminist criticism of video games (Nagle, 2017, "Chapter One").

One explanation for this type of behavior is offered by Adrienne Massanari, who argues that 4chan is representative of a “toxic technoculture” which stands against multiculturalism and progressivism (2017). This, coupled with the ‘theft of joy’ narrative, defined as a way “in which an authoritarian figure channels the desires and resentments of the ‘radical loser’

through a spectacle of collective hate” (Lovink & Tuters, 2018b), the Gamergate advocates found a common enemy in progressivism and feminism. In this context, the theft of joy refers to a perceived threat aimed at the proponents of Gamergate’s last safe space: video games.

Thus, video game enthusiasts perceive such feminist critique proposed by Anita Sarkeesian as a means of trying to ‘politicize’ video games, which represent their get-away from reality.

However, the Gamergate scandal was not entirely steered by 4chan and reddit, but was also co-opted by alt-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who saw the opportunity to rally video game enthusiasts against a common enemy, ‘social justice warriors’.

One of the most visible works on the contemporary culture war is Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, book which tackles the rise of the alt-right in the United States and its role in the amplification of the culture wars. The purpose of the book is to contextualize and offer a critical account in order to have a better understanding of the reactionary turn in chan culture and is considered to be an overall good introduction to the contemporary culture wars (Laiola, 2018), even though it is not necessarily scholarly, due to its lack of a theoretical framework or any bibliographical references (Dematagoda, 2017). The book has received a fair share of critique – being accused of ‘both sidesing’ (libcom, 2018) by comparing left-wing protests to the actions of the alt-right, which has been cause for numerous murders throughout the United States (Hankes & Amend, 2018) or that it misinterprets the radicalization of young people (MacLeod, 2018, p. 536). While Kill All Normies has some issues caused by Nagle picking and choosing certain events which uphold her thesis, it is nonetheless an insightful entry point into how 4chan has been entangled in the online culture wars. Nagle goes insofar as to describe American politics as having turned into “purely cultural politics” (Nagle, 2017,

"Chapter Four"). This idea bodes well with Andrew Breitbart’s proposition that “politics is downstream from culture” (M. Davis, 2018). Thus, Nagle argues that the right-wing participants in the culture war have understood the fact that culture precedes politics. In this

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sense, she calls them the ‘gramscians of the alt-light’, referring to figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who managed to co-opt different groups of people, including men’s rights activists, 4chan trolls, video game enthusiasts, as well as hardline neo-nazis, in the aforementioned fight against ‘social justice warriors’. This hegemony has its roots in the works of key thinkers of the alt-right, who tackle themes such as apocalypticism and the fear of global liberal elites (Sedgwick, 2019).

There are, however, some dissenting voices which argue against the existence of a culture war.

Morris Fiorina et al. contend that the ideas pushed by political commentators declaring the existence of a culture war, which shifted the attention from rigid economism to issues of sexuality, morality and religion “range from simple exaggeration to sheer nonsense” (2011, p.

7). Fiorina et al.’s argument that the majority of the population is largely centrist (2011, p. 8) is also reinforced by Wayne Baker, who disputes the culture war – he mentions that

“Americans’ social attitudes, cultural-religious values, and moral visions” (Baker, 2006, p. 103) are not polarized, with the exception of abortion. Baker backs his argument by invoking a Gallup poll on Americans’ perception on race relations from 2002-2003 and mentions that the percentage of people who are dissatisfied with race relations, for example, are at the lowest point since Gallup added the section to this polls, concluding that “it is unlikely that there could be an American culture war in the foreseeable future” (Baker, 2006, p. 107). On the other hand, taking a look the 2021 Gallup poll shows that tensions regarding race relations are at an all-time high (Gallup, 2021). The increase of this number coincides with the beginning of the 2016 US presidential elections. Culture war skeptics could not have foreseen that the killing of George Floyd would spark massive protests (Taylor, 2021) or that Donald Trump’s supporters would participate in storming the US Capitol building (BBC News, 2021).

Juxtaposing earlier studies which questioned the existence of a culture war against such the plethora of protests and events which took place after 2016 only goes to prove that if a culture war might not have been taking place before 2016, it is certainly a reality now. As such, these events are representative of a deep cultural divide, to which the contemporary culture war has contributed.

A relatively similar cultural divide has been recently developed in Romania, as well. Although Romania has had its encounters with neoliberalism in the past, during former president

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Traian Băsescu’s two terms (Cistelecan et al., 2014), there has always been a tension between the main political factions. More recently, the National Liberal Party’s success in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, along with the rise in popularity of the 2020 USR-PLUS alliance represented a shift towards the ‘occidentalization’ of Romania under the guise of liberal and neoliberal policies. One of the reasons for their ascent can be understood through PSD’s continuous failures to organize a pertinent left-wing movement in Romania. This was caused, in part, by issues within the party itself, who had a structure resembling an oligarchy; thus, the focus was not on left-wing policies (with the exception of small, populist actions in order to secure votes) but rather on accruing personal wealth. However, there is also the fact that in post-communist Romania, there has been a lack of a strong leftist presence. Once Ceausescu’s regime was removed, Romania has slowly started to shift towards the right. This has caused the focus of this research, Dezarticulat, to emerge as an important player in the Romanian culture war. If left-wing ideas cannot be propagated on a political level due to their association with the corruption of PSD and the defunct Communist Party, Dezarticulat saw the opportunity to shift the development of leftist ideas in the online sphere, through their usage of memes.

So far, this section has presented multiple iterations of the culture war – from its US counterpart, to the way it manifests in Europe. While the concept itself refers to an inherent tension between two groups over certain topics or values, it behaves differently on either side.

However, a clear definition of the culture war has not been formed so far – in part, due to the concept being used for a plethora of issues. The lack of a proper definition of the concept can lead to its utilization in a way that justifies an actor’s point of view, as seen in Kill All Normies.

Therefore, I propose that the culture war can be defined in such a way as to fit both the EU and US narratives: the culture war represents an inherent tension between two antagonistic groups, regarding the way in which a nation should develop its cultural and social values, with the end-goal of gaining political power and popular support over the opposing group. The culture war can be both institutionalized and formalized – the model representative of the Western Europe – but it can also be organized at a grassroots level, as we have seen in the United States. The formulation of the culture war on these two planes offers insights into how it is carried – be that through policies and propagation of ideas at a higher scale, or through memetic engagement on online platforms.

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Memeology and subcultures

The previous chapter showed how the culture war has evolved alongside different forms of media, from radio stations or TV shows to its presence on social platforms. The contemporary culture war, as the 2016 US presidential elections have shown, is carried mostly online. Memes represent an emerging instrument through which it is manifested. Limor Shifman defines a meme as a “group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which were created with awareness of each other, and were circulated, imitated and/or transformed via the Internet by many users” (Shifman, 2014a, p. 41). The key aspects of this definition refer to memes’ primary attribute of being catalogued into different groups, along with their capacity to be easily transmitted, which allows memes to be swiftly propagated on the Internet. Thus, memes must be understood in the context in which they appear, as

“artifacts of participatory digital culture” (Wiggins & Bowers, 2015, p. 1891). What this entails is the fact that memes are created with the specific purpose of being shared. Memes have become a “ubiquitous, highly visible, and global routine” (Shifman, 2014b, p. 341) due to the affordances (J. L. Davis & Chouinard, 2016) of the Internet, yet people share them without paying too much attention to how memes are constructed.

Milner argues that memes are “fundamentally multimodal” (Milner, 2016, "Chapter 1:

Logics"); the implications of this statement reside in the capacity of their meaning to be

“realized through more than one semiotic code” (Gunther & van Leeuwen, 2016, p. 177). In this way, memes carry multiple modes of communication, i.e., words, images, audio or video.

The multimodality of memes is built upon understanding the grammar of memetics; thus, it is important to conceptualize a meme as intertwining both “individual elements and its social contexts” (Milner, 2016, "Chapter 2: Grammar") which are part of a larger system with culturally specific meanings. The process of interpreting a meme implies that the reader has the literacy to decode the meaning of the meme. This is caused, in part, by the memes’ capacity to be reconceptualized and redistributed as floating signifiers, understood here as “a signifier used by fundamentally different and in many ways deeply opposing political projects as a means of constructing political identities, conflicts and antagonisms” (Farkas & Schou, 2018, p. 300). As it was the case with Pepe the Frog, who was co-opted by the alt-right and became synonymous with their ideology, the inherent qualities of the memes allow them to be

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transformed and weaponized by different groups. For example, Pepe the Frog went from an innocuous character from Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club comic, to being retweeted by Donald Trump himself (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Donald Trump retweeting a Pepe the Frog version of himself.

On the other hand, Pepe has been used in the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests to represent something radically opposed. In this case, Pepe stands “as a symbol of progressive resistance against an authoritarian state” (Ellis, 2019). Thus, the meme itself can carry different meanings, depending on the context in which it is used and on the intent. Furthermore, it even has non-political applications; Peepo, a crudely-drawn image of Pepe is constantly used on platforms such as Twitch or Discord in order to express a wider range of emotions, unrelated

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to neither political meanings presented before (Fig. 2). Consequently, if memes can be floating signifiers, they can be also appreciated as means “to describe a precise historical conjuncture in which a particular signifier (lodged in-between several opposing, antagonistic, hegemonic projects) is used as part of a battle to impose the “right” viewpoint onto the world” (Farkas &

Schou, 2018, p. 302).

Figure 2: collection of Peepo emojis/reactions, used on Discord or Twitch.

While humor plays a paramount role in the propagation of memes, for the contemporary culture wars they are of interest thanks to their ability to “disseminate political arguments and ideologies” (Hakoköngäs et al., 2020, p. 2). Penney argues that today’s online political discourse constantly makes use of memes (2019, p. 792) as they represent a vital tool in packing an argument “in an easily shareable, concise and often visual form” (Hakoköngäs et al., 2020, p. 2). The online culture war weaponizes memes precisely because they have these attributes, which allows participants from each side to deploy them in order to further circulate their political ideology. Since humor sits at the core of these memes, they can also be

“an effective vehicle for capturing the attention of digital publics and serving as instrumental public advocacy and persuasion” (Penney, 2019, p. 803). The culture war is thus perpetuated through this mechanism, each camp using memes to either co-opt other people or reinforce the beliefs of their supporters.

An example of how certain groups use memes to propagate their own ideology is Politigram – a loose network of Instagram accounts who engage with each other and their followers

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through mobilizing memes in order to propagate their ideology. Joshua Citarella explores a sub-section of Politigram, titled Post-left. What is at stake here is not the ideology itself, but rather the form and content of the memes themselves. Citarella argues that the US presidential elections have a large enough impact on social media, affecting “young ideologues” and setting off a “dramatic chain of events that culture and media experts are still struggling to explain” (2018, p. 3). A remarkable feature of Politigram is that it requires a specific literacy and knowledge of left-wing politics to decipher the memes; on top of that, the genre and style of the memes themselves are borderline incomprehensible to an outsider. This goes to show that the purpose of some of these pages is not to persuade other people into becoming part of their political ideology. In this regard, it becomes crucial to understand that some meme genres are targeted towards a specific set of people. Not all political memes must try to advocate to the general public; some of the people on Politigram change their views over time (Citarella, 2018, p. 6). However, the main takeaway from this phenomenon is that memes, as multimodal objects, carry their meaning in different ways and can offer various interpretations based on who is reading the text.

An inherent quality of memes is that they exist within genres, which can be understood as

“collections of collections” (Shifman, 2014b, p. 342). These represent different overarching and loosely-defined collections of memes – for example, stock character macros, Photoshop reactions or starter pack memes. Bradley Wiggins and Bret Bowers problematize some of the issues tackled in the research at hand, inquiring into the way in which online communities engage with meme genres and how memes are used in different cultural, social and political contexts (Wiggins & Bowers, 2015, p. 18). To understand what sets apart memes posted by pages such as Dezarticulat from others, the concept of ‘genre’ itself must be first explored.

Citing Charles Bazerman and Russell’s conceptualization of the genre, Wiggins and Bowers present it as consisting of artifacts which “are not to be understood as objects themselves, but within the activities that give rise and use to them” (Wiggins & Bowers, 2015, p. 8). Bazerman argues that genres do not refer to the forms, but rather represent “forms of life, ways of being.

They are frames for social action” (Bazerman, 1997, p. 19). Genres are meant to be understood as dynamic and complex systems which bring together the same social, political and cultural contexts as mentioned above. They are inherently dynamic, as they mirror human culture, which is ever-changing. Shifman posits that genres respond to “social, political and

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technological ecologies” (Shifman, 2014b, p. 342); thus, genres are not universal, but rather adapted to the context in which they appear.

As I have established, memes and their genres do not operate by themselves, outside of the sphere of the communities in which they are shared, edited and remixed. Memes have become part of popular culture; yet this does not imply that all memes can be properly decoded by any reader. Joke Hermes argues that popular culture could be seen through the lens of cultural citizenship, as “an arena in which not only meaning is struggled over, but identity, subjection and subjectivity, community, and inclusion and exclusion as well” (2005, p. 6). For Hermes, cultural citizenship also refers to a less formalized sphere of media consumption, in which participants engage in debates over different events and ideas. The result of these engagements represents a form of community creation, in which the members of said community can participate in unraveling the meaning of memes. Yet online cultures come in all sorts of forms – their proliferation of social media platforms allows for the creation of both mainstream and more subcultural iterations. For this research, the focus shifts towards online political subcultures, which come with different sets of rules for participation, as well as a required “subcultural literacy” – that is “knowledge of the codes and norms developed in this meme-based subculture” (Shifman, 2014a, p. 126).

This subcultural literacy can be translated in the necessary cultural capital to decode the memes posted by a specific actor. In this sense, cultural citizenship is tightly related to the literacy required to participate and understand certain memes. The ‘dankness’ of a meme represents, on one hand, its conditioning of the reader to have a minimum amount of literacy to decode it. Moreover, it also implies the amount of (sub)cultural capital that goes into the creation of this meme – as such, the more subcultural and obscure a meme is, a higher literacy and cultural capital is needed to understand it and participate in the group formation created around specific memes.

The study of online political subcultures is heavily focused on far right communities – the alt- right, 4chan’s /pol/ as well as radical subreddits (Tuters, 2019; Tuters & Hagen, 2020), as they have been at the forefront of numerous violent incidents throughout the United States.

However, in the context of this research, it is essential to understand the culture war – not only in the United States, but also in Eastern Europe, does not simply represent the alt-right

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going against the status quo. Left-wing subcultures play a significant role in the culture war, yet it is perceived as lesser than right-wing movements, for example, due to the propagation of the ‘the left can’t meme’ meme. What this meme presupposes is constructing a strawman –

‘the left’ – as being too absorbed by political correctness, thus being unable to engage in creation of memes. Geert Lovink and Marc Tuters argue that this meme is has gained traction only because the right-wing has been “most successful in recent years with their oft-repeated slogan that ‘politics is downstream from culture’” (Lovink & Tuters, 2018a). Yet there are many instances of successful left-wing memes. Such an example is r/ToiletPaperUSA, a subreddit which pokes fun at Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA by reusing and editing the organization’s templates and making memes with them, appearing to look like legitimate Turning Point posts (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: r/ToiletPaperUSA meme

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Subcultures consisting of different alt-right groups are engaged in a loose network contained in a wide range of fringe platforms, where moderation is more relaxed; their presence has been constantly present on mainstream social media, although in a more conspicuous manner.

This distinction between fringe and mainstream platform sits at the core of understanding how some online subcultures engage and develop the culture war in order to propagate their ideology.

One difference between fringe and mainstream platforms resides in what type of culture they allow: Marc Tuters and Daniël de Zeeuw underline the difference between ‘mask’ and ‘face’

cultures (2020, p. 218). These types of cultures sit at polar opposites – mask cultures are present predominantly on fringe platforms, whereas ‘face’ cultures inhabit mainstream platforms, such as Facebook. Mask cultures derive from pseudonymous or anonymous platforms, they allow participants to take up different identities, whereas face cultures represent the

“’serious,’ ‘official life’ of work, school and family” (de Zeeuw & Tuters, 2020, p. 2019).

Oftentimes, platforms representative of face cultures require some sort of proof of identity, although this demand is not enforced for Facebook pages, for example. This point is especially important for this research, as Dezarticulat is present on Facebook; this fact has multiple implications – on one hand, it goes to show that they understand the cultural and social particularities of Romania, which does not have a strong affinity towards mask cultures, with only a couple of small pseudonymous or anonymous forums and imageboards. On the other hand, their presence on Facebook can be a strategic choice for reaching more people as part of Dezarticulat’s engagement in the Romanian culture war. Thus, Dezarticulat makes use of Facebook’s affordances in order to spread its ideology through the usage of memes. However, just because it is present on a mainstream platform does not imply that the type of memes they post and their specific style of humor is catered towards all tastes and sensibilities.

Generally speaking, subcultures have a specific type of humor they adopt, as a means of exhibiting a common identity for its members. In this regard, memes and their style serve the purpose of underlining the subcultural sensibility and taste of the group. Its members are required to have a common vernacular, understand the codes of the memes and their ideological components; if a subculture is successful in understanding the demands and wishes of a specific group of people, it can become genuinely popular (Hebdige, 1991).

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Methodology

The aim of this thesis is to understand the role of Dezarticulat in the Romanian culture war, as one of the main actors in the political/meme sphere. The continuous failures of left-wing parties to organize a movement in a formalized manner has allowed Dezarticulat to thrive in an online setting, as proponents of the Romanian culture war, pushing for left-wing ideals.

The page has been created in 2012, yet only in recent years it has started to gain a larger following, sitting at 20.000 likes as of April 2021. The reason for picking Dezarticulat as the object of this study resides in the fact that it exemplifies the particularities of the definition proposed in the theoretical chapter: The culture war represents an inherent tension between two antagonistic groups – in this case, Dezarticulat represents one of the only online left-wing groups which actively resist the generalized prevalence of right-wing cultural and political groups – regarding the way in which a nation should develop its cultural and social values, with the end-goal of gaining political power and popular support over the opposing group. The latter part of the definition explains the reason why Dezarticulat is engaging in these types of posts (memes and jokes, as opposed to more rigorous and serios political commentary): they understand that the shareability and virality of memes can help in pushing forward left-wing ideas and showcasing different social, cultural and economic issues present in Romania.

The thesis focuses on two research questions – the first one represents the main question that the thesis is concerned with, whereas the second one is an operationalization which will aid in answering the main research question. Thus, the questions are as follows:

1. What does the online culture war look like in post-communist Eastern Europe and how does it differ from its American counterpart?

2. How is Dezarticulat using memes to normalize the leftist discourse in the Romanian political and meme sphere?

In order to answer these two questions, the thesis will follow two main lines of research, both quantitative and qualitative, understood as a “multitude of interactions and, simultaneously, to distinguish the specific contribution that each one makes to the construction of social

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phenomena” (Venturini & Latour, 2010). In the first section, I will create a system of classification for the types of memes posted by Dezarticulat, based on the analysis undertaken by Viktor Chagas et al. (2019). Although their classification refers to the Brazilian political sphere, it can be easily adapted to the particularities of this research. In this way, the memes can be systematically analyzed with the purpose of gaining a bird’s eye view perspective on how the page has evolved over time. By creating this genealogy, the thesis aims to see how Dezarticulat deploys different types of memes in their attempts to propagate left-wing ideas and talking points in the meme sphere. On top of Chagas et al.’s categorization, I will be adding the ‘dankness’ dimension, unpacked in the theoretical framework based on Hermes’

and Shifman’s understanding of cultural citizenship and subcultural literacy. In this analysis, the dankness dimension is defined by the literacy needed to unpack and decode the memes.

As such, a dank meme will require familiarity with both the memes and in-jokes present on the page throughout its existence and with the cultural specificities of Romanian popular culture and current events. Conversely, a normie meme represents the opposite – it can be easily understood by most of the people who come across it, without having to be familiar with the page and its context. In this sense, it must be pointed out that this precise verbiage –

‘dank’ vs. ‘normie’ – is not necessarily borrowed from 4chan, although that is the place where it has been popularized. Dezarticulat themselves are sporadically using these words and Romanian adaptations, so for the purpose of the analysis I have decided to keep the terms.

This dimension will also serve as the grounds for the amount of literacy needed in order to decode the memes. In order to properly categorize the selected memes, each of them will be framed into a single type (persuasive memes, grassroots action memes or public discussion memes), on top of which the dankness dimension will be overlaid, with the purpose of deciding if the meme can be easily decoded by the general public or if it requires a higher literacy to be understood.

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Types of political memes First dimension Persuasive

memes

Propositional rhetoric and/or pragmatic appeal: memes which refer directly to actors and/or their positions

Seducing or threatening rhetoric and/or emotional appeal: memes tackling subjective and emotional aspects in regards to certain actors.

Ethical and moral rhetoric and/or ideological appeal: memes which examine scandals, tackle corruption or mention rivalries between different political factions.

Grassroots action memes

General call to action: memes which encourage to engage with a certain movement or organization

Collective action: memes referencing different organizations and/or calling to action for a particular issue in line with the page’s ideology Public

discussion memes

Political commonplace: memes referencing general political discussion.

General cultural allusions: memes which make references to general popular and meme culture.

Specific cultural allusions: memes referencing Romanian cultural specificities.

Jokes about political characters: memes targeting specific political characters or parties

Jokes about current events: memes which reference current political or popular culture events

Second dimension Dankness of

memes

Dank memes: memes which require a high literacy and familiarity with the page and/or require a subcultural sensibility.

Normie memes: memes which can be easily decoded by the general public.

Table 1: adapted from Chagas et al. (2019) in order to better reflect both the Romanian political context and the Facebook page.

The tool used to retrieve the posts in order to populate this classification is Facepager,

“application for automated data retrieval” (Facepager, 2021). Using Facepager, I scraped all the images posted by Dezarticulat from 2012, up until March 2021. After the initial dataset was gathered, I removed videos and images which were not in a typical ‘meme format’. In the dataset, the latter is defined as an image, with or without text superimposed or placed in the description of the Facebook post, made with the purpose of being easily shareable and references both general as well as Romanian popular culture. Apart from the post themselves, the number of reactions, shares and comments were also extracted, and added up to represent the engagement/popularity of a certain meme. The next step was to sort the data and pick five images from the most engaged with memes for each month between the years 2017 and 2021.

The reason for picking five memes resides in the fact that there needs to be a balance between

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the quantitative and qualitative analyses. In this way, there is enough room dedicated for a closer look at particular memes, allowing for a deeper engagement with the content itself, as well as its background. For the prior years, i.e., 2012-2016, I selected all the available memes, as the number of posts during those years was considerably lower. After this selection, I manually selected the memes and coded them using the categories mentioned in Table 1, with the purpose of understanding what is the distribution of memes that Dezarticulat have posted and if there are any changes made over time. The evolution of the memes is related to the second research question and its aim is to develop a clearer image regarding the way in which the page is engaging in the culture war. This contextualization offers a more nuanced overlook on Dezarticulat’s memes and how they reflect on the page’s development as an actor in the Romanian culture war.

After compiling the dataset, I will shift my focus to a qualitative approach in understanding the data. The quantitative analysis serves as a general overview of the page; the categorization goes one step further in explaining the purpose of the memes. The next step, in this regard, is to look at how the memes are employed in this regard. Using a multimodal approach (Hakoköngäs et al., 2020), I will be applying a close reading to some of the memes posted by Dezarticulat, chosen based on their relevance, synthesized with the previous categorization.

The purpose of this qualitative approach is to compare some of the memes that they post, and look at what are the most pressing issues mentioned by the memes, if they refer mostly to current events or if they tackle other specific Romanian issues. Choosing certain memes to dissect will allow the thesis to understand what set Dezarticulat apart and how exactly do they use memes in the Romanian culture war. This part of the analysis refers specifically to the second research question. By delving deeper into the style and genre of the memes, the thesis will offer a more comprehensive overview on the culture war; following this, a comparison will be made with the American culture war so as to account for the cultural sensibilities pertaining to Eastern Europe.

Another key practical consideration of this research represents the fact that the memes posted by Dezarticulat are in the Romanian language. As such, a translation and adaptation in English will be added for the memes; however, considering that the references made by Dezarticulat are very culturally specific and make use of certain slang, there is a risk that some

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of the nuance might be lost in translation. In order to prevent this as much as possible, for each meme where this situation applies, an explanation will be offered in an effort to properly contextualize the meme for non-Romanian speakers.

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Findings and analysis General findings

This chapter is split into three main sections: in the first part, the general findings resulting from scraping the Facebook page and categorizing the memes will be presented in order to establish what the final dataset looks like. In the following section, the thesis will undertake a quantitative analysis of the resulting dataset; in this regard, I will look at how the memes have evolved over time, what are the changes in types of memes posted and the correlations with certain events which had happened in that specific period in Romania. Finally, the chapter is concluded with a qualitative analysis of a number of memes representative for Dezarticulat, with the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding of the culture war in Romania and how the main left-wing actor is involved in its continuation through memes.

The first thing which must be addressed is the evolution of number of posts per year. This amount is reflected in Table 2, yet there are some caveats for the analysis at hand. The first thing to be mentioned is that in its beginning, Dezarticulat did not engage in the culture war at all. The page was created by a collective of artists which focused their attention on drawing comic books, some based on adaptations of classic Romanian tales. The Dezarticulat team would usually be present at conventions and festivals dedicated to artists and comic book culture. These comics, while sometimes mentioning political characters or specific cultural manifestations, cannot be considered as being specifically deployed to push forward a certain political agenda. As a consequence, the quantitative analysis is based on data starting with 2015, when Dezarticulat began to be more politically active and aware of their position in the culture war.

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Table 2: Total amount of posts made by Dezarticulat between 2012-2021

Some of the earliest memes, ranging from 2015-2016, have shown that Dezarticulat have become engaged explicitly in promoting anti-capitalism and raising awareness in regards to specific events or scandals happening at that time. A prime example can be seen in fig. 4, which refers directly to a controversy involving Therme Bucharest, a well-known and upscale spa complex which refused access to a family simply for the fact that they were Roma people.

This particular event speaks of a larger societal issue – Roma people are constantly discriminated in Romania, even by the ‘educated’ middle-class.

After conducting the quantitative analysis, a periodization of Dezarticulat’s Facebook page is constructed, according to the type of memes they post. This periodization is representative of the page’s evolution throughout the years, as it matured and became exponentially more involved in undertaking the Romanian culture war. Thus, I argue that there are three main meme ‘periods’ that Dezarticulat went through: the earlier years, between 2015 and 2016 show a consolidation of both the style and the content of the memes that they posted. In a sense, this represents the way in which Dezarticulat were testing the waters, to see if the shift from comics to memes is a viable thing to do. This is also highlighted by the relatively small number of posts created in this period, especially considering that Romania had two sets of elections (2014 – presidential elections; 2016 – legislative elections) which would have been a fruitful opportunity to discuss the Romanian political environment at that time. The second period, which started in 2017 and ended in 2019 represents a shift towards more dank/subcultural memes and an increase in persuasive memes. This specific period contains the birth of many inside jokes, recurrent memes and fictional characters developed. Finally, the most recent

Posts per year

2021 277

2020 1362

2019 1254

2018 938

2017 210

2016 53

2015 71

2014 224

2013 79

2012 10

Total 4478

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period, which started towards the end of 2019 and is still ongoing represents a relative maturity of the page, with more ‘normie’ memes, i.e., memes which can be easily deciphered by the general public and do not necessarily require a specific and in-depth literacy;

nonetheless, the memes from the current period still tackle relevant and current political discussion and events.

Figure 4: Dezarticulat meme tackling the latent racism present in Romania (Translation: upper text:

Welcome to Therme; bottom text: the place where you can feel discriminated à la carte)

Overall, the general findings show that there has not been much variation in the type of memes that Dezarticulat have posted so far. However, this particularity will be further detailed in the qualitative analysis, as looking at data only reflects an incomplete part of the analysis. After combining the two, a clearer image of Dezarticulat’s engagement in the culture war will be contoured. The quantitative analysis shows that since 2015, Dezarticulat have been consistent in engaging with Romanian political and cultural events and trends, attempting to

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