On July 6, 1916, a poster depicting Uncle Sam beckoning viewers to enlist in the U.S. Army appeared in an issue of Leslie's Weekly, a popular U.S. magazine. The poster's creator, James Montgomery Flagg, had no idea just how popular his creation would become. Working without a model or concept in a narrow window of time before publication, Flagg scrambled to embody the urgency of American participation in the Great War. Flagg's most iconic poster depicted the figure of a gallantly dressed Uncle Sam with the prominent text, "I Want You for the U.S. Army."
Today, the poster has largely been relegated to college dorm rooms and movie theatres.
The digital age has ushered in a new form of artistic expression: the meme.
While memes originally had a comedic purpose, they invaded the political realm in a far more sinister manner during the 2016 presidential campaign. Like the propaganda posters from the world wars, politically pointed memes employed a striking visual coupled with effective communication intended to alter the mind frame or subconscious of a viewer. In many cases, they also aimed to dehumanize the opposition and to personalize the political cause in question.
The alt-right in particular weaponized the meme format to spread disinformation through social media.
Members of the alt-right turned characters such as Pepe the Frog into symbols for their virulently racist movement, building awareness of and even support for their cause. The meme propaganda came from foreign sources, too, as reports of Russian bots spreading disunity surfaced.
Most worryingly, the new political art format has far greater viral potential than the posters of yesteryear. Instead of just government-commissioned posters, any figure, domestic or international, with a political agenda can reach a mass audience with weaponized symbols, images and digital art to advance a political cause.
Ultimately, propaganda posters can teach us a great deal about the psychological effects of politically pointed art.
While memes may seem like the silly clutter of internet culture, studies of advertising and the way we consume information have shown that such images can alter our subconscious, often in ways we do not understand.
Or as one Garfield meme put it, "you are not immune to propaganda."
The danger with memes is that the visuals are no longer centrally orchestrated pieces, designed to advance the public good. They spread in real time, seemingly from the depths of the internet, and virtually anybody can achieve virality through the power of mass replication.
Discerning facts from fiction has become the real challenge with this latest incarnation of visual propaganda. Time will tell if memes will become a permanent part of our political history, but for now, we are still experiencing their unpredictable effects.
-- Albinko Hasic is a Bosnian-American attorney, digital analyst and history PhD student whose primary research interests are propaganda, military history and human rights.