The controversial story of Hunter Biden’s laptop has been fully processed, cooked and digested as meme fodder on Instagram, featuring several large and dedicated accounts satirically celebrating and framing him as a kind of dystopian hero.
That meme creators embraced the storyline speaks to a shift in contemporary humor online and the sense of political disillusionment they’ve felt in recent years, three meme creators said in interviews. The posts are part of a larger movement online called “irony-posting,” a countercultural style of meme creation defined by levels of irony or by satire that in some cases satirizes itself.
For some of the meme creators, Hunter Biden has become an icon because of his polarizing and radioactive positioning as a news subject. The more coverage he gets — or doesn’t get — the more inspiration they receive for their memes, creators said.
“The current state of politics, how performative and theatrical it all is, there’s no need for ‘The Onion’ anymore, because the headlines are insane on their own,” said Ana, 24, a Biden meme creator who posts under “neoliberalhell” and spoke on the condition that only her first name be used to protect her privacy.
Another example of irony-posting is “afffirmations,” an Instagram account with close to 1 million followers that satirizes other pages devoted to positive thinking. It posts purposefully absurd affirmations that mock self-help and positive psychology culture while invoking disturbing elements of today’s news and society. Recent posts from the account include sentiments like “I can digest plastic now” and “Being poor is trending,” highlighting fears around wage stagnation and consumption of microplastics.
“There’s a lot of movement within internet culture right now to find the edges and keep pushing, because the middle is boring and done already,” said Amanda Brennan, Tumblr’s former meme librarian, who now tracks internet macrotrends as a trend expert for XX Artists, a talent agency with clients like Google and YouTube. Brennan described “irony-posting” as rejecting pessimism about the current era in favor of humor about its absurdities.
Meme creators said the proliferation of Hunter Biden memes is a salve for a generation that feels politically alienated.
“I want to see real change. I want health care and education,” Ana said. “Mocking the fact that everything everyone cares about is so surface-level and not going to ignite real change is just a way to cope with it.”
Ana said her consumption and eventual creation of ironic memes about politics and culture started during the pandemic. Some of her memes feature a photo that appears to be of Biden published by The Daily Mail, which the newspaper said shows him using illegal drugs in a sensory deprivation tank at a rehabilitation facility. NBC News hasn’t independently verified the authenticity of the photo.
The meme creators’ politics aren’t uniform — Ana says she is a leftist, while the creator posting under “hunterbidensgallery,” 37, says he used to post on Reddit’s pro-Trump “TheDonald” subreddit, which was banned in July 2020.
“There’s a wide disconnect with what the boomers see on the television and hear on the talk radio and what we consume on the internet,” he said in a phone interview.
Three weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the New York Post published allegations that Biden, the president’s son, abandoned a laptop containing his backed-up iPhone data and copies of photos, videos and text messages — including those exchanged with his father, the president — at a computer repair shop in Delaware in 2019. At the time, Joe Biden’s campaign press secretary, Jamal Brown, said the allegations were false in an interview with Cheddar. In July, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on the laptop when she was asked about it at a news conference. NBC News obtained materials said to be from the hard drive, which included some of the photos and videos reported on by the New York Post and The Daily Mail, but it hasn’t verified their authenticity.
Since then, news outlets, including the Post and The Daily Mail, have published dozens of stories about the “laptop from hell,” some of which include compromising pictures and videos that appear to show Biden, 52. Some of photos and videos, many dated from years ago, appear to show him using illicit drugs, as reported by The Daily Mail. Biden has written extensively about his history with drug addiction. Some of the photos also appear to show Biden, who is married, with various women in sexual situations, according The Daily Mail. The photos and videos, which NBC News hasn’t verified as authentic, have become the context for Biden meme creators to make content.
Neither the White House nor Biden’s attorney responded to requests for comment for this article.
When Biden’s laptop was first leaked to media outlets, some publications were criticized for not immediately covering its contents, which the former “TheDonald” poster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, said has led to a surge of memes about it.
“Hunter Biden is an elephant in the room,” he said. “The memers will talk about it. The comedians will talk about it. The satirists will talk about it.”
He, Ana and another Biden meme creator in his mid-20s, who goes by “hunterbidencellectuals” and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, said their memes aren’t to be confused with support for the elder Biden’s administration.
“Hunterbidencellectuals,” who identifies as a leftist, described his account as a parody of stan culture, the fanatic online communities that form around celebrities of all stripes. He said he is drawn to the narrative he sees in the contents of the laptop, which he says is one of “rebellion against not only one’s parents, but the actual political establishment, in his case.”
“I think that’s really easy to identify with for a lot of people, and you kind of want to root for him as a character,” he said.
Sometime after 2015 but before the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration, meme culture started to fracture. Brennan, the trend tracker, said that social media algorithms have fostered the dominance of internet subcultures versus a shared monoculture and that it includes the political fringe.
Since the Hunter Biden laptop story was first published in the New York Post, social media companies have struggled with how to moderate content related to the allegations. In the weeks after the story broke, Facebook and Twitter acted to restrict its circulation because of concerns over its origins and veracity.
Even as more reporting and information about the story have come out, meme creators say posting content about Hunter Biden can feel risky and that it can come with consequences.
Instagram has removed several of Ana’s Biden memes, citing rules violations, including posting images that depict illegal drugs. ”Hunterbidencellectuals” said that his engagement fell by 90% over one weekend and that his account was banned after Instagram removed a months-old meme. He was able to appeal the ban a day later and restore his account, but he said he's "clearly hanging on by a thread." Creators like Ana and the former “TheDonald” poster have accused Instagram and other social media platforms of using content moderation to suppress political views on the far left and right.
Ana’s was one of several meme accounts that protested at Instagram’s headquarters in July against what they view as unfair moderation of their accounts.
The former pro-Trump subreddit poster said: “They’re going to keep pulling your content down. That’s what happens. Eventually, if you have a sense of humor, you will run afoul of the content guidelines at some point.”
Meta, Instagram’s parent company, didn’t respond to a request for comment. In a previous statement about the July protest, a spokesperson for Meta wrote, “Meme creators have become a pivotal part of emerging culture and are vital to the Instagram community.”
“We appreciate the concerns being raised and have begun a direct dialogue with the organizers to address their complaints,” the statement said. “Our goal is to make it easy to understand our policies, have fair and transparent ways to know what is going on with their accounts and allow them to appeal when they think something’s not right.”
The theories of post-irony and layers of irony in forms of communication, like memes, have flourished in the last decade of internet culture. The idea is that posts of any genre can develop layers of irony to the point that the posters are no longer being ironic, just sincere. Irony-posting is the act of creating and disseminating such memes by posting them in unrelated discussions and spaces, according to Urban Dictionary, and to be “irony-pilled,” a term that has gained traction online over the last several years, is to discard rationality in favor of absurdity.
Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote last year for The Atlantic that using the suffix “pilled” to describe anything at all is “taking a classic far-right meme and intentionally twisting it into something insignificant.” Tiffany wrote that the word “redpilled,” a reference to “The Matrix,” became popularized on Reddit in 2013. In the movie, characters can take the blue pill to stay ignorant and blissful or swallow the red pill to see reality in all its horrors. To the alt-right, to become “redpilled” was to embrace anti-feminism, and to become “irony-pilled” is to embrace reality.
“Reality has become so absurd that celebrating how absurd everything is is sort of, in a way, irony-posting,” Ana said.