Many memes on the Coronavirus are circulating the internet. Trump’s misinformation, including his recommendation to explore injecting or drinking disinfectants, might seem the worst virus-related memes being copy-pasted and shared in 2020. Or perhaps his advice to take untested drugs his family has financial ties to … However, far more sinister viral virus disinformation memes are in distribution. Of those, the ones explored in this article are more subtle and effective. They are aimed at larger goals than simply lining Trump family pockets, including attempts at disrupting global orders for cyberwar related functions. Viruses are being anthropomorphised—attributed human-like forms and traits—to spread geopolitical conspiracy theories on social media. As is often the case, highly sexualised LGBTIQ+ identities are being exploited to help make these memes spread faster, and to ensure they more deeply penetrate the collective psyche. This article considers the new phenomenon of the ‘viral lesbian virus waifu’, and her use in cyberwarfare.
Waifus: Fictional Digital Intimates
‘Waifu’ is a term for a favoured fictional woman. It is taken from a Japanese katakana spelling for the English word ‘wife’ (Bailey & Harvey, 2019). Waifus are understood as characters one feels a special sexual and/or romantic attraction to. The use of the Japanese term is due to the strong association with and prevalence of ‘waifu worship’ in Japanese anime and digital character fan subcultures. People who love, or are attracted, to one or more waifus may for example:
- collect their waifus’ images,
- engage in sexual fantasies about their waifus,
- discuss or depict their waifus with a fervor on online discussion-boards and social media postings, and/or
- engage in acts related to the fantasies about the waifus, alone or with waifu-related merchandise, costumes (cos-play), or partners.
These expressions can be harmless enough. However they can broadly be associated with frustrations that attest to waifus’ simultaneous attractiveness and unreality… ‘waifus are desirable, but are always out of reach’ (Bailey & Harvey, 2019, p. 332).
Waifu admirers may see themselves as having failed to engage in romantic relationships, quitting the heterosexual romantic economy, and/or living out a ‘nerdy/geeky’ identity or failed masculinity (Kendall, 2002). By sexualizing fictional non-human characters, especially where associated with children’s anime genres or other cartoon programs for example, waifu lovers can also be seen to trespass standard boundaries of ‘good and bad sex’ (Rubin, 2013). Online communities worshipping waifus may facilitate not only stigmatised identities, but thus also the emergence of a communal politics that emphasises economic and sexual failing (the inabilities to get jobs and partners), shame and anxieties in ways leading to a sense of collective sexual disadvantage and reliance on the online community for support (Bailey & Harvey, 2019). In this sense, waifu worship communities can become relatively closed and passionate worlds with tribalized cultures strongly influencing their members.
Ebola-Chan: Viral White Lesbian Nurse Waifu
One example of a viral virus waifu is 2014+ meme ‘Ebola-chan’. She is a Caucasian-stylised character with wide innocent golden-brown eyes, little purple demon wings and a permanently happy disposition. She is usually pictured wearing pink pigtails curling into worm-like ebola virus shapes and a clinging white nurse outfit, holding a bloody skull or posing in sexually available ways in a bloody room or with various lesbian lovers. She was designed as a female anime representation of the ebola virus and cited to social media application pixiv user ‘sly’ on August 4th 2014. Shortly after an image macro in Figure 1 began circulating on 4chan boards featuring the same anime character sketch comment with a caption calling her ‘Ebola-chan’, urging readers to reply with ‘I Love You Ebola-chan’ on the discussion-board to avoid contracting a painful, fatal disease (Kaufman, 2014; Kharel, 2014).
The meme was shared, reblogged and changed across a multitude of sites including Cheezburger site Geek Universe, Reddit, and deviantART. The meme was used to spread the conspiracy theory that says Ebola-Chan virus was deliberately created by Western countries or the US CIA using black magic and rituals, or biological warfare, to harm African people. The theory is particularly popular on Nigerian websites; including the forum ‘Nairaland’ where users commented in approval on the idea that Europeans and Americans have formed racist cults to kill Africans and worship the deviant demon ‘Ebola-Chan’ (Kaufman, 2014; Kharel, 2014). The lesbian characteristics appear to be used as part of the ‘grotesque/ deviant’ angle in the conspiracy, given extensive homophobic violence and criminalisation of homosexuality in Nigeria during 2014 (Faul, 2014). It also seems to be associated with a way to negatively construct the US and Europe, which the white waifu represents, and which were pressuring Nigeria to reduce violence against LGBTIQ+ people at the time of the meme (Onuah, 2014). A key nation known to be spreading conspiracies particularly using LGBTIQ+ memes across the region at this time, and taking a stance against US and European LGBTIQ+ rights positions, was Russia (Jarkovska, 2019; Jones, 2019; Mueller, 2019).
Figure 1: An early 2014 Ebola-Chan meme circulated on 4chan (Kharel, 2014).
Corona-Chan: Viral Asian Lesbian Seductress Waifu
Another example of a viral virus waifu is ‘Corona-chan’. She is an Asian-stylised character with slightly more knowing and heavily-lidded green eyes, little black demon wings and a more artfully ironic seductive or bad-girl-attitude allure. She is usually pictured wearing two black hair buns punctuated with green Coronavirus-shaped stems and either a body-skimming red and gold-trimmed Chinese-inspired dress or Chinese flag dress, drinking Corona beers in public settings and asking viewers if she can travel with them or perform sexual acts. She was designed as a female anime representation of the Coronavirus and cited to social media applications including 4chan, DeviantArt and others in 2020. Her representation on DeviantArt in Figure 2 and similar images often suggests she is in a sexual relationship with Ebola-Chan or also an opponent of Ebola-Chan (dp6523, 2020). Her representation as luring women becomes increasingly sexual across the memes’ spread whether by designers from the same organisation or other unique individuals picking up on and adding to the meme (KreativeKaiLyn, 2020). She is also was increasingly depicted in metaphoric sexual acts with the character ‘Earth-Chan’—a female character with global map patterned blue and green hair—from around May (u/ig_shame23, 2020).
Figure 2: An early 2020 Corona-Chan meme circulated on DeviantArt (dp6523, 2020).
Corona-Chan often is the more sexually aggressive of the pairing with Ebola-Chan or other females pictured, and calls either to her girlfriend or her viewer ‘Come mutate me and I will set you free’, ‘open up to me’ or similarly sexual and yet sinister lines with double entendre about death and opening up of nations’ borders to Chinese influence or biological warfare and control. The pitting of these viral lesbians against each-other is achieved in a way that points to several conspiracy theories: first that China both designed and unleashed the Coronavirus, second that China is attempting a global take-over in biological warfare against the West and/or the globe in general whilst appearing attractive and helpful, and third that both China and the West/Europe are threatening to other nations. It is likely that the concomitant fetishistic sexual appeal and also the portrayal of deviance/ controversiality of these lesbian pairings helps spread the memes both amongst the often LGBTIQ+ friendly social media in the West and the anti-LGBTIQ+ media within and beyond it. The more sexual tones of other versions of Corona-Chan memes not pictured here, like much porn-based propaganda plays on a combination of graphic sexual temptation (porn, sex, sexiness) with fear of the abject (the disturbance of the virus itself and death/ skull images aside cute female faces) to penetrate and weigh heavily on viewers’ minds.
Figure 3: A May 2020 Corona-Chan meme circulated on Reddit (u/ig_shame23, 2020).
Are These Waifu Memes Propaganda?
It’s highly unlikely these particular viral lesbians waifus are randomly generated memes. Despite clear effort being made for these waifus to appear as created in the first instance by disparate individual social media users from unrelated contexts, for their own pleasure in digital intimacies, everything about these memes nonetheless screams ‘state-sponsored influence campaign’. One can see this using an adaptation of Ross’ definition of propaganda as:
- a charged message
- used with the intention to persuade
- a socially significant group of people
- on behalf of a political institution, organization, or cause (Novaes, 2018).
For both Ebola-chan and Corona-chan, the ‘charge’ comes in the memes’ sexual overtones and often exaggerated racial/ethnic coding. For both the ‘message’ is a conspiracy theory about ‘enemy states’ spreading viruses. In 2014 the ‘enemy state’ was US/Europe (depicted as Ebola-chan), in 2020 China (depicted as Corona-chan). These ‘enemy states’ are represented through the lesbian waifus as spreading viruses through LGBTIQ+ people to harm people in other nations or indeed ‘the world’. The use of lesbians is not because lesbians are particularly known to be victim to, or carriers of, these or other viruses… but because they are associated with the miscasting of homosexuality in general as virus-related. This conspiracy message is particularly identical to one found in historical print media disinformation studies; which outlined how Soviet-infiltrated media and academic papers promoted narratives of US government-injected gay youth as the source of HIV AIDS crises in 1980s+ (Boghardt, 2009). This Soviet campaign is commonly referred to in Western literature now as ‘Operation Infektion’ (but was originally called ‘Denver’). Articles were planted by Soviets in Indian, Nigerian and (Soviet plant) German publications. Then they were re-cited ‘at arms-length’ by operatives in the US and 80+ countries; in 200+ periodicals in 25+ languages. More successful narratives in that campaign used real data by trusted German biology professors like Jakob Segal (Segal, Segal, & Dehmlow, 1987) and were smuggled in to trusted British newspapers (Boghardt, 2009). These days, it is much easier and more effective for propagandists to skip the process of penetrating academia and press, by directly penetrating social groups online including via Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and so forth. Closed and tribalized online communities such as waifu worship communities have a high trust of perceived community members and distrust of openly declared outsiders or officials who might seek to expose their messaging and identities. This makes them especially vulnerable to being targeted for propaganda in cyberwarfare efforts by foreign governments posing as ‘one of them’; more likely to believe conspiracies shared by members, and more likely to share and spread them (Botsman, 2017; Jones, 2019; Kello, 2018).
The socially significant groups of people targeted for persuasion in Ebola-chan and Corona-chan memes include both progressive LGBTIQ+ people and those who find lesbian waifus outright sexually exciting (e.g. plenty of heterosexual males) and people offended by racism in the memes, and those conservatives repulsed by LGBTIQ+ people and people of other races and thus similarly likely to be intensely distracted and excited by them (Adams, Wright, & Lohr, 1996). These two socially significant groups are exactly the same two groups I and others have discovered to be targeted in Russian state-sponsored online meme campaigns over and over again (Boghardt, 2009; Jones, 2019; Mueller, 2019). Boghardt argued that the Operation Infektion campaign—effectively an AIDS-chan equivalent in audiences and messaging to Ebola-chan—was designed to scapegoat the US government especially, and to diminish its alliances. The over 3,500+ Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) memes I have studied had functions (the intention to persuade) in deepening social divisions inside states such as the US or countries across Europe that Russia considered threatening, and in deepening suspicion of those states internationally, by provoking both progressive and conservative groups over LGBTI and ethnicity themes (Jones, 2019). Structures surrounding the texts (e.g. group pages such as ‘LGBT United’ during the US election, or now the Corona-chan Reddit board) prime social apparatuses as conduits for further influence and tactics over years (Jones, 2019).
The waifu apparatus would be even more effective for propaganda spreading than most online groups. This is especially due to the way that lovers of waifus more than other online users appear to rely on their digital intimacies with both the memes and the meme-sharing communities, and obsessively share and disseminate images of their waifu increasingly over time (Bailey & Harvey, 2019). I want to note here the use of ‘chan’ at the end of various lesbian waifu examples’ names. In Japanese, words can be appended to names and occupation titles to convey the degree of intimacy and respect between oneself and the named party; it is impolite to misapply for example ‘San’ (a title of respect), ‘kun’ (for equals or inferiors), or ‘chan’ (for very familiar kin or children). Therefore a high degree of presumed intimacy is indicated by the appending of ‘-chan’ to the name, but doubly an ambiguity about a potential child-like status contrasts disturbingly with the sexualised nature of the character used to attract viewers. Particularly, a lesbian waifu character would be more useful than a heterosexual waifu character here in attracting viewers, as lesbian sexual representations can be enjoyed by both heterosexual and homophobic men (Adams et al., 1996) and heterosexual and queer women (Snowden, Curl, Jobbins, Lavington, & Gray, 2016; Snowden & Gray, 2013). It seems clear that there is some ‘intention to persuade’ at now harming China’s (current dominance in) geopolitical standing in the most recent Corona-chan meme campaign. The value of this would be around keeping its dominance on global economies, incursions on certain nearby territories and powerful international political bodies in check.
We Need a Homotransnationalist Analytic
Multiple state-sponsored agencies now use transnational LGBTIQ+ propaganda memes on social media in foreign disinformation campaigns perhaps more than ever. These have been pitched at a range of applications; however they were always loosely aimed towards some over-arching shift in geopolitical power orders. Complicating the topic, states can combine both ‘targets’ and ‘authors’ of covert LGBTI education propaganda memes. So US-authored anti-LGBTI education propaganda featured in African states’ rulings (Jones, 2017) and the US itself has been a target of multiple attacks—most especially here I note the massive campaigns by the Soviets and Russia (Boghardt, 2009; Jones, 2019; Mueller, 2019). State-sponsored LGBTI education propaganda memes on Chinese-run media in Australia and New Zealand give this topic local relevance (Brady, 2017; Cannane & Hui, 2019). There is a lack of studies identifying the scope, strategies and impacts of covert state-sponsored transnational LGBTI propaganda memes. There is also a lack of studies on what shields could work against them. This reflects the siloed nature of key knowledges: ‘Gender, Sexuality and Education’; ‘Media Studies’; ‘Disinformation Studies’; ‘International Relations’ and ‘Cybersecurity’ rarely address each-other. Despite the media’s, and some cyber theorists’, assumptions of such propaganda memes’ impacts on matters like Trumps election for example (Kello, 2018), in reality their impacts are unmeasured. Such propaganda memes may or may not have ‘actual impacts’ on sentiments on LGBTI and racial issues … though with the increases in homophobia and racism during periods of their use it is hard not to start jumping to conclusion.
A ‘homonationalism’ analytic frames LGBTI discourses as having potential collusions with security-driven colonising geopolitics. Particularly, there are collusions in their creations of ‘protected’ queer subject positions in national state policies/programs relying on other unprotected or threatening positions nationally (Jones, 2017, 2018; Puar, 2013; Weber, 2016). In the current climate, a ‘homotransnationalism’ analytic is needed for studying such problems at the transnational level. It should consider LGBTI discourses as having potential collusions with security-driven colonising geopolitics in their creations of ‘protected’ queer subject positions in transnational policies/programs. Again, the focus should be on how these rely on or create other unprotected or threatening positions. This is not to say that LGBTI people create the subject positions or the memes and waifus. They may not even be their primary or only audience, or target. However, the subject positions themselves collude with geopolitics and this needs much deeper exploration.
What’s the solution?
A homotransnationalist analytic is particularly useful for thinking about how the state-sponsored cyberwar campaigns that use LGBTIQ+ (and other) identities and depictions have little concern for the potential damage done to LGBTIQ+ people and people of particular racial/ ethnic profiles, in seeking to further the power of one state and diminish that of another. Sometimes transnational propaganda campaigns even have the direct intent of creating divisive climates for LGBTIQ+ people as a step towards the greater goal of division amongst perceived enemies, or have the direct goal of sexualising LGBTIQ+ people in exploitative ways… Corona-chan is simply more likely to spread effectively as a ‘lesbian’ and to impact people more deeply with her message, for being positioned as sexually aberrant or at the very least a sexual resource that is difficult and thus desirable to obtain. Therefore, any impacts on lesbians that come from these waifus are probably seen as just a side effect, or even a ‘useable’ social phenomena, for state-sponsored campaigns in the global game of thrones. Lesbian waifu identities are thus being positioned as a kind of chess-piece or weapon.
Disinformation theorists Nimmo, Laity and Herzog proposed ‘information defence’ and ‘strategic-communication’ (strat-com) to counter the division and dismay caused by state-sponsored propaganda in general (Herzog, 2011; Jackson, 2015). This pre-emptive approach targets specific ‘sensitive areas’; halting propaganda by identification and proper information; and involving governments sponsoring exchanges between journalists, academics, and experts in those sensitive areas via an international network with a strong broader narrative in place to debunk it faster. Nimmo favours use of targeted communities’ experts disseminating this information; not governments, who should be ‘hands-off’ to avoid perceptions of anti-propaganda messaging as being domestic propaganda (Jackson, 2015).
LGBTI, waifu worshippers and other digital community members need to understand that their identities are seen as useful in propaganda. Further, digital communities need to understand that LGBTI issues are often targeted and LGBTI characters often used in transnational propaganda campaigns … including current propaganda around the COVID-19 and other themes. The perceived positive and negative aspects of lesbianism have both been weaponized for artistic consumption in the memes to create feelings of deep sexual closeness and deep sexual revulsion in these waifus so that their geopolitical messages are spread internationally. However through these waifus’ spread as memes, lesbianism is also suborned to more a set of tropes than to any lesbian’s unique or owned experience; their weaponization is only effective to the extent the waifus are viralised. Indeed, the waifus’ spread relies on lesbianism as a currency to co-opt straight male manga fans into the spread of propaganda.
In particular then, lesbian and other community members need to understand the homophobic and racist misuses of certain lesbian waifus online and avoid being implicated in their adoption and spread, through misplaced intimacies.
At the very least, it is simple enough to see the logic that sharing Corona-chan memes uncritically, is promoting depictions of lesbians and Chinese people as dangerous killers (in the simplest view of them). Some extra effort in seeking out lesbian-produced art and forums, with real-world presences that can be verified and straight-forward ethics in representation of women, may be worthwhile when sourcing characters and imagery into the future. It would also be important to see the development of a simple broader narrative to combat LGBTI propaganda meme narratives. Networks of academics and cybersecurity experts could be used to supply research-based anti-propaganda narratives and awareness raising resources to LGBTI communities pre-empting and responding to lesbian waifu propaganda. Such networks could also serve as hubs for LGBTI community reporting of suspicious content online. Lastly, I note that social scapegoating around viruses is as old as viruses themselves; and a likely future staple in cyberwar.
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Tiffany Jones is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University. She researches LGBTIQ+ issues in education, education policy, health and social policy, and election security. She is the series editor of Bent Street.