US “Alt-Right” Gets Lost in Translation

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The “alt-right” was a notable force in last year’s election for US president. The loosely organized collective of right-wing trolls spread memes and “fake news,” helping to influence public opinion against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. They certainly weren’t the only factor, but they had an impact.

But when they tried to duplicate their success in the French election, they failed. And while their failure inspired sighs of relief from people around the world, it’s also an informative case study on the importance of localization. Here are 3 lessons we can learn from it.

Assess The Market

Before selling your product in a new territory,  you need to research the market. How will your product fit in? What are your target customers like? How do they get their information? That rule holds even if your “product” is a loathsome ideology.

According to the New York Times,  “alt-right” trolls from a particularly vile corner of 4chan issued a “call to arms” after the announcement of a runoff election between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. The results:

Within days, the online thread — and similar discussions across the internet — was flooded with hundreds of users in the United States offering to help the digital campaign.

But the American tactics have not translated overseas.

It’s not just that their candidate lost. The New York Times commissioned a social media analysis to see how well the “digital campaign” penetrated the French market. Apparently, not very well:

The analysis . . .  showed that more than one-third of posts linked to certain political hashtags originated from the United States, although few went viral in France.

So, despite the global nature of the Internet, US-based social media chatter about the French election tended to stay in the United States.

Different Countries, Different Cultures, Different Marketing

Perhaps they overestimated the power of the meme in influencing the French election? It’s possible (probable, even) that what influence the “alt-right” had on the US electorate was due to a “perfect storm” of sorts. For example,  the vast majority of US Republicans distrust the media. “Alt-right” sites like Brietbart provided an alternative media that memes helped to amplify. There is a long-running narrative about how evil Hillary Clinton is that dates back even to when she was First Lady. The alt-right was able to play into that. And so on.

In contrast, French trust in their media is declining, but it hasn’t reached US-level lows yet. And the New York Times notes that France’s “own domestic issues and ways of campaigning still dominate.”

A different country plus a different culture plus different circumstances should equal a different marketing plan.

Do Some Cultural Research

It’s also a good idea to consider the culture you’re marketing to and translating for, and how the people who live in that culture will likely perceive your words and images.

In other words, get out of your cultural bubble. White Europeans and white Americans might share skin tones, hair colors, and eye colors, but they don’t necessarily share a culture.

And while you’re at it,  you should probably avoid using words and images that are commonly used to insult your target audience.

In this case, perhaps making Marine Le Pen into Pepe the Frog (the alt-right’s Internet mascot) was not the best way to connect with the French electorate.  As Ben Nimmo of the  Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab told PRI:

“If you think of the English language connotation of referring to the French as frogs — it’s not complimentary, and the French are aware of it.”

Worth noting:  according to the Verge, the fachosphère, the French equivalent of the alt-right, did in fact “latch on the the Pepe meme.” But it doesn’t seem to have spread much beyond that fringe group.

Translate and Localize

And not with Google Translate, either. Memes and hashtags generated by the American alt-right were often in English. Meanwhile, in the 4chan thread the New York Times linked to, some users advised using Google Translate.

The result? Content from English-speaking users was largely lost in translation. And 2/3 of the tweets using the hashtag “MFGA” (Make France Great Again) originated in the US, indicating it never really took off in France.

It’s no coincidence that France’s own homegrown “alt-right” was (somewhat) more successful. At least they knew the language and the culture.

In general, people are more likely to listen when you’re speaking their own language. Especially when you’re speaking it naturally, without the funny, awkward “accent” you often get from machine translation.  In some circumstances, transcreating your campaign can make it even more effective. (Click here to learn more about the difference between marketing translation and transcreation).

To quote Ben Nimmo, “frankly, the alt-right is not usually known for its cultural sensitivity.”

But your business should be. Because in today’s world, cultural sensitivity isn’t just about morality. It’s also good business. If you want people to become your customers, you have to treat them with respect. More often than not, that means speaking their language. And with our translation services,  the team at K International can help you do just that.