How memes gained cultural currency, driving socio-political discourse in the digital era

  • Memes are now the lingua franca of online communication.

  • From 'Gonna tell my kids' to 'cultural impact', memes are now a cornerstone of popular culture.

  • The permeating influence and popularity of memes ensure that otherwise disaffected members of online communities also participate.

If you have any kind of online presence, you have encountered memes, which are now the lingua franca of online communication. Due to their immensely pithy and often clear-cut format, they are shared by millions. From 'Gonna tell my kids' to 'cultural impact', memes are now a cornerstone of popular culture.

The reward structure associated with memes, — and this goes without saying — is in their virality. They are participatory, in the sense that without the explicit support of the sharers, memes cannot thrive. The reaction and turnaround times are very low, making everything seem urgent. The old gatekeepers of popular culture now have to keep up with them to stay relevant. Even so, they are not entirely democratic: curators of memes have now partnered with media organisations and scaled. Their posts could even earn them thousands of dollars in revenue per post.

Perhaps because of their very bite-sized, compact nature, they are easy to consume and understand. We are also frequently exposed to memes, especially if they have gone viral, making them linger in our memory. Research in cognitive science has shown that our working memory usually saves very few chunks of information, and the smaller these chunks, the easier they are to remember. These chunks are then consolidated through frequent repetition or recall. Thus, it is no surprise that the contents of internet memes stay in our minds for as long a time as they continue to be circulated within our circles, increasing the chances of us encountering them in our feeds.

 How memes gained cultural currency, driving socio-political discourse in the digital era

Image courtesy: Facebook/@meme.mlwbd

As anyone who closely looks at internet culture would tell you, the impact of memes on our lives is undeniable. They are powerful tools in shaping and changing public opinion, so much so that they are an increasingly important part of political communication today at the grassroots level. For instance, meme-like telling and retelling of narratives on social (and then, traditional) media, especially Facebook groups, were an integral part of the 2011 uprisings in Egypt. The 'we are the 99 percent' meme (and its associated Tumblr page) became an influential part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, back in 2011.

More recently, as memes become increasingly pervasive, they also have started to influence election results. The 2014 election in Brazil is dubbed in its popular imagination as the “election of memes,” wherein nothing was off limits, and everything was funny. This model was also replicated (and at a much larger, visible scale) during the 2016 US elections. The frontrunners of this election and their campaigns embraced and shared memes (think 'Delete your account') as a way to communicate with their supporters (and to take a jab at each other).

The dark side of this phenomenon has also been well-documented. Memes are often aimed at attacking a political opponent, rather than promoting one’s own platform. A recently published study analysing Facebook meme pages found exactly this. They looked at Clinton and Trump-themed pages during the previous election cycle, and found that both types of meme pages had an overall negative tone, and the rhetoric was primarily against the opposing candidate than for the candidate they supported. This is not strictly surprising: we anyway experience negative emotions when we look at opponent party candidates, which are perhaps amplified when we get to create content to oppose them. Further, the more intense the emotion associated with the meme, the more we feel like sharing it. However, unlike portrayal in traditional media, they found that gender stereotypes were not perpetrated in such user-generated meme pages.

Thus, even though memes are extremely efficient in disseminating information at the grassroots levels, like traditional political campaigns, their popularity is used not to inform, but to instigate.

Image courtesy: Facebook/@doug.collins.5623

Image courtesy: Facebook/@doug.collins.5623

The permeating influence and popularity of memes ensure that otherwise disaffected members of online communities also participate. Usually, they are 'inside jokes' providing people a community under the guise of relatability. This is especially true because memes use (perhaps hide behind) humour and irony to diffuse otherwise uncomfortable situations. The double edge of irony makes it palatable to both, — the audience who would look only at its literal meaning, and those who see its layered meaning. For example, a Storm Area 51 meme might tickle someone who does not believe that aliens are being hidden there, but for the uninitiated, it might be another angle to the conspiracy. Similarly, constant exposure to memes lionising one’s preferred political candidate, while putting down the opposition, might move someone who is otherwise on the fence. Plus, you cannot fact-check a meme, because they are intended to be funny!

Even though they are circulated widely and help the uninformed stay knowledgeable, the exact reason for their popularity is a cause for concern. For example, Varun Dhawan tweeted out a meme to (perhaps) express solidarity for the recent CAA protests. However, if you did not know the context, you would not understand his take on the issue, diluting his attempt at expressing solidarity. The danger here is in the lack of nuance and discourse. This is especially true since authoritarian governments have co-opted this format, as a “nation-wide inside joke” to further their propaganda. Combined with their popularity, ironic nature, and their strictly succinct, persuasive visual quality makes them harder to critique.

Image courtesy: Facebook/@ShibeLovers

Image courtesy: Facebook/@ShibeLovers

We are now at an impasse: the communication tools that are to democratise information currently spread vitriol and hatred, but no moderator or gatekeeper will ever be perfectly neutral (no, not even Artificial Intelligence). As a result, the only way forward seems to be using tech deliberately and consciously.

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology at Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit social sciences research organisation based in Mumbai. She tweets @WallflowerBlack.

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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2019 10:12:19 IST