Memes are funny and addictive but recently, it seems that they have undertaken politics.
Niyati Karia, Writer
I was 17 when I was first introduced to political memes on social media. My friends started referring to memes that I did not understand at the time. They started throwing around words like bhakts and libtards mockingly. It went so far that they scribbled ‘Bella Ciao’ on the scribble walls without understanding the true meaning and context of it. It is one thing to be well-read and use humour and satire as a tool of political discourse, and it is another thing to use it just to show-off surface-level knowledge about a particular topic. The latter is often used by teenagers to sound intellectually sophisticated. Who is to be blamed for this? (Not Nehru, for sure.)
Memes are ubiquitous and have become an integral part of the ‘millennial culture’. Internet users are rapidly consuming and participating in meme wars. Richard Dawkins in the last chapter of his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ coined and mentioned the word ‘meme’ - an imitation of cultural beliefs or concepts that spread from person to person, and multiply. He related this phenomenon of imitation with gene propagation where genes transmit from one person to another from the gene pool, similarly, memes transmit from one internet user to another from the meme pool. However, the objective to use ‘memes’ has altogether taken a different trajectory in the last decade, where they are no longer restricted to grumpy cats wearing party hats, overly-attached girlfriends and distracted boyfriends.
The internet has been re-appropriating memes to subscribe to the diversified political issues and has marked its own territory on the subject-matter. Memes have this enormous power to condense a complex political fact and churn it into an effective and robust way to engage the large mass of people from different walks of life. They have become ‘people’s editorial cartoons’. Historically, the news media had the ability to compress a political debate into a single image. From the past decade, memes have started to provide the language of a new kind of politics. They are being weaponized by the left and the right to score political blows. Think of them as these flashy cards amongst a sea of dull posts which promptly gains one’s attention. You may or may not like them, but they are hard to ignore.
Every political ideology and their sentiments are virtually reproduced and available in the format of memes, which are just one like button away. They have become a popular launchpad to express views and opinions. Political memes have become trending, which in turn has increased the involvement of people, especially the younger generation, to participate in debates and discussions surrounding politics. However, people use memes as a substitute for logical arguments to support their views. Long threads with heated arguments in the comments section of the political meme posts on Instagram and Facebook are a testament to the fact.
A huge chunk of the public does not have enough time to invest in reading heavy articles loaded with credible information. Instead, they would likely resort to the memes which explain a particular political ideology in two lines, evoking some good laughs. Political memes act as a primary source of information (including radical ideology) as the teenagers tend to read more news from the memes made on it, rather than from the mainstream traditional news sources. Such online content is easily produced by using standard meme templates and even easier to share and reach out to people.
Meme-generation provides a platform for people to connect with others who share the same ideology. They become a tool to communicate political issues in the country. Because of their readily available nature, they seem to carry other complex implications of politics. They have become over-reaching and because of the algorithms, unknowingly, internet users consume a lot of memes influenced by political ideologies. This in turn affects their narratives and perceptions on political discourse. In recent times, the meme-culture has evolved in such a way that it deliberately propagates and dominates certain ideologies.
Memes on social media act as a catalyst and are used in inflammatory ways that incite anger and violence.
We need to acknowledge that memes carry various subtle messages for their audience. They are oversimplified and do not effectively communicate a true image. For example, Marxism is not only confined to #sassymarxist and #seizethemeansofproduction, which many pages on social media would make you believe in. Theories as lofty and composite as Marxism cannot be summed up in a meme. They have exacerbated the effects of polarization. Polarization means increasing the gulf between the two spectrums of political discourse but also keeping intact the ideologies within both sides. Not only this, memes being shared has replicated pre-existing stereotypes and marginalization and reinforced them. Memes on social media act as a catalyst and are used in inflammatory ways that incite anger and violence.
All our content on the internet is governed by viewer consumption. This gives an impetus to circulate fake news and disinformation. There is a difference between misinformation and disinformation. The latter is a deliberate attempt to mislead through biased and manipulated information. Memes are a very good vehicle for disinformation. If you tell a lie enough times, sometimes it becomes the truth for your audience. Many users are enticed by these memes full of misinformation and form their opinions influenced by it. The teenagers relate to the media and pass it along-- where things fit their opinion, answer their curiosity and interest them. However, they wait for other people to decide if they are accurate or not. While memes can be factually questionable or divisive, they can be a window into society. For example, memes related to COVID-19 have spread like a wildfire reflecting the undercurrents of fear and anxiety, regardless of being inaccurate. So maybe you are introduced to a topic through a meme, but that is not where it stops. That is a point of entry into a larger discussion of the intricate politics, making it more inclusive, accessible and democratic (or undemocratic if they consume polarized information).
Social media platforms also become an echo chamber where due to the functioning of algorithms, internet users are exposed to viewpoints that they agree with.
Since memes are used as political conversation, they are often used in the elections, as one might have witnessed in the 2020 American elections and Bihar elections in India. Memes simply lull us into believing that we are politically aware and have a concrete take on the subject matter. Social media platforms also become an echo chamber where due to the functioning of algorithms, internet users are exposed to viewpoints that they agree with. Individuals only follow those pages which support their ideologies and this only solidifies their attitude, thereby contributing to the polarization effect. Memes online also have terrifying consequences offline. They sometimes have a snowball effect and grow into bigger things - from what they have started off as a joke can turn into a very serious part of the political discussion. Three jokes posted on Twitter by a stand-up comedian, Kunal Kamra and the consequent contempt of court is a telling example.
While a good laugh harms no one, it is important to understand that what we consume is not all true. One should not take memes at their face value. Hateful memes have exploded on the internet for far too long, however, major internet platforms have looked the other way. The platforms are motivated by the bottom-line, which is to draw your time and attention. So they are actually motivated to try and spread all types of memes - good or bad. They are not serving a gatekeeping role that we see with a free press, independent media or journalism. Therefore, we as a society have to balance out our love for memes with the inherent danger attached to their use.