In the age of social media, it’s almost impossible to not see a meme. Viral memes such as ‘Roll Safe’ or the ‘Kombucha Girl’ are always somewhere on the timeline. Due to our regular encounters with memes, it would be undeniable to negate the impact that memes have had on consumers, whether it’s just for laughs or spreading bite sized chunks of information. However, the surge in political memes has brought into question the effectiveness of these memes and the validity of the information spread through these memes.
For instance, take the memes about ‘World War III’, due to the tensions between Iran and the US back at the beginning of the year. I personally wouldn’t be laughing about how wars and one of the most powerful and funded militaries on the Earth would destabilize – nothing new to them, they’ve done this many times – a country who has suffered at the hands of their military. But hey, that’s just me. Cultural awareness is pivotal, especially in an increasingly global village. Though it can be argued that humor is a coping mechanism, I still think it is important to remain culturally aware on how an event on one side of the world can negatively impact others.
This has been a tough year for politics – from the US Presidential Elections, the Conservative Party’s failings with Brexit, the UK’s abysmal Track and Trace system, #ENDSARS, and quite frankly, everything. Each of these incidents have been turned into memes in one way or another. During the US elections, I know I was not the only one who cried tears of laughter at the memes of Trump losing his job.
But, what’s interesting is how meme culture has redefined our understanding of politics. It wouldn’t be shocking to say that perhaps due to more young activists, the way some Gen Z understand politics is through memes. Some politicians even attempt to relay this back to them, but they are not always successful. For example, Hilary Clinton’s tweet about student loans conveyed how clearly she was out of touch with the youth and could be deemed as insensitive, when she asked, “How does your student loan make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.” It was an extremely poorly worded tweet, knowing that hundreds of thousands of American students are in college debt.
Despite living in evolving times, sometimes politicians need to understand that not every young person is the same. Whilst memes do have an influence, whether temporary or not, these attempts simply reduces all young people to a category, failing to take into consideration the different ways youth engage with politics. For instance, in the run up to the 2017 General Election in the UK, there were multiple political campaigns from the Labour party on Snapchat. Leaders like Boris Johnson attempted to engage the youth on Snapchat, only to end up as a temporal meme somewhere on the Internet.
The emergence of memes in political discourse, pioneered by social media, is due to humor. This enables society to consider how humor can be used in political contexts through shared meanings. It would be a lie to say that political memes don’t evoke the necessary discussions about issues such as taxes or healthcare. For example, if someone makes a meme about how incompetent Buhari or Trump is, it could act as an indirect conversation to engage with others on political topics through social media.
Acting as a cultural phenomenon, memes also enable us to recall political incidents and history. For example, there was a meme of ‘Tank Man’, who stood in front of tanks, protesting after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Due to Chinese censorship, the images of the tanks were replaced with rubber ducks. It highlights how we can still remember political events and can even safeguard those who may be censored from sharing certain pieces of information. Whilst they are powerful forms of social data, it’s important to consider what memes mean for public memory. How do we ensure that we remember genuine events rather than edited variations based on memes. Despite this, memes aren’t just used for negative purposes such as targeting politicians (though these are hilarious), but they simplify things and remain accessible for a lot of people.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!