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How meme culture has redefined our understanding of politics

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.


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Senior News & Society Editor Asma Elgamal launches Policy channel to face the new political era

2016 was a tough year. In looking at the global political landscape, 2016 presented us with events like Brexit and the Trump administration, propelling hate groups into mainstream platforms and frankly terrifying the hell out of some of us.

[bctt tweet=”In times like these, the most powerful thing we can do is equip ourselves with knowledge.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Social activism hit a new high, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat – all became tools to resist and to make our voices heard. But even that sometimes, isn’t enough. As horrific as it is, a lot of the awful things that have been happening are completely legal. It’s like Hydra has infiltrated the highest levels and we are playing a very tricky game of dismantling policies while pretending that evil isn’t currently reigning over us.

“In times like these, the most powerful thing we can do is equip ourselves with knowledge,” Elgamal noted.

Like most things governmental, policies are shrouded in technical language, used to make things complex and drawn out. Some policies and legislation are incredibly long and honestly, that kind of information is not appealing to read. Although it’s super important to know what laws govern us, who really has the time to go through all these new documents to ascertain what is going on?

It’s hard to speak out against something that we don’t really understand.

So to help us deal with the aftermath, Asma Elgamal, our Senior News & Society Editor at The Tempest decided to approach things in a different way, launching the Policy channel at The Tempest.

Elgamal said, “The sole purpose of this vertical is to target and help decipher laws and policies so that everyone knows exactly what is going on. The aim of this is so that it is easier to understand which policies affect you and what they set out to do. In turn, preparing us for doing whatever is necessary to combat these policies.” Read more about The Tempest’s Policy vertical here.

Politics The World

I always thought politics were too much for me to handle

I’ve never really considered myself to be a political person. Besides the slightly unexpected vote from my high school peers that deemed me “most political” of my class, I have always tried to shy away from politics. The world of politics always seemed too complex for me. The politicians, the policies, the history. It was too big for me to grasp and catch up with.

I’ve felt like this from the time that I had a vague concept of what government was. Everyone always seemed to know more facts, and understand more than I ever could. Mostly this was a problem with my age, as I have always expected myself to compete on the same level as those much older, much more experience. But how could I expect my 15-year-old self to have the same understanding of politics that well-seasoned and professional political pundits? The answer is, of course, I couldn’t. And, at the ripe age of 20, I still can’t.

Learning that was a struggle, rooted in my faulty perfectionism. More or less my logic was that if I didn’t try, I wouldn’t fail. For a long time (and even now, I regretfully admit), I have thought being wrong was failure. And it’s much too easy to be wrong with politics.

It may be somewhat obvious that whenever you are introduced to a new subject, you can’t compare your knowledge to professionals or scholars in that field. However, this hasn’t always been so obvious to me or my pride. 

Politics was also slightly different than any old academic subject. Eventually, as I grew older, I realized it was something that I just couldn’t avoid. Growing older and understanding the importance of policies that are passed, that affect so many of us (sometimes unfairly disproportionately), I couldn’t say, “I’m just not really interested in politics.”  

Simultaneous to my journey into realizing the importance of politics, social media grew rapidly. But of course, we all know this. We have watched—some of us from the beginning of our lives—social media reach and absorb every aspect of our lives. It has become an extension of self, and politics are certainly close to the hearts of many. 

Millennial politics have been reduced to social media. Well, I suppose “reduced” is the wrong word, as social media political statements can be valid, but sometimes, and I dare to say even oftentimes, they are reductionist. Although I’ve spent my fair share of time retweeting, sharing, liking, and favoriting political articles and posts on my own social media, I never dared to post myself. There was always something that seemed unnatural or perhaps even untrue about posting political messages on social media.

This seems, however, to be one of the most fervent versions of politics and political activism today. For many, this is as far as their politics reach. Although making content go viral and sharing and composing posts on social media can make a difference, many can say this comes down to “slacktivism.”

As I questioned my own right to have any opinion on political issues because of my lack of knowledge, I questioned those who posted online. How much did they know? What did they know? Many made good points and many didn’t—it is the internet after all. If these people, who I doubt have rigorously studied the policies that they are so vehemently criticizing, I can too, right?

Well, not exactly. But I am here, at The Tempest, writing about the news, giving commentary about political issues. Through this, I have learned the value in caring about politics and policies. I doubt anyone will reject the fact that politics have such an immense effect on our world. But there is a difference between internet slacktivism and actually being “political.” 

Political does not mean conservative or liberal, left or right. It does not have to coincide with a party or a point of view, but making the effort to understand what’s going on. Just making the effort to turn on the television and turn on the news instead of a show is being political. Turning on the radio and listening to the news instead of music is being political.

It is, however, a little bit more than that though. It’s also being skeptical. As many of the judgments of policies and politicians that do make it to the media have come to resemble reality shows, we must make the effort to question the media and search for deeper answers. 

There is always more to a story, and I say that as a reader, not a writer. Being political is not only knowing the names of politicians and having the years on you to have watched policies take shape. Being political is caring with informed contentious criticism. Looking deeper into what’s going on, and realizing how that one policy could change everything. It’s caring enough to find out how.