Can Memes Change the World?
Is meme culture so powerful it can topple governments? Are IRL protest marches a thing of the past? Do politics and memes go together like stacey and chad?
Memes, for better or worse, are a vital ingredient in 21st-century political discourse. Obviously, older politicians – with their uncanny talent for cringe – try and use memes to attract ‘the youth’. But is it possible memes can be deployed effectively, and accomplish worthwhile political gains?
By their very nature, memes are glib. Short-form, throwaway and widely regarded as a source of entertainment. You could argue memes lack the gravitas necessary to inspire positive change. But you’d be dead wrong.
Memes’ fundamentally trivial nature means that not only can they be distributed widely and swiftly across vast audiences – in a way snooty New York Times thinkpieces, frankly, never are – but they can be used as a carrier wave for smuggling important symbols of dissent.
In China, where online dissent is ruthlessly policed by an ever-fretful government, all references to the #MeToo movement was swiftly stamped out by censors anxious to avoid the appearance of scandal.
Did activists, and especially women, take the hint and shut up? Nope. A meme known as ‘Rice Bunny’ (米兔) began to spread in place of #MeToo. On the face of it, an innocent combination of two Chinese words, it’s only when you speak aloud the Chinese word for rice (‘mi’) and the word for bunny (’tu’) that the subversive context of the meme becomes clear.
Rice bunny was not only a clever meme. It was a witty and effective means of co-ordinating the #MeToo movement in the teeth of brutal state oppression.
Throughout the majority of human history, if you were dissatisfied with the way you were governed, you had to join a protest, form a political party, or find some way of distributing subversive literature. This is costly, of course, and comes at great personal risk.
Nowadays, however, pretty much everyone has a powerful mass-communication tool in their pocket.
In 2008, MIT academic Ethan Zuckerman published his ‘cute cat theory of digital activism’. Zuckerman argued most people really don’t care about politics, and have zero interest in activism. What they do care about, however, is pictures of cute cats.
The big tech platforms – Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter – grew fat on a feast of rampant cute-cat sharing. And in doing so accidentally became optimal vectors for protest. Free, fun, and capable of reaching gigantic audiences with simple pictures, social media is by far the most disruptive thing to happen to public discourse in several generations. Thanks, in part, to cats. Genius, really.
There’s a dark side to all this. The very quality that makes memes such an ideal vehicle for well-meaning activism also makes them the perfect Trojan horse for malign propaganda.
Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, you probably think the other side deploys memes in an underhanded way. Memes’ inherently flimsy nature make them ripe for dishonesty. Writer Mark Twain once said ‘A lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is sill putting on its shoes’. And he died in 1910, way before memes became a thing.
During the Covid years, memes have also been used to spread misinformation, undermining faith in public institutions. In an era where more people get their info from social media than respectable news outlets, that should ring alarm bells.
Force For Good
But it’s not all bad. The Ukrainian government used memes to glorious effect drumming up vital international support in their brave struggle against Russia.
A study in Uganda revealed that political memes were actually a useful driver of political engagement among millennials. Anything that gets people interested in improving their own circumstances should be encouraged, right?
Back in China, a forthcoming Winnie the Pooh movie was preemptively banned from cinemas by state censors. Why? Because memes featuring the lovable cartoon bear have been used in the past to mock the portly appearance of president Xi Jinping.
Will memes change the world? Maybe, maybe not.
But the idea that a simple, trivial image macro made by a regular person at home was somehow able to infuriate (arguably) the most powerful man in the world is actually quite earth-shattering, if you think about it.
Hey! Ever wondered about THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MEMES?
Or what about delving into THE ANCIENT HISTORY OF MEMES?
Hey, um, you guys, IS STEALING MEMES ILLEGAL?