Let's explore the joke that is politic...al memes.
But what is a political meme and how does it affect politics?
Well Anastasia Densiova, journalism lecturer at the University of Westminster, describes “memes as a fast food media. Because like fast food products they’re very flashy, lots of flavour, lots of promise of a great experience, but then the nutritional value is so low, it doesn’t fill you up, it doesn’t give you much”.
Now we’re not about to compare Pepe the frog or evil Kermit to a happy meal, but Ms. Denisova does raise a valid point in her somewhat unique metaphor; memes don’t distill an argument and don’t challenge your political perceptions.
You see despite memes being widely shared on social media, they almost always have a specific target audience in mind. This target audience tend to be comprised of individuals with shared political and cultural beliefs who use self-referential language. Creating an in-group that can understand the meme and the ‘in-joke’, whilst other users are left looking at a confusing and semi-humorous image like below (seriously what the f*** is going on there)
Thing is, by catering to a specific audience, memes rarely challenge our political preconceptions and make legitimate arguments. In fact, the opposite is true. Memes have become a vehicle for taking cheap shots against political parties, politicians, social groups and beliefs we don’t like in exchange for likes and retweets.
Rather than improving and expanding the political conversation online – memes have helped to further polarise an already extremely polarised political landscape.
But catering to a specific audience isn’t the biggest problem memes pose to politics.
You see the trivial nature of memes can turn important political or social issues into jokes that are devoid of facts or sense.
A classic example of this is Pepe the Frog, which evolved from a sad frog cartoon into a symbol for the racist and anti-Semitic views of the alt-right, a U.S based white supremacist movement, which called for violence against minorities based on little evidence or truths.
Another example of this closer to home are the fake images used in memes to exaggerate the number of immigrants trying to enter the UK, debunk climate change arguments and undermine the remain campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.
The minimal or made up facts in memes threaten to warp modern politics, because of the audience’s inability to differentiate the meme’s humorous escapism and the existing political and social environment.
The growth in hate crimes around the world, the rising membership of white supremacist groups and increasing political polarisation are clear examples of this. And the prevalence of memes on social media means they are a clear factor and motivator in the growth of extremism online and in society.
Despite these issues, the popularity and prevalence of political memes on social media is showing no signs of slowing down. More needs to be done to help users differentiate between the political reality and the fantasy world depicted in memes, however I fear this may be wishful thinking.
Hero Image by Lewis Coughlan