Memes as harmful banter or transmission of political ideologies?
By Muhammad Quraishi (Guest Writer)
On the Transmissibility of Memes
With the world in repose and people being confined to their homes in this Covid-19 pandemic, the only way that we can socialise and be entertained is through the internet. What better way is there that combined both activities in one, other than sharing memes? However, is there something insidious about these ostensibly harmless images?
In recent years, the advent of the internet coupled with the widespread use of personal smart devices has enabled user-generated and peer-to-peer artefacts to be proliferated and propagated.
Internet memes, while inherently humorous and resonant, are also conduits that convey ideas with its spread and consumption, and these ideas conveyed invariably include political ideologies as well.
Resonance of Memes
While the creation of the ‘internet meme’ arises with the prolific and extensive use of the internet in the last two decades, its terminology is rooted in sociology and evolutionary biology studies from the 1970s.
The original term ‘meme’ was initially introduced in the book ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins. In his book, Dawkins explained that a ‘meme’ is a representation of a particular idea or meaning that is transmitted within a culture by a process of imitation. This ‘unit of cultural transmission’ conveys meaning through a plethora of manifestations, such as fashion, architecture, as well as work processes.
With transmission and its subsequent consumption, these memes are then propagated actively by consistent replication by members within that cultural group. This enables the meme to endure within the group through time and ensures its survival.
Concurrently, replication also provides a permissive condition for the meme to evolve by being infused with new inflexions, while retaining its essential form. This ensures its relevance among group members.
Thrusting this notion of memes into the digital age, an ‘internet meme’ possesses a similar concept with its forebear: it is also a conduit for ideation transmission. Internet memes refer to digital artefacts in visual and/or audio form (such as pictures, photos, or videos) that possess the resonating quality to the consumer, are generated with connection to other memes, and are propagated actively within the cybersphere.
These memes are created to be intentionally and overtly humorous, flippant, or sarcastic. Images used in these memes are identifiable from pop culture sources accessible through various forms of media; inter alia, comic books, shared images and videos on the internet, as well as television and film stills. Narratives that refers to personal experiences and real-world occurrences, as well as unlikely ridiculous scenarios, are also heavily imbued.
The meme below (figure 1) provided exemplifies the aspects above. In that meme, a still from the television series The Simpsons showed the character Ralph Wiggum jumping through a window and is accompanied by texts referencing former-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson’s proclivity to appear in averagely-rated action films.
The imagery mirrors Wiggum with Johnson, positioning the cartoon character’s minimally-haired appearance and physical act, with Johnson’s baldness (as depicted in figure 2) and typecast appearances in action films.
Closer to home, internet memes pertaining to the current pandemic situation can also be observed to be proliferated in recent weeks. With the release of a new rap video starring famous local character Phua Chu Kang reminding Singaporeans to be socially responsible, the internet was inevitably inundated with memes referring to this phenomenon.
For context, the use of a video with the character reminding residents here to be socially responsible was initially released during the SARS epidemic in 2003. In the video, the easily-recognisable character rapped advices in confronting the virus; among others, to not go to work when afflicted with illness, and to wash your hands thoroughly with soap – for when you “wash with soap, then at least got hope”.
Figure 3 reflects an image still of the video. This year, with Covid-19 hitting our shores, it was somewhat not unexpected that a new video was generated with similar objectives. In this new video, Phua highlighted to residents in Singapore that the current climate is not the same as normal, but in the same breath, urged viewers to be resilient and steadfast in facing this pandemic. Figure 4 portrays an image still from this new video.
Figure 5 depicts the base meme, which portrays a man dancing energetically at a party. This meme satirizes the highly physical responses characters are likely to have, in accordance with its archetypes and stereotypes, in response to a stimulus. Other examples include a version on how animals and birds would ‘jig’ in response to singing from a princess, as well as how moths would ‘dance to the light’ in response to Thomas Edison’s invention of lightbulbs.
Pairing this with the attributes of Phua Chu Kang, such as his curly hair and left-cheeked mole, to the dancing man in “The Jig”, figure 6 satirizes the proclivity of Phua to ‘dance’ in reaction to coronavirus pandemics. This implicitly refers to the music videos produced that starred the character, lampooning the typecast utility of the character in pandemic-related, socially-geared videos.
This mirroring of a visual image identifiable from pop culture with actual phenomenon renders these memes as resonant. Coupled with humorous texts highlighting opinions and perceptions already widespread pertaining to that particular phenomenon, the meme is enhanced in its hilarity by evoking amusement, and this enables the meme to be impressive and memorable as well.
In addition, memes are heavily proliferated and propagated in social media websites and discussion boards, such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and 4chan. In an era in which personal devices connectable to the internet are widespread, these memes are readily accessible. As such, their consumption is rendered frequent and consistent, ensuring that the viewers are never too separated from them. In sum, these aspects render memes as an active and effective conduit for the dissemination of ideas.
How are ideas transmitted through memes?
As an active vehicle to transmit ideas, memes can be utilised to drive political motives. Its ostensible harmlessness inherent in its hilarity provides a discreet and stealthily mode of influence towards public opinion. This hilarity attaches memes with everyday resonance; in which superficially, its existence generates a distinction between trivial online banter (what it purports to represent) and serious political advocacy. This allows viewers to be less resistant to consuming memes.
However, meme’s utilisation of visual texts and images present a suitable vehicle to infuse political expressions within its form, melding perceived banter with actual advocacy. Pairing these together, memes can hence implicitly influence the consumer’s political stance. Conducted on a massive scale, public opinion can be tremendously altered and shifted at the discretion of the progenitor of the meme.
In this digital age, the activities permitted by advances in technology allows for the production, reproduction, and dissemination of these memes to be more extensive and effective, similarly to mass media. In generating these memes, software available online (both paid and for free) facilitates production and editing of images. This renders the possibility of the crafting of any image virtually limitless.
Compounding this, the advent of social media platforms not only provides convenient sources for these images but also concurrently furnishes opportune platforms for the propagation of memes created. With a high participation rate of these platforms by the population, as well as a sharing function embedded within, the cycle of sharing and re-sharing by internet users is rendered effortless. This, as such, ensures constant access and exposure to memes for internet users.
In sum, considering the inherent permissive nature of memes to allow for infusion of persuasive ideas into its palatable form, as well as the facilitative environment for content creation and sharing set about by the digital age, memes possess a potential to be weaponized for political gain.
With strategic and tacit use of humorous texts and images, injected into the constant stream of circulation in the cybersphere, political ideas can be disseminated implicitly and with ease. Resultantly, internet users are rendered passive consumers of these ideas, mediated through funny memes, with minimal awareness to defend themselves from being persuaded.
Tracing the history of memes as a whole from its sociological background, and positing its future as indispensable in the political sphere, internet memes are seen as vehicles for transmission of ideas through semiotic representations. They too are rendered potential conduits for ideological persuasion. Hence, moving forward in this digital age, creation and sharing of images on the internet will unlikely to cease. Cascadingly, the infusion of ideas into these images, especially political, is likely to continue as well.
How would this affect Singapore? As one of the most advanced cities in the world, deeply plugged to the internet and highly developed in its technological infrastructure, residents here are not sheltered from the blessings of meme culture. Correspondingly, it is likely that memes infused with political ideas will proliferate, and that its propagation among the population, especially youths, will be widespread.
 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 192.
 Ibid, p. 194.
 Ibid, p. 195.
 Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture (United States of America: MIT, 2014), p. 41-42.
 Ibid, p. 41.
 “Dwayne Johnson,” IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0425005/?nmdp=1&.
 “Phua Chu Kang Sars Rap for Singapore,” Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/268362161.
 “Be steady and watch Phua Chu Kang’s rap video against COVID-19,” CNA, https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/trending/phua-chu-kang-covid-19-rap-song-video-12569994.
 “The Jig,” Knowyourmeme, https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/the-jig.
 Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, p. 18.
 Ibid, p. 120.
 Ibid, p. 61.
CNA. “Be steady and watch Phua Chu Kang’s rap video against COVID-19.” https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/trending/phua-chu-kang-covid-19-rap-song-video-12569994.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. UK: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Facebook. “I wanna minus myself.” https://www.facebook.com/279239152490435/posts/934376390310038/?substory_index=0.
IMDb. “Dwayne Johnson.” https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0425005/?nmdp=1&.
IMDb. “Dwayne Johnson.” https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0425005/mediaviewer/rm3093231104.
Knowyourmeme. “Ralph Wiggum Diving Through Window.” https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/ralph-wiggum-diving-through-window.
Knowyourmeme. “The Jig.” https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/the-jig.
Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. USA: MIT, 2014.
Vimeo. “Phua Chu Kang Sars Rap for Singapore.” https://vimeo.com/268362161.
Muhammad Quraishi is a Year 4 Political Science major and is currently serving as the President of the NUS Students' Political Association. He believes that love and service are needed to make the world a better place. When he's not busy day-dreaming how to make the world better, you probably can catch him reading sappy books, sketching his life away, or getting hopelessly lost in his solo trips overseas.
Views expressed here are strictly those of the author(s) and not of the organization.