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From a pile of “stuff”

Meme Bulletin Issue 3

Junio Aglioti Colombini

Twitter: @Flegoz

Junio is a PhD researcher at the MediaLaB, University of Pisa.

The image is a meme. The picture represents a scene from the movie “The devils wear Prada” where an assistant shows to her boss, Miranda Priestly, two belts that looks alike. The bottom text is a subtitle from the movie that states “It’s a tough call. They’re so different”. Two memes are positioned on the belts: on the left the image of Pepe the Frog, on the right is another Pepe the Frog where Pepe is portrayed as Donald Trump.

A memetic lesson from Miranda Priestly. They look the same but on the left there is the original Pepe (source: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/95218-feels-good-man) and on the right “You can’t stump the Trump” (source: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1028964-donald-trump).

Miranda Priestly: Something funny?

Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.

Miranda Priestly: This “stuff”? Oh, okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you.

If you replace the word “belts” with the word “memes” you would get a fundamental lesson (from the iconic director of Runway no less) about memes: memes are not “just memes”, they are statements. Just like choosing the best belt in this scene of The Devil Wears Prada, the meme you chose to share says something about you and, most important, says something to others.

It’s hard to converge on a unique definition, but what we can surely say is that memes are mediums for communication. More precisely, memes are (digital) artifacts composed by multiple cultural elements that are inserted into humorous frames and use collective knowledge or shared experiences to convey a message, express a point of view or, more generally, communicate. (Börzsei 2013, Shifman 2014).

Each element mixed in a meme refers to its context of origin and brings with it its specific backgrounds and values that are essential to correctly decode all the meme’s layers of meaning.

Having in mind this complexity makes it easier to understand how ideological and political contents can often lay (or hide) in the tangle of these layers and why, whether we realize it or not, every time we share a meme we also share all the values and the references embedded to it, activating mental processes of simplifications, memorizations or associations between them.

Being able to condense a great complexity into fast consuming and highly spreadable objects, makes memes very attractive for political actors and social movements whose main communicative need is to simplify complex political issues in order to gain public attention, foster participation or vehiculate forms of propaganda.

Political memes come in so many shapes and from so many places that it would be really hard to condense the countless existing varieties that exist in only few paragraphs; nonetheless, the communicative context of the elections can be considered as a productive starting point to observe how pervasive memes are becoming into mainstream political discourse and how each political actor participate to this process of “memefication of politics”.

The US presidential elections of 2016, for example, was one of the first time that memes were so much involved into the political public discourse and played an important role in the political outcomes, to the extent that it has gone down in history as the “great meme war” (Schreckinger 2017).

During that presidential election, in fact, we witnessed storms of memes that invaded our timelines for every statement or event involving one of the candidates. Every meme used a different ironic frame with the aim to narrate a political event, to ridicule or call out the leaders’ mistake, or to attack him/her on a political or a personal level (Heiskanen 2017, Ross and Rivers 2017). Every time a meme was shared, it contributed to the spreading of the information narrated in it as well as the point of views that it contained, such as the inconsistency between a public statement and personal life of one candidate or the doubt about the moral compass of the other.

Sometimes, when the LOL turns into LULZ, the fun element fades in the back and memes can also be heavily weaponized against someone to delegitimate or foster fake news and accusations. In Clinton’s case that was mostly done by exploiting gender stereotypes against her (Nee and De Maio 2019, Ross and Rivers 2017).

A more recent and direct example of getting advantage of memes for political campaigning is when a fly sat on Pence’s head during the 2020 vice-president debate (Corasaniti 2020). The event immediately set off a process of memefication in the public debate that led Biden’s team to decide selling fly swatters on their online shop as a form of fundraising. By doing so, the candidate positioned himself as a participant of the memetic discourse but also gave to the whole memetic process a political stance where the “flywillvote” became an occasion to channel support towards Biden.

The image is a screenshot from a tweet by Marcus Gilmer. In the tweet he writes “Biden team was quick. You can also buy Biden branded flyswatter for $10”. In the tweet he attached a screenshot from the website "Biden Victory Fund" where the Fly Sweater was sold for $10.

Screenshot from Biden’s Victory Fund website where the Fly Sweater was sold for 10$ (source: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1910488-mike-pence-fly)

Whether it’s clearly visible or it’s well hidden between ironic layers, every time a meme is shared the stance and the frame contained in it spread between users, contributing to the replication of ideologies and political views linked to it. Sometimes they replicate stereotypes, sometimes they spread misinformation, sometimes they even slowly set unconscious associations between concepts and values, in a sneaky form of invisible propaganda. But, sometimes alternative representations, progressive political statements or weapons against oppression can flourish within memes’ layers of meaning, as social movements are getting more and more familiar with them (Mina 2019, Moreno-Almeida 2020, Baker, Clancy, and Clancy 2019).

What it is important to know is that behind the humorous layer in the meme you are sharing there is so much more. When you start digging into its layers you might find that what you once thought was blue, well it’s actually cerulean.

Recommended reading

Baker, James E., Kelly A. Clancy, and Benjamin Clancy. 2019. “Putin as Gay Icon? Memes as a Tactic in Russian LGBT+ Activism.” In LGBTQ+ Activism in Central and Eastern Europe: Resistance, Representation and Identity, 209–33. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-20401-3.

Börzsei, Linda K. 2013. “Makes a Meme Instead: A Concise History of Internet Memes.” New Media Studies Magazine 7 (March): 1–29. http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=linda_borzsei%5Cnhttp://works.bepress.com/linda_borzsei/2.

Corasaniti, Nick. 2020. “The Fly on Pence’s Head, Memes and Tweets from the Vice Presidential Debate.” The New York Times, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/us/politics/fly-pence-harris-debate.html.

Heiskanen, Benita. 2017. “Meme-Ing Electoral Participation.” European Journal of American Studies 12 (2). https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.12158.

Mina, An Xiao. 2019. Memes to Movements : How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power. Beacon Press.

Moreno-Almeida, Cristina. 2020. “Memes as Snapshots of Participation: The Role of Digital Amateur Activists in Authoritarian Regimes.” New Media and Society, 7–8. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820912722.

Nee, Rebecca Coates, and Mariana De Maio. 2019. “A ‘Presidential Look’? An Analysis of Gender Framing in 2016 Persuasive Memes of Hillary Clinton.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 63 (2): 304–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2019.1620561.

Ross, Andrew S., and Damian J. Rivers. 2017. “Digital Cultures of Political Participation: Internet Memes and the Discursive Delegitimization of the 2016 U.S Presidential Candidates.” Discourse, Context and Media 16: 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2017.01.001.

Schreckinger, Ben. 2017. “World War Meme – POLITICO Magazine.” Politico. 2017. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/memes-4chan-trump-supporters-trolls-internet-214856/.

Shifman, Limor. 2014. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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