How politics infected the meme, and vice versa
Tirhakah Love is a Philadelphia-based culture writer. Here, he observes the way internet humour has become increasingly politicised, discussing the responsibilities we should consider when addressing serious socio-political issues with memes.
On the edition of Saturday Night Live‘s ‘Weekend Update’ broadcast on 20 August, a wry smile glimmered across Tina Fey’s face as the comedian reacted to the racist melee in Charlottesville the week previous in a meme-thirsty “Sheetcaking” monologue – suggesting audiences protest neo-nazis by staying at home and yelling into an American flag adorned cake.
Complete with side-eye inducing racial-sexual ineptitude, Fey sliced through any notion of a “united liberal front” against white supremacy. “Part of me hopes these neo-nazi’s do try [to rally in New York] and get the ham salad kicked outta them by a couple drag queens,” she quips, that smile creeping back onto her face, “cuz you know what a drag queen is? A 6’4 Black man.” The camera zooms out to catch Fey’s Black costar Michael Che nodding in agreement (yes, Caucasians, you may laugh at this joke), quietly acquiescing to a punchline where not only is the term “ham salad” used unironically, but the teller effectively ostracises the very people white supremacists target; people that look like him. Bring on the patriotic pastries!
But Saturday Night Live is, like much of today’s pop culture programming, hungry for Internet virality – even at the expense of its core message. The easiest way to do that is by creating a well-conceived, but not obviously contrived, meme. Jokes, like memes, prioritise their targeted in-group above all, so, naturally, minorities might be the first to experience some discomfort. But unlike memes, jokes tend to die quickly – especially the bad ones – whereas, quite often (like in Fey’s case) a bad joke can turn into a good meme and endure longevity online.
More than any singular joke ever could, memes tell a much broader story about our sociopolitical climate. Memes are not just a screengrab of a particular event, they often become a method for audiences to reflexively comment on that event using found visual language.
Since the waning days of the Obama administration, the reigning heavyweight champs in the political meme division has been the fascist-leaning right. The long-running theme of the meme has largely been for #jokes, but in the wake of the 2016 US election, things started to skew more political.
In a study conducted by Forbes investigating the most persistent topics within meme database, Me.me, the last calendar year has seen an uptick in politically-minded memes with conservative tags owning the most dramatic changes over time. In the US, terms like “MAGA,” (from being used once in January 2016 to over 12,000 times a year later) “Donald Trump” and even “libertarian” outrank Democratic numbers by a mile and, as they conclude, “Trump’s rise seems to be indicative of a wider increase in general memes about conservatives.”
"As long as memes remain the Internet’s most ubiquitous form of communicative currency, there will be a politician, a celebrity, or a celebrity-politician looking to exploit it"
These numbers shouldn’t be surprising but they do have some liberal platforms alarmed. Quotes like “we memed the alt-right into existence” from white nationalist Richard Spencer – who became a meme himself after being punched in the face by a protester – aren’t helping either. Prior to their use in white nationalist back channels the idea that memes could negatively impact politics was largely speculative. With hindsight and the rise of right-wing extremists in positions of power, talks have definitely changed. Memes “warped modern politics” not because of the perspectives shared but by a particular audience’s inability to differentiate the meme’s humorous escapism and political reality. In 2015, the international refugee crisis compelled anti-refugee users to create false photos depicting European refugees as members of the Islamic State.
That is not to say that memes are inherently flawed or tailored for the right. They’re simply spreadable ideas, and a way for young people to discuss political topics using a language they developed themselves online. In the UK, the Labour Party’s leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn enjoyed a dramatic surge in popularity after prime minister Theresa May called a snap general election for April this year. During the election campaign, May’s Conservative Party reportedly spent £1.2 million on Facebook advertising. But it’s believed Corbyn – whose policies are highly appealing to young voters – performed surprisingly well in the election partly thanks to memes organically shared by his young supporters.
As long as memes remain the Internet’s most ubiquitous form of communicative currency, there will be a politician, a celebrity, or a celebrity-politician looking to exploit it. But the growing seriousness of memes and the events they portray requires an increasingly more thoughtful and considerate perspective. While the underground meme-makers aren’t known for their genteel, popular people like Tina Fey and platforms like Saturday Night Live could save themselves a public flogging by simply being vigilant enough to ask the extra question – who does this joke serve? And even larger, for the rest of us in this particular moment – who are we willing to step on just for lolz?