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  • Writer's pictureGüldeniz Kurtulus

Memes, The New Way of Making Propoganda

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

Memes have entered into our life with the spread of technologic tools and easy access to the internet. Most of us know the word ‘meme’ from social media. Memes are perfect to explain all kinds of situations, events, movies, inside jokes etc.


Even when we are texting each other online rather than typing a text, most of us choose to send memes to our friends to make it more fun and easier to understand.

Memes can refer to and be made from famous movies, TV series, or trend games. Since this is a new type of expressing emotions, this is the latest trend to catch up with older generations, so it’s popular amongst younger people. For instance, I was studying my history lectures with history memes on social media that were posted by famous meme accounts. At that time, it looked easier to understand rather than studying the subject from lots of boring historical books.



Well, that’s the thing about memes, they are ‘catchy’. But according to Jennifer Nycz, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at Georgetown University’s Department of Linguistics, said. “This is really no different from any other process of communication or knowledge creation,” she added. “It’s just especially salient in the case of memes because people explicitly construct them and then post them to the world for commentary.” [1]


Here is the important sentence for our topic. People create memes and share them with the whole social media and make them available to everyone. We must discuss some basics for this.


First, the notion meme comes from the book of Richard Dawkins's “The Selfish Gene” in 1976.

He coined the term from the Greek word ‘mimeme’ which means ‘imitated thing’ and he used the word meme to describe an idea, behavior, or style that rapidly spreads from person to person in a culture. In his book, he likened a meme's spread to that of a virus. Years later, he supported the use of the term meme in the digital world, and he stated that the new meaning isn't that far from his original explanation [2].


Photo by dole777 on Unsplash


Memes have sub-categories such as general humor memes, dark-humored memes, TV show memes or movie memes etc. In the field of history or political memes, it is like a black hole that takes you to the bottom of it little by little. You can find any type of memes from the types I mentioned before. But many of them have the aim of influencing followers, usually the offensive ones. Because offensive memes do have a target in the context itself when they are trying to make laugh followers to a specific historical case or a recent political event.


But what if this meme creator has built the meme on a fragile basis? If this meme has disputatious origins, can we still have fun with it? Are they trustable if we consider their spreading speed online?

Firmness of a meme should be a must for every meme creator. Since there is not a proper reference, objective references, to a meme, this can shift to a sort of “soft propaganda” , so to say. This is where the meme creators missed the spot. Humor can be very helpful to understanding historical cases or current events.


However, when humor palliates prejudices, this only leads to a situation where prejudices increase. Controversial cases or prejudices get reaction from followers if the creator expresses himself/herself explicitly, but, if the creator makes it through different ways as humor, it can be seen as a sort of sugarcoating.


Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash


In the book of Metahaven, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? this situation is explained as this: every generation will construct new, “political” beliefs out of it; out of all kinds of stuff, which seemed initially non-political (Metahaven, 2016, p.12) [3] So, it explains us the sugarcoating term.


The example of history memes, particularly the memes about controversial historical cases, can be shared through social media and it creates demagogue. Social media accounts which have a remarkable number of followers contribute to the propaganda-making process, so to speak.


A meme that is made to explain a specific historical figure/case may incline hatred towards the community/nation or the historical figure.

When we see that some history memes accounts take “teaching history” as a duty, it becomes serious because most of these accounts, generally, have a subjective historical narration. Very few amounts of memes include confirmed information and a huge amount of them embody the subjective thoughts of the individual.


The followers who may find it righteous, generally, without investigating whether the meme has solid origins or not, share those memes online with their friends or relatives. The ones who check the righteousness are the minority, unfortunately.


Another problem comes along here, between the people who find the meme fun and the abstainers who don’t find it fun may clash and a kind of polarization may occur between parties and that can evolve into a differentiation among people. The ones who agree with the meme may be seen as elites or superiors over the others and others who criticize it may be seen as small-minded.



It demonstrates the power and capabilities of the memes on how they can polarize people. This situation can be encountered at election time in a country, mostly (e.g., the election memes during 2018 in the US). You can come across those memes that contain lots of hatred or perception management. Even Trump itself retweeted memes on twitter multiple antagonistic memes, including one of him “eclipsing” former president Barack Obama and one of him hitting Clinton with a golf ball. [4]


If we add the number of followers to this and the power of memes being catchy, it escalates. Memes which had made to make fun of them, gradually turn into a settled fact in people’s minds, radically. The point changes here. A good example for this can be the cutting-edge Leftist political journal Kittens, published in London, features radical leftist writing only alongside photographs of cute kittens, the strangest thing is that this combination further radicalizes the message; Kittens acknowledges head-on the self-politicization of an information space in which we were supposed to merely enjoy ourselves. (Metahaven, 2016, p.12) [5]


Hence, we can find similarities and different points between propaganda and memes, it is worth mentioning that. They both contain information, whereas the way they do it is different. They can be generated in every part of our life (politics, religion, daily life etc.).


When people hear both terms, propaganda makes a negative impression, but memes make a better impression on people. It gives the vibe that memes are sugarcoated, whitewashed propaganda.


In other words, this phenomenon pops out on the screen almost every time we swipe the screen, and they have the power to shape our ideas ineradicably through humor, though we shouldn’t say it’s just a joke.

When people hear both terms, propaganda makes a negative impression, but memes make a better impression on people. It gives the vibe that memes are sugarcoated, whitewashed propaganda. In other words, this phenomenon pops out on the screen almost every time we swipe the screen, and they have the power to shape our ideas ineradicably through humor, though we shouldn’t say it’s just a joke.



We can also indicate that this is the point where meme creators should avoid . A meme can be fun and didactic at the same time and can avoid rumors to make a well-built meme. Some of the authors or researchers focused on the problem since this is a new problem area, relatively. Studies are still searching for the impacts of memes. Memes are the best way to teach something to others or communicate and make us laugh at the same time but, in good hands.


In the wrong hands, memes may turn into a super-duper weapon which serves the purpose of polarizing people strongly. So, when you see a meme next time, think about it.

Editorial Note:

I highly recommend you to check on this essential information, here.




SOURCE

[1] Höttinger, Sophia. (October 19, 2017). Copyrighted memes prove you can’t laugh away the law. The Times UK. Retrieved from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/copyrighted-memes-prove-you-cant-laugh-away-thelaw-2pjn39993

[2] Gil, Paul. (September 16, 202). What Is a Meme? Lifewire. Retrieved from https://www.lifewire.com/what-is-a-meme-2483702

[3] - [5] Metahaven (Design studio staff). (2016). Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Strelka Press.

[4] Gubbay, Makayla. (June 7, 2018). The Rise of Political Memes Could Have a Major Effect on America. Teen Vogue. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/the-rise-of-political-memes-could-have-a-major-effect-on-america

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