Memes: a cultural phenomenon with dangerous, powerful implications


It seems like just last year the internet was fixed on Bad Luck Brian, Scumbag Steve, Philosoraptor, Success Baby and Rage Comics — primitive meme archetypes with very specific applications, generally used to convey some sort of joke or irony. It was a simpler time.

Over the years, memes have evolved and have become more open-ended. A “meme” today is loosely defined and has many more applications than the retrospectively innocent, fun memes of the past. Modern memes are often surreal, cynical and have the potential to be dangerously influential.

Memes are arguably the most effective means of communication in the 21st century. By combining recognizable, relatable or easily digestible images with short and concise text, they have the power to convey relatively complex ideas — almost instantly — to consumers. They behave like inside jokes for communities on the internet and are extremely apt to social media and have enormous potential to become viral, reaching wide audiences.

Though memes might be celebrated as original, effective, efficient, funny and simple means of communicating via the internet, they have one fundamental flaw: there is no emphasis on truth or accurate information. Memes can convey any opinion or feeling on almost any subject, but delivering essential, factual information is nearly impossible when considering the fact that they can just as easily convey false information.

One Washington Post article covers a man, Christopher Blair, who creates and delivers blatantly false memes to spread to right-wing social media users. He also simultaneously runs another page, which he uses to make fun of those who believed the false information on the other page and is geared to left-wing users, collecting a monthly $15,000 advertisement revenue from his pages and appeasing both sides of the political spectrum.

In one “meme,” Blair circled a black woman and a white woman behind President Donald Trump at a White House ceremony and accompanied it with text: “President Trump extended an olive branch and invited Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton. They thanked him by giving him ‘the finger’ during the national anthem. Lock them up for treason!”

Not only were the women circled certainly not Obama or Clinton, they were also not giving Trump “the finger.” Despite this, the image still resonated with a significant number of people and circulated through right-wing sectors of social media. For every person laughing at inaccurate information delivered through memes, there seems to be another spreading it as truth.

It is also interesting to ponder, from a cultural standpoint, how and why we have embraced memes as the language of the internet.

A Medium article considers memes to represent a “Neo-Dadaism” movement characterized by absurdist humor, sparked by a similar desire of the Dadaists. While Dadaism used absurdism, surrealism and humor to attempt to cope with frustrations following World War I, memes today tend to cope with “generational disillusionment in relation to the absurd modern-day issues we face” and represent a movement “centered around absurdism and, essentially, deliberate confusion and nonsense.”

By considering Dadaism, its inspirations and its applications, we can begin to understand the cultural phenomenon at play. Perhaps memes have always been culturally relevant, but have taken on a more specific role in conjunction with the internet.

This historical consideration is fascinating and allows us to ascertain that, as a collective society, we are responding to chaotic times with chaotic humor. But memes are not simply artistic renderings to exhibit our desire for change — they have the potential to have real, serious consequences.

Pepe the Frog, a character created to generally convey melancholy and sadness, became popular on social media, especially the website 4Chan. The frog was drawn in several variations and original characters were called “rare Pepes.” One of these memes was a Nazi Pepe and quickly gained mainstream attention, and the frog was decried as a symbol of white supremacists and the alt-right. At one point on the 2016 campaign trail, Trump retweeted a Pepe meme and faced criticism from Hillary Clinton, who denounced his use of the image.

It is, perhaps, absurd that a poorly drawn, sad cartoon frog managed to be exclusively tied to white supremacy, but nonetheless the situation illustrates the representational power memes have gained in society. Pepe also acted as a catalyst for supremacist groups to gain mainstream traction in cyberspace, as the character, hashtags and public recognition allowed the meme to reach wide audiences on many platforms.

This is not to say memes are inherently harmful, and understanding the rise of memes as a communicative strategy and cultural phenomenon can be beneficial. But it is clear that they have the potential to spread false or hateful information more efficiently and conveniently than accurate information presented in news articles, for instance. It is also apparent that memes are not going anywhere anytime soon and have become embedded in online discourse.

It is difficult to point the finger only at memes, however. Shouldn’t citizens be responsible for knowing that false information crudely presented in doctored stock photographs and distributed by untrustworthy and unknown sources is false? Is this a reasonable expectation?

Memes are a great way to represent specific, humorous circumstances and have the potential to bring online communities together, make quick and snappy critiques and have even brought in a cultural movement that we can begin to understand by considering Dadaism’s role in history. But their power should not be underestimated.

Every person should keep in mind that memes, ultimately, have more communicative power than books, articles and videos, since their messages can be processed and shared within seconds. Until something even more concise, satirical, absurd, ironic and efficient gains traction, we all must keep these things in mind and meme responsibly.