Autowallahs in Mumbai be like: Kabhi kabhi apun ko lagta hai ki apun hi Bhagwan hai. We have all used meme references in our group chats, maybe a reference from Mirzapur or an Akshay Kumar meme from Hera Pheri. The internet and our online conversations are incomplete without memes. It is an instant way to convey a plethora of emotions and context within a couple of lines supported with an image.
But thanks to our attention-deficit scrolling habits on social media, memes have become much more than just funny, harmless gags. Dispersed throughout various social media platforms, over the years, they have evolved into a cultural vehicle of opinions, propaganda, and many times, a critical tool to call out as well.
The term ‘meme’ was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins which was defined as, “a package that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation”. Memes are a unit of communication that inherently carry the potential to spread cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be manifested through textual or visual format blended with humor.
A meme doesn’t just pop out of nowhere and instantly become viral. Before appearing in the mainstream, it originates in the underbelly of niche chat forums frequented by loyal digital natives. It further goes on to remix a reference with multiple revisions of photoshopping and adding favourable top and bottom text. This trend usually arises from fairly obscure platforms such as 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr. Just like the survival of fittest, the longer the life span of the memes on these niche platforms, the better they have a chance at entering the mainstream meme market.
Memes possess a very basic characteristic of being loaded with references yet being simple in nature. Through their easy to grasp format, they convey a chunk of information in a short amount of time. Hence, these internet memes are very effective means of communication to propagate a certain message and could be easily used as an arsenal of digital persuasion.
With the rise of affordable and cost-effective internet and wifi plans around the globe, many of the memes generated come with an ulterior motive of influencing the audience through the veil of humor and anonymity. A price we, as netizens, pay for getting our essential news from the same place where one can find cat memes and refurbished Khaby Lame TikToks.
Memes are information providers and perception builders for all the conflicted souls that reside on the internet. They provide a raw, unfiltered, real, and accurate description of our society in the most unique ways. The fact that memes polarise netizens adds to their subversive quality, writes Diya Chaturvedi in a Campaign India article. This feature has resulted in the commercialization of memes which no longer carries the intent to just have a quick laugh. This has given rise to agencies and advertisers capitalizing on its perception and humanistic quality that these memes tend to carry.
We all remember the popular 2014 Lok Sabha election meme, where the term “Pappu” was stamped on Rahul Gandhi by the opposing parties. Multiple memes, different contexts, several photoshopping sessions later, the meme still continues to lurk in the corners of the Indian internet and conveniently arises during major elections. Thanks to Whatsapp and Facebook University we all have been forwarded such memes targeting Dr. Manmohan Singh as a silent guy or the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta Banarjee as loud.
Because the majority of memes have a topical context, young adults and teenagers have to simultaneously keep up with the contemporary scene. And this job is also undertaken by more specific memes. Due to its humor-based approach, recognizing and grasping current news and other political information is far easier than reading a detailed news analysis. According to a study by Common Sense Media, 54 percent of teens get news from social media, 50 percent get news from YouTube and fewer than half — 41 percent — get news from news organizations, at least a few times a week.
Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself is one of the memes that urged me to look into who Jeffery Epstein was, and what the context exactly was. The meme eventually helped me fill in the gaps for Melinda and Bill Gates’ relationship which resulted in divorce after reports of his friendship with billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein hit the headlines. Similarly, Arnab Goswami’s infamous “Mujhe Drugs Do'' remix created by Anshuman Sharma, a popular creator known for short-form music content, grabbed a lot of attention recently. For many of us, we weren’t surprised with Mr. Goswami’s approach but it compelled us to look into its original source, making us realize the intense witch-hunting of Rhea Chakraborty on Prime Time Television.
This swarm of memes released all over Twitter and Instagram gives us a reality check of these big political figures, who we often take too seriously. The 2020 presidential elections of the USA were quite a rollercoaster for the nation but Trump’s Twitter warning debacle was an equally goofy and alarming call for the netizens to realize how dangerous free speech with no fact checks could turn out, spoiler alert they turned into pretty funny memes.
Our Government's recent decision to rename the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award leads to a callout from multiple Twitter users not just regarding the name change but regarding the major goof-up by the graphic designing department which inserted the Param Vir Chakra instead of the factually correct image of Khel Ratna Award. This led to a field day for the Twitterati to churn out plenty of memes to point out the major mistakes in such a significant decision.
The format of memes is grossly abused by attention-seeking public figures to promote their personal agenda. Hindustani Bhau is another prime example of an initial shock humor meme turned into an absolute nightmare. As the entire nation laughed and dank meme pages generated thousands of customized memes on his famous words “Pehli Phursat Mein Nikal”. While all this was fun and games, things took a serious turn when he sided with the infamous Shubham Mishra who threatened comedian Agrima Joshua with rape threats over jokes taken out of context regarding a small reference to Chatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj. Many netizens agreed that the comedy set wasn’t really funny but that didn’t mean it was justified to allow sexual threats. Hindustani Bhau hypocritically went on to make disgusting comments towards the great Maratha warrior which was received with much negative criticism. This reflects how these internet personalities who claim themselves “humorous” and try to portray as if they’re incorporating comedy into their social messages are very harmful. These personalities aren’t equipped with proper social media etiquettes and cannot be filtered through any parameter since the internet is a vast vessel of uncensored opinions, whether right or wrong. Such incidents have real-life repercussions on brainwashing the youth and normalizing extremely toxic online behavior and language.
One of the biggest drawbacks and benefits of the propagation of memes is how short and crisply it is to view and process. Many of the memes are hence, created and targeted specifically to certain audiences and creates an echo chamber of their own biases. This leads to entrapment in their prejudices due to which their opinions or views have no scope to be challenged. The infamous Cambridge Analytica is a testament to how personal data can be exploited to drive your personal preferences to the outcome decided to favor the advertisers which include political campaigning parties as well. The IT cells in India during the 2014 and 2019 elections are also an example of how the algorithm and advertising features have been carefully developed to cater to the commercialization of private conversations. In the article Memes and Strange Politics, Jaron Rowan writes, “Memes do not produce institutions or political structures nor do they articulate a clear view of a current issue. In contrast, they hover above and raise private conversations to public debates. The humor that characterizes them helps members of disaggregated communities to recognize and detect their peers.”
When you post a certain meme from a certain page, you are also indirectly showing your mindset regarding the particular topic. This combination of Instant Gratification, Conformity, and Affiliation makes the process of sharing memes quicker and attaches your personality to your favored cause. The act of reading news and double-checking facts becomes redundant. Many troll pages and politically affiliated pages take undue advantage of this, resulting in the spread of misinformation and a narrow context of a broader picture. This can be seen during the introduction of Covid Vaccine and the implementation of lockdown. In a Quint report, it was said that Anti-vaxxer groups, like Awaken India Movement, are using these memes to push their propaganda on Facebook and WhatsApp groups.
As the weaponization of memes continues from both wings, these memes are also used by the commoners to critically voice their opinions in a creative way. Many meme pages and organizations have gained popularity due to their interestingly vocal approach that sums up the emotions of many. Peeing Human Official and Rofl Gandhi 2.0 are some of the pages that create Indian political memes vocally criticizing bad decisions from various political parties. Last year, comic artist, Sanitary Panels who creates her own version of memes in doodle format was issued a contempt notice by the Supreme Court for a meme doodle that she had shared on Twitter. This decision was met with immediate criticism and resulted in a group of 659 artists, illustrators, and other members of the creative community releasing a statement that demanded the Supreme Court drop the proceedings.
From poignant RK Lakshman caricatures to “Dank Memerz India”, we have come far. But creating clever and subtle humor cannot be simply replaced with propaganda techniques of name-calling, appealing to fear, or flag-waving. While it is essential to keep up with topical news and pop culture, it is equally important to avoid falling prey to fake news and misinformation. Many fact-checking vigilantes and organizations such as AltNews, Boomlive have risen to curb the increasing misinformation warfare entering the net in creative forms. Memes, at the end of the day, are just navigational cultural tools that may provide the tip of the iceberg and not a complete, definite picture per se.