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Internet Memes and Political Participation

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Published: 27th Feb 2019 in Politics

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Internet memes: As a new form of political participation

1. Introduction

The term “meme” has been emerged in various spheres in a few studies, and it has been discussed with some applied research and cultural research (Hofstadter, 1985; Dawkins, 1976; Blackmore, 1999; Chesterman, 1997). As the basic unit of culture, meme plays an extremely important role in the reproduction of culture. Given this orientation, some researchers started to address and explore the relationship between meme and politics, argue that meme has a positive effect on the development of political. (Shifman, 2013, Milner, 2013). In the 21st century, the rise of digital media has changed the information dissemination ecological, as well as the way of thinking of people. With the advance of social media and digital technology, meme theory also need to adapt the new environment and focus on the present convergence for new field. Accordingly, the new branch of meme study has come out, which is internet meme. In this Internet age, a meme’s ability to reproduce and spread is gradually expanding, thus highlighted increasingly as the dominant force in transmission media, and playing an increasingly important role in the public domain in terms of the news public opinion and political communication. What’s more, websites like Know Your Meme, 4chan, Reddit and Tumblr are meme manufactures which have helped people produce thousands of memes. The internet meme has raised the pace of social political awareness and community building in cyberspace.

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Shifman (2013) defines that internet meme has three functions in terms of political participation: as forms of persuasion or political advocacy, as grassroots action and as modes of expression and public discussion. This paper builds on existing knowledge in the fields of internet meme, based on Shifman’s work and combines with other’s studies to demonstrate that internet meme is a new form of political participation. At the same time, this paper will illustrate it from three aspects: as a persuasion way in election, as a resistance of people (collection action) and as a public discourse of political issues.


What is a meme?

The definition of meme in The Oxford English Dictionary is: an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, especially imitation. The term “meme” was created by Dawkins in his book “The selfish Gene” in 1976, when he tried to explain the culture evolution. He defined it as “small units of culture that spread from person to person by copying or imitation” (Dawkins, 1989). In addition, he analogized meme with biological gene, considered that meme also evolved through coping(imitating), variating and selecting, like gene transmits its genetic information to the next generation. A clear difference between these two is that genes are the genetic factors of biology, while meme is the derivative of culture. Besides, gene propagates through heredity, a physical process to replicate but meme through imitating, which is a mental process. In his work, he indicated that meme has three characters: 1) Heredity, the process of meme’s diffusion is heredity. For example, when one religion or belief is propagating to others, the religion as a meme is acquired by people and copied to their mind and continuing passed along to believers. 2) Variation, the contents of meme by imitated are not the same, they could be changed. For instance, when people telling a story to others they will add or delete some details, which results in variation. 3) Selection, the ability of diffusion is varying from different memes, some are easy to spread while some are not, they are competing when being propagating, which is like the natural selection in biologic theory (Dawkins, 1989).

Despite some researchers criticized that Dawkins has limited the culture in the sphere of biologic and simplified human behavior later, it cannot be ignored that his efforts on the research of meme, which accentuates the realization of cultural gene. Next, Douglas Hofstadter put forwarded a new interdisciplinary subject “Memetics” in 1985. This subject is based on the perspective of Darwinian evolution to study the content of the mind, aiming to explore the social evolution model of cultural information transmission (Hofstadter, 1985). Since then, the meme concept has been discussed and accepted by various of subject: phycology, physiology, anthropology, linguistics and so on. For instance, Daniel Dennett, an American philosophy who agreed with the concept of meme, and applied it into his book “Consciousness Explained” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” to interpret the mechanism of spiritual evolution (Vasiliki, 2014). Furthermore, Finland linguists and translation theorists Andrew Chesterman, combined meme with the British philosopher Karl Popper’s idea about the schema of knowledge evolution, established the translation theory framework of the system by a descriptive study on the translation standard and strategies (Chesterman, 1997). In 1999, Susan Blackmore (1999) considered meme as an independent replication factor in her book “The Meme Machine”, suggested that whatever the form of memetic information is, it could be regarded as meme when it can be copied by imitate.

 Based on the previous studies, this paper adopts Shifman’s (2013) idea and apply it to the analyze. She describes the meme constituted with two principles: 1) looking at diffused units as incorporating several memetic dimensions namely, several aspects that people may imitate; 2) understanding memes not as single entities that propagate well, but as groups of content units with common characteristics.

2.2 What is an internet meme?

Meme has been widely accepted and applied to several subjects which has mentioned before, but it only gets attentions of mass media researchers until 21 centuries (Davison, 2012). According to Shifman (2013), she defines an Internet meme as: 1) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; 2) that were created with awareness of each other; and 3) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users. Generally, in the digital media era, the advancement of Internet and social networks enable people to acquire more information and accelerate the information exchange. With the advent of web2.0 and platformlization, meme is actively involved in the process of information dissemination, in terms of longevity, fecundity, and copy fidelity have been enhanced through internet, which regard as the three basic properties that help meme to spread successfully. For longevity, it is attributed to numerous archives, which can store data indefinitely not rely on memory. For copy fidelity, it mainly because the digitization allows lossless information transfer compared to traditional media. For fecundity, due to the infrastructure, it can achieve the swift diffusion of any given message to numerous nodes. These facilitates the creation and exchange of user-generate-consent, which emerges participation (Shifman, 2013). Apart from this, easier access to the Internet enables people to receive mounts of information every day, in comparison to the limited information acquiring approaches in the past. Also, the speed of transmission is no longer limited by the movement of individuals. Hence, it is necessary to pay more attention on internet meme, exploring its role on constructing shared values in contemporary digital cultures.

As Shifman (2013) claimed, the internet meme has three properties in the web2.0: 1) A gradual propagation from individuals to society. In other words, memes could shape the mindsets, forms of behavior, and actions of social groups. People can easier sharing and communicating in digital era, which facilitates the process of spreading memes from person to society; 2) Reproduction via copying and imitation. In the digital world, people can spread content by forwarding, linking, or copying, they can use some software like Photoshop and application like Snapseed to imitate and remixing instead of reproducing as well; and 3) Diffusion through competition and selection. The internet magnifies the competition and selection of meme. On the one hand, it allows researchers collect data and track the process of meme evolution. On the other hand, it offers users an opportunity to understanding and knowing the preference of choice relating to meme diffusion (Davison, 2012).

It is always mentions viral when talks about internet memes, their differences and similarities are the major parts of meme research. This paper does not go in further with details about this, but indicates the mainly difference between viral and internet meme is that viral is consisted of single units while internet meme is a collection of text.

In order to better analyzing, this paper focus on the images form of internet memes, takes some images as example to illustrates the idea. Based on the studies of Knobel, Lankshear (2007) and Kuipers (2005), internet memes can be divided into two categories: recycled images and macros images. Recycled images have a template which build by numerous imitations and “stable” images which include original content and are passed along with transformation or not, as presented in Figure 1 and Figure 2. Macros images usually constitute with a single image overlaid with a white text written in capitals and express the humorous note, as presented in Figure1.3 and Figure1.4.

Figure.1 and Figure.2
Figure.3 and Figure. 4

2.3 Internet memes as a new form of political participation

In recent years, internet meme has been constantly evolving into the political participation. This appeared to be attributed to the digital media. First it offers the opportunities for people to become the subject of expression, and then reducing the cost of political participation, especially for the young generation who are less likely to engaged in political activities (Anduiza, 2012). Second, public and political events are more likely to be exaggerated than in the past with rapid spread in the internet. Last, the so-called image politics according to Wilson (2000), image symbols have more vitality and tension than words. Since the visual impact has more strong effects on emotion and could save the time for reading too much words, it is extremely easy to be used to participate in discussing political issues, especially in sensitive areas. For this reason, the exaggerated effects and interesting composition of meme makes its transmission have powerful appeal, which makes the combination of both of them play the role of two-way gain. Therefore, internet meme has built the bridge between citizens and political, as a new way to deconstruct by the form of image with humor to gains serious political, build a unique participate system (Hristova, 2014). This paper classified this political participation into three sub-items in terms of facilitates political participation according to Shifman’s work: 1) As a persuasion way in election; 2) As a resistance of people (collection action); and 3) As a public discourse. Following will combining cases to analyze these three functions (Shifman, 2013).

2.2.1 As a persuasive way in election

Social media allows users to publish their opinions or ideas so that their friends, family, and strangers can read these posts and comments back. And it is has been demonstrated that people are more likely to believe in their friends and family, which makes the online ideas become more convincible (Shifman, 2013). As a consequence, internet meme through social media could influence people for their psychological cognition, behavior patterns and guide their recognition (Tay, 2015). As politics move to the Internet where more and more voters get their news and information with the trend of digital technology. The politicians and their companies start to consider taking advantage of internet meme to create great political profile with their personalities and campaign slogans. In this way, enabled mobilizing voters outside of official political discourses. A few studies consider politicians who appear “cool” in the eyes of ordinary citizens to be rare successes (Tay, 2015)

The 2008 American Presidential election is known for being the first modern Internet campaign, Shifman (2013) chooses the “Obama Girl” video as an example of memes as political persuasion, explains that the video become widely popular due to it just focus on a praise of Obama not talks about specific political issues. Here, this paper uses The Hope Meme in 2008 American election as an example to analyze. This meme is the depiction of Barack Obama by artist Shepard Fairey (Figure 5), it has thousands of replications and then a vast number of users participated in creating their own replications (Figure 6 and Figure 7). This meme portrayed Obama as the ideal candidate and introducing a vision for the country, which triggered people’s approval (Foster, 2014). Subsequently, Obama’s supporters enjoying creating new versions of the Hope Meme itself to show their stance (Seiffert, 2017). With the propagation of the hope meme, a climbing mount of people acknowledge the appearance of Obama even they do not participate in, they can see the images in social media through their friends or families. Moreover, Obama’s campaign posted a LOLcat a few days before the 2012 election (Figure 8) to call on people to vote. This meme combing with the internet culture, the lol culture and cute cat, make people perceived as Obama is proximity to the ordinary people. The fact is, Obama is a popular figure referred to in Internet memes, involved discussions and supportive commentaries (Tay, 2015).

Figure.5 and Figure. 6
Figure.7 and Figure. 8

To give another example is the 2012 American election, between Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. On April 4, a meme containing President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton posted on a Tumblr blog. It imagines an exchange between them, and Obama asking “whatchu doing?”, she responds, “Running the world” (Figure 9). In this image, Obama is lying down while reading, and seems relaxed, Clinton has a solemn expression, and is busy with work. The post got a lot of attention and received thousands of notes. Clinton becomes a synonym of respectability, and a representation of female empowerment. Since then, her supporters involving into this internet meme and imitate their own picture by change the text or content. (Figure 10 and Figure 11). The meme became a major part of Hillary Clinton’s positive cultural revival as a political figure, which was already seen as particularly powerful in the 2016 presidential campaign. This has made her a viable candidate (Tay, 2015).

Figures 9, 10 and 111

These examples have illustrated the use of internet memes as a persuasion way referred to political participation. As an active social software, internet memes have a place in the political expression of new media with the linking, forwarding and imitating, which increased the exposure of political figures. In the presidential election, candidates in the media show the image of appearance, and in the narration part is partly deciding the success or failure of his election (Foster, 2014). Politics in the media society is becoming more and more a performance, an act of creating an image.

2.3.2 As a resistance of people (collection action)

Indeed, most of political memes are generally resistant to nature, and as we’ve seen, resistance itself is a critical mass mobilization. Shifman (2013) defines one function of memes is as grass-roots action with the example Occupy Wall Street online movement. The “Pepper Spray Cop” which shows a police officer spraying protesters with pepper spray. The “We are the 99%”, becomes one of the main visual markers of the on-the-ground Occupy Movement after it spread quickly online. They serve as a call to action for the protest to continue. Shifman indicates that the power of organization is declining, instead being replaced by massive, mobile social networks, which is collective action (Milner,2013). The background of the developing collective action cannot be separated from the remarkable rise of internet memes. First, the threshold is low and there is no need for technological skill to express and participate. Besides, image meme helps these protests go deeper with the visual effects. The most important thing is that internet meme allows the citizens to participate in collective action and at the same time can retain their individuality, since one of the character of meme is alter (Anduiza, 2012).

There are several studies has worked on the Occupy Wall Street, this paper will apply the collective action in Facebook between China mainland and Taiwan in 2016 as a case study. This is the first internet meme and political participation refer to collective action have been combined in public view in China. In January, Ziyu Zhou, a member of the south Korean women’s group, was accused by the artist An Huang about Taiwan’s independence on Weibo, leading to a wave of public opinion against Ziyu Zhou. As the incident continued to heat up, then Ziyu Zhou issued a video on Facebook to apologize for the previous uproar. Celebrity Gengxin Lin forwarded the apology to video, and said “apologized too suddenly and didn’t have time to memorize the manuscript”, which caused Taiwanese netizens and Chinese netizens started a debate in Lin’s Facebook. A few days after, it is said that 20 million Chinese young people have started a collective action to Facebook of Taiwan’s three media homepage. Noncitizens take internet meme as main expression, showed a high degree of organization, to resist the independence of Taiwan (Tang, 2016). 

As showed in Figure 12, Figure 13 and Figure 14, these memes are from the China mainland, people try to use the beautiful scenes from China mainland and some ironic words to resist the supportive of independence of Taiwan. The contents of these meme are from traditional Chinese slogans, events with Chinese characteristics and political propaganda themes. On the one hand, it evokes the value recognition of people. On the other hand, they combined with familiar things of public, which will have a greater influence on transmission. The most important thing is, there are millions of people participate in this action, and post millions of images on Facebook, the homepage was full of images which is powerful and spectacular.

Figure.12 “invite Taiwan people to enjoy the beautiful China mainland scene.”
Figure.13 “Follow me: Taiwan has been China’s territory since ancient times. You don’t know it’s okay.
Figure. 14  “Don’t talk with a picture”

These internet memes from the mass production by organizing, and hide the emotional expression in the images, aim to use it to gain the attention occupation and presents people’s political stance of resist. According to sharing and remixing, transfer it into collective action, reflects the ability to participate in narrative construction and civic organization. Therefore, memes can be used as a tool of political participation in terms of turn the public opinion fragmentation into collective action (Tang, 2016).

2.3.3 As a public discourse of political issues

Social media is considered to be more effective in terms of information diffusion comparison to traditional media, it expands the source of information and knowledge for people. People not only are the receiver of the political information in network environment, they also are a political message of reproducing and disseminator, which means everyone is likely to be the news publishers, and likely to be receiving information. The advantages of digital media including openness, virtualization, interactivity and timeliness build a great environment for the public discourse, and helping people freely communicate and express their opinions. Therefore, net citizens are keen on discuss politic issues through digital media. The richness, floating and uncertainty of meme allow everyone revolve around the image to construct the legal qualification and compete for their statements, thus it is easy to be used to participate in discuss sensitive political issues (Hristova, 2014). They are now been a part of our internet culture, participating in a larger media and material ecosystem that helps shape the political identity and political union. Meme could be a catalyst for political discussion (Shifman, 2013). Compared to the past people have to talk or write articles to show their political stance while now they just can use an image. Like the Pepe the Frog, it becomes a Nazi Trump supporter and Alt-Right symbol (Figure 15). It attracts not only people’s attention, but also political discussions by its powerful visual impact. Some notable examples are: The 2015 General election of United Kingdom, the image of eating of candidate Miliband, which is different from his appearance on newspapers, evokes a vast number of imitation of people with parody and ridicule (Figure 16). After that, many politicians actively to follow the trend, post out their own eating images to get attention and discussion. This meme is similar to the Sihao Bai in 2014, the mayor of New York city. He used a knife and fork in an undisciplined manner in an image (Figure 17), which made people questioned his ability to govern because he has a more powerful appearance in newspaper than this image. Back to the Occupy Wall Street case, the We are the 99% meme. It is widely popular in Facebook and has numerous replicators. At first, most of them are from the 99% people to support with fixed images, annotation or remix (Figure 18). Gradually, the 1% people participate in and post their own images with the text “tax me” or “redistribute” (Figure 19). At the same time, they got mounted of comments along with (Milner, 2013). This meme engages in multiple discussions and arguments on Facebook.

Figure 15
Figure 16
Figure 17
Figure 18
Figure 19

With the propagation characteristics of memes, public discourse is totally different than the past. The increasing of complex hotspot issues duration, degree of attention and transformation mechanism, a serial of crisis involved in, the more complex issues appear at the same time including and the increase of average time of the single issue are catalyzing the public discourse with political issues in digital era. In another way, internet memes as a political catharsis, it represents a strong demand of citizens for political participation. Significantly, when people engaged in this discussion rather than sharing or forwarding, it has more powerful since it empowers citizens to share their opinions of political stances (Shifman, 2013).

3. Conclusion

In the era of media, the process of political participation can be well deserved to internet meme, which from the bottom to top, allows people to have the chance to get involved in political activities. The three basic characters of meme including heredity, variation and selection have been enhanced in digital media, and that is the major reason why the internet meme could leave a great influence on political participation. From one hand, internet meme as the persuasion way mainly reflected on the political elections, help politicians to build positive image thus get voter’s approval. From another hand, it allows ordinary people to resist through mastery of dominance on the spread of images, not only can modify the content of the meme, also can undertake production and innovation. Besides, it offers a new way for net citizens to seek affirmation and self-expression in political communities.

The future study of internet meme could focus on the effects, like how to measure the effects of internet memes on elections or collective action. As a new way to participate in politics, internet meme has its own advantages and it is deserved to study in the future.


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