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Meme Culture and Mass Panic

By Nadia Newman

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When looking back to the start of 2020, it’s an understatement to say the events leading up to the present were unexpected. Whether that be the current situation with coronavirus, the Australian wildfires, conflict between Iran and the US at the start of the year, and much more. Today, we are in an era where we are constantly connected to the news of the world via media sites on our phones. This says a lot about the changing ways we receive news stories and how we consume and produce it.

I keep readily updated on the news and I would expect ‘breaking news’ to be communicated through a notification or heading on my news app. However, the way we are receiving the news has somewhat shifted. For example, in the early days of January this year, I found out about the escalating Iran and US conflict from a meme on Instagram. Meme culture is massive in this ‘internet era’ and has expanded to pop culture and current events in the news. You could say they are a huge part of the way we process information about the world around us. Political memes are a massive part of this and could reflect the way we see the world, but also, in reverse, inform us on other people’s realities. For example: do memes about Donald Trump reflect the absurdity that he is the president of the US? Or does it simultaneously illustrate him as less concerning and threatening because of his comedic portrayal?

Originally a meme was described to be an “element of a culture or system, of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, they can be understood today as an “image, video, text, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations”. Memes are like a cultural shorthand. In its image, it conveys more than just an emotion. It is usually much more complex, often with needed context to add, that being cultural knowledge. The appeal of a meme may stem from feeling understood from what is being conveyed and a shared mutual basis with others that you can relate to the same thing. There is also an element of seeing the meme repeated with altered versions. For example, showing someone a meme for the first time will have much less effect on the viewer, compared to when they have seen it multiple times and what the meme is trying to convey has cultivated in your mind. Until the meme has run out of alterations and so we move on to the next.

Primarily, a meme’s function to its audience is to provide comedy, the topic of which being: pop culture, the news and recent events in particular, because these topics are prevalent in people’s lives. Despite the mass panic along with coronavirus, people are still making memes about it, which seems to go against the state of panic. Does this imply that, though in a world where we are so connected, we also have the ability to detach from the seriousness of global events? Because, despite a mass panic about a pandemic, we are still able to laugh at the memes about the situation.

Symptomatic of coronavirus, there has been a display of racism towards Chinese people. It’s important to consider whether the memes that were made, which may have increased mass panic about the situation, also fed into these racism and xenophobic attitudes. It is extremely critical to consider the intent: memes are not harmless and can carry ideologies, uncovering racist attitudes. It can be called into question whether memes have perpetuated the racism or exposed internal racism within people.

I saw memes about coronavirus before it affected me in any way. That may demonstrate that people who create or share memes come from a position of privilege that, when an event is not affecting us directly, we can afford to joke about the situation at hand. Alternatively, the meme could be viewed as a form of comedy, a coping mechanism to prevent us from having to seriously think about what is really happening; especially when it is addressing a serious topic and has caused detrimental harm to others.

Looking to where this may come from, who is creating the memes? The answer would be millennials and people in ‘Gen Z’. It may be suggested that this is founded from a type of ‘millennial humour’ and has been described as ‘neo- dadaism’ (an absurdist ‘anti’ art style and rejection of the traditional). Although all memes are not specifically neo-dadaist, I believe in some way they stem from a similar place. Though it’s hard to put a line down the two generations, I would say millennials are pre-9/11 and Gen Z are post-9/11, in terms of remembering the event. At a further level, ‘Gen Z’ humour could be described as absurd, dark and nihilistic at times. An example of a reason for this could be said to come from growing up with global warming as a massive threat, looking at the rise of climate change politics and the interests of young people protesting for a healthier planet to live on. Simultaneously, those in positions of power are not implementing structural change to help the planet because they won’t be living in the world when it is damaged beyond a certain point. From examples like this, the meme ‘Ok Boomer’ is a response to older generations discarding and patronising the millennial/Gen Z opinion, thinking they aren’t knowledgeable on the subject, despite them wanting to make a real change in the world for the better. This optimism, paired with the nihilistic humour, may be just be a communication between those who grew up with internet or had the internet for the majority of their youth and a method for them to respond to the state of the world. So, it makes sense that memes are being made about what’s currently happening around the world.

However, making memes about current events in the news which cause fear in people may be problematic in ways, by generating more mass panic. The news is now projected all around us. For example, I open Instagram and there’s memes about coronavirus and self-isolating; I open Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, and I see the topic of coronavirus. I’m not suggesting that it’s a bad thing that it’s being talked about, it’s definitely essential in some ways for people to take the threat of it seriously. However, the effects of this in a world where we live through social media has the potential to see a threat as overwhelming: cue mass panic. Consequently, does the presentation of the news through memes deconstruct the reality we are living in, through memes, so you perceive the world in a different way?

I’m in no way saying that memes should be so called ‘cancelled’, especially when I follow meme accounts, sending them to my friends. There is the tendency to be hypocritical. For example, despite being a feminist, I laughed and shared memes on TikTok about WW3 draft memes and women denouncing feminism so they could stay at home. Meme culture is very much a part of millennial/Gen Z culture and the world we live in today. However, I think it’s very important to recognize this and examine whether the production of memes is a sort of coping mechanism to prevent us from really dealing with the events today. These which are very real, and we should not be joking about them, as for so many people they have real consequences.

Memes are also a form of escapism, with how the coronavirus has progressed so far: every news source is reporting on it with updates, to Instagram influencers showcasing their daily routines whilst socially distancing. It’s a strange situation where I catch myself constantly aware of how connected we are in the world, how what’s affecting me is also affecting those around the world in some way. Constantly bombarded with the serious nature, it would be exhausting not to be able to laugh at a meme to give some sort of comic relief. But, we must still recognise the severity of the issue. Memes give us a cultural shorthand to a shared experience and when something like coronavirus is connecting us, one way we can help each other out is to come together, ‘virtually’.

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