Refugee memes and communication misuse

By Julen Figueras

matrix meme

In my previous post, I wrote about Facebook posts, comments and the (lack of) debates that emerge from them. Another recurrent piece of communication not only on Facebook but on Social Media in general is that of the memes. For those not familiar with the term, memes are units that carry ideal, symbols or practices that are transmitted through writing, speech and other ways with a mimicked theme. Although this definition from Wikipedia is specific enough, when it comes to the Internet and our current 9gag culture, memes tend to be (albeit not exclusively) images with an attached text. These images relate to diverse Internet cultures and to audiovisual phenomena.

We usually use these memes just for laughs. However, they’re so widespread, simple and easy to create that it has become a weapon to spread political ideas and racist crap. As Michael O’Regan tells us in his recent post on this blog, we cannot assume that media practices will be automatically emancipatory and liberal. In this sense, the case of refugees shows how dangerous these seemingly harmless memes can be.


In his excellent Vice article, Philip Kleinfeld debunks some of the most popular memes that have been created in the last weeks in order to build an anti-refugee discourse. These are memes that seem to illustrate inconvenient facts about refugees: after some research, one can find that most of them are nothing but made up trash. In these information units, refugees are portrayed as strong or wealthy people, cowards or ISIS fighters. They steal our jobs, they get our social help, they behead us, and many other prejudices with no empirical basis.

Memes do not fulfil their purpose when they are published, but when they circulate, they get likes, comments and shares. And, unfortunately, these ones do achieve their purpose. In the most perverse twist of this far-right strategy, anonymous citizens make up refugee-related stories (they’re noisy, dirty and dangerous), that have an echo on mainstream media. Of course, well-intentioned people believe a considerable amount of stuff they find on the net, and it is therefore not surprising to see these memes transcend and end up becoming real.

bullshit rockwell

Communication is much more than a bunch of memes, and their potential to create and spread a given discourse is not that powerful. However, far-right parties and organisations such as Britain First are benefiting from the successful circulation of these messages. That it why it is also necessary not to hide these memes but to keep the conversation alive, to strike back, not letting racist, classist or homophobic messages freely flow, but contesting them by the same means (at least!). In this scenario, the creativity of well-informed and well-intentioned people is crucial to contest all the dangerous hate-speech that is to find on the vast Internet.

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  1. Krystle Van Hoof

    I agree with you that it’s important to keep dialogue open on these issues. But I think it’s counter-productive to this aim when we use language like ‘far-right strategy’ (unless we are actually aware of a particular, articulated strategy.) It makes it very difficult to build consensus when those on one side of the political spectrum demonize those on the other side. We often assume that those with opposing views have deep, dark, evil plans—rather than seeing them as concerned citizens who happen to have different ideas than our own for a variety of reasons. Using memes or any overly-simplified quips (which are often not well-researched) to support our viewpoints is not a strategy that is unique to one particular side of the political spectrum.

    • You are right Krystle. In this specific context, I was referring to the online strategy of some people and organisations such as Britain First, explained in Kleinfeld’s article, of submitting negative and false opinions on hostels that host refugees (among other practices). In any case, it is true that memes are, almost by definition, over-simplifications. As such, you can find biased and incomplete viewpoints everywhere in the ideological spectrum, and that should somehow be addressed by those of us who want a better world.
      Thank you for the comment!