By Julen Figueras
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.
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.