Far-right members attempted a historic coup on the Capitol Jan. 6, attacking and invading the building to overturn the supposed illegality of the election of the Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Many quickly flocked to popular social media sites, especially Twitter and Instagram, to find entertaining reactions and jokes related to the domestic terrorist attack. Despite five deaths, FBI investigations and dire messages from Congress, there were plenty of jokes to spare. In a time of hyper-globalization through communication, questions arise as to whether the massive number of jokes are necessary to get through difficult scenarios or detrimental to the severity that the situation should be viewed with.
Nowadays, these jokes are most often represented in the forms of memes. Memes are segments on the internet that contain media usually in the forms of pictures or small clips, along with a caption that relates the visual aid to something occurring in the present day. Meme culture, a term used to describe the rapid emergence of memes, is especially pervasive among the internet, even gaining traction with older generations.
Yet, even before the vast increase in technology allowed for the proliferation of memes, many mediums existed to parody and lighten serious events. Sitcoms, like the 1972-1983 series “M*A*S*H” which created humor around the deadly Korean War, demonstrate how comedic shows about devastating events have always struck a chord with humanity. These coping mechanisms are so popular that, for example, so many people watched the “M*A*S*H” finale that the sewage system in New York City was flooded when people waiting until immediately after the episode used the restroom.
In some ways, Generation Z, those who have created and embraced memes, with some even stating that the language of Gen Z is memes, has dealt with an extraordinary set of circumstances. Combining events like climate change and a pandemic with widespread Internet that can barrage all with an endless stream of bad news, Generation Z uses memes to cope. The ability to poke fun at unfortunate circumstances rather than wallow in misery can be essential to the continuation of a normal, or even optimistic, outlook on life. While providing an easier method to approach such events, meme culture combines a community of people, as people bond over the shared humor.
The lighthearted tone of memes often brings awareness to serious issues. The proliferation of jokes across social media informs many of arguments and perspectives they might not have otherwise been exposed to. Often, a meme can influence someone to further their research into the topic. But, in some ways, meme culture prohibits true activity on that topic. The joking nature of the meme discredits the seriousness of that topic. Instead of promoting serious conversations and activism, the subject is reduced to a mere joke so many do little to improve the original issue. For example, there are a numerous amount of memes about the regulation of guns, insulting the many politicians who are against gun control. Yet, rather than promote serious activism like protesting and political lobbying, many are simply amused and move on. In addition, many people, often, use them to antagonize the other side, making questionable jokes about the opposing ideology. Rather than sparking more debate and discussion of that particular ideology, these memes serve to solely highlight a perceived foolishness of the opposing sides, creating polarization without effective discussion using tactics like name-calling and ‘dark’ jokes.
The line that traipses this careful boundary of ‘sensitive’ and ‘dark’ jokes with ‘offensive’ and ‘insulting’ jokes is, also, difficult. As meme culture takes serious events into account, some will consider these dark topics to promote jokes that target certain groups of people. With the memes that emerge with certain situations, a hurtful intent could be included; yet there is much disagreement as to when this scenario occurs. A narrative that spreads disinformation about a certain group of people can contribute to a declining public opinion or respect for no reason. An often ‘shock’ nature of memes allows for hate speech to spread easily. For example, cartoon character Pepe the Frog became identified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) through memes proliferated by alt-right groups. While all Pepe the Frog memes did not spread hate, the creation of a few that depended on ‘shock’, offensive humor cemented this character as a hate symbol.
So do memes have a negative or positive effect? Overall, the concept of memes itself is not good or bad; it is how it is being used that determines its effect. Some people may spread awareness and help others, while others may insult certain groups of people and spread hate.