Memes are taking over the internet – giving us more entertainment and more ways of expression, writes Nilutpal Timsina.
In recent years, memes have become a strong tool for political campaigning in India. They have garnered much attention from the social media savvy generation, which is often labelled as being least interested in politics. Now, for a change, political parties and politicians often use memes to convey any political information with humour as a part of their election campaigning.
Meme – any picture or video shared on the internet with wit and humour – goes viral overnight on social media. Communication experts see a meme as something which conveys an issue instantly, at one glance. Reading a long political post is often a tedious job, but, one look at a meme can convey the same information more effectively. While it saves time for the user, memes also mobilise the audience towards the issue as they often go viral across all social media platforms.
Memes as an effective political tool was first acknowledged in the US during the 2016 Presidential elections. Washington Post termed the 2016 election as the “most memed-election in US history”. Professor Benita Heiskanen of the University of Turku in Finland says that meme-ing addresses the intersection of electoral activism and cultural representation in several ways. She mentions that memes enable users to rapidly take a stand on and react to developing political events in real-time. It also provides an alternative parallel discourse to mainstream media viewpoints.
The 2020 US Presidential elections saw memes being used by both Republic and Democratic supporters. The then-US President, Donald Trump, was seen using memes almost every day, either to show his strength or mock his Democratic opponent, and current US President, Joe Biden and his party.
India is a young country with a median age of 27.9 years and the youth make up more than 50 per cent of the total population. To attract this large chunk towards politics, the political campaigning strategy has seen a shift from conventional door-to-door campaigning to thumb-stopping. ‘Thumb-stopping’ is a social media term that catches the attention of a smartphone-user on particular content and stops them from scrolling further. This technique is used in viral videos or video memes which usually have high engagement.
In Assam, while the use of social media in political campaigning has been on the rise, the use of memes is recent. Together with picture memes, video memes are also highly sought-after, capturing the conversation of netizens instantly with huge reach on social media. With the State all set for the Assembly polls, meme fests are at their best.
The concept of viral video memes in the State social media circuit emerged following minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s humour-filled speeches in his political rallies. It all started after a few of his social media-savvy supporters edited 15-20 second grabs from his speeches using various famous meme templates, including Thanos, Captain America, etc. Since then, social media platforms have been filled with humourous memes showcasing Sarma’s work. This includes the witty scooty versus bullet/bike issue and the tag of ‘mama’ (uncle), his contribution during the COVID-19 lockdowns, humour-filled conversation with media persons, and, his taunts at political rivals. Sarma recently welcomed memes made on him and said that everyone should appreciate young people using memes as a tool to initiate conversations. Apart from Sarma, memes on BPF supremo Hagrama Mohilary are also quite famous. Mohilary’s witty speeches have been widely used by his supporters or meme creators.
Memes can, sometimes, be controversial. They are often misused to spread fake news and misinformation. As the meme creators remain anonymous, it is often difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace their origin. While memes are widely used on the internet, there is no law in India that regulates it. Controversial and defamatory memes are dealt with under Section 500 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code and other provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2020 such as section 66A, section 67 and others. Hence, the intended message or propaganda delivered through the meme is easily retained on a user’s mind, moulding their perception.