Most of us spend hours scrolling through our Facebook and Instagram feeds, looking at memes and sharing them across to get laughs. We cannot imagine social media as we know it without memes. As we enjoy such content, we need to however acknowledge and be aware of the fact that these can also become tools for great harm sometimes, under the garb of being funny or at other times being specifically designed to do so. This has had great implications for the privacy of individuals, the safety of vulnerable groups and the perpetuation of stereotypes and inequalities. The article attempts to bring about some degree of consciousness regarding situations where memes may not be as funny as we think them to be.
A Breach of Privacy?
There are certain standard templates that are available to meme creators on the internet. These are usually taken from famous TV scenes, dialogues or some interesting expression or action on part of the actor. Others involve animations, usual drawings etc. Another common kind of template is of normal people, not celebrities or icons, but just people going about their daily lives who suddenly become internet sensations. The “fire girl” below is one such famous meme template.
The girl in the picture is Zoe Roth who was an eighteen-year-old student in 2019 when the BBC interviewed her. For her, it had been a positive experience. People did not recognise her because she had been four when that picture was clicked by her father and posted online. A social media marketing company had bought the rights to the picture and the money helped her pay for college.
Unlike Zoe, the outcomes have not been this rosy for everyone. Consider the picture below of two friends in an Edinburgh club. (DISCLAIMER: Trigger Warning)
The picture had been clicked without their consent. Lucia Gorman, the girl in the picture told the Daily Mail how often strangers try to click her pictures after she became a meme. She does not even have ownership rights of the picture which belong to the photographer. In the aforementioned BBC interviews, Patrick Richie the boy in the picture said that some users online wrote that this could be an advert for an anti-harassment advertising campaign. Though he has come to terms with the meme now, he has highlighted how it was upsetting to him when it was suggested that he was harassing a friend. Neither Lucia nor Patrick knew that the picture had been clicked. Without their consent, their pictures had been posted online and it was no more under their control how their faces were being used. The photographer who had clicked the picture when they did not even know it received the benefit out of it after he sold the rights to the image to The Vice.
The social ramifications sometimes can be quite serious. For instance, a few years ago, there was a meme template of an aged woman from Karachi, Pakistan abusing a corrupt government. In the video, she is seen to be extremely angry and upset at the government and using expletives. Her famous words "Ye bik gayi ha gormint” (This government is a sell-out) became the meme. She famously came to be known as the “Gormint (government) Aunty”.
It was however later reported by news18 that she now faces a social boycott from her friends and family. Her son said that they had to stop attending family functions because instead of focusing on the festivities, they would all make fun of and laugh at his mother. This was also due to her short temper.
These people did not ask to be turned into memes. After they did, they had no control over where these images went or how they were being portrayed. Apart from many meme pages and netizens, major news outlets and commercial brands too use these templates in their marketing campaigns. It brings one to major questions about consent and coercion in the digitalized world. None of us ever stop and wonder that it is real people who we are mocking at. Unlike movie stars or comedians, they did not consent to become subjects for others’ entertainment.
This puts forward many ethical questions. It has been very difficult to maintain privacy for most people today in the digital era. We barely have any control over how our data is used by private agencies. This has at times taken terrifying forms such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 where data of nearly 50 million Facebook users was used for advertising during election campaigns by the private data analysis company.
In the present context, such exposure is taken to the extreme, where the private lives of people are exposed to the entire world, going beyond mere private companies. The recent Shweta meme trend that was one of the top trends in India a few weeks back is a chilling reminder of the same. To present a context: A video clip recently went viral in India. The clip was of an online class taking place on Zoom where a student named Shweta forgot to turn off her mic and was talking on the phone to a friend. She spoke of a guy friend who had told her about a girl he liked while everyone else in the class kept asking her to turn off her mic but she did not seem to hear them. This is regular teenage gossip that almost all of us would be guilty of indulging in at some point in our lives. Except, somebody recorded the meeting and posted it online. Within hours, everyone was talking about the clipping and memes were everywhere from Twitter to Instagram.
A private conversation meant to have taken place between two friends became a source of entertainment for the world. It was a mistake when it was heard by the 111 students on the call, but, without their consent, a private phone call was leaked to the whole internet and was widely being shared, laughed at and mocked. Almost all major news outlets were running pieces on the new trend. It was all done in innocent fun but when one pauses to consider the ramifications, it has a scary dimension to it. At all times we are watched, not just by the government or private agencies, but with everyone around us. We do not know when our picture, our private talks, our work, our private jokes meant just for a few people would be out into the world becoming a subject of mockery.
We do not know what is the aftermath of every single person who somehow became a meme But, the fact is that it remains an invasion of privacy if this was done without consent and we are all at a risk for this. Memes spread like wildfire at the same time, they can be presented in certain ways, harmless as in this case but having wider implications. Another point I wish to consider in the next section is the danger that their easy popularity presents in terms of being outright offensive at times promoting an unwanted culture.
Source of Sexism and Racism
Memes have become a source of toxicity many times, not just about the specific people whose images are being used but for whole groups at times. Consider this popular meme given below. The body language of the characters in this template as well as the caption present a stereotypical picture of a nagging woman wanting to pick up a fight with her partner, a common stereotype in many movies, books etc. Such memes pick up these stereotypes for laughs but at the same time, they reinforce and give validation to these stereotypes. DISCLAIMER: Trigger Warning
These two memes are taken from an article titled “30 Sexist Memes that will Trigger Feminists Everywhere”. Unlike the previous memes discussed, these are not innocent memes but they are designed to offend and unapologetically so. Given the fast pace with which consumption of memes takes place, they impact many minds in a matter of minute getting ingrained in the subconsciousness. They are designed to form a certain kind of opinion. Further, they can be seriously damaging to women as they perpetuate an agenda against notions of sexual consent and attempt to make a mockery out of women’s agency. These are presented in favour of the rapists in a world where the power balance is unfavourable towards women and they are always under threat. It takes away from the seriousness of such crimes, presenting them as being not crimes at all.
Others include blood-chilling racist memes. Such as the ones given below making a mockery of those who suffered events that were the biggest blots on human history, memes that should make our blood boil.
These are put forth as “dark humour”. I believe it is inhuman to make jokes out of events like the Holocaust or slavery. These are fast becoming sources of spreading more hate and racist attacks. Perpetuating more and more inequality. These are likely to have such an agenda of spreading hate towards vulnerable groups. These have the potential to provide validation to hate groups like the neo-Nazis and increase the dangers that certain groups face as part of their daily lives.
Memes influence because of their rapid pace of spread as mentioned before. These are impacting a large audience. Certain kinds of memes pose danger to the privacy and the intimate lives of people, others perpetuate stereotypes, and yet others, the most dangerous ones are those perpetuating outright hate, and are designed to do so. This is not even an exhaustive list and is stating only three instances, there is a whole other list of problematic content out there.
Memes however have also been used by other important positive movements to spread awareness. Feminist pages and the anti-fascist movements of today have taken the help of memes to spread their messages too. Further, there are guidelines on every major social media platform to deal with such content. Yet, it is easily available across the internet. A simple Google search can provide one access to such content and is next to impossible to censor.
What this article, therefore, is attempting to do here is to bring awareness and set a conversation going about such sensitive issues. While we do and should enjoy humour, have a relaxing look at all our social media platforms after a tiring day at work or share them, we need to be aware and socially conscious about the content we are consuming and the dangerous content that is out there that we may not know about.