Political cartoons in newspapers and magazines are designed to catch the attention of readers and to entertain them, balancing sometimes heavy news articles. Such cartoons can also be a good way of connecting with readers because many of these are looking for succinct political commentary without too many details.
However, traditional professional cartoons can take a lot of time to create, and they may no longer be suitable in a digital age where information travels around the world in seconds. As a result, a new and quicker form of political commentary has emerged to keep up with today’s faster pace. Today, political memes have taken social media by storm.
Political memes are like small capsules of attitudes or emotions that can poke fun at political life, helping to unwrap various issues and present them in bite-sized form. They are a new cultural trend in the digital era because they are easy to understand, edit and publish. They are also a quick and often funny expression of how readers might feel. They often fulfil a need among a specific audience and one that has a similar cultural and linguistic background.
Such memes require an understanding of the social-media topics and trending issues in a given society in order to be understood, as in order to appreciate the references in the meme in question or understand the hidden joke it is necessary to know what is happening on social media. People who are not digital citizens may need to call on others for explanations of what digital memes might mean.
They are often created by editing a picture or scene from a famous film, television series, commercial, theatre piece or popular video with the addition of a caption that makes the audience see it in a new and witty way pertaining to a new situation the meme creator is referencing. This is much easier than drawing a political cartoon from scratch, and it can be done quickly and easily by using an app or photoshop on a smart phone to upload a picture, add a caption, and then share it with others.
In this sense a meme differs from a comic strip in that the latter is made up of a series of pictures that tell a story, while a meme is a comment using a picture that an audience is already familiar with. If you draw a picture or use one that is unknown to many people, this is not a meme. If you use a picture that can be referenced by many people, that is a meme.
A meme will often either trigger a satirical or an emotional response, and it feeds into its audience’s sense of belonging to a group or ideology or having the same view of a public figure or sharing the same political cause. If the meme is able to trigger a reaction of this sort, it will then be shared by others, spreading further across social media.
Moreover, a political culture is part of the public culture of any society. According to US political scientist Sidney Verba, a political culture is “a system that includes the beliefs, symbols and values that define the circumstance in which political action is taking place”. For another commentator, it is made up of “the attitudes, symbols, beliefs and feelings that give meaning to the political process”.
Political memes, therefore, are a new form of political connection and a growing tool of political rhetoric. Politicians may use them to attract and mobilise the electorate, especially young people. In the past, political cartoons typically focused on what the cartoonists wanted to say or emphasise; but today, politicians can use political memes to battle their opponents without needing the help of professionals. All they need to do this is a smart phone.
US President Donald Trump posted a photograph of his wife Melania next to Heidi Cruz, wife of fellow Republican Ted Cruz, to insult the latter’s appearance when the two men were rivals during the 2016 US presidential elections, for example.
There is still debate about whether radical right-wing and sometimes racist memes were a determining factor in Trump’s victory. Since many memes can be obscure and open to interpretation, it is difficult to hold their creators accountable for inciting hate or violence. They can easily deny any negative interpretations of their work or claim that they are meant as a joke.
There are concerns that such memes could replace the serious objective dialogue that is necessary for a healthy democracy, however.
EGYPT’S EXPERIENCE: How has the political culture changed in Egypt due to the emergence of political memes and the influencers behind them?
It is well known that the demonstrations that led up to the 25 January2011 Revolution were partly due to the material appearing on the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page created in 2010 by Wael Ghoneim, an online activist who called himself a “keyboard freedom fighter”. Ghoneim was a computer engineer who was also the regional marketing manager for Google in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Tamarrod (Rebellion) campaign that demanded the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood group from power in Egypt in 2013 also used social media to collect signatures for its petition. Political memes online played a key role in both events, and they can be brought back to life by looking again at the memes that circulated at the time.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi also recently laughed when he was shown some of the memes referencing the most recent spike in petrol prices, telling the first session of the seventh National Youth Conference held in the New Administrative Capital last month that when the government tackles vital issues it takes into consideration the reaction of people on social media.
He said that the government routinely gauges the possible reaction of the people before taking difficult decisions. This demonstrates how the country’s political culture has evolved in the digital age, since physical banners, such as those that were once used in demonstrations, have now often been replaced by digital memes, with the government closely monitoring the Internet in order to gauge the state of public opinion.
Mona Badran, a professor of media studies at the American University in London, said that memes could be an effective way to spread satirical opinions using pictures, but she felt that their impact could be limited. Their purpose was only to make people laugh by sending a specific and humorous message, with Facebook being the most popular platform for such memes, she said. Whether such memes could shape more considered political reflection was a different matter, she added.
However, Al-Sisi’s interest in the memes that were shown to him at the National Youth Conference showed that he was interested in the opinions of the youth and followed their concerns. It also showed that he was open to criticism and different opinions and took these into consideration before taking decisions.
Khaled Al-Baramawi, a media commentator, said that Egyptians had always been known for their wit and satire, particularly on political issues. “With the rise of social media, Egyptians have become top producers of digital content,” he said. “When you combine Egyptian humour and online activity, you can understand why digital satire is so popular among Egyptians, including on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other platforms. Politics is a conversation staple, and memes are often produced based on statements by officials.”
He told Al-Ahram Weekly that it was common for the government to take memes into account when looking at the social impact of decisions, and many governments around the world also monitored digital content, including pictures, cartoons, and memes. This was done to find out the attitudes of users, whether positive or negative, and to gauge reactions to government policies, he said.
Companies now also routinely carry out analyses of their presence on social media, in order to explore the attitudes of target audiences and consumer behaviour.
DIGITAL SURVEY: The Weekly contacted the administrators of several Facebook pages that create and publish political memes to find out more about the goals of these pages, the process of creating a meme from idea to publication, and whether a meme can be objective or if it is necessarily coloured by ideology.
“Politically Incorrect Memes” is a Facebook page that is particularly clever in creating political cartoons and memes. Its administrator explained that the name of the page was self-explanatory and a protest against the political correctness that he said had become the de facto controller of people’s actions, from the most influential to the everyday man on the street.
Although there are many definitions of the term “politically correct”, the page administrator saw it as a way of clustering moral codes and concepts and imposing them on society under the guise of moral guardianship, while ignoring the relevant context. Anyone who breaks such codes runs the risk of being branded as a male chauvinist, a racist, or some other prepackaged accusation that over time has evolved into something like “moral fascism”, he claimed.
In the US, some teachers have been fired for using allegedly inappropriate language on their personal social-media accounts, for example, and other people have been fired for allegedly holding the “wrong” opinions. We may now have reached a stage of unprecedented pettiness when it comes to sanctioning those seen as gender non-conformists.
The administrator of “Politically Incorrect Memes” said the page wanted to “punch a hole, even if a tiny one, in the wall of social awareness about this trend by showing its pettiness in constantly emotionally blackmailing people and telling them they are morally unacceptable. That is why the page was created and also due to the direct impact of this trend on our region.”
He said that in some parts of the West there was a saying that said that the “left can’t meme”. whereas in the Middle East the majority of meme pages are left-leaning or close to a hybrid ideology of “a pinch of the left, a pinch of revolution, and a lot of religious [conservatism],” he said. Meanwhile, meme pages that are pro-state or right wing have fewer followers, being seen as less amusing and inventive. This showed that in the Middle East, unlike in the West, the “right can’t meme.”
There are no specific steps that need to be followed when creating a meme, he said. “Sometimes the template comes first and then the idea, and at other times the opposite happens, which is harder because you have an idea and are trying to find a way to frame it.” He added that “naturally the attitudes and outlook of the administrator influences the content and the message since these are an expression of his opinions. If you know the administrator of a page, you will not be surprised by the content because it will likely be the same as what he writes on his personal page,” he said.
Yet, meme pages can be attacked by the state, the revolutionaries, and the Islamists. They rely on the quality of their creations and are not funded by advertising like other pages. “Nationalist Memes” is a Facebook page with 11,000 followers and one administrator who advocates for Egyptian nationalism and promotes this idea to the public, for example. The aim is to instill patriotism into a generation that may be sceptical of it and to respond to rumours on social media.
The page’s administrator said the process of creating memes began by following trends on social media. “I look for a punchline or a comic scene or funny picture that can be applied to the event, situation, or issue at hand, and I design a meme using photoshop or another photo-editing programme,” he said.
Asked whether political memes had replaced the tools of the traditional political opposition, he said that the “opposition political parties are very weak in Egypt and have no impact on the streets. People do not care to hear about them or know what they are doing. Memes, however, are followed by many Egyptians, especially young people who may sign up to several meme pages and interact with them all the time. Their impact is so great that many of the ideas doing the rounds of young people in Egypt have their origin in a meme on the Internet.”
He also pointed to Trump’s social-media strategy, in which the US president publishes memes and videos to make fun of his political opponents, as well as other countries such as Iran.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly