Grade Level: Secondary
What happens to our political understanding when ‘news’ is boiled down to a text superimposed on an image? And what role does the meme-ification of news play in the spread of false and misleading information?
Memes are images or in-jokes that are repeatedly copied, shared and remixed on social media, and they have become staples of online political culture.
People make and share memes — which take the form of images, videos, or animated GIFs — as a way to comment on politicians, issues, and events. Perhaps their most common form is the image macro, which is an image with words (often a witty message or catchphrase) superimposed on it.
According to a recent article in the Vancouver Star, memes have “taken over the federal election.” One of the goals of political memes — which are often partisan — is to create a “sense of attachment, care or commitment to a party or leader as a way of creating identity or belonging.”
Political memes often use humour, appealing to emotion in stating a position on a specific issue. If successful, the meme will be shared widely and make people who see and share it feel as though they belong to a community.
Increasingly, memes are becoming a way for political parties to communicate their vision to the public. Online campaign ads now often take the form of memes, and politicians, political parties and interest groups make their own memes to appeal directly to young voters who tend to get their news from social media.
While some argue that memes provide a relatable access point for young people to participate in politics, others worry that people will begin to rely on simplistic memes to help them form opinions on complicated issues.
Can memes can contribute positively to political debate? What is their role in 21st century politics, and what should it be? To be informed citizens, we need to think critically about how memes might influence our political opinions.
Suggestion 1: Assessing Memes as Political Party Ads
- Divide students into groups and assign each one a different political party.
- Ask each group to look at the official Instagram and/or Twitter accounts of their party to see if the parties are creating and distributing any memes.
- Ask students to analyze any memes they find by reflecting on the following questions:
- What major issues do the memes address? Are some issues more “memeable” than others? If so, why?
- How do the memes communicate information and try to persuade voters? Do they use humour? Do they appeal to emotions? Do they use statistics? (How might you find out of the number or statistic is accurate or fair?)
Optional extension: have each group choose the meme they find the most interesting, and ask them to analyze it using the Questioning Images framework. (See Questioning Images lesson plan for additional details.)
Suggestion 2: Pros and Cons of Political Memes
Review two opinion articles that make contrasting arguments about the value of political memes, and assign students to one side or the other for a debate, as a class or in groups.
- Writing for HuffPo UK, activist blogger Molly Thompson argues that memes are inclusive, inviting young people to participate in politics: “Not only do memes act as an outreach for democratic involvement and critiquing of governing bodies, but they also provide a unique understanding of politics that young people just can’t find anywhere else… memes act as a bridge between politics and people, for those struggling to keep up with current political climates, struggling to understand layouts of parliament or meanings behind bills being passed. Memes act as a way into politics, that is accessible and funny.”
- Writing for Maclean’s, journalist Matt Gurney argues that memes represent a “dumbing down” of political dialogue: “The meme is the latest manifestation of our diminishing attention to actual news. We used to bemoan the 24-hour news cycle, and how its constant demand for simple, endlessly repeated and then quickly forgotten segments was killing our attention for longer, meatier news stories. Then came Twitter, of course, which began crushing messages down into a few sentences. Now it’s whatever can be squeezed into a flashy image.”
Alternatively, invite students to analyze the two positions, and assess their own thoughts on the issue.
- Compare how the authors discuss the role of memes in politics.
- Do you agree with one author more than the other?
- What argument would you make if you were writing an opinion article about political memes?
Suggestion 3: Class Discussion
- What is your personal experience with political memes? Do you rely on memes for information? Has a meme ever helped you form an opinion? Have you ever created or shared a political meme?
- What do you think makes a meme effective? Why might one meme catch your attention over another?
- Do you think politicians or political parties should use memes? Do you think this is an effective way to target young voters?
Meme — An image, video, or piece of text that is copied and shared widely over the Internet (especially through social media).
Image macro — A popular type of meme. Image macros consist of a caption or catchphrase superimposed on an image. (See the image macro of Wilfrid Laurier above.)
Information pollution — All of the false and misleading information (often in the form of misinformation or disinformation) that combines to make it difficult to know what is true or what information to believe.
Interest groups — A group of people with common goals who try to influence public opinion and government policy. Interest groups most often focus on a single topic.
- Information and Democracy
- Questioning Images
- Why political memes — which are virtually unregulated — matter to this federal election, Star Vancouver, Oct. 5, 2019
- The Meme-ification of Politics: Politicians and Their “Lit” Memes, Salon, Feb. 7, 2019
- How memes could be the new political attack ads, CBC, July 5, 2019
- Comedian Rick Mercer blasts Conservatives over meme appearing to claim his support, Global News, Sept. 17, 2019
- Meme warfare: how the power of mass replication has poisoned the US election, The Guardian, Nov. 4, 2016
- Stephen Harper’s hand gesture sets off a meme goldrush, CBC, Aug. 27, 2015
- 2015 Canadian Election Memes, Know Your Meme.
- Federal Election: A Collection of Social Media Memes, Montreal Gazette, Oct. 20, 2015