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Memes- The future of political discourse or a potential danger?

There is something elegant in the sheer simplicity and ease of memes; a picture with a short caption or a crude bit of photoshopping which can easily convey a message, argument, idea, joke etc. which will be instantly be understood by those viewing it. Likewise, there is the fascinating nature of memes which makes them almost impossible to predict or even to explain beyond a shrug of the shoulders and the phrase “it’s a meme”. For example, the Facebook page “Irish Simpsons fans” (I use this example purely because it would be more relevant to readers of this particular publication), the most recent trend which has somewhat exploded onto the page, is a series of historical memes, using screenshots and quotes from the Simpsons to explain major historical events such as the first and second world wars, as well as more recent political and military events. This is an excellent example of the aforementioned effectiveness and inexplicable nature of memes – consider how the complicated and different causes of the first world can be succinctly summed up in a single or at most 3 or 4 simple images. Likewise, I would be very much impressed if anyone could satisfactorily explain how this trend started and how it managed to take hold of the page. The case is the very same in modern day political discourse, we saw this most clearly perhaps in 2016 with the US presidential election as the candidates and their supporters battled to control not only with memes but also battled to control the narrative memes were telling. Consider the Trump campaign and its use of organic meme-based campaigning to reach voters, or the Sanders campaign which used memes to create massive grassroots followings. Of course, memes did not decide the election but they did doubtless play a part in swaying some voters one way or another. In retrospect, this incursion (and perhaps eventual takeover) of memes into the political discourse may have seemed inevitable once memes became a widespread and dominant idea and form used across the internet. Especially when one considers their widespread use over social media such as Facebook and Twitter, to say nothing of the other social media pages which are nearly entirely dedicated to memes. As such, memes are a massive resource to be used and exploited in modern day political discourse. However, for my own part I see a reflection of today’s high-speed and impatient society, when we want something, we want it now and are not prepared to wait for it. As such, memes are even more sought after, be it a breaking news story, a political or celebrity scandal or even a sporting event, all will receive the meme treatment and the viewer can gain near instant understanding within seconds. Naturally this would be very attractive to most people: why spend time and effort reading news articles and researching a political issue when you could simply look at a couple of images posted on social media and then be reasonably well informed on an issue. As such, the rise of memes in politics is set to continue unabated.

However, within this there lies two problems which could easily become potential dangers to the future of political discourse. The first is the role of the social media in this, how do they react and adapt to this changing environment of political discourse? And secondly, is there not a massive danger in memes becoming the dominant means of informing oneself on important issues and politics? To the first we have already seen some bit of a response, social media giants Facebook and Twitter have changed their policies regarding what content can be posted on their platforms, some changes which did not go over too smoothly or had teething problems. Despite these, such social media platforms remain in a very tight position. If they clamp down too hard, they could be accused at best of stifling debate and discussion or at worst, accused of censorship and biasing one side over another, which could prompt a massive backlash by users. On the other hand, a complete lack of restriction and various kinds of dangerous or even violent content could be shared and proliferate.

The second danger is perhaps more worrying; consider the potential dangers of political decisions and major votes if voters are relying on memes as their source of information. Memes can easily be manipulated to portray one side or narrative in a better light or the other in a worse one. Furthermore, memes can often be completed devoid of any real depth or detail, especially when it comes to politics or policies, as they by their nature are rarely clear-cut or simple, and real in-depth understanding of issues and politics can only really come from thorough reading or research.

In short, memes are very much likely the future of political discourse, especially for the young people of today, but there are likely to be many problems and dangers along the way.