Our jokes have more weight than we may think.
By Staff Editorial
We’ll never forget the memes of the 2016 presidential election. From the ironic to the clever to the blatantly dishonest, they ensured enough citizens took Hillary’s advice and “Pokémon [went] to the polls.”
When they voted, however, they chose Trump, and now who’s to say if that outcome would have resulted if not for the memes? They certainly allow anyone with internet access to encounter enough fringe ideas or convincing misinformation to sway them one way or the other. 4Chan certainly seemed to believe that they “elected a meme as president.”
For proof that entertainment, or media in general, can impact outcomes in reality, look no further than Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Lincoln himself seemed to believe it helped start the Civil War. Fundamental differences exist between images and novels, of course, but there are certainly enough memes from the 2016 election to craft an entire narrative.
The 2020 election is creeping, and memes will play a role (hopefully not by misinforming as much this time). Yet the wave of potentially impactful political memes have started early this year, instead, regarding the tensions with Iran, a draft and WWIII.
The memes aren’t particularly offensive. Although most illogically predict what will happen between Iran and America, they’re self-aware. They’re “ironic.” Some even defend them by calling them ways of catharsis and coping with our possible reality. This last point might even be true, but it doesn’t change how potentially harmful the memes are.
How a nation addresses a war depends largely on public opinion. When WWII veterans returned home, they were heroes because people believed they’d saved the world from Hitler, in part thanks to media portrayal. When Vietnam veterans returned, they were spit on and called baby killers thanks to how the war was portrayed domestically. In George Bush’s wars, a draft wasn’t even instituted because the conflicts themselves were already controversial and the government couldn’t risk making the war any less popular.
Memes that treat the war or the draft as an inevitability simply desensitize us to reality. We’ve seen these memes reach those as young as middle school, who, thanks to the images, might treat the draft as something normal and necessary. If enough of the public is accustomed to the idea of war and treats it as a joke, we can bet the government will notice and use this to inform their decisions.
Although memes were a mostly benign force in the early 2010s, their nature has changed in recent years. Unless our generation starts treating—paradoxically, perhaps—comedy and memes as something serious, we’re going to continue to treat everything as a joke, elect presidents “for the meme,” and negatively influence the tide of public opinion.