Unless you've been living off the grid for the past few months, you're likely to have been forwarded a meme that makes a snide political statement. You know the kind: A tiny photograph of an achiever squeezed into a congratulatory poster for a larger-than-life political figure. Or a photograph of an Indian city with a caption identifying it as a foreign one.
Humour and irony have always been the favourites of political commentators but it's increasingly becoming many users' means of showing their dissatisfaction with everything from social mores to political leadership.
It is a form of “indirect criticism” that is gaining prominence among the Gen Z cohort, notes Sadaf Tasneem, a student at the University of Lucknow who enjoys these memes. “It piques people’s curiosity to dig more into the context, helps spread information and allows us to process facts," she says.
It's a means to counter fake news too. Politically aware social media users, especially from tier-1 cities, are increasingly taking this route to dissent: they “play along” with a narrative to expose its ridiculousness, as opposed to calling it out for being just ridiculous. Most users commenting on such posts add to the “joke” or share relevant news reports to get the uninitiated up to speed. The whole exercise reminds Tasneem, a student vocal about the politics, of one of Gandhi's famous sayings: “In a gentle way we can shake the world.”
In the US, a bunch of Gen Zers are using a similar tactic to fight misinformation, according to as recent New York Times report. Led by 23-year-old Peter McIndoe, they’ve popularised a parody social movement, ‘Birds Aren’t Real’, saying birds are actually drones of the US spying on people. The Gen Zers are effectively “cosplaying the conspiracy theorists” to bring forth the absurdity of conspiracy theories, the article notes.
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Is this the new language of dissent on the internet then?
Well, sly dissent of this nature is not exactly new in the Indian context. Till a year ago, it was seen in the form of mash-up videos that juxtaposed clips of a political leader making what could be seen as a hypocritical statement beside one where they’re sermonising about “hypocrisy has its limits”. Videos like these were often shared with captions like “Who did this?”, which was both a nod to the creator and a way to absolve oneself from responsibility for the creation. Sly dissent also manifested itself in the "caption this" trend, where a user asks followers to caption pictures of politicians in a bid to expose their wrongdoings in a satirical manner. However, posts like these have considerably reduced or vanished, because many are afraid of the consequences.
Gags without a gag order
It is now common for trolls to “misconstruct your words, spark a controversy and drag your employer into it by tagging them and asking to intervene," says Joy Das, an advertising professional with over 100,000 followers on Twitter. Das has seen people lose their jobs in the aftermath of vicious trolling for a sly tweet about a political party. “People who want to speak up but fear unjust consequences use these memes as a shield against unwarranted legal concerns,” says Das who often posts such memes himself.
As Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, Newark, points out: “It is an error to underestimate the appeal of propaganda, even in the face of absurdity. There are many ways to undercut the power of lies (propaganda being a fancy name for lies, often from the state), and I applaud all of those ways.”
A Twitter user with an enviable following said they resorted to these “play-along” memes after they were arrested by the cyber police recently and interrogated for 24 hours for sly-tweeting about the response to the pandemic.
In such a political climate, the play-along memes represent perhaps “the only language of dissent that’s left on the internet,” says Akash Banerjee, a political satirist and YouTuber whose channel, The DeshBhakt, has over 2.3 million subscribers. “We’re living in a time when even hard facts are seen as an extremist point of view because they don’t go down well with a certain dispensation,” he adds.
Plus, they are funny. “A message laced with humour travels faster,” says Das, highlighting that sly dissent of this kind thrived even during the Emergency in India in 1975 when a national daily published an obituary of “D'OCracy - D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope, Justicia.”
But fast doesn't necessarily mean the message travels far and wide. 'These memes ultimately have a minimal influence, largely on the alert citizenry that anyway wants to educate itself on what’s happening around them,” says YouTuber Banerjee.
Most memes take off on Twitter before spreading to other platforms. And Twitter comprises a tiny subset of the online population of the country. As of October 2021, Twitter had a little less than 24.5 million users in India. To put it in perspective, Uttar Pradesh alone has 10 times as many people.
It is quite likely that “whoever is not on Twitter or at the intersection of Twitter with other social platforms, won’t know the context behind these memes,” says Meena Kotwal, founder of The Mooknayak, a publication dedicated to the marginalised and underprivileged. Kotwal advocates being direct, even as she faces harassment and threats for her outspokenness. “If you have to be targeted by those in power, you will be targeted either way,” she says. “At least direct questioning and censure guarantee your message will reach a larger population.”
That said, “these memes do puncture the aura of venerable political figures, by showing that they’re not beyond the scope of mockery,” says the admin of @RoflGandhi_ who often posts memes of this nature for their 670,000-plus followers on Twitter.
It is why Harendar Happy, 24, a research scholar who spent 12 months protesting against the farm bills at the Singhu border, doesn't discredit memes. If there’s one thing the past year has taught him, it is that any form of protest helps but memes need to go beyond humour now and show the pain of the people, he says, adding that the memefication should also shift focus on the politician's work instead of harping on their background or personality. "The memes need to prick the oppressor instead of giving them, too, a reason to laugh out loud."
It is also important to see who is making these memes before proclaiming it dissent, says Suchitra Vijayan, lawyer, political essayist and author of Midnight’s Borders: A People's History of Modern India. “The real voices of dissent are people who have everything to lose from speaking up, who turn up despite being consistently targeted,” she says. To them, dissent is an act of survival and not an act of courage.