The Political Discourse of Social Media Comment Sections

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Originally introduced in 1976 by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his work The Selfish Gene, the term Meme, was defined as a unit of cultural information spread by imitation as the cultural parallel to biological genes, in control of their own reproduction, transmission and evolution (“Meme | Cultural Concept.”). Within a culture, memes can take on a variety of forms ranging from ideas, behaviors and skills, to words, languages, and even fashion. The memes which are most successfully imitated and transmitted become the most prevalent within a culture, and the process of transmission is carried out primarily by means of verbal, visual, or electronic communication, ranging from books and conversation to television, e-mail, or the Internet.

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In the early 21st century, Internet memes have brought renewed interest to the meme concept due to their dissemination from person to person typically by e-mail, social media, and other apps and web sites (“Meme | Cultural Concept.”). While a meme in itself is not a new concept, Internet memes have come to play the most dominant role in modern political discourse, as their use of rhetorical forms and functions, openness to amateur participation, and reliance of humor and popular culture to create common ground has made them into a tool which has encouraged and influenced more appealing and more accessible political debate. Memes use rhetorical forms and functions to inform, persuade or motivate a particular audience in a particular situation. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion and efficient use of language used to shape attitudes and to influence the behavior of others, operating on the basis of logical and aesthetic modes to affect interaction in both rational and emotional ways (Hanno, p. 54). Expanding upon the theory of rhetoric, Sonja K. Foss, a rhetorical scholar and educator in the discipline of communication, defined visual rhetoric as “the study of the use of visual symbols to influence and manage meanings” (Foss, p.144). However, not every visual object is visual rhetoric. To qualify as visual rhetoric, an image must go beyond serving as a sign and be symbolic, and the image must be only indirectly connected to its referent (Foss, p. 144).

Memes are symbolic, persuasive texts which can operate in subversive and representational ways, and examining memes as a form of visual rhetoric can help us understand general social mindsets as well as a culture at large (Huntington, p.3). Because memes are spread by imitation, they rely heavily on the relationship between texts and the way that similar or related texts influence each other. Their reliance on multiple referents — other memes and their individual separate components —along with humor and juxtapositions of images and text, is vital to their spread. A meme, then, can be considered as visual rhetoric because it involves the use of arbitrary images and text to communicate a specific meaning which has no direct connection to its individual parts. Visual rhetoric also requires human action both in the process of creation and in the process of interpretation (Foss, p. 144). Visual arguments have a unique ability to draw viewers into the argument’s construction via the viewer’s cognitive role in completing “visual enthymemes” (Huntington, p. 2).

Enthymemes are often called “truncated syllogisms” (syllogism: argument applying deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion) which assume that the reader/viewer already knows one of the premises of the syllogism, thereby simplifying it (Rhetorical Syllogism | Frame Publishing.). Some of the most popular internet memes are in fact enthymemes; they only make sense within a certain cultural understanding of the world. The humor and the message of a meme depend upon its audience sharing a unique understanding of the world and the proper behavior within it. Thus, memes depend upon readers’ cultural assumptions. This is why some memes may resonate deeply with one group and not with another. By completing these syllogisms the reader is participating in the interpretation, and thus, in a sense, the creation, of the meme. Internet memes represent a highly visible and accessible example of enthymematic reasoning and can help us understand how the shared values of an audience determine what is considered to be logical or reasonable. People only spread things that they respond to, so internet memes that spread the most widely are the ones that most effectively intersect with the cultural beliefs, ideas, and expectations of the people spreading them. Lastly, for an object to be considered visual rhetoric, its visual elements must be arranged and modified not simply for self-expression but also for communication with an audience (Foss, p. 144). While often dismissed as mere cultural detritus or play, memes represent a powerful and easily accessible tool for examining how rhetoric shapes the world around us. A meme assumes certain things about the audience’s beliefs, contains shared cultural narratives and plays on intertextual relationships with other memes. It has a way of communicating a wider variety of emotions and understanding that strict text has the inability to do and thus, is an important part of digital rhetoric. Internet memes seem to have a farther reach and a broader appeal than traditional news media because they are relatable, simple and more open to amateur participation.

Because of their ubiquitous presence on message boards and Facebook feeds, memes also serve as memorable, visually appealing invitations to public discourse on social networking sites. Memes function similarly to political cartoons, which have long been a medium for editorial commentary, in that they present caricatures, satire and hyperbole in order to question beliefs, authority or preconceived notions and express opinions and criticisms on social issues and general political discourse. Unlike a political cartoon, which takes some level of artistic skill to create, a meme can be created by virtually anybody with access to the Internet. The ease of creation, consumption and propagation of memes has contributed to their success, resulting in a visual environment for Internet memes to be generated and shared. With the emergence of the internet, the editorial processes which cartoonists previously relied on and were hindered by, have become increasingly democratized and Internet memes are emerging as an alternative to political cartoons, no longer handicapped by the limitations of the print media. Through the appropriation and transformation of popular culture, humor, and symbolic images, memes derive the ability to deconstruct complex ideas and give their creators power to use “the pop as a launching point to the political” (Milner, 305). Because they are visually appealing and memorable, people are more likely to notice and engage with memes rather than long opinion pieces from journalists or political campaigns, or videos. A meme is a complete idea that doesn’t take long to process, and as a viewer you are welcome to invest as much time into engaging with the meme as you’d like. This engagement can range from simply viewing and/or sharing the meme to engaging in in-depth discussions in the comment section. A meme can therefore function as an informal, non-threatening invitation into public discourse on the matter set forth by the meme. There is quite a bit of diverse and informative content to be found in the comments sections. Readers can contribute additional information or correct factual errors and inaccuracies. The feedback can also provide incentives for authors to write better articles, encouraging them to do their research and get their facts straight.

While comment sections are not specific to memes they are much more prevalent and diverse in this context. Examining the top 10 U.S. newspaper websites, all had either temporarily disabled comment sections, no comment section at all, or were subscription only (add citation). When comment sections do exist they are most often filtered and/or relatively inactive. One defining rhetorical characteristic of memes is their encouragement of user interaction. Informed discourse is integral to democratic government and theories of discursive democracy presume that informed discussion, logic, and reason will lead to rational decision making (Robertson,1). German philosopher Jürgen Habermas defined “the public sphere as a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space” (Bellcour,1). A study examining the extent of discourse in the comment areas of the Facebook social networking sites of the major U.S. Presidential candidates in 2008 concluded that they are a modern form of Habermas’ public sphere, which meet more of the requirements for successful democratic deliberation than other types of online forums, and that they will become increasingly valuable for the practice of deliberative democracy (Robertson,1 ). Habermas defines “public sphere” as “a domain of our social life in which public opinion can be formed” and conceptualizes the public sphere as a “democratic space where public interests, opinions, agendas and problems are formed, transformed, and exchanged by citizens’ proactive participation” (Robertson, 1).

Critical rationality, equality, freedom of expression, and dissemination are essential for the structure, functioning, and sustainability of a Habermasian public sphere. Communicative action based on equality is a prerequisite which depends on the participation and representation of multiple interests and perspectives. This point comes into focus when we consider civic participation and democratic deliberation in the Internet age. This is where social networking sites contrast greatly with many other online forums. Most importantly, because social networking sites are structured around friend networks, users are not easily able to masquerade in alternative identities but are presenting personas which are more consistent with their offline characters. Because one’s activities can be seen by friends and family, users are more likely to express real interests and opinions, and are more open to challenge. Moreover, there are no barriers to participation beyond potential pressures from one’s social network. Individuals who participated in the political discussions taking place on the Facebook pages of the three major 2008 U.S. Presidential candidates could involve themselves the amount that they preferred, and they could participate in any number of dialogues. While there were many users who posted only once, there was no impediment to posters’ return, and many participants returned often. Those who returned were engaged in a commitment to an ongoing conversation. Additionally, participants tended to use more outward-directed pronouns, which suggests that they were also addressing the comments of others and attempting to understand others’ perspectives (missing citation). Returning posters tended to be more verbose, and in a physical setting this would cause them to dominate the discussion due to time restrictions (Robertson, 29). However, in the context of Facebook, which is non-parallel and only loosely bounded by time, the participation levels of posters are to a large extent independent of each other and domination of the discussion is not an issue.

This therefore affords greater opportunities for inclusion and equal opportunities for participation. Frequent posters tended also to more commonly include hyperlinks to outside supporting evidence to defend a claim, refute another comment, or issue a call to action. This is indicative of engagement in mutual critique of positions which are held on the basis reason and facts rather than simply asserted. The observed dialog showed evidence of several of the characteristics that scholars claim are central to the realization of a Habermasian public sphere (Robertson, 29). This evidence supports the claim that social networking sites the sociotechnical environments that currently most closely enable public sphere discourse and that display many characteristics where other online forums of various types fall short. While not all comment sections in a social network setting are connected to memes, internet memes dominate this space and their ubiquitous presence and viral qualities provide a strong sense of attraction to social network users and thus serve as an irresistible invitation to engage. While being relatable, memes are also somewhat impersonal and detached in nature which can provide a less threatening environment for expressing political views and opinions and making it easier to talk about certain heavier topics. Their reliance on humor and popular culture serves as common ground for discussing social and political issues. Humor and comedy have always been ways in which people can connect without committing themselves to a full-on opinion. Internet memes serve as an outlet for the expression of views and opinions in humorous and sarcastic ways, and can be extremely powerful in the hands of protestors and digital activists, especially in settings where free speech is limited. Angelique Haugerud, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences, says the value of humor as a way to convey messages has always been a powerful tool for the disenfranchised. it’s a way of building solidarity and reaching across boundaries, and doing it empathetically and in a way that is conciliatory rather than aggressive. Haugerud says that “satire flourishes in many countries, often where there is a demagogue or a dictator trying just as mightily to suppress it. [It] can be cathartic for those with little power, and it can help to build solidarity,” (Rutgers). Funny memes can offer an inroad to those who otherwise wouldn’t pay much attention to politics which could potentially attract them to the polls in greater numbers than before.

No longer are policy issues dry topics you read about in serious newspapers; they’re viral jokes shared among friends. Interestingly enough, satire can quickly veer from amusement to provocation to danger. However, political satire is most often addressed with restrained reception, and “its power to keep political life healthy and protect the population from authoritarian pretensions should not be overlooked”, says Haugerud (Rutgers). Internet memes expand the range of participatory opportunities by providing new, appealing, and accessible ways to express political opinion and engage in debate. Humor and laughter have become integral attributes of the political process as a means of constructing and negotiating public discourse. Humor and popular culture provide an informal, less threatening environment for expressing views and opinions making it easier to talk about controversial topics. When the viewer senses an agenda, it is easier for them to brace against the propaganda effect. When something is presented as purely humor or entertainment, the shields go down to a degree.

The source is not perceived as having a serious agenda, and the assumptions are more readily absorbed. While this is rare, politicians do behave humorously in European and American cultural tradition, and in the midst of an antagonistic campaign, it’s always refreshing to see politicians refrain from negativity by poking fun at themselves and their opponents. While showing a sense of humor can help a candidate seem relatable and someone that you could have a beer with, it can also be a helpful distraction from negative attacks, or even be used as an effective attack or criticism of an opponent. Poking fun at an opponent can be catchy, memorable, and can help to underscore their shortcomings. The aim of political humor is to get people to pause, reconsider, and laugh regardless of whether they agree with the message. When it comes to politics, most Americans get the majority of their information from entertainment sources. Whether it be The Daily Show, a cartoon in the newspaper, or an internet meme, people are paying attention, and forming opinions. Regardless of factual accuracy, jokes help to form a narrative that is memorable and will stick with you long after the laughter subsides. Critics of meme culture claim that it is making us all dumber because it oversimplifies complex issues, spreads misinformation, and thus ruins, ‘real’ political discourse. While memes may serve a similar purpose as political cartoons, they differ in this one critical aspect – the speed at which they can be created, repurposed and shared. Admittedly, because of the accessibility and speed at which memes can be repurposed and shared, there is a risk that complex issues are grossly oversimplified and that facts are not always taken into account.

While political memes have the potential to completely change the way society views news, the possible risks are just as impactful as the rewards. Memes can distill complex news stories into easily digestible posts, making politics inclusive of a wider range of people. But they can also turn important matters into jokes or cloud credible information with silliness and sensationalism. Internet memes are generally assumed to be meaningless displays of popular culture and, it can be difficult to see how they might contribute to the greater good. However, when we consider Limor Shifman’s definition of internet memes as “socially constructed public discourses in which different memetic variants represent diverse voices and perspectives” (Sadler), it becomes evident that memes can be powerful tools for understanding general social mindsets (Sadler, p. or para. ). While they may seem an oversimplification of discourse, memes contribute to and diversify discussion by being more accessible, and more engaging and open to conversation, and by reaching more people than the content of newspaper articles and news on television.

The average news consumer in the United States is a headline-reader at best. According to a comprehensive study conducted by Microsoft Research only about four per cent of American internet users, were “active news customers” of “front section” news (Flaxman,1). The more complex an issue, the less likely it is to break through with a public that really consumes news via headlines and not much else. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly two thirds of Americans get their news on social media (missing citation). Political memes are nearly impossible not to see. Whether it’s a comedic response to a politician’s tweet or a post calling for awareness on an issue, political statements have increasingly been reaching people in this unlikely form. Users of social media often encounter memes that incorporate political updates and can easily share this information with friends and family with the click of a button. Memes are easy to generate, consume and propagate and therefore provide a convenient ingress to our socio-political life, making it more inclusive, accessible, and democratic. They can also offer an inroad to those who wouldn’t otherwise pay much attention to politics and potentially get them to the polls in greater numbers than we’ve seen so far. Current research suggests that internet memes also play an important role in political expression and citizen empowerment. Political Internet memes have become a medium through which many can voice their opinions and criticisms in a quick humorous format. Humor and comedy are ways in which people can connect without committing themselves to a full-on opinion.

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