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30 January 2021
The Politics of Memes
This special issue explores the use of internet memes to confirm, contest and challenge political power and hierarchies. Memes are often understood as examples of the humorous and light ‘vernacular creativity’ of media users (e.g. Shifman 2014). While there is agreement that memes constitute an everyday shared practice and engagement in internet culture, their political potential remains contested (see Bayerl & Stoynov 2016; Shifman 2014; Wiggins 2016). This is partly because studies have thus far focused mainly on the internet memes themselves, their visuality, and their meaning within visual internet culture (e.g. Bayerl & Stoynov 2016; Shifman 2012). Yet, memes are used to mock, satirize and parody political issues and events. Examples abound, from memes placing rubber ducks on Tiananmen Square (Ibrahim 2016), to the figure of Alan Kurdi placed on the roundtable of a UN summit (Mortensen 2017), to the dissemination of LOLCats on Twitter during the Brussels lockdown (Jensen, Neumayer & Rossi 2018). Moreover, memes are used as a direct form of political communication. Actors from the far-right produce memes to propagate their values (Greene 2019) or heroize terrorists, and images from political protests are memefied, such as the Pepper Spray Cop from student protests at UC Davis (Bayerl & Stoynov 2016) and the Riot Hipster from the G20 protests in Hamburg (Neumayer & Struthers 2019). From being a phenomenon of a specific part of internet culture, memes have become an intrinsic part of visual communication in political debate and conflict. Although scholarly attention has been directed to internet memes generally (Nooney & Portwood-Stacer 2014), these recent conflictual memes give reason to trace their politics which this special issue sets out to do.
Memes often at first glance appear to be silly or quirky jokes. This is symptomatic of internet culture, in which symbolic and cultural elements meld with technological functionalities and allow for replicability and remixing (Shifman, 2014). Yet, memes also work as rhetorical weapons and discursive arguments in political conflicts, since they simultaneously create social distortion, hostility, and sense of community (Segev, Nissenbaum, Stolero & Shifman 2015). Internet memes are produced and diffused by members of participatory internet culture, usually with the purpose of parody and satire but also as political critique and discursive activity (Wiggins 2016). Memetic images and videos are distributed online by numerous participants and are created with intertextual awareness of other memes. They travel across contexts and digital platforms, and as they are rapidly diffused, the messages they convey and the memetic visuals themselves become remixed, iterated and often decontextualized. LOLcats, for example, are today a regular part of internet culture but originated on the image board 4Chan (Miltner 2014), where social policing is removed from “politically correct” others who might otherwise challenge such content. As a result, on 4chan (and 8chan/8kun) images alongside written text create a unique vernacular, often based on the antagonistic concept of “the laughing us creating a fetishized them” (Phillips & Milner 2017: 114), reiterating discrimination, exclusion and stereotypes.
Internet memes function as performative visual acts by not only reflecting norms but also working as a “social tool for negotiating them” (Gal, Shifman and Kampf 2015; Mortensen & Kristensen 2020). At the same time, the techno-commercial infrastructure of social media based on personalization and filtering processes may privilege certain visual content and genres over others and potentially draw attention away from the political contexts (Bayerl & Stoynov 2016).
Memes are easily generated, disseminated and consumed - but also forgotten. Their humorous form, ephemerality and recognizability can both politicize and depoliticize political conflict, divert attention to and from the political issues at stake. This special issue aims to solidify research on the politics of memes. We invite original paper proposals that advance new theoretical, analytical, and methodological approaches to studying internet memes. Subjects include, but are not limited to:
• The politization of memes and their diffusion across platforms
• Memes as political contention in online activism, protests, civil engagement, etc.
• The politics of memes on image boards such as 4Chan and 8Chan (now 8kun)
• Racism and stereotypes in memes
• The use of memes by the far-right
• The memefication of political conflicts and crises
• Internet memes in war and terrorism
• Memes and contentious political issues (Brexit, migration, etc.)
• Historical use of memes in political conflict
• Memes and the use of humour and satire in political contexts
Looking to Publish your Research?
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Please submit article proposals of approximately 500 words to the special issue editors [email protected] and [email protected] no later than 25 June 2020. A selection of authors will be invited to submit full papers of a maximum of 8000 words. Please note that acceptance of an abstract does not guarantee publication, given that all papers will undergo double blind peer review. For questions, please contact the editors of this special issue.
Deadline for abstracts: 25 June 2020
Notification to authors: 15 August 2020
Deadline for submission of full papers: 30 January 2021
Peer review process: 30 January - 30 May 2021
Deadline for final version: 1 August 2021
Publication of special issue: End 2021
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