The dark side of the meme culture

The dominating presence of social media is a also a platform for an explosion of memesUnsplash

Social media has disrupted the traditional dominance of the mainstream media in producing content, empowering everyday internet users, netizens, to actively contribute to the generation of online content. Creating, viewing, and disseminating contents has become a custom among the netizens, with Facebook being a prominent platform for such engagements.

Memes, a form of user-generated content, typically incorporating popular cultural figures, visuals, icons, signs with texts, slogans, catch-phrases combined with them, have gained significant traction in this digital landscape. According to YPulse’s survey of 2019, about 75% of 13 to 36-year-olds take part in sharing memes, with 79% of 13 to 17-year-olds tending to do the same. The report also says that 38% of them follow meme accounts on social media, 74% send memes to make people smile or laugh—and 53% send them to react to something.

This widespread adoption of memes has given rise to concerns regarding the alarming presence of sexism and misogyny within the social media platforms, particularly on Facebook. Users of this platform often perceive these memes as harmless and light-hearted social interaction as  they are cloaked in harmless humour, making them appear innocent at first glance. Additionally, the anonymity afforded by the online environment makes it challenging to trace the creators of these memes. Yet, the harmful implications arise when these memes become vehicles for the dissemination of sexist and misogynistic ideas, perpetuating the marginalisation of specific societal groups. The combination of freedom of expression and online anonymity is facilitating the reinforcement of negative beliefs, including gender stereotypes and patriarchal ideology, within sexist content shared by internet users globally.

While surfing through facebook, I repetitively came across a meme where an animated  picture of an old age couple in a car was used. The couple are wearing seatbelts; the male partner is shown driving; but the female partner has an additional belt tightly fastened around her mouth. The accompanying written discourse with the picture states, “New seatbelt design: 45% fewer car accidents.” The combination of the textual and the visual discourse suggests that this design with an extra belt tightened around the female partner’s mouth leads to fewer car accidents, suggesting that the female partner's silence is a contributing factor to the reduction of car accidents. The meme initially seems very funny but any sane person can identify the hidden message the meme implied. This depiction clearly objectifies the woman, reducing her agency and presenting her as some passive object to be controlled or silenced and thus perpetuating a power dynamic that disempowers them. Not only that, the meme also violates that woman’s autonomy by normalizing force on her to put that belt on her mouth and trivializes misogyny by using humor as a mask to diminish the seriousness of the underlying sexist and violent messages conveyed. Furthermore, the meme generalized the common stereotype idea that women always  talk too much or do something  that drives their male partner to a level when risks of accidents arise and  women are to blame for that.

Another common meme that circulates on meme pages features pictures of transgender individuals, women from non-white ethnic groups, single mothers, and individuals with diverse body types that do not conform to the patriarchal definition of beauty. The textual message of those memes urges Facebook users to tag their handsome friends for a possible match with the women depicted in the pictures. Such memes imply that women who are transgender, single mothers, or from non-white ethnic backgrounds or have diverse body types other than slim figure are considered unattractive, and their conditions are meant to be ridiculed, furthering harmful colonial and racial notions.

The dangerous aspect of these memes lies in their humorous approach, which cleverly masks the inherent sexism and misogyny, making them appear harmless.

Furthermore, the memes not only perpetuate sexism by framing women as being in need of a boyfriend, implying that their worth or happiness is dependent on their relationship status, but also normalize bullying or ridiculing acts towards them, contributing to the discrimination and marginalization of them.

The common tendency of the memes circulating in the virtual space is to frame women to certain misconceptions. Women are portrayed as manipulators, emotional, excessively preoccupied with shopping and makeup products, argumentative, and prone to quarreling. They are depicted as irrational and having no control over their emotions, as well as flirtatious and deceitful, solely fixated on their appearance. These memes oversimplify and generalize these traits to apply to all women. Additionally, these memes create a juxtaposition of men, depicting them as always rational, powerless victims of quarrels with women, constantly having a shouting wife, always seeking beautiful women with fair skin tones, always being cherished by women, and able to handle the biggest trouble known as a wife.

Memes are cultural products that continuously circulate and reach a vast number of people every day. As they are shared and re-shared, their ideas have the potential to reinforce existing misconceptions in the minds of those who already hold such beliefs. Additionally, people who were previously unaware of these harmful stereotypes are being introduced to them through these memes and being desensitized.

The dangerous aspect of these memes lies in their humorous approach, which cleverly masks the inherent sexism and misogyny, making them appear harmless. Research studies on memes suggest that ideas represented in memes influence how viewers perceive gender norms and values. Research also has found that memes actively contribute to the promotion and acceptance of casual sexism, downplaying its harmful, derogatory, and offensive nature by camouflaging them with humor.

The consequences of such content are far-reaching. They reinforce harmful gender norms and values that exist in society, decrease women's self-esteem, and hinder efforts to achieve gender equality in the society and the country. They also create a hostile environment for women to live with respect and dignity and hinder their social progress.

These memes are problematic and measures should be taken to regulate this meme culture, necessitating collaborative efforts among social media platforms, content creators, and users. Enforcing strict policies against offensive content with clear community guidelines is essential. Upgrading user-friendly reporting mechanisms to swiftly address flagged content is crucial too. Public awareness is necessary, and integrating media literacy education in schools can help young individuals critically evaluate online content and engage responsibly.

Social media platforms use Artificial Intelligence to recommend content. Their algorithmic improvements are strictly necessary to minimise the visibility of harmful memes and break filter bubbles and echo chambers. Encouraging positive discourse and holding content creators accountable for their actions are also vital steps toward fostering a more respectful online environment. 

Nasrin Akter: Assistant Professor, Department of Media and Mass Communication, American International University Bangladesh (AIUB)

Email: [email protected]

Also Read