January 2020
#Voter , 6275 Views
Politics 2.0

By: Anunaya Rajhans

Welcome to the world of India’s political meme pages.

Up to 130 million young, first time voters were in the mix for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections—a highly sought after electoral demographic for all political factions. Unsurprisingly, political par- ties far and wide made it a point to appeal to this age bracket of young adults through social media campaigns, video content, and unconventional manifesto promises that included handouts such as cheap smart phones and 4G connectivity alongside the more traditional carrots of access to education and job creation. Political parties often see these as obvious ways to attract India’s youth. In other words, according to the average politician, this is what India’s post-millennials want. But what is so obvious about it? Some of these inferences assume that younger voters are not politically conscious and therefore are more gullible to these populist overtures and freebies. This assumption is fundamentally flawed, and to know why, one can turn to the political discourse emerging from the Indian internet, especially from meme making and sharing communities on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp. In many ways, this alternative discourse is already beginning to have a systemic impact on the nature and ideologies of India’s body politic.

The emergence of the social and participatory internet culture (often referred to as Web 2.0) has been characterised by an increase in amateur content. These creative offerings are made with the specific intention of being shared online. In this environment, memes are a highly malleable and personalised form of expression.Being digital artefacts, memes vie for maximum replication at whatever cost, often subverting and circumventing conventional notions of authorship. In the absence of knowledge about their creator, each individual who helps the meme propagate by sharing it, acquires a tiny part of its author function—the Foucauldian idea that sees authorship as a cultural product and therefore locates it not within the person but the discourse. This lack of single authority allows memes to spread anonymously and being unconventional allows them to convey messages and nudge users in ways that traditional forms of media cannot. In her 2011 book on the emerging forms of ironic activism, Satire and Dissent, media and culture scholar Amber Day explains, “In a highly stage-managed, mediatised discursive landscape, then, earnestness can seem suspect. It is the very quality that politicians and other overproduced public figures bend over backwards to convey, while there is something about the unabashedly personal, ironic, tongue-in-cheek perspective that appears refreshingly authentic”.

As recently as 2015, most of India’s internet culture was comprised of rehashed clichés, Rajnikant and CID references, Santa-Banta jokes, and re-purposed image macro templates that were not relatable, and were unoriginal and unchallenging in their humour—what many online would call “normie” content. Possibly, the only exception to this at the time was the Facebook group Tribe of Dardanaak Jokes,which emerged in 2010, had strict rules about the kind of memes and associated content that could be posted on it, and was heavily moderated. Post-millenials, who had grownup on a steady online diet of ironic humour from platforms such as Reddit and Tumblr, began moving away from basic template jokes and image macros as they applied their ironic worldviews to local Indian contexts to create this change. To see how far we have come in terms of content, style, and taste, the Facebook page Hindu Nationalist Anime Girls serves as a good example. Meme pages don’t need a physical space to thrive as the community they create is based on the act of creation itself. Because of this lack of fixity, meme communities are inherently different from their IRL (in real life) counterparts. Instead, they are fuelled by a blend of creative and participatory energy. This has caused an exponential growth of sometimes dark and edgy, but always fresh, content on the Indian internet, mostly born out of local contexts around which local meme communities form and thrive. These communities can then evolve to have common political inclinations or other such shared identities, over and above the shared contexts that brought them together in the first place. Seen in this way, they can be understood as what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community”, where the memetic artefacts of the digital culture create “emotional legitimacy” through a shared sense of belonging. In a rapidly changing cultural milieu, it is not uncommon to find individuals, myself included, who are convinced that the internet is the only place where they truly belong.

In pursuit of greater legitimacy, communities also construct themselves in an us-versus-them manner, thus moving away from a larger sense of inclusivity. One of the ways in which this plays out is how the internet has been historically male-dominated, with men 33.5 percent more likely to have internet access, accordingto the Inclusive Internet Index of 2018. Meme communities are no different. Most of the meme page administrators are men between the ages of 19 and 25 with strong political preferences along with a sense of political purpose. This can be traced back to 4chan, a community thats prang up in 2003 largely by a group of socially awkward teenage boys who had a shared obsession with anime, and played a foundational role in setting the register for all forms of online discourse, be it good, bad, or ugly. Rule 30 of the Rules of the Internet, a list of rules made by 4chan users in 2006, states: “There are no girls on the internet”. This actively sexist and exclusionary outlook still informs the tone and politics of many meme communities today.

Beyond their contentious origins, the controversial, edgy, and unabashed tone demonstrated by many meme communities doesn’t just inform their sense of humour, it also characterises their politics. The politics of humour when combined with political humour, thus impacts online political discourse. Whether you’re ideologically Right, Left, or Centre, everyone is in the meme game, as political memes are unavoidable today. This is what Limor Shifman describes as the “hypermemetic logic”of contemporary digital culture. Interestingly,most of the popular meme pages are not necessarily affiliated with specific political factions,they’re typically just groups of young people doing this out of personal conviction. After remaining underground for the past couple of years,Indian meme culture has become increasingly mainstream during and after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Angela Nagle, in her book Kill All Normies has described such a cultural change—albeit in the U.S. context—as “the death of the mass culture sensibility”. She goes on to claim that, “Instead, what has emerged is a new kind of anti-establishment sensibility expressing itself in the kind of DIY culture of memes and user-generated content that cyberutopian true believers have evangelised about for many years but had not imagined taking on this particular political form.”

Shantanu Tiwari, a 23 year-old law student who is one of the founders and administrators of the Right-leaning, Uttar Pradesh-focused Facebook and Instagram meme page, Bhaiya Meme Sena (earlier called “Non Sexually Consenting Memes for Uttar Pradesh Teens”, BMS is now a group of meme pages run by common administrators), says, “Meme makers and meme page administrators are still an inside [underground] community”, but memes are now “the most fertile medium for cementing political ideology and making it mainstream”. When asked about the political influence of memes, he continued in typical memelord candour adding that, “No one reads newspapers anymore except old people and those preparing for government jobs. Instead of inheriting political preferences from their parents, tomorrow’s voters (13-17 year olds) will decide their political allegiance on the basis of which side has better memes.” Even if we find it a tall claim, such perceptions are gaining traction—and in this post-Trump, post-Brexit, mob lynching, trigger-happy world, we know how perceptions can conquer facts.

In this sense, it is important to look at the people who build these communities and the relationship between their online and offline identities. Many creators have admitted to having undergone profound changes in their political ideology. The administrator of the Facebook page Rashtravadi Memes for Kamalgatta Teens explains, “During the 2014 elections, I was 20 years old and I truly felt the Modi will bring about parivartan [change]. I was an active member of Whatsapp university and I shared a lot of BJP memes in a personal capacity, including a viral fake image of M. K. Gandhi dancing with a white woman. But since I enrolled in an M.A. Political Science course, I have begun to see things differently,” he adds. “I believe once the dust settles down, fact-checking will prove to be the end of the Whatsapp university.” Compare this to the Facebook page Tasveeron Mein Itihaas, which satirically adds captions that historically recontextualise grey-scaled versions of popular images. The administrator of the page laments that, on a few occasions, either Facebook or its users have “reported its content as fake news.” Therein lies the irony of political propaganda—people fail to see the deceit in propaganda but are all too ready to put on their tinfoil hats in cases of obvious satire. It shows how unequipped the masses are when it comes to keeping up with the ever-evolving and nuanced nature of modern propaganda. Many of the insiders in these meme communities have a strong grip over how this fine balance between ironic distortion of facts versus a more sinister form of propaganda plays out. Talking about the difficulty in recognising where the control lies in an attention economy, the author Tom Chatfield describes the digital space to be seemingly controlled by “free-ranging memes whose ‘purposes’ are pure self-propagation, and whose frantic evolution outstrips all retrospective accounts.”

In this game of shifting identities, meme communities often play an active and conscious role. Their mass appeal allows them to repurpose identity markers and terminology, even if only to suit their purposes of self-propagation.For instance, the Facebook page Bhaiya Meme Sena has re-purposed the “bhaiya” moniker, which is often used as a slur against migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, especially in Mumbai. Subtle Curry Traits, a Facebook group started by Noel Aruliah, a 19-year old student in Melbourne, similarly reappropriates the “curry” slur often used against South Asians abroad. The page’s ability to identify South Asian cultural commonalities through memes caused it to skyrocket to 200,000 members in less than three months and to over 460,000 members in a little over a year. This exponential rise can perhaps be best understood by what is commonly referred to as the “normiefication” of an online community. After taking shape, most meme communities see themselves as outsiders to mainstream culture and therefore become increasingly esoteric, ironic, and self-referential in order to keep out normies. But in some cases,the original shared context is so broad-based that the floodgates open, making insider privilege redundant.

As a result of their online-only presence, the anonymity offered by the “memespace” allows memelords to express their political opinions without fear of backlash, as memes can’t easily be traced to their makers. Sorry Major, the preferred pseudonym of the administrator of the Facebook page Boisterous Hindus against Kritical Thinking—which collapses into the acronym BHAKT—says, “The page offers anonymity, which helps because I’ve realised in these past few years that a lot of my family, colleagues, and close friends are actually fascists or fascist-sympathisers, and I have no interest in giving them a platform on my personal timeline. Hence I prefer posting on the page.” However, this veil of anonymity is thin and doesn’t always provide the safety that the memelords often desperately need. The Facebook page Rashtravadi Memes for Kamalgatta Teens was briefly deactivated due to a First Information Report (FIR) that was filed against the administrator of the page, who had also previously confessed to having received threats from those who were offended by the content shared on the page. Almost all administrators that I spoke with recounted the enormous number of threats that they have received for the content they post. Even if these have been empty threats, it only takes one disgruntled user for that to change. The meme makers I spoke with said they don’t mind individual backlash, however they do not want to incite a mob—even an online mob—because online phenomena have increasingly started to have offline repercussions. The anonymous administrator of the Facebook page The Nation Dunno 2, a 22-year old student, says, “We avoid posts that can get removed—cringe memes and especially any- thing to do with religion-bashing,” even if that comes at the cost of potential virality. This is a constant negotiation that meme makers have to perform. The masses which bestow power and legitimacy can very quickly turn on them, leaving them vulnerable and with little to no systemic recourse as they operate outside the conventional institutions of authority as well as the established structures that critique those in power. Memelords thus occupy an unenviable position that might make them “refreshingly authentic,” but also leaves them exceptionally vulnerable. Those within systems of power need not worry about such a backlash, which is why politicians and other such established authorities can and do get away with making comments that are a lot more inciting and flagrant. Defined by ballots and likes, these are parallel systems of acquiring legitimacy and they are increasingly trying to outdo the other. The continued internet outage in the Kashmir valley is a case in point. Learning their lessons from events such as the Arab Spring or the more recent protests in Hong Kong, more and more authoritarian regimes around the world are focused on co-opting the internet to preserve their power. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that one powerful politician recently claimed that his party can make anything go viral, whether real or fake.

Backlash can also come through other channels. Often times, profiles, pages, and posts are mass reported and taken down by the plat- forms. It is quite common for accounts of those who post incendiary content to get deactivated for 30 days—a situation often referred to as get- ting “zucced,” referring to Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg. Interestingly, people who’ve been been “zucced” often add the word to their names on Facebook as a badge of honour. Ideally, no one wants to be banned, but if you do, the least you can do is publicly exhibit your uniqueness in an attempt to capture an outlaw-esque charm. These unofficial badges of honour stand in direct contrast to more official accreditations, such as “Top Fan” and “Conversation Starter,” that Facebook and other platforms bestow upon users for engaging in ways deemed permissible to them. In addition, meme page administrators have also talked about how offensive content that risks deactivation is becoming more commonplace and has desensitised users to a large extent over a short period of time. Tiwari admits that Facebook is “going mad” with its censorship, but people have become more tolerant to edgy humour: “In 2017, three pages run by the Bhaiya Meme Sena group of admins were removed even though the content they were posting was quite normie compared to what is popularly shared today.’’ As meme administrators across India, and the world, know, nothing can be banned on the internet (unless you are inside the Great Firewall of China) and these pages often have back-up IDs associated with them, so if one gets banned, the page can continue with another. Even if the page gets banned or blacklisted, it soon pops up under a slightly modified name or choses to revamp itself as a closed group, knowing that the followers will find their way back.

Being reassured in this way allows the meme page administrators to act upon their political convictions. 20-year old Tuhin Shubhra, of the Left-leaning Facebook meme page Communist Party of India – Hindu Nationalist, says they started posting in May 2019 to “mock NazBol tendencies, critique Hindu Nationalism…and shed light on the hypocrisies of the right wing.” He adds that this is necessary in “times of mass apoliticisation of the youth.” That is not to say that the youth is apolitical, but rather that we live in a changing political landscape where young people see political issues as à la carte rather than through the lens of party fidelity. On the other side of the aisle, Sachin Achrekar, administrator of Dharm Rakshak, says that he created his page to “put forth a simple narrative…for one of the oldest religions in the world…and to talk about how the political atmosphere tends to affect the followers of the Hindu faith.” When asked to describe the political ideology of the followers of his page, Achrekar states, “All kinds. We have the political fence-sitters, hardcore sanatanis, those that identify with BJP’s softcore watered- down version of Hindu-based ideology, right down to the RSS atom-wielders.”

These pages may not seem like much but the political influence they peddle, in what the mainstream looks like to young people, is immense. A single page could reach upwards of 3 million users in a month. Add to that the phenomenal rate at which they are growing and one can begin to make projections about the future of political discourse in India. This kind of no-holds-barred content creates a chain of one-upmanship that makes any target fair game. Meme page administrators seem to have taken George Carlin’s advice seriously when he said, “The job of the comedian is to find where the line is drawn and then cross it.” In this way, by testing boundaries and crossing lines, these political meme pages have become arbiters of taste on the internet by redefining what’s cool. This happens because, on the internet, good content is the same as numerically successful content and, therefore, anything that gets a threshold number of likes, shares, retweets, or comments is considered good. In this sense, a successful meme gets to create its own context for qualitative evaluation.

Another yardstick to measure the kind of impact political memes are creating is to see how quickly major political parties in India have tried to appropriate their appeal while also being heavy-handed on the administrators when the parties find themselves targeted by a joke that is even remotely controversial. Political memes and meme pages are moving beyond simply having a profound effect on the political discourse vis-à-vis young people. Looking at the bigger picture, memes and meme communities warp the discourse itself through multiple realities, sealing them off from each other in echo chambers, like in any culture war. One can see this phenomenon at work in the example of Newsweek magazine which, confident of a Hillary Clinton victory in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, not only printed but also distributed 125,000 copies of their next issue with “Madam President” on the cover. This coexistence of multiple realities then reifies political polarisation—as one’s political identity is increasingly defined by what they oppose and not what they stand for. These multiple realities also add to the post-truth nature of political discourse, where perceptions trump facts. In such a scenario, facts and counter-facts vie for legitimacy, which is only bestowed through a high engagement rate on social media, thereby laying the foundation for an actual crowd sourced political discourse. That is what is at stake here.

One would assume that more voices being heard will inevitably lead to a stronger democracy, but these are parallel systems of power where each is trying to dominate and co-opt the other. Nagle helps us see the bigger picture here when she writes of “the coming of a networked society, in which old hierarchical models of business and culture would be replaced by the wisdom of crowds, the swarm, the hive mind, citizen journalism and user-generated content.” But participation itself does not guarantee progress or even change; it’s the rules of engagement that will have a lasting effect, and those rules are still being written—if only to be broken. Such precarity is what defines the political power of memes and memelords today. One way or the other, this imagined community is poised to have real consequences. If I may be permitted a play on a Shakespearean coinage: “All hail Memelord, that shalt be king hereafter.” At the moment, however, it remains to be seen if the witches’ prophecy will have a sting in the tail.