Media Communications Research News

Social media seem to be excellent at initiating reactions to real-world events, especially ones that polarize, but exceedingly poor at following through on pursuing actionable social change, due to the lack of meaningful strong ties. Indeed, even as a phrase social media is less accurate when used to describe what it is supposed to signify; arguably it is less social and more connective with respect to the role of algorithms.  Internet memes visually reconfirm biases, allow for people to vent their anger, rage, frustration, etc. without the commitment of engaging in a social movement.

According to Dr. Wiggins, head of the Media Communications department, meaningful action and opportunities for social change, regardless of the desired political leaning, is being replaced by a hypermemetic spectacle. The confluence of reacting to real-world events, social and cultural points of interest, political movements, etc. and engaging in online networking means that online discourse is at once liberating and paralyzing. The former emanates from the vast array of communicative tools available to anyone with access, and the latter occurs given that the operation of online spaces is nuanced by malleable truths, tribalism, and emotional rather than logical reasoning. Internet memes are surely only one part of the discursive maelstrom but their tightly encapsulated visual nature is conducive to such a situation.

The impetus of Dr. Wiggins' presentation asserts a conceptual connection between what is commonly called or understood to be internet memes (or related forms of political humor and satire) and Dada and Surrealist art. His claim is that those internet memes which inhere a critique of society, politics, gender, sexuality, etc. (i.e. those issues which tend to polarize people or which demarcate directionalities) contain a relationship to Dada and consequently must be discussed. This work results from a multimodal semiotic analysis, and represents a section of one of the chapters in his book.

Specifically, the presentation examines the source and subsequent reaction videos produced as part of the #everysecondcounts campaign following the initial (or source) video America First, the Netherlands Second meme broadcast on the Dutch TV show called Zondag met Lubach. This paper adopts the perspective of internet memes as expressed by Milner, (2015), Shifman (2014), and Wiggins and Bowers (2015), as units of digital culture that function discursively and represent a new genre of online communication; further their function inheres something closer to an enthymememe, or visual argument, than the mere replicator espoused by others including Richard Dawkins who coined the term meme as a cultural corollary to the biological gene in The Selfish Gene (1976).

The presentation presents the findings of a multimodal semiotic analysis of the constitutive components of the reaction videos with an emphasis on the perspective that the videos largely adhere to real-world references to actual Trump statements, policies, etc. Thus, Trump, as depicted in the reaction videos and with respect to real-world issues, represents a kind of exaggeration of the exaggerated. In a very real sense, the reception of the Netherlands Second meme as a message, which is part of a larger discourse characterized by a shared sense of shock and/or disillusionment with current events, is contingent upon the inclusion of peripheral components of persuasion as described by the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (Petty & Caccippo, 1986). As an example, the reaction videos-as-internet memes demonstrate a tendency toward dichotomous reasoning with an emphasis on extremes. This echoes Trump’s own rhetorical style, which favors short sentences, few polysyllabic words, and embellishing language, such as in the use of words and phrases like great, big, tremendous, huge, fantastic, and repetitions of such key words as if to exaggerate the superlative. The videos’ use of language positions the subject as being of paramount importance to the United States with other countries (and planets) denoted as the worst, scumbags, losers, total failures, etc. Thus, the juxtaposition of good and bad delivers a polarized and quintessentially Trumpian view of the world which is normally expressed in extremes.

Finally, the presentation introduced a neo-Dadaist semiotic for understanding how dark humor and distanced irony is used to communicate about and negotiate meaning when discussing such matters as the Trump presidency in terms of the initial Dutch TV show’s parody video as well as the resulting reaction videos-as-internet memes. In this vein the main point of this particular part of Dr. Wiggins' work is to highlight how in a world of perceptively growing disillusionment and retreat to our echo chambers and sources of confirmation bias, making and sharing memes may offer a way to exercise of the negativity away, but it also keeps us hopelessly distracted and disengaged from effecting real world change and taking part in meaningful dialogic exchange.