To many people – if they even know what it is - ROFLCon may seem like a giant convention of geeks talking about nerdy things. And that would be correct.
The Internet is a treasure trove of the bizarre and comical content and this is no more evident than in the form of memes. Memes, while certainly funny and generally cute, have a power that many of us had not yet thought about until ROFLCon earlier this month: free speech.
After taking a week to reflect on the show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – attendees included many of the faces from popular web videos, such as “bed intruder” Antoine Dodson, or My Drunk Kitchen’s Hannah Hart – one of the biggest takeaways I had was from a panel called “Global Lulzes,” which considered the international use of memes and social media, particularly in countries of political and socioeconomic unrest.
In the U.S., memes have been used for years to criticize society and politics in a way that is humorous and powerful, making statements against or for a particular stigma or leader. (Note, if you do not know what a meme is I suggest reading this). In lieu of the 2012 election, memes have been generated showing distaste for both the Republican presidential runner Mitt Romney and President Obama.
In this country, such obvious jests on behalf of government officials are legal and welcomed as part of our First Amendment rights. In other countries, however, this isn’t the case, and as a result, political activism is taking refuge in the unassuming world of memes.
In Syria, for example, it is illegal to make fun of the president. As a result, many Syrians have had to self-censor the comments they post online, but Internet memes have been popping up since the beginning of the revolution in that country to showcase the public’s dissatisfaction with the regime.
Satire has been used for centuries to express displeasure with a political system. In today’s world, it is easier to reach the masses not with the printed word, but with an easy to alter and share image. The “it belongs to everyone” nature of memes enables anyone to take a picture and make it their own with just a few words.
I can’t help but wonder, however, how long it is before such statements are silenced. We are already noticing such actions with Facebook and Twitter posts, for instance, the Marine who was recently discharged after he criticized Obama on Facebook. And a judge in Virginia deemed that a Facebook “Like” does not constitute free speech, adding that employers can fire employees based on these interests. By clicking the “Like” button, though, are you not saying that you are in favor of what that page represents, whether brand or politician?
The main saving grace of memes, it seems, is the anonymity with which they are created and the simple objects that can be turned into a meme, such as, say, a duck. This keeps them off censorship’s radar, and keeps the individuals who make them fairly unattached to the content. For now, though, memes are and will continue to be a wonderfully funny and powerful tool in the protection of free speech.
- Brittney (@bntrim)