How do memes simplify complex topics, making them politically legible and emotionally digestible to wide and diverse audiences on an increasingly global scale, using the techno-social affordances of social media platforms? This interdisciplinary collaboration seeks to understand how memes are produced and mobilized to communicate and make digestible complex ideas related to COVID-19 and climate change. The last year has seen a proliferation of memes related to both these important topics, with the two often converging to invite reflection on the relationship between human health and climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollutants, among other things. Specifically, we will examine the ways that memes are entangled in the daily cultural practices of users of digital platforms and mobile apps, analyzing their content, the contexts in which they are produced, deployed and consumed, and the extent to which memes influence views and result in actions and affect. Often relying on (dark) humor, our analysis of memes will thus provide insight into the ways digital spaces are used to raise awareness, elicit action, and provide occasional solace in the face of collective traumas tied to existential crises. Although we are interested in identifying the positive potential of memes to facilitate the dissemination of complex information and help people to cope with existential issues, we are also interested in exploring the “dark side” of internet memes, including, for example, the ways alt-right communities and conspiracy theorists employ memes to question the “realness” of climate change and COVID-19.
The project is funded by the Global Digital Culture research priority area of the University of Amsterdam. For a full project description here