Memes as a Source of Soft Power

By Iqra Chaudhri 

Many of us have social media accounts which we primarily use to connect with others. Chances are, you have come across memes, particularly through the rise of meme pages that have the sole purpose of distributing memes for the enjoyment of the Internet community. The virtual space of the Internet where memes are located means they can spread almost instantaneously by using features such as the ‘Share’ button or tagging friends to further the image’s audience. In this post, I hope to argue that memes can be considered a source of soft power, through the various ways in which they can convey political messages, such as mocking foreign policy, thus holding influence in framing policies both positively and negatively.

For the purpose of this article, I will define a meme as an image which has been edited and reused with different captions, changing the original meaning of the image. As a meme becomes more mainstream, audiences become familiar with the atmosphere or feeling generated from the image alone. This image is then repeatedly used with different captions to change the context of the meme. Although the typical atmosphere generated from a meme is that of comedic value, memes can also be subverted to propagate philosophical or political content. Memes can be seen as elements of culture and are therefore subject to culture jamming. This term ‘culture jamming’ refers to the process by which social movements are subverted to change its meaning or ‘expose the methods of domination’ (Nomai, 2008).

Nye’s definition of soft power refers to a state’s ability to entice or persuade another actor through methods of economic and cultural influence, rather than using military strength. However, soft power can be applied to social media in an unconventional method, as both state actors such as Obama and Trump, and non-state actors such as terrorist group ISIS, can use social media to gain support and spread their political messages. This performance of digital diplomacy has opened the site of the Internet to politics and has enabled social media to act as a source of soft power.

Figure_2

Obama – New Hampshire Primary Speech Meme Source: https://jtr.st-andrews.ac.uk/articles/10.15664/jtr.1159/

US foreign policy has become a frequent target of memes, often attempting to challenge domestic opinion of foreign policy on the use of weapons. This image is an example of a meme which has been circulated on the Internet, with adjustments to the caption to mock Obama. Although different images have been used, many of these start with “Yes we can” – taken from Obama’s New Hampshire Primary speech. The original context of this statement was to represent American culture and ideals (Huey, 2015). This version of this meme however, asserts America as the ‘bad guy’, killing innocent children through the use of drones which has taken countless innocent lives. Although this can be assumed as dark humour, this subversion can build a negative public image of the USA, increasing an anti-US sentiment. This could be considered as a source of soft jihadist power, as it is clear that terrorist groups utilise social media to recruit, and this attempt at using humour or popular culture suggests the impact these non-state actors may feel this action could have.

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Trump ‘Muslim ban’ Meme Source: https://buzzkenya.com/muslim-ban-memes-social-media/

The image above is another example of a meme that intends to mock the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ Trump has attempted to impose on seven Muslim majority countries. It mocks Trump’s obsession with money and power, showcasing him as a hypocrite as he refuses to allow certain nationalities to enter the country, yet happily conducts business with those from a similar background. Trump is often seen and portrayed as an unstable man, and this feeling is reflected in this meme as he is framed in two juxtaposing ways – one where he is angry and one where he has switched to passiveness very quickly, suggesting he is unsure about his personal convictions. This reflects many political views held by social media users, as memes of this sort, most often mocking Trump and his foreign policy concerning these countries. It is not uncommon to see memes mocking Trump, whether it be on his foreign policy decisions or his character in general. Although this does not enforce an idea of soft power in the traditional sense, it can be considered as an alternative version of soft power – one where those opposed to Trump can spread an ideology of Trump as a joke within politics and international relations within the online space.

To summarise, I believe social media to be a particularly powerful geopolitical tool, utilised by most of us whether it be purely for communication purposes or to keep us occupied. Memes are not only utilised by general social media users to mock or make fun of certain situations but have also become exploited by actors such as terrorists to appeal to those with similar views, with the intention to recruit. This suggests that memes are used as a form of conventional soft power. Memes can be reproduced – their original purpose to evoke a certain emotion can be subverted into the opposite. Memes can shift and become appropriated to suit their political views. These unconventional geopolitical actors are becoming important sources of information on world affairs –  a shift from traditional sources of information. They can be transformed completely to suit the creator’s need and seen as a soft power producer.

Bibliography:

Donaldson, A. (2016). The soft power of Twitter. [online] British Council. Available at: https://www.britishcouncil.org/organisation/policy-insight-research/insight/soft-power-twitter

Gill, P. (2018). Examples of Memes and How to Use Them. [online] Lifewire. Available at: https://www.lifewire.com/what-is-a-meme-2483702

Huey, L. (2015). This is Not Your Mother’s Terrorism: Social Media, Online Radicalization and the Practice of Political Jamming. Journal of Terrorism Research, 6(2).

James, C. (2016). Muslim Ban Memes: Social Media Reacts To Trump’s Executive Order. [online] Buzz Kenya. Available at: https://buzzkenya.com/muslim-ban-memes-social-media/

Jponalim (2017). Culture Jamming, Memes, and inverting the norms. [online] The Rhetoric of Activism. Available at: https://pwr2rhetoricofactivism.wordpress.com/2017/01/12/culture-jamming-memes-and-inverting-the-norms/

Nomai, A. (2008). Culture Jamming: Ideological Struggle and the Possibilities for Social Change. Austin: University of Texas.

Nye, J., S. (2004) Soft Power: a Means to Success in World Politics.


Iqra is currently studying for an MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway, sticking with the geography department after completing an undergraduate degree in Geography, Politics and International Relations. Her academic interests include the study of terrorism, emergencies, and South Asian politics.

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