Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many artists and activists have tried to mobilize against Donald Trump by sharing images online. The #TrumpArtworks hashtag, for instance, involves photoshopping Trump into famous paintings, mocking his (easily disproven) claims of record inauguration crowds, the size of his hands, and so on.
“This place is packed!” wrote Joe Heenan in this Donald Trump version of Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks Courtesy of @joeheenan via Twitter. Accessed via artnet.com
Viral activism has become an important tool for protestors to raise awareness, from the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, to the “We are the 99%” images circulated during Occupy protests. Artist Shirin Barghi created a series of “Last Words” images: images that featured white text on a black background, with the reported last words of black victims of police violence [give link to Leena’s post on Umbrella Revolution once active]. In Azerbaijan, after 15 people were killed as a result of construction that took place before the European Games, Facebook users in the country used the social media platform to express dissent. Without an independent news media, political cartoons, memes, and profile pictures on Facebook were a medium for expressing frustration and anger towards the government.
Do protest memes and viral activism actually help effect social change? Or do these kinds of efforts, despite potentially raising awareness, not really amount to any concrete changes?
First off, it’s important to note that this kind of activism isn’t entirely new. Sure, graffiti in Ancient Rome or political cartoons by Dr. Seuss weren’t being re-tweeted or posted on Facebook, but the point is, there’s a long history of raising awareness or expressing dissent through simple, shareable images.
Secondly, it’s overly simplistic to frame this kind of viral activism as either a vehicle for social change or to simply dismiss it as some form of ‘slacktivism.’ As Merlyna Lim argues, under the right conditions, social media activism can mobilize widespread support and be “translated into populist political activism.” The most successful viral activism works around the limitations of social media, contending with short attention spans and the overabundance of content on the web by using simple, portable narratives. Social media also provides community building functions, and blurs lines between activism and journalism by allowing protestors to communicate with the public directly.
Memes are also arguably responsible for helping fuel ongoing discourse around income inequality, as the Occupy Movement brought ideas and now well-known slogans like “the 99 percent” into the public consciousness through widely shared images and memes.
Of course, not all memes are created equal. Some might be used to mobilize people for a particular cause, or to push back against government actions. And then there’s Biden memes.