Memes, gifs and political power — as lines blur between the online and offline worlds
© Know Your Meme


Puppy memes showed up all over Twitter over the holiday weekend, when President Trump tweeted an animated gif showing him pummeling a figure representing CNN. The puppy memes were attempts by some Twitter subscribers to comfort and distract their followers from the collective experience of pandemonium.

While the internet’s obsession with cat memes and dog memes was more or less equal until early 2016, dog and puppy memes hit an all-time high during this past election cycle, according to researchers. Looking at puppies apparently raises levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

But the posting of memes and gifs can play a much bigger role in today’s fragile world, with immediate consequences for our civil liberties, our human rights and our system of government.


In July 2016, the Republicans tweeted the “This is Fine” dog meme from their official @GOP Twitter handle as a commentary on the chaos surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The official Twitter handle for the Ukraine followed suit last Tuesday, posting the “This is Fine” dog meme while announcing that the nation’s government agencies and some private firms were hit with a ransomware virus, which moved swiftly to lock down computer files in Russia, Europe and the U.S., even closing down a Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Tasmania.

What makes memes and animated gifs effective is the fact that they are image-based. They circulate easily. As viral units of digital content, they efficiently and immediately communicate their message to the viewer and speak to a collective experience.

While Lolcats and “hamsters on a treadmill” may have entertained the first Internet pioneers, the “Twitter Bird” and the “Fail Whale” were among the first animal memes to speak of a common cultural experience. In the summer of 2009, Twitter subscribers made a collective effort to trend the hashtag #iranelection, after mainstream media failed to cover a massive popular revolt following Iran’s fraudulent presidential election

In the wake of the Iranian election, the Twitter Bird became the symbol of protest and of Twitter’s power to fight the injustice of an authoritarian state. Then the Fail Whale became a symbol of collective frustration when Twitter was “over capacity.” (The Fail Whale showed up when Twitter subscribers couldn’t sign on to get on with the business of protest). 

While animal memes have had a long, mutating, life in the heart of online fandom culture and in the nooks and crannies of social media, they have now taken to the streets and are circulating in the culture of protest globally.

As technologist An Xaio Mina has observed, animal memes were everywhere at the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States: The famous Nope Nope Nopetopus, the #imwithKer based on Kermit the frog, the Grumpy Cat meme — they were all marching in the streets, protesting the bigotry of the Republican candidate in the course of the 2016 election cycle.

This leap from the virtual to the real reflects a cultural shift in which we, as global netizens, acknowledge the connection between the online and offline worlds. And the shift has impact on both realms.

Protesters grasped early on the intimacy of these two realms, the world of the geotag and its corresponding real-world location. For example, the hashtags #ferguson and #gezi referenced the sites of Ferguson, Missouri and Gezi Park, Turkey, but also events and protests that occurred there. Similarly, the #blacklivesmatter digital tribe easily transformed the #handsupdontshoot hashtag into a physical “hands up” meme in protests on city streets following the Michael Brown verdict.

As fan-based rituals of online life and global protest culture become part of everyday experience, their digital features and practices become mainstream; they become entwined with our flesh and our identities. The geotag becomes as viable a site of assembly and solidarity as the city square. And our netizenship begins to have a say in our citizenship. What people do on social media affects people’s ability to travel. It affects the ability to maintain or gain employment.

Given its power, shouldn’t a meme posted by the highest office of the United States be subject to considerations and consequences of the highest order?

Negar Mottahedeh is a professor of film and media studies in the Program in Literature at Duke University. Her most recent book about citizenship and civic engagement during the Iranian post-election crisis of 2009 is called #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life (Stanford University Press, 2015). 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.