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Hands off our memes, politicians!

Sides of a coin: Screenshots from the ‘Azadi’ videos released by Congress and BJP.  

A feeling of dread came over me last week. First, the official Twitter account of the BJP put out a fun little video. It sampled the song ‘Azadi’ from the Gully Boy soundtrack, set to videos pointing at the allegedly corrupt Congress party. Then, not long after, the Congress did... well, they did exactly the same, highlighting the BJP’s alleged corruption in their own ‘Azadi’ video. How clever, right? Lord help us. (Let’s also not ignore the irony of taking a song that’s a caustic anti-establishment chant, though much sanitised) That’s when it hit me: it’s election season. How fun.

It means that the already tenuous relationship our great politicians have with rules, order, decency, and, indeed, the truth gets thrown out the window. For the next few months, everything will be amped up to 11. I’m not complaining exactly; sometimes, when I’m really bored, I like to play a game called ‘Who said what now?!’, a little exercise to determine the depths to which these fellows will plunge. But the problem I do have is that it’s all going to happen not only in real life but also on the Net.

Ignoring realities

The markers of privilege I — and people like me — have been born with insulate me from the worst bits of on-ground electioneering; it’d be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. For as long as my heart doesn’t bleed, and it does, from time to time, I have the option of ignoring the realities, safe in the knowledge that things are only going to get a little bit worse.

But those rules don’t apply to the Internet. There, we’re all somewhat equal. And since the rise of Jio, the Internet has become a Real Thing, not just a place to watch videos of people falling down stairs. Which means Real Stakes. Which means the online discourse is going to continue to plummet till it hits rock bottom. The ‘Azadi’ merry-go-round is but one example; we keep seeing some silly photo or video mocking a rival, using contemporary trends to make a laboured point. They’re ruining our Internet! (Which was a terrible place to begin with.)

This is what old people do. They find whatever it is that makes us happy — the soundtrack of a much-hyped film, for instance — and they set about systematically ruining it for us. Remember how cool Facebook used to be? Then our parents got on it, so we all had to flee and seek refuge in Instagram or Twitter, even Snapchat. We claim it’s because of Facebook’s casual disregard for privacy, but that’s a lie we tell to feel good about ourselves. Same with SMS lingo, that archaic thing which didn’t believe in vowels. We all did it, till an annoying uncle on WhatsApp decided to try his hand at it tht 1 tym. We need our own language!

The most recent language developed by youth is memes. Stupid, postmodern, deadpan, nihilistic inside jokes that become a new kind of shorthand. And I can say with some surety that memes are now under threat. As the ruling party and the opposition realise the need to grab the youth vote, and gain crucial Internet traction, aka ‘virality’, they’re going after memes. They’re going to take whatever it is that’s popular on any given day and, to “connect with the youths”, they will bludgeon all humour out of it. We’ll just have to watch from afar, smacking our foreheads repeatedly.

Crumbling facade

A bigger worry, though, is that we may end up buying the propaganda — accidentally. A meme doesn’t take itself seriously, that’s what makes it endearing. As when a garden-variety evil corporation that we attack for its capitalism makes a corny meme, thanks to a ‘with-it’ ad agency. Our anti-establishment façade crumbles as we jump over each other to laud it. It happens the most cringingly when police Twitter handles use, say, a Game Of Thrones reference to make a point. The stupid post gets like a million shares, with ‘LOL Respect!’ the most common refrain. And the next day we read an account of extreme police brutality. Yet, the cognitive dissonance never quite registers.

The Internet’s propensity for extremism and homogeneity at the cost of nuance or self-reflection can be fun when the subject is trivial, like the new show on Amazon Prime. But on issues that matter, I’d rather know when I’m being played. And, given how smart our politicos are proving to be on social media, that’s becoming harder and harder to tell.

The author is a freelance culture writer from New Delhi who wishes he’d studied engineering instead.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 11:59:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/hands-off-our-memes-politicians/article26279679.ece

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