Centre for Applied Research of the Faculty on Digital Media & Creative Industries

"Memes have power and can mass-produce hope"

13 Nov 2022 10:57

The power of memes extends further than images alone: they can also affect the political system and how we treat one another. The newest edition of the Critical Meme Reader addresses the far-reaching influence of memes – and in particular, the positive opportunities stemming from that influence. This bundle of the latest scientific insights concerning memes was published last week and was compiled by researchers Chloë Arkenbout and Laurence Scherz of the AUAS research group ‘Institute of Network Cultures’ (INC)

‘Memes are best known for being funny pictures on the internet, but their power extends much further than the virtual world’, according to meme researcher Chloë Arkenbout from the AUAS research group Institute of Network Cultures. Memes are made to be shared and can spread like a virus. As a result, today's politicians frequently incorporate them into their campaigns as well. And for some time, scientists have been observing the phenomenon known as ‘memetic warfare’, in which activists, organisations, political parties and governments use memes to disseminate their ideas.

Previously, academics have focused their attention primarily on the dark side of memes’ extensive political influence. Alt-right memes played a role in the siege of the U.S. Capitol, for instance, with ‘Pepe the Frog’ being a well-known example.

Effective for progressive purposes

In the new Critical Meme Reader, by contrast, the media researchers devote their attention to more hopeful aspects. That same shareability and viral nature also makes memes effective when used for progressive purposes. Chloë Arkenbout says: ‘Right now, for example, you can see how Ukrainians are reaching a wide audience with their combative memes. Memes are more accessible than real-life demonstrations and therefore offer a way to contribute to a more just world.’

One example from the new reader is the so-called ‘cuteness memes’ that emerged in China during the COVID pandemic. The Chinese government used images of bulldozers and forklifts to show how they were building a hospital. Chinese citizens then created memes assigning nicknames to these forklifts, which became a way to express criticism of the government’s repressive policies.

Another significant example – from the first reader – is how protesters in Hong Kong appropriated Pepe the Frog for their own use, thereby giving the meme a new and hopeful meaning in an era of resistance.

Pepe the Frog was originally created by artist Matt Furie, who also initiated #savepepe

Exhausted meme makers

The reader also devotes specific attention to the intensive, oft-invisible labour that goes into making memes. Arkenbout explains: ‘Managing a meme account takes a great deal of time and “emotional labour”. Many meme-makers feel exhausted due to the criticism they face every day and the constant need to focus on urgent social issues.’ The reader includes an essay on this (by Anahita Neghabat and Caren Miesenberger), which is revealingly titled EVERY MEME MAKER I KNOW IS EXHAUSTED.

Meme researcher Chloë Arkenbout


Despite that exhaustion, the tone of the Critical Meme Reader remains hopeful. Chloë Arkenbout says: ‘Memes are extremely bottom-up: in principle, they can be created by anyone with an internet connection.

This makes them an effective way to express criticism and enact change.’ Or, as researcher Savriël Dillingh asserts in the Meme Reader: ‘Memes can mass-produce hope.’

The Critical Meme Reader can be ordered free of charge starting today; it can also be downloaded as a PDF or ePub via: Institute of Network Cultures | Critical Meme Reader II: Memetic Tacticality. For more information, please contact researcher Chloë Arkenbout or Professor Geert Lovink.