The Meme-fication of the 2022 Presidential Election (Part 2)
by Ram Bernal
Last of two parts. Read Part 1 here.
Memes as Tools of Disinformation
In the recently concluded elections, we were deceived by PR firms and corporate overlords for another meme was made. The same characteristics that make memes effective propaganda tools — viral, attention-grabbing, easily replicated, and subject to different interpretations — also make memes just as productive in spreading disinformation. In essence, memes are formed over shared experiences and common understanding. Individuals sharing and viewing memes should have a common account of issues to build a similar context that is funny and relatable. But in 2022, it was much more challenging to draw a parallel reality when historical revisionism was simultaneously being fanned on social media sites. Filipinos found it difficult to look for the same grounding, for truths were subjected to opposing standpoints, and facts were reduced to ‘fake news.’ The media were dubbed “bayaran” and opinions of social media influencers and bloggers were cited by the netizens over verified news articles of legitimate media companies.
The true meme-fication of the electoral process happened when netizens who hold the fort against misinformation and disinformation became unconscious propagators of the corrupt’s political propaganda. By sharing memes of candidates without providing adequate context, we are unconsciously widening their reach. By hitting the laugh button and chuckling at a post we thought was too absurd for anyone to believe, some of our mutual friends interpreted the memes as they were.
Memes, which were used initially to poke fun at the corrupt politicians, were hijacked by the same individuals and spun to their advantage. Candidates interfered with meme creation as creators, through their professional PR teams, and as distributors, through their troll farms, to affect the virality of the messages. Memes, which are products of popular culture that can challenge existing power relations, were weaponized against the people. Although the alleged overwhelming victory of Marcos Jr. cannot be purely attributed to meme creation, the large PR firms and their troll farms utilized the popular internet language to lure mis- and disinformed voters.
Memes as Tools of Dissent
In the past, political humor exhibited through memes has been used to register dissent against the ruling class and powerful government officials. 2013 was a notable year for internet memes due to a drastic shift of mobile phone users from keypads to smartphones. Internet access was also becoming more accessible, and Facebook became a prominent avenue to share internet memes. On Twitter, parody accounts like DonyaAngelica (known as Senyora on Facebook) gained popularity due to their funny commentaries relating to political issues. The 2013 Mid-Term Elections made the netizens realize that the internet was not just a platform to build networks: it could also be a space to demand accountability from the government and air social commentaries that could influence others. Although anonymous pages and groups supplied political memes, the humor still seemed organic and not orchestrated. Filipinos have shown that memes have been representations of a different kind of comment culture, which thrives on humor but solicits dissenting reactions from the audience.
To reclaim this type of meme, we first need to recognize that there is no such thing as ethical consumption of memes, especially when the country is fighting over the legitimacy of written history. Creating and sharing memes are almost natural reactions to what is happening. Still, we must refuse to be pawns in the disinformation war being waged by morally bankrupt politicians and dynasties, and corporations that profit from allowing disinformation content on their platforms. We should not be passive producers and consumers of memes.
We might feel dismayed and powerless because of the well-oiled propaganda and disinformation machinery. What can we do? Let us seize the memes of production! Tarantadong Kalbo is paving the way on social media. When Kevin Raymundo, more popularly known as Tarantadong Kalbo, shared his tumitindig illustration on Facebook, it became an instant hit, recreated by hundreds of sectors and groups online. His illustration also became a staple design for rallies and mobilizations. Cartoonist Zach is also using his platform to create satires that would strike national consciousness. They are inspiring examples of content creators who effectively mix humor and politics within the square format.
Moreover, we must understand how social media companies such as Facebook, Tiktok, and Youtube contributed to the outcome of this election. These sites’ algorithms fueled the presidential campaign of the dictator’s son, along with their inadequate policies for policing historical revisionism, malicious content, and disinformation on their websites. Legislation aimed at regulating these platforms must be passed in Congress as social media companies should be held accountable for being accomplices to the destruction of our democracy. And while we are at it, advertising professionals and PR firms that operate troll farms and run disinformation marketing campaigns for politicians should be investigated, penalized, and dismantled if necessary. If people no longer know who is telling the truth, demagogues will rise to sow more confusion and monopolize power. Bongbong Marcos’ victory should serve as a warning to other countries that disinformation, when left unchecked, will wreak havoc on the moral fabric of our society.
Beyond the web, systemic and wide-ranging reforms in the education sector must start immediately. We must look to countries that seem to successfully combat fake news. Finland has integrated comprehensive anti-disinformation courses into the curricula of its schools and colleges. We too must take on the neoliberal setup of our education system and demand our education leaders declare an education crisis. Filipino educators must prioritize teaching critical thinking skills. Our students should learn how to verify sources, discern misleading news, and think independently.
As memes have become tools of propaganda and disinformation, we must actively participate now, more than ever, in the political discourse of our nation. Our online movements should be matched with physical manifestations to confront memes with hard reality. As the infamous quote states, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Our face-to-face interactions — integral to arousing, organizing, and mobilizing the citizenry — will prevail where the streets have no memes.