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Political Reality and Facebook Memes in Mexico

Puedes leer este artículo en español aquí.

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Memes are a combination of pop culture –media–, political and social issues whit a pinch of humor, a huge one. 

I know, this articule sounds like a joke but it's not, trust me. In your hands you have an anthropological study of political humor on the Internet.

Everybody who grew up in the ‘digital age’ is familiar with memes. They are artefacts on the Internet, usually photographs, which often have a humoristic undertone. Or as American Internet researcher Patrick Davison described it:

An internet meme is a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission

This joking element, which is typical for many memes, results in the fact that it is accessible for anyone using the Internet, high income or low income, man or woman, black or white. So, I ventured, why not write a MA thesis about it, combining my interest for the study of humor and social media with my affiliation with Mexico, and the attempts (often fought out online) of many of its citizens to democratize the political structures of the country?

SOCIAL AND TRADITIONAL MEDIA

#YoSoy132 and #YaMeCansé do not need an introduction, but maybe the Facebook group Chinga tu Madre EPN does, as it was the group on which I decided to research.  Chinga tu Madre EPN it is a group, which has over 200.000 members, founded after the last presidential elections. Its main ideological motivation was to downplay and destroy the (in the group’s own words) corrupt, tuft-wearing president Enrique Peña Nieto, elected president of Mexico since 2012, using social media (more specifically: Facebook) as a platform, and memes as a means to do so.

The main aim of my research was to see:

1. what kind of people engage themselves in the group.

2. How meme sharing is connected to the objective of the group.

3. How it results in an alternative vision of political reality for Mexicans, as well as for Mexican society at large.

I did this through relating the memes in the group with news reports from TV Azteca and Televisa, and with articles of three national newspapers, the social-leftist La Jornada, the central-political El Reforma and the conservative Milenio. The principal goal was to investigate how the Facebook group Chinga tu Madre EPN, through the sharing and posting of memes, relates to people’s offline experiences of political reality in Mexico, and to investigate how online Facebook memes are connected to the wider context of people’s lives. In other words, how do memes use an ‘online’ humoristic discourse to express ‘offline’ political concerns?

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Some examples of the political meme in Mexico.

 Before diving into the findings and the conclusions of my research, it is necessary to say something about the main existent ideas that try to explain why humor is so, very laughable. In short, already in the era of the ancient Greeks, Plato argued that humor has to do with incongruity, with surprise or the violation of an accepted pattern. Something which is perceived to be abnormal in our own way of thinking, is incoherent with reality, and therefore it makes us laugh. 

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Take for instance a clown. The appearance, the way of moving or the behavior of a clown, is the complete opposite of what is normal in everyday life. Plato would say that for this reason this makes you laugh. Next to this, Plato reasoned, and many more scientists after him, another context in which laughter is produced is when we put ourselves above others (especially others in powerful position), thereby denigrating them and feeling better about ourselves. A third assumption about humor came into existence almost two centuries later, when the realization came that laughter appears when stress is relieved. In other words, we laugh at very serious things, which touch us emotionally, in an attempt to see the lighter side of it.

CONTINÚA ABAJO…

WHAT IS A MEME?

This last idea was the point of departure for me, as I reasoned that, where better than in Mexico, where violence in many parts of the country is an everyday phenomenon, where students disappear and where narcos rule, but also where humor is such an essential part of individual daily life, should the relief of stress through laughter be more visible? A meme posted in the Chinga tu Madre EPN group, in the context of the CNTE protests, rejecting Peña Nieto’s educative reforms, was an image mocking of the PRI government, as well as expressing itself in favor of the CNTE protesters. So, while President Peña Nieto and Secretary of Public Education Nuño Mayer were defending the reforms, backed by the PRI-supportive Mexican television networks, TV Azteca and Televisa, memes like those were posted every five minutes (or even less) in the group, showing the immense flux of these visual artefacts and its influence on the group members.

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PEÑA NIETO REVEALING HIS TRUE IDENTITY?

However, humor is humor, often with little nuance. The meme below shows a funny way to express discontent about Peña Nieto, but also about Club América and Mexico-hater Donald Trump (who will be President of the United States in 2017, as everybody knows, but which was not yet certain during my fieldwork). This meme is bashing, downgrading the two persons and the football club, in a rhetoric competition of reactions about who is the most unpopular of all (I will not leave you in suspense, it was Peña Nieto, by far).

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These two memes already demonstrate a very important hypothesis of my research. Memes in the Chinga tu Madre EPN group were not disconnected from reality, but they actively engage in the discussion about news themes that are also popular in the traditional media. In other words, many different themes and events, big and small, which came up in the news during my research period also regularly came up in the group. The CNTE protests and the Clinton-Trump race for the White House are just two of them. 

AYOTZINAPA

The Ayotzinapa drama of September 2014 also regularly reappeared as a ‘meme theme’ in the Chinga tu Madre EPN group. The event is still an important landmark for the group members to voice their rejection of current political events, like the reforma educativa. Through relating for instance the disastrous Nochixtlán shootings to the occurrences of Ayotzinapa, Mexico’s bloody political reality was emphasized and the rejection of Peña Nieto’s government gained force and validity among them. The message seems clear: The group does not forget the horrible things that happened under Peña Nieto’s reign

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SARCASM OR SEVERITY? FIRTS THE STUDENTS, NOW THE TEACHERS

While in the United States Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were waging dirty campaigns to get into the White House, the theme of Peña Nieto’s own casa blanca in Mexico showed the deep rejection of Peña Nieto as a president, and, on the other side, the full support for Carmen Aristegui in her struggle to bring corruption to light. In the group the theme was for a short period in July 2016 the main topic of conversation. Once again, Peña Nieto is not getting away with his crimes by expressing a simple apology. The theme of Peña Nieto’s casa blanca shows the extreme rejection of corruption in the Chinga tu Madre EPN group.  

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PEÑA NIETO’S CYNICISM

The memes above are just a small representation of the data I used to construct my argument around. I argue that the visual aspect of memes, as well as the humoristic aspect, have the powerful result to mold highly complex Mexican political reality in a single issue problem, a simple question of yes or no, embedded in the deeper emotional, political and societal context of contemporary Mexico. Meme sharing in the “Chinga tu Madre EPN” Facebook group leads in this way to alternative versions of political reality, in a context of mistrust, corruption and violence, created by and for Mexicans. Through using memes as a more simplified form of seeing reality, the members of the Facebook group distort the discussions formed in the traditional media. One could argue that the group does the same thing as Televisa and TV Azteca do, namely objectifying and blinding a deeper discussion about politics in Mexico. The memes shared in the “Chinga tu Madre EPN” Facebook group are, however, a shout for change, a grito de guerra against the direction that the country is heading under the leadership of Enrique Peña Nieto, resulting in little substantial critique, but embedded in a general call to arms, which is also present in the diverse and massive context of other Mexican-based social media groups. The group does not provide a new revolutionary way of thinking to guide the country to better times, neither does it come up with a well-constructed elaboration of the most important critique it expresses towards the Peña Nieto government, the PRI party, or traditional Mexican politics. 

FURTHER READING

  • Davison, P. (2012). The Language of Internet Memes. In: M. Mandiberg (ed.), The Social Media Reader (pp.120-134). New York, USA: New York University Press.

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