Online Mediation and Managing Memes

If the next World War is expected to be virtual spectacle of meme-dropping and cold-blooded trolling… has it already begun? And can online mediation thrive in this digital battlefield?

Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan famously summarised the 20th century’s virtual cultural revolution as ‘the medium is the message’, inviting us to reflect on how our gadgets shape our lifestyles and ideologies. When contextualised to the technological trends of the  21st century, McLuhan may have summarised his media theory as ‘the medium is the messenger’, as social media lets the ‘sender’ virtually travel, live and participate in the private life of the ‘receiver’, invading their private mental and emotional spaces.

Memes are changing political rhetoric among arch-rivals India and Pakistan in the South-Asian sub-continent. Compared to the past, where nationalists didn’t have opportunities to insult or ridicule each other across the border, trolling via memes provides a direct channel, an unfiltered mode of communication from the comfort of their homes. Demonstration of weaponization of memes is no longer a covert operation. Palestinians sent an Arabic meme viral on Facebook, mocking Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stand on the peace plan that proposes relocating the Palestinian capital to Abu Dis, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In more popular news, General Soleimani and Donald Trump trolled each other with ‘Game of Thrones’ memes, days before the US president ordered an airstrike at the Iranian commander.

Earlier to the above political trolling, social networking sites such as TikTok and Twitter were drenched in meme-fuelled nostalgia for World War III.  Writing in The Atlantic, columnist Ian Bogost empathised with millennials stating, “#wwiii is not just a hashtag, but a symbol that young people are mustering that old emblem to express their unconscious fears about the present”. As the US and Iranian governments began snarling at the proposition of a military conflict, ordinary citizens of both nations ignorantly began creating memes to distract themselves from the chaos and anxiety.

Memes are not all bad, and as mediators, we are invited to explore the true motivation and interest driving their creators and transmitters. So, what is a meme?

Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The Selfish Gene’, defined a meme as “nothing but a contagious idea; a concept — an idea, a style, or a type of behaviour — that circulates and gains popularity within a culture.” Memes as we know today are circulated as images with texts and shared widely on social media. Being based on pop culture, they are received worldwide over people of different ages, sex, race and cultures, making it entertaining and ‘relatable’ to widespread international audiences. Anyone, anything or any incident can be the subject of a meme.

A meme is a “youthful, speculative and vulnerable concept” and as mediator Peter Adler states, “as fuzzy as they may be, memes gives us a basic reference point, a comparison for circumstances in other places and times” allowing us to understand the transnational nature of cultural contexts. Memes are an integral part of our lives now; serving different purposes – entertainment, marketing, politics and perhaps even education, making for a fun assimilation of information.

There is a certain sense of humour involved in this medium of messaging.  Since most memes are inspired by satire and dissent, often brutal and dark; differentiating between a cyberbully and an internet troll is essential. If social media giants could set up