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Internet Memes and their Role in Environmental Communication

Figure 1 . An example of a popular meme format based on the music video for “Hotline Bling” by Drake. Picture credit @Climemechange

This text was written as an assignment for the course Communication & Sustainable Development, which was offered at University of Helsinki. More information about the course can be found here.

With the growth of the internet, more people than ever before have access to scientific information and public forums on which to discuss them. This leaves us with a large number of people trying to process the mass quantities of information they are exposed to, particularly about climate change. The severity of complete global devastation caused by warming temperatures is daunting and scary. Internet memes have entered the discussion as a way for people to process the concept of climate change as a collective threat; making light of a serious issue in attempt to manage the emotions that such an issue evokes. Most memes are intended to elicit a laugh. They draw their humour from shared experiences or familiar pieces of media that the reader can relate to. While entertaining at their core, memes can also help further educate or shape perspective on the topics they cover. Many memes created within the context of environmental issues have the indirect effect of encouraging their readers, especially younger people, to research more on their own. This essay aims to dive deeper into the concept of environmentally driven memes and their role within climate change conversations.

Figure 2. One of many memes made from screenshots of the tv show “Spongebob Squarepants”. Picture credit @Climemechange

Memes: A Brief History

A straightforward definition of “internet meme” is difficult to pin down. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in the 1970’s, referring to an abstract thought movement that behaves similarly to a biological gene (Castaño, 2013). To Dawkins, a meme was a cultural unit, such as an image, phrase, or video, that possessed the power to “propagate from person to person with the help of imitation. Memes have evolved over the years, both in their format and ways they are shared. Their subject matter has ranged anywhere from the serious to the absurd. Throughout their different iterations, they still retain their defining characteristic: humor. The humor behind memes is often self-explanatory, even without exposure to original source material. Irony and exaggeration are common traits in climate change-based memes, attempting to elicit a laugh in the face of a decidedly austere issue.

Figure 3. Kermit the Frog from “The Muppets” is instantly recognizable and is a popular character in many types of memes. Picture credit @Climemechange

From Humble Beginnings

The creative minds behind climate-themed memes are aware of how easy it can be for memes to spread and use this to their advantage. @Climemechange is a popular Instagram account dedicated exclusively to environmentally-focused meme content, and currently has almost fifty-five thousand followers. Their content is created by tweaking existing meme formats that are trending online with a climate change relevant message, then posting to the account where they are liked, commented on, and shared by users. When interviewed by Gizmodo, the anonymous creator of the account stated that their goal behind the page is to generate awareness of more systemic climate change issues in a way that is easily digestible to an audience that may not be familiar with the details of the problem (Lipstein, 2019). They acknowledge that climate change is an intricate, complicated topic and once their audience understands the background, they can be left feeling anxious, depressed, or hopeless. The account’s creator believes their content lives in the grey area between comedy and tragedy and is all about capturing the public’s attention. Getting them to think about climate change, even for a few moments as they are scrolling through social media, is the first step in combating apathy and opening up the discussion.

Figure 4. Surprised Pikachu. Picture credit knowyourmeme.com

A Climate Change Meme Case Study: Surprised Pikachu

Typically, successful memes about climate change are plays on already existing meme formats. For example, in 2018 a picture of Pikachu looking surprised went viral. Part of this meme’s popularity stemmed from its recognizable subject; Pikachu, a yellow rabbit type character from the Japanese cartoon Pokémon, is well known worldwide. Users on Twitter and Reddit frequently changed the caption, using the “Surprised Pikachu” image as a relatable reaction of false surprise for the obvious consequences of these scenarios. Within the context of environmental change, this meme was modified to poke fun at climate change deniers, feigning surprise when the climate responds to anthropogenic forcing. This iteration was well received on Reddit, a popular forum based website known for its active discussion threads on a variety of topics. As discussed earlier, this sort of self-depreciating, self-aware humor is consistent throughout other climate change memes. While this meme, and others like it, would be funniest to those that have a marginal understanding of climate change, it can also be a potential catalyst to encourage the reader to research further.

Through an Environmental Communication Lens

Figure 5. A meme-based protest sign at the Helsinki Climate Strike in September 2019. Picture credit at author.

Modern perceptions of nature are created through the lens of science, technology, and society (Cox, 2010). Representations have changed, as have attitudes towards the natural world, and we are left with the need to interpret these dynamics in new ways. The ability of memes to spread rapidly, or “go viral” has given a voice to the traditionally underrepresented and given them a stake in the conversation. Consider who, historically, speaks on behalf of nature. Scientists, politicians, and corporate interests tend to be the loudest voices, but they typically don’t represent the interests of the majority, or even the interests of nature itself (Pratt & Rabkin, 2007). Spreading awareness, even through humor, can help redirect the conversation and put pressure on the more powerful stakeholders to change their perspective (Laestadius, et. al. 2014). Memes can give some power back to the public, particularly when used to mobilize social change.

Why Does It Matter?

Internet memes have entered the climate change discussion as a way for the masses to process the impending threat of a warming climate. Relying on humor, rather than unrealistic calls to action and fear-provoking statistics, can open the conversation in a manner that is both accessible and self-aware. Understanding the ways that people talk about climate change outside of scientific or academic spaces is important; it gives researchers a chance to identify the best ways to reach a broad audience and locate gaps in knowledge about the topic. Memes are a relatively new form of communication, but their popularity has grown exponentially over recent years and will likely continue to do so. We are likely to continue seeing internet memes in popularized discussions of climate change, as well as other modern social movements.

DANA PETERS

Figure 6. Picture credit @Climemechange


References
Castaño, D., C.M. (2013). Defining and characterizing the concept of Internet Meme. Revista CES Psicología, 6(2), 82-104.

Cox, R. (2010). Environmental Communication. LA, London: SAGE

Laestadius, L. I., Neff, R. A., Barry, C. L., & Frattaroli, S. (2014). We don’t tell people what to do: An examination of the factors influencing NGO decisions to campaign for reduced meat consumption in light of climate change. Global Environmental Change (29) 32-40

Lipstein, E. (2019). Climate Change Memes for Angry and Terrified Teens. Gizmodo. Web. Retrieved from: https://earther.gizmodo.com/climate-change-memes-for-angry-and-terrified-teens-1838499802

Pratt, L. G. and Rabkin, S. (2007). Listening to the audience: San Diego hones its communication strategy by soliciting residents’ views. Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. Cambridge, 105-116

Dana Peters

Dana Peters is an Environmental Change and Global Sustainability Masters student at the University of Helsinki. Her previous academic background is in communications and sociology within the context of environmental issues, studied in the United States.