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Adam Eli

How memes became an agent of protest in 2018

#NationalWalkoutDay proved that this generation of protesters knows how to make a message connect and spread like wildfire

Each new ad or campaign aimed at young people only serves as a reminder that adults don’t understand how to talk to us. (Why does everyone think we all care so much about avocados?) Nevertheless, America’s teens have proven this month that they can communicate with each other perfectly. Whatever you think of the great Tide Pod scare, or the incomprehensible popularity of Logan Paul, we all know teenagers come together via shared online experiences. It’s partly this connectivity that led to huge crowds at the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14 – and, naturally, the huge number of memes they were carrying.

The protest was largely organised via a Twitter hashtag that was started in the weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Thousands of teens streamed into their school yards or nearby neighbourhoods to make their voices to heard in the conversation about gun reform. As photos of the direct action have surfaced online, there’s one thing that has really shown the power of that symbiosis between social media and activism: IRL memes.

Even before they began appearing at actual protests, memes have long been used to demonstrate teens’ political anxieties online. In retaliation to Trump’s ludicrous suggestion that teachers should be armed to tackle school shootings in February, Twitter was flooded with examples of bad teachers from popular vines and TV shows. (Think Miss Trunchbull from Matilda.) Meanwhile, the “distracted boyfriend” meme was used to sum up the alarmingly simple “debate” – the jealous girlfriend is labelled “getting shot”, the boyfriend is America’s youth, and the alluring woman who has caught his attention is quite simply: “not getting shot”.

Variations on this meme were seen at Wednesday’s action, along with interpolations of “evil Patrick” – the starfish from Spongebob Squarepantsand “mocking Spongebob”. Many were amused at the rise of the IRL political meme, joking about the prospect of “evil Patrick” appearing in history books. This continued a trend that began last year, when "this is fine" memes, among others, were seen at the Women's March and other anti-Trump protests. But, as with most things, once it was placed into the hands of teenagers, adults began wringing their hands about what it all means. 

To older, less digi-fluent tweeters, the appearance of memes at a protest was a show of immaturity in the activists that distracted from an important message. An old troll suggested that 16-year-olds had gone to the protest on a “Tide Pod high”, as if the meshing of digital culture into protests not only devalues the overall message, but signals stupidity. Meanwhile, @pinkmoonstick bluntly tweeted: “Full offense but signs at protests with memes on them are like...the dumbest thing.”

But isn’t this the natural next step to our generation’s advocacy? Digital culture permeates every aspect of teen living, and this youth-led anti-gun movement is no exception. News of the shooting was spread via the live tweets of scared students struggling within the cupboards and classrooms of the Florida high school mid-attack. As more teens saw the horrors of the attack on their social feeds, the movement grew. There was an outcry from a generation that had had #enough, and a rallying call to action for those who vowed to put an end to school shootings: #NeverAgain.

There’s potency in simplicity. Part of Trump’s success, after all, was that he only speaks at a fourth grade level (meaning he has the vocabulary of a 10-year-old). Usually political language is almost deliberately exclusionary and dry, making it harder for youth to connect the jargon to their everyday lives. But these memes specifically take aim at the government’s affiliation with the predatory NRA, and the shortsightedness of Trump’s arm-all-teachers solution, getting the point across without jargon. Any teen who uses social media will understand.

“There’s a staggering coherence to these protests that shows that this generation knows how to grab attention, crafting their protest signs in a way that encourages viral reactions”

Not only that, but those carrying meme signs know that if their sign is good, it’ll be shared online, and go viral – making the relationship between online and offline protest truly symbiotic given that the success of the protest came off the back of virality. It's probably the same thinking behind another viral image which shows students posed in formation for an aerial photo having arranged themselves into the “enough” hashtag. These are deliberate message to the online world.

Just as teens understand the meaning behind the savage facial expression of Patrick from Spongebob, they understand each other. There’s a staggering coherence to these protests that shows that this generation knows how to grab attention, crafting their protest signs in a way that encourages viral reactions. They’ve quickly got like-minded young people on board with their message. So don’t be fooled by their tongue-in-cheek, Twitter-inspired placards – between the distinct symbolism of digital culture and its ability to spread messages globally, this burgeoning protest movement is no laughing matter.