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How memes have changed political conversation, discussion

Memes have evolved into an arena for political discourse, but many are worried over their tendencies to polarize views and to trivialize nuanced discussion.

Memes have been used by candidates’ supporters to mark major happenings such as Bongbong Marcos’ refusal to attend debates to Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s call for Vice President Leni Robredo’s withdrawal from the race.

University of the Philippines Diliman instructor Francis Simonh Bries states that memes originally serve to lighten the mood around politics—a topic often avoided because of how heavy it is perceived as—and to give way to more in-depth discussions. However, memes are created for a particular audience that understands its context as an in-joke.

Increased polarization

“Memes could work within communities. And it may not have the same meaning when carried across communities,” says Bries.

According to Bries, memes now contribute to polarization, which usually occurs when people disagree on an issue. The differing interpretation and use of memes are now an additional factor. “The problem is that for people to become divided across camps, it’s not necessarily that they diverge in their opinions,” Bries says. “They just have to perceive [them] (memes) very differently.”

As for its other uses, memes have also been used to attack candidates and supporters directly, forgoing important discussions on policy stances. For Bries, this harms deliberative democracy where thinking is founded on consensus building and discussion.

The instructor also emphasizes that discussions should be inclusive and welcoming for people to participate in where opinions are respected as long as there is evidence to back the claim. Civility and respectfulness are a given even if disagreements occur.

Hindi ka mananalo sa isang eleksyon kung hindi mo kakausapin ‘yung mga tao na nasa ibang partido…hanggang diyan ka nalang sa rank na iyan kasi hindi mo kinakausap ‘yung mga tao na puwede sana i-convert to your side,” Bries warns.

(You do not win an election if you do not talk to others in different parties…You will only reach your current rank because you did not talk to people who you could have converted to your side.)

Stirred by biases

As memes polarize supporters and inhibit political discourses, Senior Program Officer at the Office of the President and sociologist Barry Codera explains that cognitive bias plays a huge role in the process. “There is a tendency to have [a] cognitive bias, [in which] they do not accept things that are different from their standpoint,” he shares.

Adding to this, Bries stresses that motivated cognition enables people to view information from the lens of their experiences, emphasizing that which is significant to them.

Close mindedness causes opposing camps to reject anything that would contradict their existing beliefs about a candidate. While they continue to show their fervor and support, this also prevents them from being aware of their own biases, making their “logic and analysis very narrow,” Codera adds.

In the Post-truth Era, people now have their own sense of what is true—perceiving facts as a mere option to their own beliefs rather than an established truth, thus creating confusion.

In regard to that, Codera puts forward that in reality, people may not be informed in defense of their candidate—as they themselves do not provide their supporters with factual information. “Kaya rin sila nag-resort to ad hominem because that’s the only way that they could defend [themselves and their candidates].”

(That’s why they resort to ad hominem…)

Furthermore, Bries asserts that disinformation tends to be more simple and digestible for the people. “So as long as you’re able to fill in that gap [with] your understanding, okay na siya,” he adds.

A double-edged sword

Alongside the growing popularity of memes as a tool to advance political information is the rise of social media pages and groups that contribute to such growth through their contents.

Andrea Mendoza, deputy chief of staff for Press Office of 1SAMBAYAN Lasalyano (1SY Lasalyano), shares that since the establishment of their social media page, its target audience has expanded from sole members of the Lasallian community to Filipinos of all ages around the country, especially during the days approaching the 2022 National and Local Elections.

With 1SY Lasalyano producing a number of meme content, Mendoza says that when memes effectively prompt the right emotions from the audience, the likelihood of engagements increasing is high. Thus, the message it attempts to convey reaches more people. “Let’s say laughter, happiness, sadness—the more shareability factor it has, so [it] becomes more shareable,” Mendoza shares.

However, memes have their share of disadvantages as they can, at the same time, impede nuanced conversations. “‘Pag nakita mo siya (memes), ‘di mo na kailangan masyado mag-isip. Ang nangyayari [ay] di mo na rin kailangan pag-usapan kung ano ang dapat pag-usapan in [a] political context,” Mendoza asserts.

(You do not have to think too hard when you see memes, and the tendency is to not talk about it at all in a political context.)

But with memes serving as a double-edged sword in engaging voters from different camps in political discourses, possible ways to address accompanying criticisms and issues should also be considered.

Bries emphasizes that to debunk disinformation fueled by memes’ lack of context, person-to-person conversations should be practiced more instead of passive interactions such as providing article recommendations. He adds that it is important to promote “political sophistication” as a means to enable critical thinking among the people.

By engaging more in conversations to address the issue of people seeing memes and political information only through their echo chambers and “bubbles of political beliefs,” Bries also says that more people will be able to “safely unpack [their] beliefs and not [feel] confronted for their incorrect views.”

Meanwhile, Mendoza says 1SY Lasalyano eventually shifted the balance of their social media content, with lesser memes and more informative posts. As much as memes act as conversation starters, Mendoza points out that there is danger when people use them as the whole context driver for discussions, despite being misconstrued.

“[Itong memes] na ‘to dapat pag-usapan natin in a nuanced—in a more focused discussion. Pero dapat, when you are having a political discussion, you have facts, you have information that is verified—that is true, that is factual,” Mendoza asserts.

(We have to talk about these memes in a nuanced—in a more focused discussion).

By The LaSallian

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