Hashtag memes: Breaking the single story through humour

Twitter memes for Kenya’s elections reflect a growing global trend of using internet humour to amplify a popular voice.

The sheer number of people tweeting about the same topic serves as a form of digital public assembly, making the tweets and their underlying message difficult to ignore [AFP]

In the recent elections in Kenya, a man was found with a knife, ready for slaughter. It was a terrifying moment for his victims, and he even posted his actions onto Twitter. 

The victim in this instance was a plate of goat meat. The man devoured it quickly and with satisfaction. 

This image was one of a series of satirical tweets using the hashtag #PicturesforStuart. They were aimed at France 24’s Stuart Norval. Norval’s tweet, like those of other foreign journalists, focused on isolated incidents of discord in the elections

Meanwhile, on the streets, internet-savvy Kenyans knew that the reports, while not untrue, simply were not telling the whole story.  Most of the country peacefully moved forward with elections

And Kenyans on Twitter let the world know it, using the hashtag #TweetLikeaForeignJournalist to mock online reportage: 

#TweetLikeAForeignJournalist several foreign journalists reported dead from boredom across the country. 

#TweetLikeaForeignJournalist: Peace erupts in various parts of Kenya. The government is asking the international community to assist. 

#TweetLikeAForeignJournalist BREAKING: Masked men with sticks spotted fighting violently at a Fencing club. More to follow. 

In true internet style, these memes quickly morphed into metamemes. #SomeoneTellCNN popped up in response to a CNN video piece on Kenyans arming themselves before the elections, and #SomeoneTellRaila followed soon thereafter to inform candidate Raila Odinga of the results. 

Kenyan internet researcher and commentator Mark Kaigwa noted: 

“I think the genesis of it is that you had a lot of writing in the build-up to the elections from a number of foreign journalists. Everyone from risk experts to a number of people who had studied the climate and the educators had alluded to violence. So journalists came somewhat with that expectation and so pursued stories that would conclude that entirely and not try and show some sort of balance.” 

It is not the first time Africans have taken to Twitter to challenge prevailing Western narratives. This past June, in the midst of the Euro crisis, Spain’s economy tanked and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reassured his finance minister, “We’re the number four power in Europe. Spain is not Uganda.” 

In previous years, a comment like that would have come and gone with little opportunity for response from citizens of the country being referenced. But with some 13 percent of Ugandans on the internet and rising, it was not a surprise that a number of them responded quickly with #UgandaIsNotSpain, a hashtag meme with tweets like the following: 

So #Spain is being kicked out of the Euro Zone and the Prime Minister is busy dissing #Uganda? What a terrible leader! #UgandaIsNotSpain 

#UgandaIsNotSpain Spanish PM #MarianoRajoy shld hv been paying attention to his economy to start with instead of catching a siesta. #Uganda 

#UgandaIsNotSpain What is wrong with that guy. You may have an economy 100 times ours but we don’t have any bank to BAIL OUT!!! 

The tide of responses prompted reactions from major international news outlets like CNN and Al Jazeera. It also provoked coverage from Ugandan media like The Monitor

The #UgandaisnotSpain hashtag ensured the story kept going and promoted a new story. As Uganda journalist Jackee Batanda noted

“While the only pictures Mr Rajoy may see on his television in Europe are of a miserable Africa (and I doubt that he gets the real picture from his country’s consulate in Uganda), there is another reality of a progressive Uganda that rarely makes it into the international media.” 

And it is not just in Africa. A similar hashtag strategy emerged in the recent Idle No More movement in Canada. Giving the Canadian capital a name sounding like the First Nations reserve Attawapiskat, Twitter users rallied around the hashtag #Ottawapiskat. Participants took language used to criticise First Nations reserves and applied it to Canada’s federal government, as so: 

In #Ottawapiskat, vast sums of money are centrally controlled by the chief, who doles them out to his cronies and favoured interests. 

#Ottawapiskat Chief spent $300,000 on sunscreen n bug spray and $14,000 for glow sticks for G8-G20 summit. @marygkosta pic.twitter.com/uWxf427P

When asked about repairing native relations, #Ottawapiskat Chief @PMHarper replied: I’ll doublecross that bridge when I come to it.

Indeed, in multiple world contexts, communities that have historically lacked a public voice in world media are using the norms of internet humour to amplify their perspectives. Netizens in China famously concocted the Grass Mud Horse, a dirty pun that challenges the norms of internet censorship. 

College students in the US created the Casually Pepper Spraying Cop meme in response to photos of a campus police officer applying the spray to a peaceful assembly of students. Like the hip-hop culture in the 90s, youth are creatively using media on the web to tell a counter-narrative to the one promoted by dominant media outlets. 

Breaking the single story 

In her terrific TEDGlobal talk, Nigerian writer Chimanada Adichie spoke of the dangers of a single story: 

“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

The rise of blogs and online publishing platforms was theoretically supposed to solve this problem. And in some sense, that is true: there are plenty of stories now available online and writers have a wider variety of outlets to choose from. But readers still have a finite amount of time, attention and cognitive energy in any given day. The cost of publishing has decreased considerably, but the chances of being heard remain slim. 

This is where hashtag memes like #TweetLikeaForeignJournalist and #Ottawapiskat carry additional weight. Humour has a long history in politics, from satirical cartoons to the court jester. It breaks down barriers and makes difficult social and political issues easier to broach and discuss. What Twitter and other social media enable is a much broader range of jesters and joke makers to participate and form a community. 

“Photography and video had outsize impacts when they were first implemented in citizen journalism, but now they are expected.”

Fuelled by the addictive power of internet culture, hashtag humour comes to the fore in a way that other techniques, like posting a thoughtful blog post, do not. Much as an endless parade of cat photos, these jokes riff off each other in quick succession. 

The sheer number of people tweeting about the same topic serves as a form of digital public assembly, making the tweets and their underlying message difficult to ignore. Indeed, the tide of tweets from Kenyans on Twitter compelled reporters at France 24 to respond with a justification of Norval’s original choice of using the word “dramatic”

Getting attention: A first step 

Internet culture, of course, is as varied and complex as human culture. The same energy that garners attention in foreign media and provokes broader coverage can be used to perpetuate divisions and amplify bullying. 

Recently, Kaigwa appeared on NTV Kenya with activist artist Nanjira Sambuli to discuss tribalism and hate speech memes that have arisen on Kenya’s online communities. As Kaigwa observed, much of the activity online was not even directed toward foreign journalists; it was directed toward fellow Kenyans. He said:  

“I’d like to see a couple people across society, digital, online and offline, and say how do we raise the collective consciousness of people? 

Is there a way we can express ethnicity positively, collectively, and see what that’s like, because that’s a road I don’t believe we’ve gone down before online.” 

And as with any new use of media, internet humour could simply be having its moment in the spotlight. Photography and video had outsize impacts when they were first implemented in citizen journalism, but now they are expected. 

At present, the use of hashtag jokes to comment on contemporary social and political issues remains limited, so effective uses at scale naturally garner attention. But it is striking that they have emerged so quickly even in areas with budding internet populations. I suspect this is just the beginning of civic internet culture. 

I am reminded of another Nigerian writer, the late Chinua Achebe, whose novel Things Fall Apart introduced another side of Nigeria to the world. In a recently-republished interview with The Atlantic, he noted that he hoped for similar success for other writers in marginalised communities: 

“And this is really what I personally wish this century to see – a balance of stories where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where we are not victims of other people’s accounts.” 

The internet has provided a platform for those stories – any Google search can reveal a plethora of blogs, vlogs and other citizen media from diverse perspectives. Writers are plenty but what about readers? 

In a world of finite attention spans and seemingly infinite media, internet humour has a unique ability to break through the noise and tell an alternative to a dominant single story. While we are giggling at the jokes, we are also paying attention. And that’s a step. 

An Xiao Mina is an artist, designer, writer and technologist. Her writing and commentary have appeared in The Atlantic, Fast Company, Wired and others, and she has lectured at conferences such as the Personal Democracy Forum and ROFLCon. She is co-founder of the Civic Beat, a platform celebrating internet culture around social and political expression worldwide, and she has been living on and off in Uganda researching intersections of technology and culture. 

Follow her on Twitter: @anxiaostudio