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The complex ethics of online memes

by Whitney Phillips & Ryan Milner
26 October 2016
TECHNOLOGY
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Sharing memes is funny but we can miss the real story, say Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner, the authors of a new book about mischief on the internet.

 
Online jokes and play aren’t the same as the kinds you’d enjoy in your living room. Despite the widespread assumption that what happens online is somehow less serious or real than “IRL” experiences, online humor can actually be more ethically fraught than offline playfulness – which unfortunately, might spoil some of the fun of internet memes.
 
Although the behaviors themselves might be similar on and offline, internet memes (believe it or not, there are offline memes as well) and other digital content can travel further, be decontextualised more quickly and accessed instantaneously – without the original creator’s consent or even awareness – by millions of people, all with the click of a link. Each of these people, even further removed from the story, are then able to continue tinkering with the content in a number of ways and for a number of ends. This kind of play can be every bit as creative, social, and unifying for some as it is destructive, antagonistic, and alienating for the others.
 

The Harambe case demonstrates two of the most pressing ethical concerns in internet culture: amplification and fetishisation.

 
Take the Harambe meme, for example. Harambe was a Western lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and was shot and killed by a zookeeper in May after a child fell into his enclosure. In response, countless online participants began creating and sharing Harambe content, ranging from photoshopped pictures  to catchphrases to satirical hashtags. Just like that, the Harambe meme was born.
 
 
Some of these iterations were absurdist and silly, showing Harambe as a lumbering angel in heaven. Some focused on the injustice of Harambe’s killing, since the gorilla hadn’t actually harmed the child.
 
 
And some veered into harassing, explicitly racist territory – for instance, when images of the gorilla were used to taunt and harass black American actress Leslie Jones. Journalistic coverage of Jones’ harassment and its connection to the Harambe meme imbued the broader story with an indelible tinge of ugliness.
 
As well as demonstrating a meme’s ability to communicate a range of messages, the Harambe case demonstrates two of the most pressing ethical concerns in internet culture: amplification and fetishisation. 
 

Do potential benefits like calling attention to injustice, for example, or naming and shaming antagonists outweigh the risks, for instance further circulating racist discourse or giving antagonists a larger platform?

 
Amplification occurs when the intended message is spread due to sharing, reporting or commenting on a particular meme. It’s straightforwardly unethical when an individual willfully and maliciously spreads damaging content in an effort to harass, intimidate or denigrate. For those actively antagonising others – like Jones’ harassers – sharing is a weapon that clearly and deliberately amplifies harm.
 
READ: Michael Salter on what we can do about outrage and bullying culture online.
 
But even individuals who amplify a meme for good reasons, such as to critique its underlying sentiment, can inadvertently prolong that meme’s life. In these kinds of cases it is critical to consider what impact reblogging, retweeting or commenting might have. Do potential benefits like calling attention to injustice, for example, or naming and shaming antagonists outweigh the risks, for instance further circulating racist discourse or giving antagonists a larger platform?
 
Amplification also impacts a second ethical issue: fetishisation, when part of something – like an image, statement, or joke – is treated as the whole story. In the Harambe case, a sentient creature’s death was in some cases completely disregarded and in other cases reframed as nothing more than the punchline to a joke.
 
We can also see fetishisation at work in participants’ apparent obliviousness to or disregard for the employees monitoring the Cincinnati Zoo Facebook and Twitter accounts. In the months following Harambe’s death, employees were so overwhelmed with the flood of Harambe content they decided to delete their account.
 

Behind every screen sits a person with feelings, family, interests and worries, whose online and offline experiences are fundamentally intertwined.

 
Fetishism also flattened the racist undercurrent of many participants’ initial responses to the gorilla’s death. The boy who fell into Harambe’s enclosure was black, and after his death his parents were attacked by citizens and journalists alike with a variety of racist stereotypes attempting to link the boy’s fall with the color of his parents’ skin. The racist premise lurking underneath many early “justice for Harambe” protestations was “this gorilla is more valuable than that black boy”, and furthermore, “I’m angry this gorilla died because of his bad black parents.”
 
Of course, not all Harambe protestors harboured racist sentiment. Many participants, maybe even the majority of participants, may not have even been aware of the racial dimensions of the story. But as in many cases of viral meme sharing (for example Bed Intruder, Star Wars Kid, and any number of “online vigilantism” cases), the fetishised image of Harambe obscured the story’s full political context. This prevented participants from assessing what it was exactly they were turning into a joke.
 

The internet is not an ethics-free zone. Responsible online participation requires thinking about the experiences and feelings of others

 
Even those with the best intentions can bring about outcomes which are misleading or even destructive. Just as participants might not mean to perpetuate racist ideology by sharing a meme, they might not mean to ignore critical contextualising details. But when people remix and play with stories and images online, critical contextualising details are often the first things to go. What’s left instead are the amusing or interesting pieces of the puzzle. It becomes easy to forget about the bigger picture and especially easy to forget about the people or groups who might be impacted as a result.
 
This is not to discourage participation in meme culture or to suggest online play is necessarily harmful. But it does serve as a reminder that all online actions have consequences: good, bad or somewhere in between, that transcend purely digital spaces. After all, behind every screen sits a person with feelings, family, interests and worries, whose online and offline experiences are fundamentally intertwined.
 
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Phillips and Milner’s
new book delves into the complexities of internet culture.
 
All memes have a context, even in cases where that context has been obscured. These cases in particular warrant careful consideration, since what might appear to be a harmless joke from one angle may in fact have devastating consequences for the target, whether that target is a single individual or a broader social group.
 
The internet is not an ethics-free zone. Responsible online participation requires thinking about the experiences and feelings of others and watching where, when and how you step. And most importantly, before you amplify a message, always remembering: there but for the grace of the internet go you.
 
Whitney Phillips is Assistant Professor of Literature Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She’s the author of This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Follow her on Twitter @wphillips49.
 
Ryan Milner is Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston. He is the author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. Follow him on Twitter @rmmilner.


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