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Know your meme: internet pop culture is the new language of activism

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It’s easy to take free speech and an open media for granted in Australia, and criticising our politicians and institutions is something of a national pastime. But how do people become social activists and advocate for change when they don’t have the same freedoms?

Black smartphone emitting holographic social media icons.

It’s a reality in several South-East Asian nations where political rulers wield tight control of their national media through extensive censorship, and enforce aggressive sedition and defamation laws. If you are a local, or work with mainstream media, you know there are lines not to cross and topics not to speak of. The internet used to be a place where people could still air their views and communicate more freely, but that is changing.

“It’s been well documented that online spaces are becoming increasingly policed, with people suddenly losing their jobs or their privileges after sharing their views, or being charged for offences ranging from slander against the state, to intention to incite disharmony,” says Dr Crystal Abidin, a Senior Research Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin.

Her current research is exploring how social media is being used to disseminate contentious views or grassroots dissent, and encourage social activism.

Internet pop culture, with its layers of text, images, audio, stickers, emojis, gifs and videos, can be used to craft very nuanced messages. Abidin points out that “Young people are especially savvy at using this para-text to compress the statement they’re trying to make into a shareable, palatable format.

“On open platforms like Facebook or internet forums, everyone may be able to see their messages, but not everyone will be able to decipher their more layered meanings.”

Memes, emoticons and other combinations of para-text are interpreted differently based on context, which is informed by various personal references, including racial, gendered, cultural, social and political. With today’s young people growing up in an increasingly global cohort, their shared pop culture ‘shorthand’ is becoming a basis for deciphering any subtext in social media messages.

A well-known and simple example of this is was in China in 2018, when images of Winnie the Pooh were circulated online parodying President Xi Jinping. The bear became a symbol of resistance to the government and led authorities to blanket-ban all references to the children’s classic inside China.

Abidin says that internet pop culture is primarily focused on entertainment, which helps spread subversive messages in two ways.

“If it’s entertaining it will be shared more effectively, and seen by more people. Even if many people don’t perceive the underlying message, they’ll enjoy the laughs and pass it on.

“Using jokes, memes or parody videos to embed social, cultural or political commentary also provides a certain degree of plausible deniability.

“Subversive social media content creators have been known to be queried by the state about their agenda, only to point out that they are simply remixing trending internet content for fun.”

For example, a passive consumer might enjoy and share a Beyoncé parody video with cutting lyrics overdubbed, but those from a certain country may laugh at the obvious reflection of local politics, and those within a local minority group may even recognise a particular social commentary subtext.

“It’s extremely clever that there can be so many levels of decoding within an artefact that is publicly accessible and passed off as mere humour, allowing the critical subtext and embedded message to circulate more widely and thrive under the radar,” says Abidin.

The rise of private-group, platform-encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp has added another layer of privacy to people’s communication. WhatsApp chat groups are usually not publicly accessible. To join one, you first need to know it exists, and then have someone invite you into the group, or access a link that lets you invite yourself. Even on platforms where groups chats are searchable, specific groups may intentionally avoid being ‘discoverable’ by excluding the use of obvious keywords, making searching for them difficult and keeping them out of sight of non-targeted audiences.

Abidin is currently leading a Facebook-funded study to investigate how WhatsApp is being used by people in Singapore and Malaysia to circulate or counter misinformation, at times through the use of internet pop culture like memes and cartoons. She has seen that different chat groups rapidly establish their own vocabulary and etiquette, from the use of topic-specific acronyms to coded shorthand or lingo. To a newcomer, the group chat may look like gibberish, or an innocent discussion of favourite family recipes, rather than a debate of the pros and cons of government policies. It takes time for newcomers to be verified by the group, and be schooled in their particular vocabulary.

Abidin points out that regardless of whether the platform used is encrypted or not, there is a belief among internet users that they are being observed, whether by the general public, private companies or the government. But she says that being able to hide messages in plain sight through the creative use of internet pop culture works both ways.

“All those influencers you follow, all of the funny memes you scroll through – you don’t know which of these content producers are monetising their activities through sponsorship, or undeclared ownership.

“Some businesses have meme factories and influencers within their marketing departments.

“And sponsorship is getting creative – I’ve known of young female fashion influencers who have been tasked to comment on a politician’s fashion sense, just to raise awareness of the prospective candidate’s face and name with a younger demographic before an election.

“We’ve moved beyond surreptitious product placement in movies to the widespread ‘pushing’ of ideologies and agendas via social media pop culture.”

People can harness entertainment and connectivity on internet platforms like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and TikTok to reclaim their freedom of speech and encourage social activism. It’s possible, even under controlling regimes, to safely seed interest in specific issues, people and products, provided we acknowledge that governments and corporations have started playing the game too.


This article forms part of the online series People–Planet–Technology, which showcases Curtin Humanities’ applied research into what it means to be human in an ever-changing world.

Our research is driven by the need to create a better future by examining and engaging with people, the planet and technology – and how they converge in fascinating ways.

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