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When Your Government Trolls You: A #PDF14 Conversation on Memes and Movements

BY Antonella Napolitano | Friday, June 6 2014

The keyword "hairy bacon", derogatory term referred to Mao Zedong's corpse, proliferated in many forms on the Chinese Internet.

At Personal Democracy Forum, in a session called “From memes to movements,” practitioners and researchers explored how the irreverent humor of memes is being used by citizens that live in countries with limited opportunities for expressing themselves (the session was followed by another session more focused on the same phenomenon in the U.S.)

In those countries, memes play a role in how people engage in discussion, explained Citizen Lab Fellow Jason Q. Ng, author of Blocked on Weibo, a website (and then a book) that documents which words are blocked on Sina Weibo, China's most important social media site, and why they are “suppressed."

The researcher pointed out how Weibo users are exploring language and creating coded language, even introducing code words, before the censorship strikes. A basic example? Using May 35 to refer to June 4, the day of the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989

Coded language may also be more sophisticated: the term “hair bacon” and “hairy jerky” are derogatory terms referring to Mao Zedong’s preserved body at the eponymous Museum.

The keyword was eventually blocked but proliferated in several forms, Q.Ng explained, from a fake recipe to pictures of a Mao impersonator in front of cured meats.

This is a form of self-censorship that prevents censorship or, at least, tries to be ready to adapt when censorship strikes.

But memes might also be the perfect tool for suppression, reflected Katy Pearce, an assistant professor at University of Washington whose work focuses on the use of ICT for social and opposition movements.
She brought up the case of the government of Azerbaijan; it was recently creating online memes targeting dissidents and political opponents such as with a picture showing an unsuccessful street protest to a “rage comic” against an activist that had refused to serve in the military. Being targeted by the government might be unusual but also very dangerous, if the government is an authoritarian one.

“There is no recourse,” commented Pearce, revealing that the activist eventually ended up serving in the military. Don't feed the troll, then? Yes, but, in this case, especially because it carries big risks for safety.

Where are the movements, though, was one of the questions posed to the speakers.

Movements are not just politics; their objective is shifting the fundamental center of values, said Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, an LGBT rights organization.

When you talk about global movements, culture is crucial in order to be effective, Banks pointed out: All Out organization builds relationships and works with partners all around the world, looking for the the right way to be visible at the right time, he explained.

Usually simple is better: in the days approaching May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, All Out released a graphics with the number 77 and no other comments, building up curiosity.

All Out released a graphics with the number 77, building up curiosity, then revealed its meaning.

On May 17, they then released the number complete with the explanation: 77 is the number of countries where being gay is a crime (in 10 of them, it can be punished with the death penalty).

Banks said that the graphic was shared more than 20,000 times, the most shared piece of content ever for his organization, and used in many campaigns all over the world. He also added that in their estimates the graphic reached about 5 million people. The key: people took the meme and made it their own.

But is this the only way movements have to engage with people? Is our attention span so short that we are not able to go from a spark to a long-term commitment, an audience member asked.

There is lot of momentary stuff that might not lead to something more, Banks acknowledged. But maybe this is not that different from the story of other movements: “When we tell the story of movements, we tell stories that are not linear,” he suggested.

Maybe some of these memes are already telling the (non-linear) story of the next movement.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

For a round-up of our weekly stories, subscribe to the WeGov mailing list.