Can memes revive political satires and cartoons?

I had a realisation this week that, in a way, memes are a millennial’s version of the political cartoon. That realisation came after Ms. Priyanka Sharma shared on Facebook a photoshopped image of a recent photo of Bollywood heroine Priyanka Chopra from the MET Gala event in New York, replacing her face with that of the Chief Minister of West Bengal and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Ms. Mamata Banerjee, and it went viral. Outside of making her friends laugh and poking fun at her political opponent during this time of general elections in India, I think she didn’t mean to make any sort of political statement with it, at least the image doesn’t convey anything. Ms. Sharma is an activist of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the youth wing of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political opponent of TMC in the state of West Bengal.

Priyanka Chopra at MET Gala 2019
Priyanka Chopra at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute advantage occasion commending the opening of the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” show on May 6, 2019, in New York. (Photograph by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Viral content on social media like memes are becoming frequent content in political communication too. Recent years we have witnessed satirical, funny and very popular form of presenting political candidates in memes on social media. Watching the meme spread made me realise memes are often used as, or interpreted as, a political statement — just like political cartoons.

Cartoons or caricatures are visual representations, words or signs which are supposed to have an element of wit, humour or sarcasm. Freedom of speech cannot be encroached upon if there is no incitement to violence or intention of disrupting public order, says the Bombay High Court judgement on Aseem Trivedi’s cartoons.

Ms. Banerjee and her party TMC weren’t amused. One of her party colleague lodged a police complaint against Ms. Sharma. Following the complaint, West Bengal police immediately arrested the 25-YO girl on May 10 under section 500 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code and under other provisions of the Information Technology Act and put her under 14-day judicial remand. Her arrest was followed by protests from the BJP and other social media users. The speed of arrest is really noteworthy.

According to an article on PETRIe written by Sergio López and edited by Elena Stanciu, when printing material gained popularity in Europe, satire became an important political tool to control public opinion. In particular satire, a visual and verbal type of news discourse, the so-called political cartoon, enjoyed great success. New ways of communication, and the endless opportunities that the internet brought about, helped this process of gradual change. Well-respected political cartoonists were abruptly replaced by social media users able to produce short-live content.

During the hearing before granting her bail today, the Supreme Court bench observed that though freedom of speech is non-negotiable but “your freedom of speech ends when it infringes upon others’ rights.” Freedom of expression means that the government doesn’t interfere with an individual’s right to express their thoughts or feelings, so long as the expression doesn’t invoke or cause any immediate harm or danger. Due to the controversy on the morphed image, I am not posting it here. I wonder how can that banal meme cause any harm or danger to anybody, incite violence or disrupt public order! Maybe Ms. Banerjee and her party colleagues have lost their sense of humour in the heat of elections.

Political cartoons are an important tool to frame social crisis. This is because, contrary to journalists who strive to produce unbiased content, cartoonists are encouraged to choose a side. Because of their humorous nature, some experts argue that these illustrations are more provocative and influential than other forms of opinion.

Humour is the foundation of a cartoon and it is its limitation. Attempts to rationalise humour in terms of today’s utilitarian social structure probably explain why political cartooning, and the genre of cartooning as a whole is a dying art. Memes are often innocuous, used for banter and as an in-the-know way to communicate and feel part of a group. While they’ve been embraced for a harmless inanity, they also often veered into the harmful, racist, sexist, and violent.

In a fast-paced environment such as the internet, memes emerged as a one-dimensional satirical illustration; they don’t engage with the issue and, therefore, their moral message and practical impact are limited. In the twenty-first century, political humour experiences difficulties gaining traction, as everyone appears to be in on the joke.