Memes; the joke format utilised widely across the internet; have long been a source of entertainment for those online. As a millennial I was born with a computer in one hand and a plate of smashed avo in the other; I’ve grown up on the internet and can rattle off a list of my favourite memes with ease. Memes have become almost another form of communication to generate jokes relating to world events and send them back and forth – liking, retweeting and sharing them widely.

In Australia, a crucial part of our national identity is that we don’t take things too seriously, and memes fit right into that category of gently mocking ourselves and others in a good natured way. Facebook “meme” groups are common; and Australian politics is no exception with fan-made meme groups such as ALP Spicy Meme Stash, Innovative and Agile Memes, and Australian Green Memes for Actually Progressive Teens attracting thousands of members who create, share, and laugh at memes about our nation’s politics as a way of discussing and processing the politics that many feel disengaged from.

credit: ALP Spicy Meme Stash via Facebook

Political memes are a natural progression – as more of our important conversations are conducted across the internet, the language of the internet comes to shape how we engage with these conversations, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A good meme can take the wind out of the sails of hateful rhetoric; embarrass a bigot mouthing off on national TV; and unite disparate and disillusioned individuals.

I love memes, and yet I find myself growing increasingly concerned by the way that our love of a joke can equally excuse or belittle bad behaviour; the ways in which meme-savvy partisan groups can wield great power over the internet; and our enthusiasm for more entertainment can blind us to what’s really happening in the world.

In 2016 Clive Palmer announced his resignation from politics and seemed set to take a step back after the collapse of Queensland Nickel, but by mid-2017 he was making international headlines for a string of unusual poems published both on Facebook and Twitter. His online content at the time saw an uptick in his online engagement with millennials who otherwise were offered little by his politics – at a brief glance 30 of my Facebook friends from inner Melbourne have liked his official Facebook page, and a group called “S*** Clive Palmer Says” has garnered over 20 000 members, claiming he is the “best thing to happen to Australian political humour since Paul Keating”.

Young people thought he was hilarious, a genius, trolling us all or maybe just having a nervous breakdown but either way were entertained and ready for more. While on the surface, much of Australia viewed Palmer as a joke; he had our attention. In this way, Palmer has maintained his public profile and arguably revived his political career in 2019 by remaining a source of amusement during his sabbatical from politics, and continues to communicate via a combination of videos and memes on his official page today.

Although the major parties have been dabbling for some time, few politicians have embraced memes in the same way that Palmer has – the closest comparison is Kevin Rudd’s appearances on Rove Live. Both performances proved the same point – that these politicians understand young people.

Globally, we have already seen the potential for memes to be harnessed to spread a political message, as the popular frog meme “Pepe” became co-opted by white supremacist and antisemetic groups in 2016, and more recently memes of white supremacist groups hand signalling have been disseminated through the internet – spearheaded by longtime meme powerhouse/home base for trolls: 4chan.

credit: The Young Greens via facebook

But memes can also blind us to what is happening offline. In the days following the recent Christchurch terrorist attack which killed 51 people, a teenager was rocketed to viral meme status as he made news around the world for hitting Senator Fraser Anning in the head with an egg. While the young man has since said in an interview that he wasn’t trying to gain notoriety, fame or wealth (after a fundraiser was started in his name, he has donated all the proceeds to the families of victims); his actions sparked memes and the popularity of those memes quickly superseded the tragic event that brought them into existence. In the 24 hours after “Egg Boy” first made headlines, the online world was all too happy to become distracted from the seemingly endless death and destruction being broadcast from Christchurch – and who could blame them? It was an uncomfortable, devastating, exhausting time to be online.

While Egg Boy himself acted out of empathy for the Muslim community of New Zealand and in opposition to the Islamophobic rhetoric of Fraser Anning, the way in which memes quickly spawned and overtook the event itself is indicative of how the way that we use social media can lead to burying our heads in the sand. The memes aren’t the problem, but becoming distracted by them and forgetting the real world events happening around us – is. Connolly’s convictions should be celebrated absolutely (his actions are still being hotly debated), and Anning’s racist rhetoric should be sneered at as it has been, but we also shouldn’t lose sight of the tragedy at the heart of the memes. As a global community, we have an obligation to feel the weight of tragedies such as this, and to learn from them.

Whether in this election or one yet to come, it wouldn’t be surprising to see memes become a more common platform for campaigning and engaging with young voters in Australia; who are becoming a powerful political demographic to be tapped into.

It is important as this happens, to remember that political memes, like all media, shouldn’t be taken at face value. Not to take all the joy out of an offhand joke, but when that joke is being delivered into the palm of your hand by politicians leading up to a federal election where they rely on your vote – ask ‘what is it for?’

When the Australian public allows itself to be distracted from the real issues in politics by memes and the endless stream of jokes the actions of our politicians can generate, we belittle at best and neglect at worst the serious issues affecting Australia and the rest of the world. Leading up to a federal election – those issues are make or break.