If the next World War is expected to be virtual spectacle of meme-dropping and cold-blooded trolling… has it already begun? And can online mediation thrive in this digital battlefield?

Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan famously summarised the 20th century’s virtual cultural revolution as ‘the medium is the message’, inviting us to reflect on how our gadgets shape our lifestyles and ideologies. When contextualised to the technological trends of the  21st century, McLuhan may have summarised his media theory as ‘the medium is the messenger’, as social media lets the ‘sender’ virtually travel, live and participate in the private life of the ‘receiver’, invading their private mental and emotional spaces.

Memes are changing political rhetoric among arch-rivals India and Pakistan in the South-Asian sub-continent. Compared to the past, where nationalists didn’t have opportunities to insult or ridicule each other across the border, trolling via memes provides a direct channel, an unfiltered mode of communication from the comfort of their homes. Demonstration of weaponization of memes is no longer a covert operation. Palestinians sent an Arabic meme viral on Facebook, mocking Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stand on the peace plan that proposes relocating the Palestinian capital to Abu Dis, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In more popular news, General Soleimani and Donald Trump trolled each other with ‘Game of Thrones’ memes, days before the US president ordered an airstrike at the Iranian commander.

Earlier to the above political trolling, social networking sites such as TikTok and Twitter were drenched in meme-fuelled nostalgia for World War III.  Writing in The Atlantic, columnist Ian Bogost empathised with millennials stating, “#wwiii is not just a hashtag, but a symbol that young people are mustering that old emblem to express their unconscious fears about the present”. As the US and Iranian governments began snarling at the proposition of a military conflict, ordinary citizens of both nations ignorantly began creating memes to distract themselves from the chaos and anxiety.

Memes are not all bad, and as mediators, we are invited to explore the true motivation and interest driving their creators and transmitters. So, what is a meme?

Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The Selfish Gene’, defined a meme as “nothing but a contagious idea; a concept — an idea, a style, or a type of behaviour — that circulates and gains popularity within a culture.” Memes as we know today are circulated as images with texts and shared widely on social media. Being based on pop culture, they are received worldwide over people of different ages, sex, race and cultures, making it entertaining and ‘relatable’ to widespread international audiences. Anyone, anything or any incident can be the subject of a meme.

A meme is a “youthful, speculative and vulnerable concept” and as mediator Peter Adler states, “as fuzzy as they may be, memes gives us a basic reference point, a comparison for circumstances in other places and times” allowing us to understand the transnational nature of cultural contexts. Memes are an integral part of our lives now; serving different purposes – entertainment, marketing, politics and perhaps even education, making for a fun assimilation of information.

There is a certain sense of humour involved in this medium of messaging.  Since most memes are inspired by satire and dissent, often brutal and dark; differentiating between a cyberbully and an internet troll is essential. If social media giants could set up  24×7 access to mediation between “offender” and “offence takers”, it would help improve communications much before the online conflicts spill over into physical arenas.

We already have protests and campaigns run online for years through sites such as change.org or avaaz.org, and life during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis will generate more activism through digital screens. In the post-lockdown era, where physical social distancing is leading to more online social networking traffic, online mediation platforms will be key to peacekeeping. With the Internet empowering netizens by giving them a platform to rightfully exercise their freedom of speech, governments across the world must understand that banning or ostracizing trolls from social networking sites will only challenge them to find alternate avenues for expression of conflict.

Sociologist Elihu Katz’s ‘Uses and Gratifications Theory’ stresses on the senders and receivers of the message, literally screaming “don’t shoot the medium”. Besides seeking information, which has become hard to distinguish from conspiracy and propaganda, most people in digital societies also seek entertainment, identification, escapism, integration and social interaction, which makes them vulnerable, impressionable and desperate to participate in the happenings of the digital world. An eight-year-old article reported a 780% rise in crime related to Facebook and Twitter activity in the UK, and with multiple industries shifting their services online, there is bound to more ‘offenders’ and ‘offence-takers’ in the online habitats.

Facebook recently revealed a $130 million-plan to set up a ‘Supreme Court’ – an independent board that will have the ultimate say over what controversial content should be taken down on its social networking website. The BBC reported that all “decisions will be made public” – a wasted opportunity for dialogue, which could now be used to muzzle and ostracise meme artists and trolls. The board asserted that it won’t resort to “internet policing” and its independence will not be compromised – hard to consider a corporate’s word. Instead, wouldn’t a dialogue platform serve the purpose of addressing conflict, besides enhancing conversations on the social networking site.

More recently, Twitter introduced fact-checking tool to its social networking site, which was fiercely opposed by politicians and other tech giants, who argued social media cannot be an “arbiter of truth”. Social media heavyweights YouTube and TikTok have already begun online battles employing their users to troll each other for a superiority status. Tackling conflicts in the virtual world requires virtual mechanisms, and therefore  online mediation must be mined to manage conflicts originating from memes and trolls on the internet.

Jonathan Rodrigues

Posted by Jonathan Rodrigues

With a background in psychology, law and journalism, Jonathan currently works as a mediation lawyer in India. He is co-founder at The PACT.

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