The Meme Revolution? Maybe, But Be Careful.
“Decades-long corruption and economic instability renders old protest methods outdated. Now, combatants in the anti-government street war have new tools at their hands: memes, satire, and a more democratized social media.”
A young man poses for a photo with a medium-sized white poster in Beirut. On it is a commonly circulated image of social media influencer Kylie Jenner, captured mid-sentence sporting a rather dumbfounded expression. The text that surrounds the photo reads, “Kylie Jenner for PRESIDENCY!” A joke, of course. But the use of humor and artistic absurdism is not unique to this one poster. It’s been a persisting visual theme of Lebanon’s most attended and consequential protest since 2005.
What started as small scale demonstrations responding to a government proposal to tax phone calls six dollars a month on Facebook and the popular “WhatsApp” quickly transcended into a widespread show of longstanding dissatisfaction with Lebanon’s political elite. Since October 17th, millions have taken to the streets, demanding large scale reforms and the ousting of the Prime Minister, who has since resigned. Many have been met with violence and resistance on the ground. Others are passive actors fueling the revolution through digital artworks and online posts.
This new wave of social media fueled protest method is not entirely distinct. We’ve seen the weaponization of Twitter and iconography in Tahrir Square in 2011, Gezi Park in 2013, and more. But, memes and cultural symbolism in Beirut is unique. It reflects the attitude of a country that sees itself as far more culturally and socially connected than its ineffective, corrupt, and old politicians think. It aims to fight absurdity, in this case economic and political, with more absurdity. This is not to say that the stakes are not high, but rather that the decades-long corruption and economic instability renders old protest methods outdated. Now, combatants in the anti-government street war have new tools at their hands: memes, satire, and a more democratized social media. As one Lebanese protester himself remarked, “[W]e are here to change everything, and humor helps us do that.”
Circulated throughout social media outlets, with tens of thousands of likes, are makeshift digital artworks by prominent Lebanese visual artists that showcase iconography from the protests. Rami Kanso, a Lebanese graphic designer living in London, was following the protests online when he saw video footage of an unarmed young woman, later identified as Malak Alaywe Herz, defending fellow protesters by kicking a minister’s armed bodyguard. This singular moment became a visually identifiable symbol of the movement. Kanso later created a graphic image showcasing the kick, with a speech bubble filled with an Instagram “like button” icon above it. The work’s relevance and wide-reaching circulation underscores both the pervasiveness of the social media arena in the fight, and the move to visually retell specific revolutionary events in aims of curating a traceable digital history. Some artists have even pushed for the creation of a digital archive of all the online protest works, citing Lebanon’s tendency to “not record history properly.”
Other works that have been widely circulated come from Lebanese cartoonist Bernard Hage, who rendered a fake message thread from the “head of state,” Saad Hariri, that was “left on read,” the social media equivalent of conspicuously ignoring someone, echoing the protestors’ early feelings that the ruling government had been wholly unresponsive to their demands. Hage’s cartoons also highlight the move to bring the heads of state metaphorically down to the level of a text message thread. It is to supplant the formal notions of bureaucratic memorandums, and instead liken the most important figure in the government to the internet culture’s dubbed “fuckboy.” Protestors have made a clown of the clown, and it’s working.
Other slogans commonly seen in the streets of Beirut and Tripoli showcase borrowed and modified examples of Twitter and meme-culture. This includes signs with statements like, “I’d rather be depressed but with fundamental human rights,” or “take my virginity not my future.” On one hand, this can read as evidence that the movement has been coopted into a whimsical resistance by the youth, but this is not the case. All generations, political affiliations, and religious groups are deeply involved in this protest. While much of the visual culture of the on-the-ground and digital action borrows from largely youth driven meme culture, the discussion should not end there. This move to meme and satirize is a direct reflection of the absurdity of the persisting economic and political situation in the country. It is not to make light of a deeply relevant and resonant question, for which people are risking their lives, but rather to intensify and recontextualize it.
The problem arises when media outlets characterize the protests as leisure, when Layelle Saad of Gulf News remarks that “it would be hard not to want to join in this fun protest.” To discuss the move to meme and make humorous is not to call the protests “fun.” Instead, it is to comment on a timely shift in governmental critique and direct action. Saad’s “fun” discounts the thousands pelleted with tear gas by Lebanese security forces, the millions who have been subjected to subpar living conditions and economic prospects due to the government’s ineffectiveness.
And along with discussion about the move to meme, onlookers must remember what those millions gathered around the clock in city squares are there for. The Kylie Jenner poster is funny, satirical, memorable—and makes light a dire truth about corrupt politicians. But it also reminds us that those on the ground think almost anything, even rule-by-makeup-mogul, would be better than the here and now.