Get ready for meme war
The author is a political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The internet term “meme” was originally an academic term, first proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book “The Selfish Gene.” The term was coined by modifying the Greek word “mimeme,” meaning imitation, to sound like “gene.” It explains cultural elements acquired through imitation — rather than genetic methods — such as language, clothing, rituals, practices, arts and architecture.
Today, “meme” is used in another context. Photos and short videos going viral online are called memes. They are funny and have clear messages. In the mid-1990s, internet memes originated as photos in the United States and UK, and as YouTube started service in 2005, it expanded to videos. After the 2010s, it reached a climax with the spread of social media. As more people use memes, creativity exploded. A fast-food company in the U.S. grew by 50 percent in 2017 through a marketing strategy centered around memes.
Politicians also paying attention. As short and strong messages are attractive, they could be copied indefinitely. In 2020, the Michael Bloomberg camp spent a lot of money on creating internet memes during the Democratic Party presidential primary. He was aiming at viral marketing among the young, so 78-year-old Bloomberg created friendly images through memes.
After finding that memes were effective, presidential candidates in Korea are engaged in a “war of memes” with less than two months left before the March 9 election. Ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung created a sensation in a video promising health insurance coverage for hair loss treatment. It says, “You don’t choose Lee Jae-myung. You implant him.” Supporters contributed to make the message into a political product with their own memes.
His rival Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party (PPP) made a drastic pledge to “Abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family!” Rather than presenting his policies in a 59-second video, he rubs his stomach with an uncomfortable facial expression and then looks relieved. He is trying to create a friendly image by adding interesting elements to the issue.
Some are worried that presidential candidates are too obsessed with the packaging and neglecting the real contents of their campaigns and policies as they appear too playful. As memes exist in a world of simple and clear messages, there is the risk that they will become a tool of ideological conflict and negative campaigning if the confrontational structure intensifies. If the meme war is an irreversible trend, it is about time to think about the side effects too.