In Mexico, humorously captioning photos has become something of an art form. Social media in 2014 was buzzing with these internet memes, which are spread virally online via Facebook and Twitter, or through instant messaging service WhatsApp.
New technologies are often said to disconnect and distract, but internet memes are often topical, and keep young users politically informed and engaged.
Whilst television is traditionally Mexico’s favorite media, its polished and uncritical coverage rarely attains the insight of a well-produced meme.
In 2014, the capture of drug cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman sparked a torrent of online satire. The long-time fugitive was given the title “Former Hide and Seek World Champion.” The wildfire way the news spread was also satirized, with one meme depicting Robin checking his smartphone and saying “they captured Cha…” before being slapped by Batman. “We know already!” the superhero shouts.
The World Cup led to a broad variety of memes.
“No era penal,” (that wasn’t a penalty) was the phrase of the tournament for Mexicans. The expression refers to Holland player Arjen Robben who was accused of diving against Mexico and forcing their elimination from the competition.
The phrase was bandied around so much that it came to derive its humor from the very fact of its comic repetition. The joke in other words, was that it was everywhere. Socrates’ paradox “I know that I know nothing,” was changed to “I know that wasn’t a penalty.” The Hollywood sign was replaced with the phrase, whilst Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s famous love sonnet was updated to conclude with the saying.
In November, a property scandal forced First Lady Angelica Rivera to release a video defending her expensive lifestyle. The former soap star declared that media company Televisa paid her $10 million in 2010. The revelation led to a storm of online content deriding her and the suspiciously lucrative deal. With neither of the two major television networks, Televisa or Azteca, criticizing authority, it was up to social media to keep people informed.
Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio was shown lifting a champagne glass and saying “screw this, I’m going to Televisa.”Another meme offered a quick solution to Mexico’s economic struggles. “If she does a couple more soaps, we’ve paid the external debt!”
In December, Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray got dragged into a similar scandal. It was revealed that he owned a $500,000 property registered in the name of the same engineering firm that had built Rivera’s home. One meme showed Videgaray’s face photoshopped onto Rivera’s. Staring out from his flowing blonde hair, the politician looks pleadingly at the camera. “I worked as an extra,” he says.
Such examples show that the internet can lend a dissenting voice, totally distinct to that of television and radio. Nevertheless, there is a downside, as online content has a tendency towards discriminatory language, disseminating racist, sexist and homophobic messages.
The National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination (Conapred) monitors social media and denounces what it considers to be inappropriate content. It has no power to remove it, but it uses the functions provided by social media to complain.
“The problem with these materials is that they are reproduced in the collective imagination,” said Conapred’s Social Media Subdirector Valeria Berumen Ornelas. “They make discrimination seem like something normal.”
One controversial meme depicted indigenous Mexicans in a variety of situations with the suffix “tl” tagged to a phrase, in imitation of the Nahuatl language. The Nike catchphrase became “JUST DO ITL,” and this was added to a picture to an indigenous woman running.
Linguistics Professor Alejandro Alcomiztli Netzahualcoyotl Lopez believes that this form of mockery can have extremely negative consequences. “Prejudicial attitudes towards indigenous languages have contributed to their loss of vitality, which could eventually lead to their extinction,” he said.
Following the death of comic Chesperito, another meme made light of the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero. “Now we’re missing 44,” was the caption to a photo of the late comedian.
Certainly, internet memes leave little room for nuance. Many are unfunny, offensive and discriminatory. Yet in 2014, they served a vital function, keeping young people informed in a year of important political change.
By mocking political authority, memes form part of a longstanding satirical tradition in the country. This runs from the recent political movie “The Perfect Dictatorship” to the centuries-old practice of dressing up as a politician or a priest for a fiesta.
In his famous essay The Labyrinth of Solitude, the poet Octavio Paz says that the fiesta allows for a temporary breakdown of the social order, a much needed opportunity to mock authority. “By means of the fiesta society frees itself from the norms it has established. It ridicules its gods, its principles, and its laws.”
In much the same way, the internet meme inverts the strict social hierarchy, offering a grassroots form of communication that anyone with a computer can get involved in. Most importantly, it proves that no one, no matter how rich or powerful, is beyond being laughed at.