Uruguay (Un)Natural - Internet Memes for Political Dissent
Updated: Apr 5
Countries actively construct and manage their brands to advance their economic, social and cultural agendas. We live in an economy of identity in which the perception we have of a country directly affects our behavior towards it. More often than not, the projected image of a country does not reflect its true identity. This is the case with the brand 'Uruguay Natural', constructed to convey an image of quality of life while respecting nature, that emphatically contrasts with the reality of acute environmental degradation. In my work I addressed this incongruity by creating Internet Memes with provocative visual content that were distributed online to more than 10,000 Facebook users in Uruguay. I discuss the audience's response to such content and speculate on the use of Internet Memes as tool to increase environmental awareness through culture jamming.
THE CONTRADICTION OF A COUNTRY'S BRAND AND ITS REALITY
Economic, political and cultural globalization has forced countries to compete for investment, tourism, market expansion and the generation and dissemination of knowledge (talent acquisition and innovation). This has resulted in countries trying to project their comparative advantages and differentiate themselves within the international scene in similar ways private corporations do. Thus, countries actively construct and manage their brands in order to advance their economic, social and cultural agendas.
We can consider it as an economy of identity, in which the image and/or perception we have of a country directly affects our behavior and attitude towards that region of the globe, its products and its people. Identity and image are two important factors in the understanding of a country's construction of its brand. Whereas identity is what the geographic region actually is; image refers to how the region is perceived. Because the projected image is usually more relevant in branding than reality, the image of a country seldom shows its true reality. The gap between reality (identity) and perception (image) is considered a negative factor that can damage the country's brand and its position within the international community.
This is the case with Uruguay and its reality of increasing environmental degradation as opposed to its constructed brand (marca país) and projected image of URUGUAY NATURAL, which artificially symbolizes quality of life while respecting nature. While the brand was created in 2001 and used by the Ministry of Tourism, it was reformulated in 2013-2014 to include and promote a wide range of industry sectors. According to the government's official website, URUGUAY NATURAL as brand aims to provide added value to products manufactured in the country and at the same time generate feelings of national pride among its citizens. While a promotional video of the brand featured in the government's official webpage advertises that "Uruguay values everything in the country that is natural such as its rivers, beaches and fields", the reality of the country's environmental condition is totally different, especially for its rivers and beaches which are subject of serious problems associated with eutrophication (defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients -such as phosphates and nitrates- that stimulate the growth of cyanobacterias, algae and plants. When these organisms die, bacterial degradation of their biomass results in oxygen consumption which ultimately results in the depletion of dissolved oxygen and death of fishes and other aquatic organisms).
Last year alone, run off from the agricultural sector provoked cyanobacteria's bloom in main rivers, lakes and beaches that affected tourism and caused great media attention and public concern. Aspects of environmental degradation that have long caused media attention and public concern in Uruguay also include waste and garbage management, and lead poisoning among others.
Based on the above, the aim of this work was to explore in artistic terms the dichotomy of identity vs image inherent in 'Uruguay Natural' brand as opposed to cyanobacteria's bloom and garbage accumulation in the country. The author decided to explore the visual aesthetics and textual language of political internet memes to address the above mentioned dichotomy. Furthermore, the author also studied audience response to the created political memes when shared in the social media platform Facebook.
Generally speaking, the term 'meme' is understood by internet users as any observable piece of audiovisual content relating to jokes, parodies, rumors and political commentaries that spread from person to person via the internet. A key characteristic of internet memes is their triggering of user-created derivatives implemented as remixes and mashups. In this sense, the term alludes to cultural reproduction fueled by a diverse array of copying and imitation practices that have become standards in contemporary digital culture. In the environment of the internet, user-driven imitation and remixing become essential elements of participatory culture; and with them the construction of shared values in the digital realm. Internet memes could be characterized by their incompleteness, unfinished, unpolished and even amateur-looking aesthetics that stimulate the active involvement of users to fill in the gaps, solve the puzzle and/or mock its creator. Because of this, bad texts make good memes since they engage users in active dialogues to alter and judge other people's memes and with it their successful spreading. It is then, the simplified and expressive imagery of a meme that causes an emotional response and interest from the audience that makes it highly participatory.
Despite our current familiarity with internet memes, the term was first described by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his book 'The Selfish Gene' published in 1976. At that time Dawkins defined memes as the cultural counterparts of genes, and described them as small units of culture that spread from brain to brain by copying or imitation. Dawkins saw cultural transmission as analogous to genetic transmission, and reasoned that if life evolved by differential survival of replicating genes, then culture could evolve by differential survival of replicating memes. This reduction of culture to biology has created resistance among media and communication scholars who argue that biology alone cannot provide with an adequate framework to explain the complexity of memes in the digital era. Although the author of this essay finds quite interesting the relationship of Neo-Darwinism (the integration of genetics with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection) with differential meme survival in the meme pool of culture, the focus of this essay is the use of memes, and in particular internet memes, as mechanism of political dissent.
INTERNET MEMES FOR POLITICAL DISSENT
Internet memes became prominent during Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, and peaked during the 2016 presidential election in which Donald Trump was elected president of United States (Figure 1). Ever since then, internet memes are closely associated with political participation online.
Figure 1. Google search interest over time for the topic 'internet meme' according to Google Trends. Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart (September-2016) for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means there was not enough data for this term. URL: https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=%2Fm%2F025rxrz
Internet memes are widely used as forms of political participation because they are about making a point, allowing users to circulate non-hegemonic narratives of political events; and in so doing they become valuable instruments for poly-vocal expression within the political process. Internet-based political memes may serve the following functions: (a) as form of persuasion and/or political advocacy; (b) as grassroots action; and (c) as mode of expression and public discussion. In the case of the work described here, internet-based political memes were used as mode of expression to stimulate public discussion and served as link between the personal opinions of the artist (as citizen of Uruguay concerned with environmental degradation) and the political (the concept of 'Uruguay Natural' as the country's brand). With this in mind, the author of this text created digital images intended to provide internet users with political criticism of 'Uruguay Natural' (Figure 2). As such, this work shows my own interpretation of news stories related to recent episodes of cyanobacteria's bloom and garbage disposal and accumulation, as if it were open text to experiment with its meanings.
Figure 2. Digital images created as memetic compositions by juxtaposing visual and text elements related to environmental degradation (green waters ought to cyanobacteria's bloom, and garbage accumulation) , Uruguay's brand concept (Uruguay Natural), Uruguayan images of industrial activities (agriculture - livestock - dairy - oil refinery); and renowned political figures (Tabaré Vazquez, José Mujica y Luis Lacalle Pou > 2nd image; José Mujica > 3rd image; Juan Sartori and Jorge Larrañaga > 5th image).
A fundamental characteristic of the memetic composition shown on Figure 2 is the apparent incongruity of visual elements in the frame. These juxtapositions were intended to cause an emotional response in the audience by re-contextualizing elements of Uruguay's daily life into a new reality in which the irony of 'Uruguay Natural' in an environmentally degraded landscape could not longer be denied. Although the images are highly context dependent -as their require cultural awareness relative to Uruguay- environmental degradation is still evident for a general and international audience. This aspect is symbolized by chimeric organisms represented by animals with human heads, and humans with animals heads in the foreground relative to environmental degradation in the background. The presence of political figures within the frame also points to the role of the political system in the ongoing dialogue of promoting the country's brand while regulating industrial activities and their potential impact on the environment. Furthermore, political figures are quite embedded in people's psyche and their figure within the meme's frame served to grab people's attention towards the main message of the memetic composition.
ONLINE CIRCULATION OF 'URUGUAY NATURAL' MEMES
The author of this work was interested in evaluating the response of the public opinion upon the online circulation of the 'Uruguay Natural' memetic compositions. The circulation of these memes online would provide an opportunity for symbolic ideological negotiation between promoting artificially created values of a country versus the acceptance of its own reality and, most importantly, its inability to do something about it.
Despite studies showing that viewing of political internet memes generated feelings of aversion compared to viewing of non-political memes, the author was interested in learning the effects in those who view them. For this, one of the memetic compositions (the second image from top to bottom as shown on Figure 2) was posted on the author's Facebook Page and boosted using Facebook Advertisement platform as a proof-of-concept experiment (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Picture taken from the author's Facebook Page showing post with memetic composition being boosted via Facebook's Advertisement platform. The post contained the legend 'And for you what is Uruguay Natural?'. The advertisement campaign was targeted to people in the age range of 18-50 living in Montevideo (68.3%), Canelones (31.6%) and San José (0.1%). The campaign lasted a single day and was implemented from Saturday-March-28 to Sunday-March-29 of 2020, and reached 10,157 users (paid + organic) and 624 engagements (post clicks + reactions, comments and shares) in total.
Figure 4. Breakdown of user emojis associated with 'like' engagements in response to the memetic composition shown on Figure 3.
The post reached 10,157 Facebook users from which 624 of them engaged with the content, giving rise to an Engagement Rate of ER = (624/10,157) * 100 = 6.1%; which was almost double than the average engagement rate per post of 3.22% across several industries during 2019. This data shows that the memetic composition was able to elicit an above-average response from Facebook users in Uruguay; from which 59.8% of likes were associated with the 'laugh emoji'. This result surprised the author since he expected feelings of aversion from the audience because of the political content associated with the meme (Figure 4), but the meme was consumed as entertainment instead. Interestingly, research on political entertainment (including political satire in digital format) has shown effects on user's perceptions, beliefs and attitudes towards political issues, shaping their overall view and mental models about politics. Under this view, memes become units of persuasion.
From the total number of Facebook users that were reached through the advertisement campaign, 25% were women and 75% were men. This would suggests that online circulation of political memes may be more appealing to men.
The fact that the memetic composition was shared 52 times highlighted the communicative potential of the meme, and its alignment with users perception of the incongruence between Uruguay Natural as country brand with its environmental reality. Based on this, it was interesting to conduct a comparative study of the online circulation for the other four memetic compositions shown on Figure 2. Even though they share the same underlying idea, the political figures they contain are different and thus may affect their spreadability online. With this in mind, the author implemented four additional Facebook's Advertisement campaigns to boost each of the four remaining memetic compositions. The results are shown on Figures 5 and 6, Figures 7 and 8, Figures 9 and 10, and Figures 11 and 12, respectively.
Figure 5. Picture taken from the author's Facebook Page showing post with memetic composition being boosted via Facebook's Advertisement platform. The post contained the legend 'And for you what is Uruguay Natural?'. The advertisement campaign was targeted to people in the age range of 18-50 living in Montevideo only. The campaign lasted a single day and was implemented from Saturday-April-4 to Sunday-April-5 of 2020, and reached 6,520 users (paid + organic) and 366 engagements (post clicks + reactions, comments and shares) in total. The engagement rate for this memetic composition was 5.6%; and from the users reached, 20.8% were women and 79.2% were men.
Figure 6. Breakdown of user emojis associated with 'like' engagements in response to the memetic composition shown on Figure 5. The most prominent emoji associated with this memetic composition was Like-Thumbs Up with 52.8%.
Figure 7. Picture taken from the author's Facebook Page showing post with memetic composition being boosted via Facebook's Advertisement platform. The post contained the legend 'And for you what is Uruguay Natural?'. The advertisement campaign was targeted to people in the age range of 18-50 living in Montevideo only. The campaign lasted a single day and was implemented from Saturday-April-4 to Sunday-April-5 of 2020, and reached 8,288 users (paid + organic) and 448 engagements (post clicks + reactions, comments and shares) in total. The engagement rate for this memetic composition was 5.4%; and from the users reached, 31.3% were women and 68.7% were men.
Figure 8. Breakdown of user emojis associated with 'like' engagements in response to the memetic composition shown on Figure 7. The most prominent emoji associated with this memetic composition was Like-Thumbs Up with 52.1%.
Figure 9. Picture taken from the author's Facebook Page showing post with memetic composition being boosted via Facebook's Advertisement platform. The post contained the legend 'And for you what is Uruguay Natural?'. The advertisement campaign was targeted to people in the age range of 18-50 living in Montevideo only. The campaign lasted a single day and was implemented from Saturday-April-4 to Sunday-April-5 of 2020, and reached 8,993 users (paid + organic) and 332 engagements (post clicks + reactions, comments and shares) in total. The engagement rate for this memetic composition was 3.7%; and from the users reached, 48.2% were women and 51.8% were men.
Figure 10. Breakdown of user emojis associated with 'like' engagements in response to the memetic composition shown on Figure 9. The most prominent emoji associated with this memetic composition was Like-Thumbs Up with 44.6%.
Figure 11. Picture taken from the author's Facebook Page showing post with memetic composition being boosted via Facebook's Advertisement platform. The post contained the legend 'And for you what is Uruguay Natural?'. The advertisement campaign was targeted to people in the age range of 18-50 living in Montevideo only. The campaign lasted a single day and was implemented from Saturday-April-4 to Sunday-April-5 of 2020, and reached 8,570 users (paid + organic) and 521 engagements (post clicks + reactions, comments and shares) in total. The engagement rate for this memetic composition was 6.1%; and from the users reached, 37.5% were women and 62.5% were men.
Figure 12. Breakdown of user emojis associated with 'like' engagements in response to the memetic composition shown on Figure 11. The most prominent emoji associated with this memetic composition was Haha-Laughing Face Up with 55.2%.
Overall the campaign for the 5 memetic compositions shown on Figure 2 reached to 42,258 Facebook users living in Uruguay that resulted in 2,291 engagements (with an engagement rate of 5.4%). Interesting results emerged from this data; for instance the memetic composition with the lowest engagement rate did not contain the image of a political figure (Figure 9 and 10), and coincidentally with this it was the meme that reached to most women. This would suggest that women experience more aversion to political content online and/or they are more attuned to environmental issues compared to men. The memetic compositions that resulted in the highest engagement rates were those that contained images of at least two political figures (Figures 3 and 4, and Figures 11 and 12, respectively), and these two memetic compositions generated the most Haha-Laughing Face emojis compared to the other two memes that contained only one political figure from which the Like-Thumbs Up emoji was the most frequent (Figures 5 and 6; and Figures 7 and 8). These results would indicate that in order to convey environmental awareness through internet memes, images of environmental degradation coupled with at least two political figures are the most effective means to cause engagement with a male-oriented online audience in Facebook. On the other hand, environmental degradation only memes were more effective in reaching a women-oriented online audience.
One question that remains to be addressed in this study is if the memetic compositions circulated online served to spark user-creative derivatives of Uruguay Natural memes. In other words, will the content, form and stance of the author's Uruguay Natural memes be imitated? If the answer turns out to be yes, it would mean that the underlying concept of the memes presented here actually reflect deep social and cultural structures currently present in Uruguay's society.
'URUGUAY NATURAL' WAS CULTURALLY JAMMED
In the manifesto 'The Uncooling of America', Kalle Lasn wrote that citizens should resist corporate messages that dominate American media through creative vandalism and mock-advertisement. He postulated that in oder to resist the memetic output generated by large corporations, people should create and circulate subversive counter-memes. The practice of modifying consumer icons and brands in ways that activate them with new subversive meanings has been coined 'culture jamming'. By manipulating photos from environmentally degraded landscapes in Uruguay, and juxtaposing them with image of notorious political figures in whimsical ways, the author signaled the artificial construction of an Un-Natural Uruguay and revealed the incongruity of it. Uruguay Natural was culturally jammed!
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