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“Memes aren’t just some stupid joke on Twitter anymore,” writes VOX ATL staff writer Zariah Taylor. “Memes are capable of bridging the gap between young people and politics.”

Illustration by Zariah Taylor

OK BOOMER: How Meme Culture is Bridging the Gap Between Teens and Politics

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Generation Z, also known as the Zoomers, are the current generation of teenagers and young adults. Gen Z is also notoriously known as being the progenitors of “meme culture.” A meme is defined as, “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.” Meme culture refers to the politics surrounding memes. Keyword: politics, because like many other facets of life, our jokes reflect the current state of affairs in the world.

Many members of older generations such as Millennials and Gen X like to chide Zoomers’ sense of humor because much of it is, in fact, absurd. The social media trends of Gen Z do vary depending on what section of the internet you voyage on, but some of the more recent social media trends from Zoomers include joking about slavery through the hashtag, #IfSlaveryWereAChoice in response to Kanye West’s controversial comments, and joking about a hypothetical WW3 in response to the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

This type of humor would be considered very offensive to some. I mean, come on: Imagine if Twitter was around during 9/11 and people joked about how they would distract the Taliban if they were to invade America. There would be an outrage!

Nevertheless, though ignorant and toeing the offensive line at times, most Gen Z humor provides a way to make light of some pretty dark and depressing situations, and helps others who are looking to be informed about a situation they had no idea about.

Take me for example. Like a lot of teenagers, I could care less about politics and probably would say that I only actively watch the news during important elections, which normally occur every couple of years. So, when the 2020 Democratic candidates started popping up, I made no effort to research any of the people who could possibly run the country one day. Instead of researching each candidate to find out whose views aligned with my own, I instead boiled down my ideology to, “I’m supporting everybody black.”

It wasn’t until a particular meme started flowing down my timeline on Twitter that I started to actually pay attention to the world around me. I started seeing more and more people on Twitter responding to something stupid by saying, “I’m calling Kamala!” The phrase is a joke about Kamala Harris’ history as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, when many of the prosecutors who worked under her handed out prison sentences to people for minor crimes. The phrase, “I’m calling Kamala” is basically saying, “you said something stupid, so that lady Kamala needs to take you to jail.”

Of course, when I first read this meme, I had no idea about the context behind it, and like most people, I hate not being in on a joke. Once I did my own research about Kamala’s history, I started realizing that I didn’t really support her views, race aside. That prompted me to do research on the other candidates and figure out who I thought would be most fit to possibly be president one day.

I started watching the debates, and after each debate, more and more memes would come out, mostly mocking each candidate. Nevertheless, it allowed me to inform myself on the views of all the candidates. Although I won’t be able to vote in the 2020 election, if one of the current candidates becomes president, I’ll have an idea of what’s in store for my future. Who would’ve thought that a three-word phrase I heard on Twitter would motivate me to become politically conscious?

And I’m not the only one. Amirah, an 18-year-old student who is graduating from Carver Early College High School, agrees that memes gave her an easier way to participate in politics. “Memes do help me with politics because memes make politics funny,” she told VOX ATL. “So, for people who might not care about the more serious and heavy side of politics, [they can] watch a meme and it makes it more fun. So, yeah, I do like memes, and I do think they help make politics easier to indulge for us younger people.”

Memes aren’t just some stupid joke on Twitter anymore. Memes are capable of bridging the gap between young people and politics. When I asked my peers why they don’t indulge in politics, many said because they feel it’s too complicated to understand.

“Politics is all one big Russian doll,” says Shaniyah, a 16-year-old student who also attends Carver Early College High School. “For example, if I’m watching the news, I might hear about Trump doing something bad, and to understand that, I have to understand what WikiLeaks [is] and [who] Michael Cohen is, and suddenly the guy who made FaceBook is involved, and now I have to understand what that means. And there’s some guy named Roger Stone in there, too. And it’s just too much to receive if you weren’t paying attention from the beginning.”

Memes are providing an easy-to-understand way to consume politics. It’s funny, not too complicated, and offers a good starting point for teens to do their own research. They are also helping teens find light in a lot of the darkness we see so often. Day after day, scare tactic headlines pop up about how we’re all going to die in a year due to climate change, the coronavirus, or some other issue that many of us don’t understand. Many Zoomers have grown up on political catastrophes and a multitude of school shootings and bombings. Many of these jokes are giving teens a way to make life a little less hopeless.

Many members of older generations don’t see the value of teenagers participating in political conversations, and that’s what makes memes such as, “OK Boomer” so important.

The phrase “OK Boomer” was created as a response to those who like to criticize the thoughts of young people by inserting their old-fashioned opinions, similar to that of Baby Boomers who notoriously are judgmental of the decisions of younger people. Ironically, when teens aren’t into politics, they are seen as uneducated. Yet when teens try to get into politics, they are often shut out and seen as too young to understand. Memes like “OK Boomer” are giving teens an opportunity to turn the tables and say, “Now who doesn’t get it?”

We can’t ignore the power of social media platforms and how they may influence more teens to participate in politics. Platforms such as the insatiably popular TikTok are seeing more and more political commentary from teens. With TikTok being so popular as well as so permeated by youth, more teens are being exposed to politics. Teenager Ilana Beloborodov went to a climate change protest with a sign that read, “The only e-girl that matters is the earth.” The sign, which she later posted on her Tik Tok, garnered around 187,000 views. According to NBCNews, words such as “politics” and “impeachment” are getting up to 123 million views on TikTok.

The repercussions that meme culture is having on politics is already being seen. Political candidates use popular trends to seem “young” to their younger voting base, but now we’re seeing political candidates go to Twitter and post actual memes. President Trump notoriously is known for using Twitter as a way to relay messages, and he’s also known for posting a few memes of his own. In the 2016 election, Hilary Clinton responded to President Trump with, “delete your account”, another popular meme phrase. More political candidates are using Gen Z slang to reach that younger audience. Even if teenagers aren’t able to vote in elections, memes are giving us back the control and a way to influence elections.

Not all memes are positively informing teenagers. Because some teens get their political info only from social media without looking for more credible sources, there is a possibility of misinformation getting to a vulnerable audience. Take for example former democratic candidate for president Micheal Bloomberg, who is paying meme pages to post memes about him that will make him come off as cool to a younger audience.

Bloomberg is collaborating with the company Meme 2020, which is helping Bloomberg reach out to dozens of meme pages with millions of followers. One of the memes posted was a fake Instagram direct message with Bloomberg in which he quoted a popular rap lyric. Former candidate Andrew Yang also has meme culture to thank for helping him build up his supporter base, dubbed, “Yang Gang”.

Memes like these could be potentially dangerous. Many teens could have look at these memes and automatically cast their support behind Bloomberg without doing research on some of his nasty political history. For some members of Gen Z who are old enough to vote, consuming memes without research can often influence who they decide to vote for, which gives politicians a very dangerous power over the younger voting base.

When I asked other teens about how they felt about the reliability of social media in politics, Etta, a 15-year-old student from Southeast Atlanta saysL “[Social Media] only show[s] you the bad parts of politics. So, like for example, if Trump passed a law saying ‘Ya’ll folks not coming in this country,’ it’s gonna be all over social media, but if he passed a law that says we’re adding more money into the schools and all that stuff, that’s not gonna be on social media.”

Zakai, a 15-year-old student who attends Carver Early College High School, feels the same adding, “…I follow pages with political content. Even so, they seem biased and one leans more toward another side rather than remaining neutral.”

So, although memes are capable of making a positive impact on teens, it is important not to rely on social media to get all your political knowledge. As much as I hate quoting everyone’s favorite president Donald Trump, there is unfortunately a lot of “fake news” out there, which can sway the way someone thinks about politics.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that memes are making a huge impact on politics. So, before you cast memes off as being dumb, remember that they are giving teens a digestible and accessible way to participate and educate themselves on politics from a space where they know they won’t be judged by any snarky Boomers.

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