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#climatechange – Do internet memes influence climate policy?

Memes are spreading across social media and shaping the public climate debate. How exactly do they do this – and do memes even influence political decisions?

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“How dare you!” — a sentence, an image, generated by Greta Thunberg at the UN Climate Summit in New York in 2019. This meme went around the world. It is socially critical, emotional, and angry. It does something to us. That’s why the meme spread millions of times across social networks.

Memes are image, text, video and sound combinations that anyone can easily create on a computer. The most common form is the image macro: an image with text over it. This Internet phenomenon has been around since 2007, and the interdisciplinary bidt project “KLIMA-MEMES” team is working on it. Researchers from communication science, computer science and computational linguistics are jointly investigating the influence of humoristically intended communication on political decision-making in the context of climate change.

Memes are ideal for analysing different trends in public communication.

Dr. Simon Lübke To the profile

“When we talk about memes, we mean simple, multimodal, emotional content shared online in social media such as Facebook or TikTok,” explains Dr. Simon Lübke from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. “Memes are short, concise statements. That’s why you can quickly process them when scrolling through a social media platform.” Even though anything can become an internet meme, most are humorous or satirical. “This effect only comes about through multimodality,” says project leader Dr. Jörg Haßler, “because, for example, the chosen image detail and the text absurdly contradict each other.” The bidt-funded research project specifically examines the influence of climate memes, i.e. content that deals with the current climate discussion.

Climate memes in the social media

“Up to now, there has often been a lack of linkage between the object of study ‘political internet memes’ and existing theories in our field,” explains communication scientist Simon Lübke. Theoretical groundwork is needed here. “We also don’t know yet why stakeholders in climate discourse share a certain meme in the first place. In this respect, we can close a research gap here.”

Climate memes deal with political issues and are shared by different actors on the web. This sounds obvious, but it is not. “The challenge is to identify exactly those memes that relate to our research question,” reports Jörg Haßler. Thousands of memes are created daily in German-speaking countries and spread online on different platforms. How does the project team find the right content on the web? “For this, we chose an actor- and hashtag-based approach,” explains Simon Lübke. “The actors relevant to us naturally include groups like Fridays for Future or the Last Generation, individual politicians, parties, and NGOs. But climate memes can also come from completely different directions. That’s why we specifically look for posts with hashtags like #climatechange, #klimawandel or #klimaluege.”

The researchers first analyse this database manually to create a basis for the later automatic analysis. An upcoming major event in climate discourse lends itself to this empirical work: the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2023. “Then we will look closely at public communication on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter) and enter it into the database with the support of trained people,” says Lübke. “Our goal is to find as much material as possible based on our theoretical considerations.” Later, this data analysis should be able to take place automatically.

Humour is when you make memes out of it?

Why are memes so successful? And are there certain features and characteristics that make them particularly prevalent? “Humour or certain styles of humour could be an explanatory factor,” suspects project leader Jörg Haßler. Some studies suggest a connection between humorous content and increased attention. “In climate discourse, the reception of such content can also lead to greater awareness of climate issues,” adds Simon Lübke, “or it can have the exact opposite effect because the use of humour is perceived as less credible or cynical.”

Analysing humour is a methodological challenge. “Research on humour in political communication is very differentiated,” says Jörg Haßler. “There are the most diverse methodological approaches to the effect of humour and the media effect in general. We are therefore reviewing various assumptions and preparing the literature on memes from the social science field.”

One thing is clear: it takes social science input and collaboration to grasp the social dimension of this type of political communication. This applies to the analysis of humorous content and the analysis of the specific internet phenomenon memes: “A purely technical approach would not get us anywhere,” explains Simon Lübke. “If we simply collected all posts with a specific hashtag, we would have no information about the use of humour.” Moreover, hashtags are often not as explicit as #climatechange, for example. “The hashtag #howdareyou is only understood in a social context. And, of course, there are phenomena like that all the time.”

The researchers will also conduct qualitative interviews with environmental politicians as part of the project. “We want to find out how they assess the importance of visuality in politics and how they think about humour in politics, whether they perceive a change in public communication in the context of memes, but also beyond that, and what role this plays in their work,” reports Jörg Haßler.

The goal: a survey and measurement tool for content in social media

In the bidt project, the three disciplines of communication science, computational linguistics and computer science complement each other. The latter uses computer vision, a field within artificial intelligence, to extract information from digital images and videos. “You can use it to understand how memes are constructed and what humorous elements the image conveys,” says Simon Lübke.

Computational linguistics develops models that enable computers to understand and process human language in oral or written form. “Our idea is to train a model that automatically recognises how language is used humorously in a meme so that the chance of virality increases,” explains Jörg Haßler. This is no easy task because an algorithm needs an enormous amount of underlying data material to categorise content as humorous.

The researchers’ goal is a survey and measurement tool for textual and visual content in social networks that other researchers can also use. Simon Lübke explains the advantage of such an instrument: “Researchers can then analyse material in a uniform way independently of each other. One could comprehensively measure the diffusion of memes into politics. So, how are memes disseminated across different platforms? How are memes received in politics, how are they shared, and how are they commented on? And last but not least: Do they impact policy decisions in the context of climate change?”

Political communication and the media system are changing

Memes combine many aspects of political communication that are not new: visuality, humour, and multimodality. “Internet memes in social media combine these tendencies and are therefore particularly well suited as an object of study,” summarises project leader Jörg Haßler.

We see an increasing visuality of politics and a digital transformation of the political public sphere.

Dr. Jörg Haßler To the profile

Memes are an expression of a process of social change. “The digital transformation of the public sphere is changing how we communicate,” says Simon Lübke. “That’s why it’s important to look at phenomena that at first glance seem to take place ‘only on the internet’.” Greta Thunberg’s “How dare you” or Armin Laschet’s public faux pas in 2021 in the flood zone Ahrtal under the hashtag #laschetlacht are just two examples of climate discourse that have been discussed in a wide variety of media formats, from Twitter to Tagesschau.

“The traditional journalistic mass media still provide great coverage,” says Jörg Haßler. “After all, even 750,000 likes on Twitter are little given the size of the German population. However, the mass media are increasingly picking up content that goes viral online on social media. This shows the hybridity of our media system.”