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Of Advocacy, Viral Videos and Web Memes

Could neo-activism driven by viral videos and internet memes save the environment? Memes aren’t just about getting a laugh anymore – they make political points too and sway opinion. Once relegated to marginal online communities and subcultures, virtual memes have penetrated the public psyche to become part of pop culture online. 

The US presidential election is fertile ground for spawning internet memes. The TV debates give voters not just a glimpse of the candidates, but fodder to turn political discourse into mimetic entertainment. After two TV debates, “Big Bird” and “Horses and bayonets” have stormed the internet.

Binders Full of Women” has become an instant internet meme after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s telling remark during a debate with President Barack Obama to demonstrate his past attempts to fight for women’s equality.

Memes predate the internet. They take the form of ideas, images, styles, catchphrases and videos that people find compelling enough to copy and imitate within a culture. The term meme is derived from genetics, describing the evolution of ideas and cultural phenomena by natural selection.

These days, one can even “songify” TV sound bites for the web. The Gregory Brothers have turned the third presidential TV encounter  into a musical meme, with Romney and Obama engaging in a mellifluous battle for votes. The video (below) is part of The New York Times Op-Doc series:


Could the “songification” and “meme-ification” of abstract policy debates on climate change, melting icecaps and species extinction generate virtual memes, inspire local action, and focus global attention and trigger social change?

Environmental memes are in a class of their own. They inform our view of nature – think Gaia, Pachamama and Mother Earth. Today, environmentalists have added viral videos and social media to their arsenal of advocacy and protest tools.

The slick video (below) by Greenpeace that purportedly showed a Royal Dutch Shell event going horribly wrong sparked a media firestorm in June this year:


Another video on The Great Pacific Garbage Patch went viral long before ending plastic pollution in the world’s oceans became one of the top 10 priorities of the Rio+20 conference. The simple narrative of this video struck a chord, spurring eco-blogs and green groups  to tap information from the clip to start campaigns to “Take the Plastic Water Bottle Challenge” and ban plastic bags:


The startling spread of the Kony meme raises interesting questions for the future of green neo-activism online. Kony 2012, the viral campaign against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, is an infectious idea that transfixed a generation who use Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

The 30-minute video made by the US-based campaigning group Invisible Children has been lambasted by media scholars for ideological bias and its simplistic portrayal of a complex issue. But this is the way to reach and rouse a generation of multi-screening multi-taskers, native of the visual language of LOL cats.

Complex and multi-faceted, green issues were once given short shrift in mainstream media. But mainstreaming these issues is not enough. So-called MemeGenerators enable the meme-fication of issues. Properly exploited, memes and viral videos can be passed along via Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter to ignite social change.

If the intentions are good, the simplification of complexity is a powerful narrative tactic to spur web natives to start viral conversations using 140 characters or less. The seminal paper by  Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter on the power of “weak ties” in networks posits that links among people who are not closely bonded are critical for spreading ideas and helping groups coalesce for action.

With one in three people in the world now using the internet, online video could in time reach these folks and prove a game changer. And when mashups of funny online content inspire a flood of parodies, viral videos and internet memes might just save Mother Nature.

Clip to Evernote

About The Author(s)



Joanne KY Teoh

Joanne KY Teoh

Multimedia Documentary Artist

Joanne KY Teoh is an independent journalist, media educator and consultant based in Singapore. She works at the intersection of digital narratives and interactive story forms, having authored multimedia documentaries, TV programmes, articles, papers, university curricula and masterclasses on the subjects. Joanne serves as Director of the Asian Children's Media Summit and founded Sapphire Studios, a non-profit enterprise dedicated to equipping young people with 21st Century digital media competencies. Joanne has over 20 years of journalistic experience in senior management, creative and editorial roles at leading news organizations in Asia, honing her expertise from BBC, CNN and CNA. A member of the editorial team that launched Asian network, Channel NewsAsia in 1999, she created TV and Web series on social issues, technology and business, winning acclaim for her role as writer, director and executive producer. Contact: joanneteoh@sapphirestudios.tv

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