Conference Paper The Sociointeractional Function and Visiolinguistic Form of the Internet Meme: A Case Study in Multimodal Political Participation

Presentation at the Australian Linguistics Society 2017 Conference, the University of Sydney, Australia.
Founded in the evolutionary work of Richard Dawkins and situated at the nexus of language, society, and digital communication, Internet memes reflect “artifacts of participatory digital culture” (Wiggins & Bowers, 2014: 1886) that extend opportunities for political expression, engagement and participation which otherwise might not have been accessible. Central to the concept of the Internet meme is the notion of contagion or virality that fosters the “spread, distribution, replication, and propagation of memes in digital networks” (Wiggins & Bowers, 2014: 1890). Shifman (2012) further highlights how Internet memes require human agency, as they are only able to spread as a direct result of actions taken and choices made by people. Although the exchange and spread of memes may appear chaotic across intersecting virtual networks, Nissenbaum and Shifman (2017: 486) point out that “the exchange of Internet memes is to a large extent a product of societal and communal coordination” whereby meme creators depend upon the content and stance of the meme fitting with the worldview of a digital community in order for the meme to survive insertion into that community and thus spread and be reformed into new iterations and manipulations. This presentation adopts a sociolinguistic perspective to examine the sociointeractional function and visiolinguistic form of Internet memes created in relation to the candidates for the 2016 U.S. election – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. These memes, serving as an example of multimodal political participation, are processed in accordance with Van Leeuwen’s (2007) framework for the analysis of legitimizing discourse with emphasis placed upon how the memes worked to de-legitimize each of the candidates. The analysis shared reveals that the (de)legitimization strategies of moral evaluation, rationalization and mythopoeisis are all commonly observable in the sociointeractional function and visiolinguistic form of the Internet meme.

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