This article documents the memes of Dezarticulat, a Romanian meme page. We focus on how Dezarticulat finds its own particular brand of political memes, which is in some ways quite different from what is often understood as a ‘political meme’. The common understanding of this genre is often based on memes about (mostly) American political culture, but Romania – like most other countries – has its own particular political sphere and history, from which a somewhat different type of political memes emerges.
As in many other countries, online campaigning and mobilization is an increasingly prominent factor in Romanian politics. While some of this activity originates with traditional political parties and interest groups, especially on the anti-establishment fringes this is often coordinated in a more grass-roots fashion, via semi-anonymous Facebook pages and other loosely demarcated online communities (see Gerbaudo, 2012). One example of this is Dezarticulat (in rough translation, Disjointed). Dezarticulat is a leftist Romanian Facebook meme page and represents a unique phenomenon as one of the most visible and relevant left-wing projects in Romania.
Dezarticulatpresents itself as an alternative to the hegemonic political discourse in Romania which has been shifting towards the right ever since the 1989 Revolution (Andreescu, 2018; Soare & Tufiș, 2018). As such it can be seen as answering Julia Ebner (2019)’s call for a ‘more dynamic, more innovative and bolder’ (p. 179) style of counterspeech, which she argues is needed to effectively combat increasingly popular styles of (online) far-right thought such as the alt-right. While Ebner’s argument concerns the American alt-right specifically, Dezarticulat can similarly be positioned as opposing a relatively entrenched right-wing political faction, i.e. the Romanian ruling coalition.
An important difference is that Ebner frames the alt-right as a ‘new far-right counter-culture’ (p. 169); while the Romanian right-wing government is not as extremist as the alt-right, and can hardly be called new or a counter-culture; it has dominated the national electoral politics since 1989. Nevertheless her call for counterspeech to counter this the alt-right rings true concerning Dezarticulat, as a bottom-up initiative to respond to a more or less dominant right-wing discourse with a creative, memetic style that can indeed be seen as dynamic, innovative and bold. Much of the activity in the group consists of the promotion of leftist ideas and takes on contemporary Romanian politics, often in memetic formats that reference international Western meme culture, or local popular culture. This confluence of national and international factors additionally makes Dezarticulat a fruitful example of what Nissenbaum & Shifman call “the workings of globalization and localization in meme-oriented spheres” (2018, p.307). A case study of this page could then answer their call for “exploring a larger set of languages, looking into subcultural settings, and uncovering the everyday pragmatics of implementing memetic repertoires” (ibid.), as a particularly local and particularly memetic locus for political discourse.
The medium of memes indeed comprises a rich resource for analysis of (local) political culture; as Milner argues, memes are “fundamentally multimodal” (Milner, 2016). The meaning of a meme may be “realized through more than one semiotic code” (Gunther & van Leeuwen, 2016, p. 177); memes carry multiple modes of communication, i.e., words, images, audio or video. Memes then also have the ability to spread political arguments packed in an “in an easily shareable, concise and often visual form” (Hakoköngäs et al., 2020, p. 2). This has allowed memes to become part of popular culture, which can be understood through the lens of cultural citizenship as “an arena in which not only meaning is struggled over, but identity, subjection and subjectivity, community, and inclusion and exclusion as well” (Hermes, 2005, p. 6). This process of identity making is more apparent in political subcultures, which require a subcultural literacy, meaning “knowledge of the codes and norms developed in this meme-based subculture” (Shifman, 2014a, p. 126). Political memes are thus often deeply vernacular; routinely mix local and global cultural capital; and can richly express one’s position as a political subject.
Dezarticulat and pages like it can then be understood as spaces within which a political identity is constructed, negotiated and contested through the production and dissemination of memes. As a page oriented towards left-wing political positions, Dezarticulat is particularly interesting in light of the memetic maxim that ‘the left can’t meme’ (Ebner, 2019, p.169), as (arguably) a counter-example but also as an example of how a leftist memetic project might be seen as an example of online ‘counterspeech’. It is also a compelling example of an explicitly local producer of such memetic counterspeech, and an analysis of it can contribute to a more ‘global’ perspective on meme production in line with Nissenbaum & Shifman’s call for a more comprehensive study of “shared and unique expressions of memes across the globe” (2018, p. 307). A case study of Dezarticulat, therefore, can reveal how memes are operationalized as counterspeech in the specific local context of Romania, and the specific political context of a marginalized left-wing discourse.
Dezarticulat in context
As a page that covers Romanian politics and culture in the broad sense, Dezarticulat’s memes can be divided into a number of genres based on both their format and theme. As Shifman (2014b, p. 342) argues, memes can more generally be understood as comprising “collections of collections” that represent different overarching and loosely-defined groupings of memes. Such a ‘collection-oriented’ view on memes emphasizes that for a productive analysis, memes “are not to be understood as objects themselves, but within the activities that give rise and use to them” (Bazerman & Russell, 2003, qtd. in Wiggins & Bowers, 2014, p. 8). “Activities” then comprises a “complex system of social motivations and cultural activity” (Wiggins & Bowers, 2014, p.8), i.e. a particular group of memes needs to be appraised and understood within the cultural, social, but also political context in which it emerges, as the meme is always made in dialogue with and reflective of this context. More concretely, the memes created by Dezarticulat – if we take them as comprising a specific genre of memes – can only be understood as a reflection of their local context, and should be studied as such.
Bazerman argues that genres do not refer to the forms, but rather represent “forms of life, ways of being. They are frames for social action” (Bazerman, 1997, p. 19). Genres are meant to be understood as dynamic and complex systems which bring together social, political and cultural contexts; or as Shifman puts it, genres respond to “social, political and technological ecologies” (2014b, p. 342); thus, genres are not universal, but rather adapted to the context in which they appear. In this regard, we are identifying in particular a new genre of memes which are created within a certain geographical context – in our case, Romania – which cater to the specific local sensibilities. The specificities of this genre, which we argue originates with Dezarticulat, are unpacked in the analysis employed in this paper and represent a unique phenomena in the Romanian meme sphere.
It is of note here that Dezarticulat is a Facebook page, and thus operates within Facebook’s “empty structure” (Brügger 2015). That it is based on Facebook sets it apart from some other fringe political meme cultures, e.g. those based on image boards like 4chan. One difference between fringe and mainstream platforms resides in what type of culture they allow: Tuters and de Zeeuw underline the difference between ‘mask’ and ‘face’ cultures (2020, p. 218). These types of cultures sit at polar opposites – mask cultures are present predominantly on fringe platforms, whereas ‘face’ cultures inhabit mainstream platforms, such as Facebook. Mask cultures derive from pseudonymous or anonymous platforms, they allow participants to take up different identities, whereas face cultures represent the “’serious,’ ‘official life’ of work, school and family” (de Zeeuw & Tuters, 2020, p. 217). The paper investigates the implications of Dezarticulat employing memetic behavior on mainstream platforms and how this relates to the cultural and social particularities of Romania.
Dezarticulat arguably subverts the expectations of ‘face’-oriented platforms by remaining anonymous on a platform that discourages this; this allows them to remain free of the possible real-life consequences of their activities. On the other hand, Facebook is still the most used platform in Romania (Kemp, 2022), so the usage of the platform represents a pragmatic choice, which allows Dezarticulat to reach a larger number of people. This is also a means through which Dezarticulat positions itself as disruptive in the Romanian meme sphere, considering that ‘face’ platforms such as Facebook or Instagram have “an underlying bias (nurtured by business models) toward making and maintaining connections and thus usually reflects positivity and success or calls for warmth and empathy” (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018, p. 297), which Dezarticulat is decisively opposed to.
Generally, the rise of ‘new’ parties in Romania is built upon a general dissatisfaction with the political class, boosted by the austerity measures taken as a result of the 2008 financial crisis (Stoiciu, 2012). This dissatisfaction, coupled with a generalized political instability culminated with a series of protests between 2017-2019, which represented the biggest anti-corruption protest ever since the 1989 Romanian Revolution (Marinas & Ilie, 2017). Ultimately, on the 6th of December 2020, Romania held legislative elections, which saw a newly-found and rather unknown party receive 9% of the popular vote – the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR). Cataloged as a far-right party (McGrath, 2020), the election of AUR in the Romanian Parliament was seen as unexpected (Popescu, 2020), as they built their electoral platform on a general mistrust of the COVID-19 pandemic, on anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown restrictions.
Dezarticulatwas created in 2012, yet only in started to gain a larger following towards the end of the 2010s, sitting at 20.000 likes as of April 2021. Dezarticulat can be seen as part of a loose, ideologically-connected network of left-wing Romanian Facebook pages. Pages such as Sexția de Agitație și Propagandă (Sextion [sic] of Agitation and Propaganda) and Crestinismul Cultural Mi-a Vindecat Depresia (Cultural Christianity Cured My Depression) engage in meme-posting as well; Baricada România and TLTXT tackle societal issue and pop culture. However, all of these pages are much smaller than Dezarticulat (at the time of writing, Dezarticulat had more likes than their total combined). In this context, Dezarticulat stands as one of the most followed and oldest pages in the Romanian left-wing online sphere.
Dezarticulat then presents a compelling case study of a particular, local, genre of political memes created in a context that is in several ways subversive; contrary to the dominant local political discourse, against its platform’s dominant affordances, and ‘hyper-local’. In the next section, we discuss how this case study is operationalized for an analysis of its memetic practices.
The goal of our analysis is twofold. Our principal aim is to offer an analysis of the ‘genres’ of memes found onDezarticulat that can reveal how local and global ‘memetic capital’ mix in this specific political context. Additionally, we aim to show how this is not a static state of affairs; rather, the relative popularity of particular memetic genres and styles is delicately in tune with the ebbs and flows of the broader Romanian political and cultural context. To do this, we start with a broad overview of the memes produced and shared on the page since its founding. The goal here is to identify particularly prominent ‘genres’ of memes, for which we then select a sample that we analyze more qualitatively in a next step, using a multimodal approach (Hakoköngäs et al. 2020). The analysis then combines an initial quantitative, ‘distant’ data analysis with a qualitative close reading of a representative sample of memes, for a ‘quali-quanti’ analysis (Venturini & Latour 2010) that offers both a high-level, diachronic overview and a more specific content analysis.
The initial step of our analysis is a quantitative, diachronic overview of the memes posted by Dezarticulat, categorized by their ‘function’. We assess the intended function of these local memes using a modified version of the typology for political memes developed by Chagas et al. (2019) in their analysis of Brazilian political memes (reproduced in Table 1); we assess whether and how these meme collections can function as counterspeech to the dominant political discourse in Romania, informed by Ebner (2019); and we are interested in the tension between this local context and the use of global meme templates that characterizes contemporary meme culture.
Chagas et al. (2019)’s taxonomy of political memes is a useful grounding for our analysis as they also study a local meme ‘genre’, in their case Brazilian. This is relevant for our analysis insofar as it helps us to demarcate broader trends and collections of memes within our collected dataset with a sensitivity for local particularities. Chagas et al. are however primarily interested in memes as a proxy for “how politicians formulate their rhetoric and how audiences react” (n.p.); our interest on the other hand is the meme itself as a form of political expression and possibly counterspeech. Therefore, we add to Chagas. et al’s more functional taxonomy a measure of what is popularly called the ‘dankness’ of memes, i.e. the extent to which it requires specific subcultural knowledge to understand. A very dank Dezarticulat meme might only be understandable by people that have followed the page for a long time, while a more basic meme may be understood by a broad audience with basic knowledge of Romanian politics.
This zoomed-out, over-time appraisal is then followed by a brief visual analysis of the collected images as plotted by PixPlot (Duhaime 2017), a tool that uses automated feature detection to position images in a 2D space according to their visual features. The result resembles a scatter plot (or “image plot”, per Manovich 2011, p.17) of which the interpretation of this plot is analogous to a visual network analysis in that it privileges the position of an image relative to the other images in the dataset as meaningful, similar to how one might interpret the positioning of nodes in a network (Venturini et al. 2014). Images form clusters as they are positioned to visually similar other images; this allows a ‘zoomed out’ observation of categories of images that are prevalent in the dataset, congruent with e.g. specific meme templates or broader categories such as screenshots, photos or cartoons.
In other words, this initial step allows the identification of various ‘collections’ of similar images within the broader dataset. Informed by the idea that a ‘memeology’ can be understood as a ‘collections of collections’, per Shifman (2014), in the final step we discuss some of Dezarticulat’s collections of this kind. We discuss six examples of memes representative of the categories and clusters found in the earlier steps, with a particular focus on those memes that highlight the interplay between sometimes well-known internationalized meme formats and the specific local Romanian context in which Dezarticulat operates. The aforementioned three aspects of memes – function, counterspeech affordances, and local/global legibility – then form the interpretative framework for this close reading.
|Types of political memes|
|Persuasive memes||Propositional rhetoric and/or pragmatic appeal: memes which refer directly to actors and/or their positions|
|Seducing or threatening rhetoric and/or emotional appeal: memes tackling subjective and emotional aspects in regards to certain actors.|
|Ethical and moral rhetoric and/or ideological appeal: memes which examine scandals, tackle corruption or mention rivalries between different political factions.|
|Grassroots action memes||General call to action: memes which encourage to engage with a certain movement or organization|
|Collective action: memes referencing different organizations and/or calling to action for a particular issue in line with the page’s ideology|
|Public discussion memes||Political commonplace: memes referencing general political discussion.|
|General cultural allusions: memes which make references to general popular and meme culture.|
|Specific cultural allusions: memes referencing Romanian cultural specificities.|
|Jokes about political characters: memes targeting specific political characters or parties|
|Jokes about current events: memes which reference current political or popular culture events|
Table 1: Chagas et al. (2019)’s typology of political memes
Using Facepager, an “application for automated data retrieval” from Facebook (Facepager, 2021), we collect all images posted by Dezarticulat from its founding date in May 2012, up until March 2021. Specifically, this comprises all images posted in posts (i.e. not in comments). After the initial dataset is gathered, we discard videos and images which are not in a typical ‘meme format’, using Shifman (2014a, p.41)’s definition of a meme as a “group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which were created with awareness of each other, and were circulated, imitated and/or transformed via the Internet by many users”. As such, the items in the dataset must be understood in the context in which they appear, as “artifacts of participatory digital culture” (Wiggins & Bowers, 2015, p. 1891). In order to capture a larger perspective of the page, we employ a relatively loose definition of memes. The main purpose of this is to take into account the possible cultural sensibilities and interpretations of different formats, similar to how Chinese memes differ considerably from Western formats (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018, p. 301). As such, our dataset includes all posts which contain an image with text superimposed or where the Facebook description acts as the text of the meme.
Apart from the post themselves, the number of reactions, shares and comments were also extracted, and added up to represent the engagement/popularity of a certain meme. Next, we subset the collected images by year. For each month, we retain the top 5 most engaged with memes (apart from 2015, 2016 and 2017, for which we gathered all memes, since there were fewer than five per month for these), and code them using the typology presented in Table 1.
A practical consideration of this research represents the fact that the memes posted by Dezarticulat are in the Romanian language. As such, a translation and adaptation in English will be added for the memes where they are discussed in this paper; however, considering that the references made by Dezarticulat are very culturally specific and make use of certain slang, there is a risk that some of the nuance might be lost in translation. In order to prevent this as much as possible, for each meme where this situation applies, an explanation will be offered in an effort to properly contextualize the meme for non-Romanian speakers.
Any analysis of social media data needs to consider the ethical dimension of collecting and analyzing such data. After all, for participants in public social media pages, “it is easy to forget that the message may sometimes be stored and be retrievable for a long time afterward” (Sveningsson Elm 2007) and doing so anyway may be uncomfortable or even dangerous to the authors of the content. However, the data we collect here does not contain sensitive personal information; the images concern public figures such as political figures and broader issues, rather than individuals whose exposure through the reproduction of these images might put them at risk. Dezarticulat is furthermore a pseudonymous public Facebook page one can access without prior approval, with the explicit goal of contributing to debate in the public sphere. As such, the content we have collected and discussed in the subsequent analysis section can be presented as-is, without infringing on anyone’s privacy or personal safety.
In this section, we discuss how Dezarticulat uses memes throughout the period from which we collected data. We start with a general discussion of the activity throughout this period, after which we take a closer look at the overall visual styles that are used by the page. We finish with a close reading of six specific meme templates/formats that are particularly representative of the page.
Table 2 shows the amount of meme posts per year, though there are some caveats for the analysis at hand. Initially, Dezarticulat used to focus on drawings and comics, some based on adaptations of classic Romanian tales. These comics, while sometimes mentioning political characters or specific cultural manifestations, cannot be considered as being specifically deployed to push forward a certain political agenda nor were they crystallized in a concrete genre. As a consequence, the quantitative analysis is based on data starting with 2015, when Dezarticulat began to post politically-motivated memes.
|Posts per year|
Table 2: Total amount of posts made by Dezarticulat between 2012-2021
Some of the earliest memes, ranging from 2015-2016, have shown that Dezarticulat have become engaged explicitly in promoting anti-capitalism and raising awareness in regards to specific events or scandals happening at that time. A prime example can be seen in Figure 1, which refers directly to a controversy involving Therme Bucharest, a well-known and upscale spa complex which refused access to a family simply for the fact that they were Roma people. This particular event speaks of a larger societal issue – Roma people are subject to widespread discrimination in Romania (Turda, 2014).
According to our research, we have underlined the evolution of the memes posted by Dezarticulat in regards to their form and content. We argue that there are three main meme ‘periods’ – the earlier years, between 2014/5-2016, show a consolidation in both style and content as Dezarticulat were testing the waters through counter-cultural memes. This is also highlighted by the relatively small number of posts created in this period, especially considering that Romania held presidential and legislative elections during this time. The second period, which started in 2017 and ended in 2019, represents the birth of many in-group jokes, recurrent memes and fictional characters developed, as the page consolidated a counter-cultural speech aimed at specific events and actors in the Romanian political and cultural sphere. Finally, the latest period, 2019-2021, represents a relative maturity of the page. In this sense, we observe more ‘basic’ memes, i.e., memes which can be easily deciphered by the general public and do not necessarily require a specific and in-depth literacy; nonetheless, the memes from the current period still tackle relevant and current political discussion and events.
Figure 1: Dezarticulat meme tackling the latent racism present in Romania (Translation: upper text: Welcome to Therme; bottom text: the place where you can feel discriminated à la carte)
In the first instance, the bar chart presented in Figure 2 showcases the distribution of the memes in the three main categories of the dataset, which added up to a total of 264 memes, based on the selection explained in the methodology. It can be easily observed that Public discussion memes are the main category throughout the years. The main reason for the dominance of this category resides in the fact that its sub-categories include jokes about political characters, jokes about current events and specific cultural allusions, which make up the primary purpose of the page. This represents one of the main ways in which Dezarticulat are employing left-wing memes. Although the ratio between persuasive memes and public discussion memes has shifted throughout the years, public discussion memes are a core feature of the page. Dezarticulat do sometimes refer directly to actors and their policies, yet the main content that they use is focused on the cultural aspect of the political life in Romania, and not necessarily to a direct critique of policies.
Figure 2: distribution of the meme type throughout the years.
By looking at the same figure, one key finding needs to be addressed: there are almost no Grassroots action memes present in the dataset. On one hand, this might seem unusual for a page which has left-wing ideals; an assumption could be made that Dezarticulat would be engaging more with other left-wing projects in order to help them gain visibility and raise their followers’ attention with regard to such projects. However, the dataset only contains the most engaged with memes, so in this regard, the takeaway is that people are simply not engaging with such posts. While there are instances where Dezarticulat are using calls to action, most of the times they refer to promoting their own merchandise or Patreon page, with the purpose of raising capital to fund other projects that they have planned.
Moving a level further and looking at the subcategories of the analysis grid, Figure 3 offers a more in-depth visualization of the meme timeline. As mentioned before, between 2017 and 2019 there has been an influx of persuasive memes; more specifically, memes categorized as ‘propositional rhetoric and/or pragmatic appeal’ as well as ‘seducing or threatening rhetoric and/or emotional appeal’ make up the bulk of this category. This is, in part, due to the rather antagonistic style of the memes, which focus more on the actors themselves, i.e., making fun of their political opinions, appearance or other personal characteristics. The page is less interested in exposing or providing detailed analysis of political actors, a fact which can be seen from the small number of memes contained in the ‘Ethical and moral rhetoric and/or ideological appeal’. Thus, Dezarticulat’s page is positioned as not a place for debating or analyzing politics; it is a left-wing meme space which directly addresses shortcomings of political actors in a highly memetic manner.
Figure 3: memes posted by Dezarticulat from 2015 to 2021, color-coded according to the sub-type of meme based on Table 1; size based on the number of total engagements.
Some of the most prominent sub-categories of memes are specific cultural allusions and jokes about current events, which cater precisely to the sensibilities of the page’s followers. One of Dezarticulat’s main attributes, as seen from Figure 3, is that their content is highly topical, relevant and relatable, which allows it to become easily shareable. However, it must be noted that not all of these memes are necessarily left-wing, yet it is precisely because not all content is ideologically loaded that Dezarticulat has the ability to reach a broader audience. On 27 September 2020, Bucharest held local elections and the candidate backed by the newly-formed, center-right alliance USR-PLUS, Nicușor Dan, became the new mayor. The meme in Figure 4 was posted on the same day, after the results had been determined, and represents a screenshot from the 2019 film, Parasite. Dezarticulat remixed the original screenshot from the film in order to tackle a developing problem in Bucharest – issues with access to residential hot water due to ongoing mismanagement of the infrastructure, largely placed upon the former mayor and TV presenter, Gabriela Firea.
Figure 4: Meme posted in 2020, categorized under ‘Jokes about current events’. Original post is accompanied by a description (translation: Now, in the University Square, party with hot water), but the post was not available anymore by the time of the writing.
Following this, an analysis of the images as clustered according to their visual features highlights a number of broader trends (see Figure 5). In various places in the plot one can spot collections of variations on a specific meme template. These are often well-known, internationally popular templates that have been appropriated to comment on the local political context. While the original template is sometimes left unchanged apart from the text, in many cases characters have been edited, re-drawn or replaced with a photo to resemble a local stereotype. An example is an appropriation of the ‘Yes Chad’ meme, in which a serious-looking, masculine man is contrasted with some inferior stereotype (see Figure 6). Usage of this template varies from direct copies with Romanian captions to localized versions of the ‘Chad’ character resembling a stereotypical post-communist left-wing activist. In such cases, one needs to be familiar with both the meme template as well as the local references to fully appreciate the image.
Figure 5. The PixPlot visualization, with a cluster of ‘Yes Chad’-adjacent memes highlighted.
Figure 6. Localized appropriation of the ‘Yes Chad’ meme.
A minority of images are simply photos of mundane situations. These rely on the accompanying caption text to present their message; but notably, many images are self-contained, in that they include both a photo or other visual center point, and a caption overlaid or next to that photo. This makes them particularly ‘spreadable’ (Jenkins et al. 2013), and affords sharing the images beyond the Dezarticulat Facebook page.
It should be underlined here that this visual analysis is not a quantitative method of finding the most salient memes in a dataset, but rather a heuristic that allows one to form an impression of a large set of images, and intuit what visual styles and formats are used on the page. It is then a heuristic in the sense that oft-used formats and images are clustered together and are visually more prominent; such images then present themselves as particularly relevant examples of Dezarticulat’s genre of memes, as in the ‘Yes Chad’ example above. Such clusters may then be read more closely in a subsequent analytical step to better understand the (visual) context of a given meme – for example, is it one of many similar examples, or is it a format used only once and then discarded? This then forms the background for our more specific analysis presented in the rest of this section in which we discuss some of the more salient meme formats that can be observed in this initial step of ‘distant reading’.
Figure 7: persuasive meme from 2015. Translation: first panel: “I invite on stage the gypsy-loving zionist, Radu Jude.”; second panel: “As the President of the UNATC (National University of Theatre and Film) Senate, I would like to withdraw the Silver Bear prize because of the gypsy propaganda present in Aferim”; third panel: “I will now hand the prize to director and interim dean, Ovidiu Georgescu, for the artistic mastery of ‘Ultimul Zburător’, a brilliant film part of Romania’s authentic cinematography”. Full-size image here: https://i.imgur.com/5qcPqli.jpg.
Figure 7 is an older post which blurs the line between being a comic and a meme. This is, in part, due to it pertaining to an earlier period in the page’s existence, when Dezarticulat was slowly shifting towards making memes rather than comic strips. Bearing this in mind, the premise of the meme is built upon a larger scandal involving academics from UNATC, film critics and film directors; the meme itself, however, is exaggerating some controversial statements made by the newly-appointed president of the UNATC Senate, Sergiu Anghel. It immediately becomes apparent that Dezarticulat are contesting some serious problems with Romanian society – antisemitism and the discrimination of Roma people. While these issues themselves are not necessarily exclusive to left-wing politics, subtle nudges are present in the comic – such as the medallion resembling a swastika on top of the curtains. The movie itself – Aferim! – tackles a sensitive and undiscussed part of Romanian history, that is the slavery of Roma people. Setting aside the facts mentioned directly, Dezarticulat position this meme directly against some of the culturally-ingrained cultural and political behaviors which have been going on in Romania after the 1989 Revolution. Nepotism and cronyism have been constant problems that Romania has faced, and anti-corruption has been present in the political agendas of numerous anti-establishment political parties. In this sense, Dezarticulat point out the hypocrisy of the situation, where a critically acclaimed film director would get his reward stripped in favor of a less-acclaimed film, “Ultimul Zburător”. The meme makes use of an ethical and moral rhetoric, and while it does not refer directly to the political actors, it tackles corruption in a cultural environment.
Figure 8: 2019 persuasive meme. Translation: “Hello, hi, it’s us, Ligia and Tibi, the pigs from your city or village, always on duty. If you are assaulted on the street, if your boss is harassing you, if you are bullied at school, whatever would happen, we will NOT help you! but if your landlord wants to evacuate you, if you go to the Victoriei protest, if you use a bathroom other than your gender’s, be sure that we will be there to kick you out of your precarious home, spray tear gas directly in your face until you have a heart attack, and question you until you become dizzy because we think that the citizens which we defend are lying. Our main mission is to protect the private property of business owners and use the baton in the direction that capitalism is pointing to because we’re not here to use our own brains. In that half hour that we’re actually patrolling in order to do justice and punish criminals, we do it by fining parcangii (meaning people who are illegally asking drivers for money to allow them to park in public spaces), old ladies selling dill at the market, sex workers, and if you are Roma, we might chase you a bit to stay in shape. Safety and trust, hahaha!”
The meme described under Figure 8 showcases a typical Dezarticulat meme – dank, highly memetic and subcultural. ‘Ligia’ and ‘Tibi’ are two fictional characters created by Dezarticulat, mostly used as floating signifiers. The usage of these two characters is usually referring to middle-income, urban, corporate young adults; however, in this scenario, they stand for problematic police officers, who took up the job because of its benefits and are less interested in enforcing the law. The anti-establishment sentiment is prevalent throughout this meme; all of the events mentioned in the meme are based on real scenarios. All of the problems signaled in the meme have one thing in common – they refer to the oppression of minorities, disadvantaged or discriminated members of Romanian society.
In this sense, it represents a form of counterspeech, a critique of repressive policemen and discriminatory attitudes in Romania. This meme also represents the foundation for a new genre created by Dezarticulat. The main attribute of it is its form, which resides in its very long text, usually formed in an unstructured way. It is also solidified by often-times particularly dense left-wing critique of a plethora of elements pertaining to Romanian political, social and normalized cultural aspects. Consequently, they can be understood as manifestos, arguing against Romanian societal issues from a left-wing perspective. What makes these memes attractive for Romanian readers is the focus on local references, creating a story which requires familiarity with the page and its lore, current events and cultural specificities. Nonetheless, the ideological position of Dezarticulat is strongly reinforced through its disdain for an institutionalized force of repression aimed at disadvantaged people.
Figure 9: Public discussion meme posted in 2019. Translation: “In their 2000 hit, ‘Inima mea’, the band A.S.I.A.’s lyrics ‘Take my heart with you / And hide it in your luggage / Take it with you there, in America / or in Asia’ bring a critique of Orientalism, as defined by Edward W. Said, as a stereotypical representation of “Eastern” societies as being exotic, primitive or inferior, thus the “East” is seen as “the other”, and this type of thinking justified the imperialism and colonialism promoted by the “West”. In this context, ‘Inima mea’ becomes the knowledge of eastern societies which is obscured (hidden in the luggage) and taken to America (seen through the biased perspective of the West) and then brought to Asia (as a colonizing force).”
This meme makes use of popular Romanian culture through the well-known song ‘Inima mea’ (‘My heart’) in order to educate its followers about colonialism and imperialism. The cleavage between the song, which is nothing more than a generic pop hit, and the theory presented in the meme causes it to be particularly humorous. The intended purpose of this meme is to take a piece of Romanian popular culture and use it as a vehicle for a left-wing critique of imperialism. The local dimension and the blend of political and ‘standard’ humor allows for the memes to become successful – both as memes and as political instruments – through their appeal to Romanian popular culture. On one hand, this meme appeals to its in-group, made up by people with left-wing sensibilities or those who have read Edward Said’s work and are familiar with their ideas. But what it also does is to articulate a point of view which is not necessarily discussed or brought to the public eye in Romania.
The main characteristic of this meme is that in a sense, it is an unnecessary meme. The fact that its purpose is to try and educate Dezarticulat’s followers is an added benefit, but the meme itself and the reference to Edward Said is what makes it a dank meme. This is a tactic used by Dezarticulat on different occasions, with the purpose of educating people in regards to a range of important subjects for left-wing politics. Figure 11 shows the broader selection of this particular sub-genre of memes, where it can be observed that Dezarticulat are creating their own meme formats. In this sense, Dezarticulat are not only using Romanian political and cultural specificities for the memes, but the form of the meme is highly specific for the page as well.
Figure 10: Tibi & Ligia meme from 2020. Translation: “(left bubble): What’s up, Ligia, are you looking at those sexo-marxist politically correct LGBTASDF memes again? Do you identify as an attack helicopter hahahhaha? You can’t say anything anymore without the PC dictatorship shutting you up. (right bubble): Stfu Tibi with your unquestioned toxic masculinity. Don’t you see that you and the other edgy dudes are actually against freedom of speech, silencing all marginalized people in society and paving the way for hegemonic discourse? And maybe if you weren’t so focused on the gender binary, you’d do some more chores around the house and be more empathic in regards to other people.”
Figure 10 brings back the previously-mentioned characters, Tibi and Ligia. This meme critiques an iteration of US ‘anti-PC’ discourse, which has been adopted by some Romanian right-wing circles and pundits, without tailoring it to the Romanian cultural sphere. The humor is derived from the fact that Romania is still very much a conservative country; in this scenario, Ligia is the voice of reason, arguing against Tibi’s position from a left-wing point of view. In this context, Dezarticulat take a countercultural approach to the ‘anti-PC’ discourse by dismantling it, explicitly positioning themselves against hegemonic, patriarchal and gender-normative speech.
The meme is part of a loose sub-genre of memes which contain Tibi and Ligia as the main characters, used to convey whatever message Dezarticulat wants. As the previous Tibi and Ligia meme showcased, it is very much wordy and uses the same format, whereas the content differs. This is one of the means through which Dezarticulat play with the boundaries of meme templates. While these memes do not follow the traditional definition of a meme template, we place these under the same umbrella due to the specificities of Dezarticulat and the context in which these memes appear.
Figure 11: visually similar memes, containing large amounts of text, intertwined with local references.
Figure 12: Persuasive meme from 2020. Translation: “Wow, the budget for 2020 was just voted and the amount allocated for the Secret Services and Defense will increase, while the Health budget will decrease. I hope a pandemic won’t come any time soon.”
Towards the year 2020, there has been a remarkable change that can be first observed in the form of the most popular memes, which have shifted from having a longer, drawn out text with references requiring a high literacy to a more ‘jokey’ format. The meme in Figure 12 points out to the lack of awareness concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. This meme comes in the context of a very controversial and ineffective campaign to stop the spread of COVID-19. On top of this, the Romanian health system has always had serious problems, caused by a historical lack of funding, culminating recently when a couple of hospitals have been affected by fires.
Regarding the style of the meme, it clearly marks a departure from earlier periods. Dezarticulat opted for a simpler, more straightforward image and statement, using a popular meme template compared to the previous examples, which were put together by Dezarticulat. This marks the shift towards using international meme formats with local content. The critique is addressed to the governing coalition formed by right-wing parties, which have flirted with the idea of privatizing the public health and education systems. The implication of this meme resides in its critique of the approved budget, which would put even more strain on a shaky health system. This is the main reason why this meme has been catalogued as ‘propositional rhetoric and/or pragmatic appeal’.
Figure 13: Persuasive meme from 2019, using pragmatic appeal to discuss the difference between two types of shitposters: the center-right USR, and the social democrats, PSD. The meme has been translated from Romanian. There are two specific Romanian references in this meme – the former mayor is referring to Gabriela Firea, whereas “daddy’s money” refers to money received from Liviu Dragnea, former PSD leader. imprisoned in 2019 for corruption.
The meme in Figure 13 showcases an international meme template (Virgin vs. Chad) applied to a local context. It is what Shifman & Nissenbaum call a “top-down articulation” (2018, p. 306), that is a format which has become part of meme internet literacy and dictates how a meme should be used. However, the meme disrupts the discursive status-quo, in which USR is seen as part of the educated, West-aligned middle-class. By subverting the expectations of the meme and posing the PSD Shitposter as the Chad (which are usually accused of being paid party trolls), Dezarticulat are clearly orienting themselves against the current political discourse, poking fun at USR supporters by ironically painting the PSD Shitposter in this regard.
It is important to mention that the distinction between the two characters in Figure 13 is rooted in how the electorate is culturally perceived: the last presidential and legislative elections saw the fragmentation of the Romanian electorate in two factions, where the upper and middle-class voters engaged in a discursive war against the PSD voters, whom they perceived as poor, uneducated (Ernu, 2014), and lacking the necessary political literacy to vote in an informed manner. Consequently, this meme shows that Dezarticulat are highly aware of the specificities surrounding the Romanian political and cultural context and are always present to offer a critique of mainstream, right-wing positions.
Figure 14: image wall containing memes from 2020-2021.
The most recent period, thus, represents a mix of memes, tackling different subjects and events from both the political and cultural spheres. As the image wall in Figure 14 shows, there has been a departure from more dense meme formats, Dezarticulat preferring memes which are easier to decode. They mostly focus on the visual side of the memes and contain a mix of international and local formats, addressing current events. This shift can be attributed to Dezarticulat gaining a sizable following of people who are not part of the subcultural citizenship which has previously marked Dezarticulat’s core base of fans. Becoming more mainstream meant that Dezarticulat had to opt for this simpler aesthetic in order to capitalize on their newly-found attention. However, this does not necessarily imply that their content has become less political – if anything, the local aspect becomes even more important, sitting at the core of Dezarticulat’s memes, which rely heavily on Romanian culture and identity.
These memes represent a blend of international formats adapted to the Romanian context, which is the key to understanding the meme genre that Dezarticulat have elaborated. It is not necessarily that they create memes intended for Romanian audiences, but rather that they embed popular culture, significant events and political commentary into a memetic perspective. This melange allows Dezarticulat to offer a highly localized left-wing critique, as well as to persuade people and – hopefully – attract them to left-wing thought.
The analysis carried on in this paper demonstrates that Dezarticulat operationalizes left-wing counterspeech (Ebner, 2019) through a solid grasp on memes as artifacts of participatory digital culture (Wiggins & Bowers, 2015). By creating carefully curated meme genres, Dezarticulat are aware that they are responding to “social, political and technological ecologies” (Shifman, 2014b, p. 342) through easily shareable memes. In this sense, memes become the main carrier of Dezarticulat’s thought and ideas through their different applications, as Figure 3 shows. Although they employ different types of memes, Dezarticulat echo Hakoköngäs et al.’s argument that memes can be used to disseminate different types of political arguments (2020). Dezarticulat have developed their own genre of memes, which they use in order to counter the dominant political discourse in Romania.
In order to identify these genres and how Dezarticulat are employing them to discuss the Romanian political and cultural contexts, both a quantitative and a qualitative approach has been carried out. The quantitative analysis offers a bird’s eye view on the page’s evolution throughout the years. Using an adaptation of Chagas et al.’s (2019) classification for political memes to which we added a ‘dankness’ dimension, we categorized each of the 264 memes in the dataset. This resulted in a generalized perspective of the type of memes posted by Dezarticulat. The findings show that the focus of the posts made by Dezarticulat were relatively consistent throughout the years, with the page maintaining a constant focus on national political issues. The page thus contributes to an online political discourse in which, following Penney’s (2019), memes are increasingly important as an information carries, also in a local Romanian context.
A periodization of the page was established, which resulted in three main categories: between 2015 and 2016, the page consolidated the style and content of the memes, positioning itself explicitly as a left-wing meme page. The following period – 2017-2019 – shows the development of Dezarticulat as a key player in the Romanian meme sphere and is marked by an increase in dank memes, mostly oriented to its followers who have a specific literacy in left-wing theory, popular meme culture as well as Romanian cultural specificities. Finally, the most recent period highlighted a shift to a less subcultural and more accessible style, but infused with the same left-wing critiques of Romanian politics. Here the page arguably establishes itself as an outlet for memetic ‘counterspeech’ (Ebner, 2019) focusing on broad and relatively accessible critique of the right-wing national government and its associated political discourse.
Furthermore, these findings show the particularities of the meme genre that Dezarticulat have created, as can be observed in Figures 8 and 9. This particular style, which includes relatively long texts and many obscure and/or absurd references, most prominently characterizes Dezarticulat in the ‘dank’ period. This can be seen as an example of how genres of memes emerge primarily based on the “activities that give rise and use to them” (Wiggins and Bowers, 2015, p. 8), i.e. critique of the local Romanian political context in this case. This also echoes Shifman’s argument (2014b) that memes change based on the social and political context in which they appear. It is likely that this is additionally one of the main reasons for the popularity of public discussion memes from this period, due to the fact that they tackle important events happening in Romanian society, touching upon cultural, social and political aspects by using humor as opposed to more ‘serious’ and formal political critique.
As Shifman & Nissenbaum argue, “memes may also be used to construct local digital cultures, in which attributes specific to a certain cultural setting are highlighted and maintained” (2018, pp. 294–295), which entails that we must take into account the specificities of the political, social and cultural environments of each country in order to properly dissect their memes. Conversely, the adaptation of Chagas et al.’s (2019) meme typology (Table 1) based on the aforementioned specificities can underline a deeper understanding of how these memes are created and circulated. As such, our analysis demonstrates that memes cannot be understood by themselves as singular artifacts, outside the (glocal) context in which they appear; even if two memes use the same ‘template’, their intended meanings might be wildly divergent, based more on local preoccupations than some inherent quality of the template.
Focusing further on the argument that meme templates alternate between bottom-up and top-down articulations and are dominated by American pop culture (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018, p. 306), our analysis shows that regardless of the fact that Dezarticulat use memes which have passed into ‘top-down’ territory. Even if they have a superficially ‘globalized’ quality through the use of a recognisable template, the differences in how such templates are appropriated mean that one cannot easily consider them ‘the same meme’ or assume an overlap in intention and meaning. In other words, memes retain a local specificity without making use of exclusively local resources. What this means for Dezarticulat is that they work outside the top-down/bottom-up dichotomy Nissenbaum & Shifman articulate; instead, we argue that they blend formats in order to benefit from the broad recognition globalized templates enjoy, while remaining strongly oriented towards Romanian particularities in how these templates are used, to such an extent that it would be wrong to speak about them as being ‘the same meme’ as their non-local counterparts. This is also reinforced by the fact that they discard meme templates quite easily – once a meme is ‘exhausted’ after a few iterations, they move on to a different one.
Lastly, Dezarticulat’s explicit left-wing attitude stands in stark contrast to the arguments that memes have a tendency to serve and represent mostly dominant or hegemonic groups (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018, p. 301) or that they are representationally conservative (2018, p. 306). By creating their own genre of memes, with highly specific cultural allusions, Dezarticulat are educating their followers in a way, while bringing to light specific Romanian societal issues. Characters such as Tibi and Ligia, which function as floating signifiers, are used to construct a certain political and cultural identity, i.e. corporate, middle-class, urban and educated people. However, they are never used to represent completely opposed political ideologies (Farkas & Schou, 2018). The characters are inserted into the memes and used as an example to reflect a particular opinion on a subject. Such memes posted by Dezarticulat have a predominantly subcultural character, typical for the ‘dank’ period mentioned in the findings. Comparatively, even memes which become popular (Figures 12 and 13) do not “shed some, or all, of their original context” (Literat & van den Berg, 2017; Milner, 2016, cited in Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018, p. 298) in order to appease wider audiences.
This paper has showcased how the left can and does meme, as a prolific form of counterspeech. This is exemplified by the memetic practices of Dezarticulat, which uses cultural and political references to spread left-wing ideas in a way that caters to the Romanian context. In doing so, Dezarticulat represents a productive example that echoes the idea that the alternative use of global and local meme templates must be understood as part of the larger sphere in which they appear. Unfortunately, on 21 May 2022, the page was banned by Facebook, but the creators still continue to create content on other mainstream platforms such as Instagram. This study may then serve as an example of how a ‘localized’ study of memes – in this case for an Eastern European countries – can yield results that reflect the particularities of the country’s own meme genres and enrich our understanding of how memetic forms are (re-)appropriated in local contexts. Therefore, we encourage further ‘local’ case studies that can reveal similar particularities or alternative forms of memetic counterspeech rooted in their own cultural and political backdrop, outside of the often dominant Western/Anglophone focus.
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