In February this year, Chennai Memes, a Facebook page based in Tamil Nadu, India, saw a whopping 7.5 million statuses, photos, videos and reactions from its followers, who took uninhibited digs at politicians.
In January, nearly 100,000 people took to the streets in a social-media-orchestrated protest against a ban on Jallikattu, a traditional bull-fighting sport dating back to 2,000 years.
These two seemingly unconnected incidents have something in common. Something that happened in December last year – the death of the state's chief minister and the subsequent shot in the arm for free speech and democracy.
Though Tamil is the language of the state's people, they seem to be in the process of developing and interacting in another language – meme.
Just take a screen grab from a Tamil movie, write two lines of witty text to sum up the situation at hand and plug them in with one of the dime-a-dozen meme generators, and you too are well on your way to speaking meme.
Meme pages on Facebook like Chennai Memes, Madras Memoirs and Tamizhan Memes have seen enormous increases in activity in the month since the chief minister's death – at least a 650% spike in activity. But how did this spike in memes and social media occur? Why does the death of the chief minister matter?
...According to social media managers, on an average, 7-10 memes are created in an hour in Chennai. The number shoots up to even 500 on a politically happening day.The Hindu newspaper
Jayalalithaa Jayaram, yesteryear actress and five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was an iron-fisted woman who did not take lightly to criticism. The mainstream media, save for few, did not write against her and with good reason – her government had a notorious track record of slapping defamation cases against journalists, cartoonists and members of the public who made "derogatory remarks" against her. Across her five spells as chief minister, as many as 1,000 such cases had been filed – a political leader had five cases against him for "tweeting maliciously" about her. Dissent was dealt with firmly during the Jayalalithaa regime : protesters were often charged with serious allegations like sedition, thereby discouraging future protests.
On September 24, 2016, the chief minister was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. On December 5, Jayalalithaa passed away due to a cardiac arrest without leaving a political heir. O Panneerselvam, her right-hand man, stepped in as interim chief minister, but he did not have the clout or the charisma of his predecessor. He faced his first challenge sooner than he may have expected: a month later.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the post-Jayalalithaa era was that people were more vocal in voicing dissent. "For the first time in years, people from different walks of life are freely expressing their criticism of the government and its leadership," read an article on Scroll.in, a news website popular for its commentary on news events. Social media activism was also used during the 2015 floods to rescue people and distribute food and supplies, but there was no defiance of the government or large scale protest. However, the turn in the tide of democracy enabled the Jallikattu protest to be carried out on such a scale.
The arsenal of a modern-day protester comprises three entities: a mobile phone, internet and social media. Or in the case of 29-year-old engineer Veera Ram, three mobile phones and a power bank. "One was to make and receive calls; another was to shoot footage of the protest and upload on Facebook Live; and the third was a backup," says the administrator of Jallikattu Veeravilayattu, a Facebook page with about 300,000 followers.
"Jallikattu has been in my family for generations, and I couldn't just stand by and accept the ban. I quit my lucrative IT job and started focussing on posting relevant material on the page," says Ram.
Posts on his page at that time called for the central government to revoke the ban on the sport, and provided historical facts and information about the sport : one of the major issues was that if the sport was banned, farmers who owned native breeds of bulls would no longer have an incentive to rear them, thereby wiping them out.
"I had sleepless days and nights. Starting October, I started posting and interacting more. I also created about 30 WhatsApp groups – one for each district in Tamil Nadu – and started pushing out content in a big way," he says.
An analysis of his Facebook page using CrowdTangle shows that from October to December, Ram had increased the number of posts on his page by over 56%, and in December, he had shared about 361 posts, links and videos on his page.
"In January, a non-government organisation wanted to create awareness about the sport and contacted me to organise a group of people at Marina beach. On January 16, we started off in a small way. By evening, a massive students' group had joined us and with every passing hour, a hundred more people kept turning up. I was shocked – I didn't even know Chennai had so many people," he laughs.
The CrowdTangle data shows that in the week when the protests took place, January 16-21, Ram pushed out 350 photos, 41 Facebook videos and 40 status updates. This content got him 2.27 million likes, shares and comments. "People were sending me photos and videos by the hundreds and I kept putting them up. The protest really picked up as people thought that it was an important issue – it wasn't just about the sport, but about attempts to stamp out our culture and identity," he says.
This was true – an analysis of nearly 0.7 million tweets shows that the most used words along with the #Jallikattu hashtag were 'Save our culture', 'Tamil' and 'Tamil Nadu' – capitalising heavily on the Tamil identity factor.
Text analysis using the DMI-TCAT tool to analyse a data set of about 60,000 tweets shows that the most frequently used co-hashtags were '#JusticeForJallikattu', '#SaveJallikattu' and '#Jallikattuprotest'. A separate text analysis also shows that people's tweets consisted of phrases like 'we want Jallikattu' and 'great game'.
Venkat Krishnan, one of the administrators of the popular Facebook page Chennai Memes – which has almost a million followers, was also part of the protest. He notes that social media played a vital role in the protests."Mainstream media does not and cannot play a role in passing on messages between protesters. Logistics like 'what time do we meet?' and 'Where do we get food and water?' are mainly passed on through Facebook and WhatsApp," he says.
He adds that during the protest, they had people on the ground who were reporting the situation, and other volunteers in turn relayed these reports to Facebook and WhatsApp groups. "We had about 10-15 volunteers at the protest and we had different teams to report, to arrange food and water and so on," says Venkat Krishnan.
Several celebrities also leveraged social media and took part in the protest. Popular Tamil actor Silambarasan Rajendran uploaded a video on Twitter urging people to block key junctions in protest of the ban and at the same time not block access to medical and emergency services. This tweet was retweeted nearly 10,000 times. As the movement gathered momentum, Silambarasan also created a new hashtag called #JallikattuCare and asked people to use it in case they needed anything like food or medical care during the protest.
Comedian Vivekh too was seen taking part in solidarity. He tweeted that he would help the protesters and an hour later, distributed food, water and caps to the people protesting on the scorching sands (temperatures regularly touch 30 degrees C in January)
Ok lions n lionesses! I shall b there in an hour with water food n green Kalam caps. Not much , wt ever I could fetch!— Vivekh actor (@Actor_Vivek) January 20, 2017
How are tweeters connected? A DMI-TCAT and Gephi analysis of the 60,000-odd sample of tweets with the hashtag 'Jallikattu' revealed that the networks between tweeters are dense beyond comprehension.
The first image shows the result of mapping every single tweet in the sample, with colours representing different groups of people, such as media houses or celebrities. Not much information can be gleaned from this, but in terms of visuals, it gives us an insight into how closely knit the social network was. The second image is filtered down to the most influential tweeters. More on that in the box below.
(Click images to see zoomed in versions)
There are three distinct groups who tweeted extensively – in addition to a few common Tamil people such as @unmai_pithan (who calls himself 'common man') and @madhan_s_d, news networks, actors and politicians were in the picture too.
In the above image, we see that these three groups, or communities, are layered. The 'common man' tweeters are connected to the politicians and celebrities, while they in turn are connected to the influential local news networks like @ThanthiTV and @News7Tamil.
In the picture, accounts connected to similar people are coloured the same (for instance, the film actors' network is coloured green). The bubbles are also sized according to how influential they are in the network.
People had all come together through Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter. As the movement gathered momentum, roads were choked, pressure was piled on the central government and after three days of protests, an ordinance was passed allowing the sport to take place while the matter was discussed in parliament.
The victory was sweet – this was essentially the first time a large scale protest had been orchestrated through social media. "It's in people's nature to protest for what they think is right. People like me just bring them together… These movements have limitless potential," observes Ram.
The fact that chief minister Jayalalithaa had left no political heir and only O Panneerselvam (OPS), her right-hand man, in charge, pushed the state and the ruling party, AIADMK, into instability. OPS, at least initially, did not have the wherewithal to pull off the role as full-time chief minister. He was more of the loyal soldier than a head of state.
The only other person in the party at that time with enough clout to take up the mantle of Jayalalithaa was her long-time aide V K Sasikala, and after the protests in January, she staked a claim for the chief minister's post. Sasikala had no background in politics, she was not highly educated, and had never served in any administrative capacity in the past. She and her family, locally referred to as the 'Mannargudi Mafia', have allegedly penetrated every layer of the police and politics over the years, exercising their proximity to the chief minister.
When Sasikala exercised her clout to stake her claim for the chief minister's chair, there was a major turning point not only in Tamil Nadu politics, but also in the history of the state itself. This is when 'memes' started edging their way onto the centre-stage of Tamil Nadu's social media space. These memes consisted of just a picture or two from a Tamil movie and had a few witty lines about the political situation in question.
Memes are not new to Tamil Nadu. "During the 2011 elections, I clearly remember seeing memes starring Vadivelu, a prominent Tamil comedian. His facial reactions are hilarious and adapting them to real-life political situations was funny," says Karthik Lakshmanan, cricket journalist and co-moderator of Memepattinam, a meme aggregation page.
Krishnan, founding member of the popular Facebook page Chennai Memes – agrees. "It started off with Vadivelu and moved on to punchlines with heroes. The connection with movies is very important for our regional audience," he says.
'How did Tamil Nadu survive the zombie apocalypse?'— Local Tea Party (@localteaparty) February 8, 2017
'Memes, my friend, memes.'
There's a reason why the state's affinity towards memes seems much greater than other places in the country – memes here mostly feature images from Tamil movies, and Tamilians love their cinema. In fact, they love it so much that for nearly five decades, all the chief ministers they have elected have some connection to cinema.
Tamil Nadu's film industry churns out 200-300 movies a year, several of them being big-budget affairs with popular stars, whose larger-than-life punchlines find their way into day-to-day lingo. So, it is a simple task for meme-makers to lift a scene of a hero spewing the punchline or a popular comedian monologue and tailoring it to suit a particular context, be it something as simple as school examinations or a complex political drama.
But though memes have been around for quite some time, the rate at which people interact with them on social media has changed. Analysing Chennai Memes' Facebook page with the Crowdtangle tool reveals that the average number of interactions has nearly tripled in the six months since Jayalalithaa's death.
Rishe Viswanath, an avid user of social media and working towards a degree in chartered accountancy, says he has been seeing at least 5-6 memes a day on his timeline. "They are a big stress reliever. I'm a movie freak and watch almost every Tamil movie. And since the memes are linked with movies, I can relate to them and have a good laugh," says the 22-year-old.
Lakshmanan concurs. "There's no escaping them now. They are all over WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter… And the ease of creating them also adds to the fact," he says. According to him, it takes a meme maker just 30 seconds to lift a scene from a movie, plug in two lines of text using one of the dime-a-dozen meme generators and push it out on social media. "And the nature of social media is that things keep going around in circles. You get the same meme from different people and pages at different times," he notes.
(Click image to see zoomed in version)
During the power struggle between Sasikala and O Panneerselvam in February, the memes flowed thick and fast. Sasikala had apparently started putting on more make-up and dressing better after the death of her aide, and this fact did not escape the hawk-eyed meme generators, who wrote guides on "how to go from a maidservant (which she wasn't) to a chief minister in 10 days".
Meme engineers pounced on this too, joking that she would know prices of vegetables better than government policies. These memes, tagged #NotMyCM, began trending on social media. However, there was another group of people who rightfully pointed out that whatever may be her qualifications (or the lack of them), personal attacks were uncalled for. Some social media users particularly called out the 'servant' jibe, saying this was not a reason to hate or attack her. Others on social media duly noted that these comments would have landed one in jail during the Jayalalithaa regime.
In a dramatic twist of events, just a day before Sasikala was to be sworn in as Chief Minister, the Supreme Court ruled that she was guilty in a disproportionate assets case and sentenced her to four years in prison, thereby dashing her chief ministerial ambitions. As the judgment came on February 13, people started calling it a 'Valentine's Day gift' for Sasikala. A CrowdTangle analysis shows that on February 13 alone, the Chennai Memes page put out 23 posts, which elicited about a 100,000 interactions, including likes, shares and comments.
However, the power struggle continued – Sasikala held a meeting of parliamentarians (Members of the Legislative Assembly, MLAs) and allegedly held several of them at a luxury resort against their will. The inane nature of these developments : where elected parliamentarians were allegedly held hostage without access to their phones, and one of them scaling a compound wall to 'escape' : was not lost on social media netizens, who dutifully began churning out memes.
Gautham Govindaramn, one of the founding members, had told The Hindu daily: "Young people in the 18-26 age group are interested in politics, but they don't know what and how to think about politics. So, we give them an image and a witty caption that has a point of view. When we post an image, it is easy to read and forward to others."
"Everyone these days follow the news on Facebook and Twitter. No waits for the 7 o'clock news to get the news anymore, and we provide people with 'infotainment' – that's news embedded in memes," says Venkat Krishnan.
Social media and memes are a double-edged sword. "Meme makers don't have accountability or editorial responsibility. They are governed by clickbaiting. In a fast-paced world, people do not take the effort to verify whether a meme is based on the truth," says Srikkanth Dhasarathy, a Chennai-based journalist and keen watcher of political developments.
In a hurry to get their content out there first, meme makers base their memes on unreliable sources and hearsay. However, even if the news is fake or later news developments put the meme on the wrong side of facts, the picture is still out there on social media and is still being shared by hundreds of people. Even if the original creator of the content deletes the post, the damage has already been done and the meme still propagates through various channels. The modern day saying rings true: you can never completely delete something from the internet.
"I understand their reach, and that is precisely my problem with them – they are being irresponsible with it. They are looking for viral content... We as journalists can't peddle bullshit and get away with it, but they can," says Dhasarathy.
He points out that meme creators may sometimes align with a certain political party and all their content may support that party and make memes against the others, and people may not even realise this. Lakshmanan too agrees that often, memes could be used by anyone to sabotage someone's reputation, especially if that person is a public figure.
But it's not just about memes. Lakshmanan laments that Tamil Nadu is a mess now, and the political vacuum left by the chief minister's death has not been filled yet. "What happened to all those people who fought for Jallikattu? Of course I'm not undermining the protest, but there are far more important things to protest against now – water problems and corruption, for instance. Where are those who called for change?" he questions.
Social activist Nityanand Jayaraman penned a 'wish list' for Tamil Nadu's youth titled 'What next after Marina?' where he listed out 10 pressing issues that the youth should take up after the Jallikattu protests were over. Unfortunately, not one of them has been taken up on a big scale yet.
"There were a few attempts to march to Marina again when the political situation in the state worsened, but it didn't take off. People got bored of protesting – they started going on with their lives," says Lakshmanan.
The issue of protests on large scale ongoing problems not being taken up seriously by the youth reflects in a comment from journalist Vincent D'souza on a Facebook post about corruption in the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, saying: "This is the issue our young folks need to fight on. So where are the Chennai floods do-gooders and Jallikattu buglers? Here's your real issue."
Social media analytics also show that after the spike in activity during January-February, activity on various groups are almost back to normal.
Memes have, without doubt, become an inevitable part of people voicing their opinions. "Memes provide a funny way of delivering content. They appeal to all age groups and grab a lot of eyeballs. Undoubtedly, you now see more memes than you did before," says P Ram Kumar, social media expert and founder of The Social Media Doode, a digital marketing company. "In fact, in addition to digital media marketing, we now have meme media marketing," he says.
"...Hotels, malls, film industry, aviation and politics are some of the key sectors where meme engineers are much in demand. According to social media managers, on an average, 7-10 memes are created in an hour in Chennai. The number shoots up to even 500 on a politically happening day," reads an article in The Hindu newspaper.
But there is no denying that a new wave of social media has indeed risen. Aditya Dhathathreyan, an engineer, has started a Facebook group called 'Kootam' (Translates to 'Crowd'), where about 150 members have debates and discussions on various topics.
"Each week we vote on a topic, for instance: 'Is feminism being practiced right?'," says Dhathathreyan. Throughout the week, we share articles and at the end of the week, we get together one evening at my place for discussions. About 10 people come every week," he says.
Meanwhile, a Facebook group called 'Chennaiites' is planning to host a 'Meme Marathon' "to create a Guinness World record for most memes created in a certain amount of time at a given place." The challenge, according to The Hindu newspaper, will be open to the public and aims to create 30,000 memes in under three hours.
"The topic for the memes would be on social awareness such as water wastage prevention and tree plantation," Lokesh Jey, founder of Chennaiites told the newspaper, adding that "the aim of the event is to make more people use the digital medium in a constructive manner, in a way that it makes a difference to society".
Venkat Krishnan sums it up succinctly. "Only now we are realising the potential and the magnitude of social media's power. We have just witnessed a revolution engineered through social media, but this is a double-edged sword. Kathi aakavum seyyum,arukkavum seyyum – the sickle can be used to harvest as well as to destroy. To make a difference, all influential pages need to unite and post about similar issues," he says.
There is no doubt that the wheels of the social media behemoth are in motion, and it is up to modern-day influencers like Ram and Venkat Krishnan to steer the juggernaut onto optimal paths.
Edit: An earlier version of this article had wrongly quoted Gautham Govindaraman, when in fact the quotes had been given by Venkat Krishnan of Chennai Memes. The error is regretted.