Virality, Contagion and Public Discourse. The Role of Memes as Prophylaxis and Catharsis in an Age of Crisis

COVID-19 through the Prism of Rhetorical and Discourse Research

Douglas Mark Ponton

Department of Political Science, University of Catania


Peter Mantello

Ritsumeikan Asian Pacific University


Abstract: Although social media has become the pre-eminent tool of civic engagement and political expression, it also has a significant role in visualizing, shaping and challenging public discourse in the face of a global pandemic. While public discourse during the 2003 SARS outbreak was limited to elite channels of traditional mass media, and a less-than-participatory first-generation internet, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has been remarkable for the public reliance on social media and its affordances. These have become vital markers for communicating and visualizing sentiment during a period of enforced social isolation which confined citizens, firstly in Italy then in other European countries, to their homes. While the production and dissemination of memes provided a means for online community members to find and share their voices, they also played a crucial role in visualizing, amplifying and alleviating public fears and anxieties over the dangers of contagion. On the one hand, popular and ironic vernacular use of memes functions as a screen-mediated mechanism for members of online communities to cope with calamity. On the other, the sharing of memes cements social bonds and provides a cathartic counter to draconian state-enforced measures of social distancing. As such, they can exert massive influence in shaping perceptions of reality, challenging official security narratives and reinforcing coping strategies in society. Our paper explores these issues from an interdisciplinary perspective that comprises Media Theory and Linguistics. It identifies features of memes from a multimodal perspective that also seeks to explain their humorous and pragmatic significance.

Keywords: memes, covid-19, pandemic, social media, pragmatics, humour, media studies.

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