Skip to content
Curtin University
Adventures in culture and technology

Deaf federation urges world leaders to push sign language

By Lynda Durack 23/09/2020 News No Comments »

By Professor Katie Ellis

International Sign Languages Day is celebrated each year on 23 September. In 2020 the World Federation of the Deaf is stepping up its lobby efforts for the celebration, challenging global leaders to promote the use of sign languages.

Australia’s top political leaders are already onboard, promoting the use of Auslan sign language in their daily coronavirus daily updates for Australians. But there is more work to be done in the country to promote the use of Auslan Down Under.

Auslan is the portmanteau of Australian sign language and the main sign language of Australians who are deaf. It has been recognised as a as a community language preferred by the deaf community, as noted decades ago in 1987 and 1991 Australian policy statements.

While Auslan is used to translate spoken English, it is not based on English as DeafVictoria explains:

[Auslan] has a different set of rules for grammar and syntax. Its vocabulary is also different to English. Auslan is a natural language which was developed organically over time. It is also a visual–spatial language where hands, eye gaze, facial expressions and arm, head and body postures are used to convey messages. Precise handshapes, facial expressions and body movements are needed to convey both concrete and abstract information.

Western Australian Auslan interpreter Fiona Perry explains to WAMN news she is honoured to interpret for WA Premier Mark McGowan’s coronavirus briefings press conference and outlines her approach to ensuring the audience receive the correct information:

Through our body language and facial expressions that will link into the person who is speaking, their tone of voice, then we portray that. So we’re mirroring.

Fiona has become a social media sensation.

Sign language is having a moment here in Western Australia. I knew it when I saw a school mum I know comment on the Facebook live of WA Premier Mark McGowan’s daily press conference ‘these two are my new favourite tv show.’

Fiona Perry was teaching McGowan how to sign Easter bunny in Auslan.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KU1Go0iQkQw

On another occasion, Auslan interpreter Dianne Prior included the heckles from passers-by, including expletives and a long wooooooo.

https://www.bandt.com.au/social-media-loses-it-over-auslan-interpreter-signing-f-bombs-thrown-at-wa-premier

While these were moments of fun among the seriousness and uncertainty of COVID-19, Auslan is a vital form of communications for many Australians during times of emergency. Yet they are often denied access to it as the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network explains:

During broadcasts of information about the SA Bushfires on 26 November 2015, ABC’s morning news, Channel Nine’s Today Show and Channel Seven’s Sunrise cropped the Auslan interpreters out of the screen, effectively cutting off access to this important information for Auslan users.

According to The Australian Communications and Media Authority, broadcasters ‘do not have to include an Auslan sign language interpreter’ during emergency broadcasts according to current legislation, even if they are present at the original press conference.

In fact, the best practice protocol for both FreeTV and the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association is:

Where an Auslan interpreter is present at a news conference or official briefing about an emergency, licensees will include the Auslan interpreter in the frame of the broadcast where it is practicable to do so.

But when it’s a matter of life and death, how is it practical not to include the Auslan interpreter? And who decides?

The Digital Inclusion and Media Access program at the Curtin University Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) recently made a submission on this topic to the Royal Commission into Violence Abuse and Neglect of People with Disability Emergency Planning and Responses Issues Paper.

Our CCAT submission focused on the current broadcasting legislative environment and highlighted the importance of including Auslan alongside captions and audio descriptions in emergency broadcasts on Australian television.

We compared the prioritisation of including Auslan interpreters during the COVID crisis with other public emergences such as the recent 2019 Australian bushfires and bushfires in the past:

Throughout the COVID crisis the importance of 1.5-metre social distancing has been emphasized, and in many circumstances, this requires the Auslan interpreter to be standing apart from the speaker they are interpreting for. This distancing has made inclusion within the frame more difficult. Fortunately, most broadcasters have included the interpreter and even featured news coverage on the individual interpreters and their role in assisting the distribution of emergency information. However, this was not the case as recently as December 2019, before the COVID crisis and during the NSW bushfires. The ABC demonstrated how easy it is to refrain from including the interpreter when, during the recent bushfire crisis in NSW, the Auslan interpreter was on many occasions not included in vital broadcasts across the televisual landscape. This is during a time when 1.5-metre distancing was not needed. Interpreters were deliberately and systematically cut out of shot.

 

Image shows Auslan interpreters cut out of shot at media briefings during 2019 bushfire emergency

Image showing Auslan interpreters cut out of shot at media briefings during the 2019 bushfire emergency. Sourced from Harriet Tatham, “Auslan interpreters save lives in bushfires, but only if they make the TV screen,” ABC News, posted Friday 10 January 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-10/auslan-interpreter-sean-sweeney-australian-bushfires/11848818

The role of global leaders in promoting the use of sign language interpreters is therefore vital in ensuring signing reaches the audience that needs it. McGowan’s interactions with his Auslan interpreters has endeared both Auslan and McGowan to the WA public. The constant presence of these interpreters is critical in ensuring the 10,000 Auslan speakers in Australia receive emergency communications.

 

Between Two Worlds: Living with A (Semi)Invisible Disability

By Lynda Durack 13/08/2020 News No Comments »

Blog Post by Rhiannon De Cinque – Youth Disability Advocacy Network (YDAN) Team Member. Originally published by YDAN

I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) at three years old. But growing up I was never really encouraged to identify as a person with a disability or to engage with communities of people with disabilities. My family and people close to me were worried that the ‘disabled’ label would hold me back and cause others to think of me differently…and I was too.

My CP is mild, so the way it affects me is generally not as severe as the way it affects others with CP. Only the bottom half of my body is affected, and therefore the type of CP I have is called spastic diplegia. When I was very young, I wore splints on my legs to help counteract the effects of my CP and guide my body to grow in the most ‘normal’ way possible. The splints worked so well that by the time I was around 11 or 12 I didn’t have to wear them so much.

At the time, I thought that this was pretty much the best thing ever! It meant that I could finally go to school without my splints. I really just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want anybody to notice me and this newfound freedom meant that I could finally fade into the background. I lived happily in the faded background for more or less the rest of my school experience. I felt very lucky to be able to do so and my disability became a topic that I tried to put out of my mind.

My successful attempts to put my disability out of mind presented a problem once I hit my 20’s. I started to notice some changes in the way I moved around. Physical therapy is an essential and typically hugely beneficial treatment for people with CP but because I was no longer thinking of myself as a person with a disability, I essentially ignored the fact that I needed to be regularly undergoing physical therapy.

The way that I walk has always been a little groovy. But by the time I hit my 20’s I had developed a rather distinctive limp. It took me a very long time to realise this had happened. I mainly attributed it to the fact that I can’t watch myself walk and friends probably didn’t see mentioning my limp as a fun conversation to have. Either way, the limp was here to stay and all of sudden my previously invisible disability become very visible.

My world completely changed. I could no longer disguise my disability. I was forced to start thinking about my future as a disabled person and what that would mean. CP itself is not degenerative – but the human body is. The effects of CP have the potential to intensify with age as your body naturally weakens. This is something I think I have always known, but never really cared about before it started happening to me. This does not mean that everybody with CP is doomed to get worse as they age; but it does mean that the older you get, the harder it is to get away with not taking your disability seriously. Overall, this experience became a much needed wake-up call for me.

All the physical stuff aside, one thing I never anticipated having to navigate as a person with a newly visible disability was all the weird and intrusive questions. When people (usually strangers) notice my limp they often ask some pretty blunt questions, such as “why are you walking like that?” or “have you hurt yourself?” I never know how to reply because the answer to those questions is not quick and simple and it’s often not a conversation that I am comfortable having with people who I don’t know very well.

For a long time, I tried to be very polite when people asked these questions. I didn’t want to upset anybody. So I would give a short and sweet answer that usually resulted in an awkward silence. However, as I have gotten older I have become more comfortable with making other people feel uncomfortable. I’ve found that sometimes this is the only way to speak openly and honestly about issues surrounding disability. However, there are still environments where I try to avoid these conversations, such as in some of my workplaces, where I have been concerned that the way I speak about my disability could affect my advancement. For these reasons I have sometimes found myself going along with whatever the person asking the question assumes, often by agreeing that I have hurt my leg and assuring them that it will get better soon. I never really stopped to think about what it meant to not be honest with others, and therefore myself, about who I am.

I have always believed that having mild CP is a luxury because, for a long time, mild meant almost invisible. This meant that I didn’t have to talk about my CP if I didn’t want to and people didn’t have to know. Almost as if I could choose if I wanted to be a person with a disability or not.

The reality is that while I can choose how I identify, CP is a lifelong condition. Regardless of whether or not I claim my disability, it is always going to be there. CP is part of who I am, not just because it informs the way I move but also because it informs the way I view the world. More times than I would care to admit, accepting this has been more difficult for me. However, I’ve come to realise that there is power in acknowledging my status as a person with a disability.

In 2018 I choose to write my honours thesis on representations of disability in contemporary art. To expand on my research I applied for a job with the Youth Disability Advocacy Network (YDAN). I admit that, at the time, I didn’t really know what I was signing up for. When I first started presenting workshops with YDAN I had rarely identified as a person with a disability publicly but, all of a sudden, that was a very big and important part of my job. I didn’t realise there were so many people out there who could relate to my experience, and so many people who could benefit from hearing about it. I didn’t realise the power of self-identifying and how this would come to benefit me.

I have lied so much in my life – about why I walk the way I do, about not being in pain when I am and about not being tired when I’m exhausted. All because I never wanted anybody to think that I am not capable and I never wanted to burden others with my troubles. I have often felt that people only want to hear from people with disabilities when they’re telling stories about ‘overcoming’ disability and doing extraordinary things ‘despite’ of disability. No one wants to hear about how sometimes having a disability kinda sucks. For me, however, being honest about my limitations has become liberating. Acknowledging my limitations has helped me to set boundaries in my life with the people close to me but also with myself. By being honest with myself and setting these boundaries, I am slowly learning to how to make self-care a priority in my life.

I still feel as if I operate between two worlds – the disabled world and the non-disabled world – and I am not yet sure exactly where in either I belong. However, the more I share my experiences with others, the more I feel that maybe one day all the parts of me (disabled and otherwise) can exist in one place.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

By Lynda Durack 06/08/2020 News No Comments »

PEER REVIEWED

Meme factory cultures and content pivoting in Singapore and Malaysia during COVID-19

This paper is a qualitative ethnographic study of how a group of meme factories in Singapore and Malaysia have adapted their content programming and social media practices in light of COVID-19. It considers how they have fostered, countered, or challenged the rise and spread of misinformation in both countries. More crucially, the paper considers how meme factories position their contents to speak in a variety of platform-specific and age-appropriate vernaculars to provide public service messaging or social critique to their followers.

TOPICS

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

  • What are meme factories, how are they organized, and what is their role in the meme ecology?
  • How do meme factories participate in socio-political discourse through their contents, in light of the rise of misinformation and related information suppression laws?
  • How have meme factories pivoted their content and strategies in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

ESSAY SUMMARY

  • This paper considers how eight Singaporean and Malaysian meme factories serve as sentiment shapers that operate through the vernacular of visual internet pop culture.
  • Meme factories are a coordinated network of creators or accounts who produce and host content that can be encoded with (sub)text and parsed into new contexts across multiple organizational structures.
  • Meme factories often use strategic calculation to obtain virality or activate a call to arms to seed decision-swinging discourses, and at times with the potential to commercialize their meme contents for sponsors.
  • From the qualitative empirical data drawn from personal interviews, digital ethnography, and content analyses of social media posts, the meme factories are found to mobilize four ways of addressing, challenging, and adapting to the influx of COVID-19 related (mis)information.
  • In light of Malaysia’s (recently scrapped) Anti-Fake News Act and Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), meme factories are important for non-hegemonic views to be shared and seeded in constantly evolving and playful vernaculars that may slide under the authoritative radar through subversive frivolity.

Implications 

This paper pivots from existing research on meme factories that have thus far focused on American-centric phenomena and online forums, to focus on instances of meme factories in Southeast Asia – specifically Singapore and Malaysia – and their occurrence on social media (e.g. Facebook, Instagram), messaging apps (e.g. Telegram, WhatsApp), and websites.

Existing academic literature on meme factories have highlighted that they can occur as online forums (Bogerts & Fielitz, 2019; Cohen & Kenny, 2020) such as Reddit (Donovan, 2019) and 4chan (Bernstein et al., 2011; Knuttila, 2011), meme-aggregator websites (Chen, 2012, p.13), and networks of actors such as Anonymous (Jarvis, 2014). Memes have also been studied as being “factoried” in the sense of being systematically produced en mass and milked for commercial value, although not all meme factories may be monetized. They have been brand-jacked and appropriated by brands and corporations (Milner, 2016, p.3), often resulting in an uneven reciprocity of gains (i.e. income) and losses (i.e. reputation) especially when “meme personalities” – “ordinary people can be (unwittingly) captured in compromising circumstances of with notable expressions or gestures and become ionized as memes” (Abidin, 2018a, p.44) – are involved.

Features & operations of meme factories 

Through a triangulation of personal interviews, digital ethnography, and content analysis of posts published by meme factories in Singapore and Malaysia (see “Appendix” for detailed methods), I propose that meme factories are a coordinated network of creators or accounts who produce and host content that can be encoded with (sub)text and parsed into new contexts, often using strategic calculation to obtain virality or activate a call to arms to seed decision-swinging discourses, and at times with the potential to commercialize their meme contents for sponsors or monetize their labor. Specific to the sample in this paper, meme factories are sentiment shapers that usually operate through the vernacular of internet visual pop culture.

The meme factories studied in this paper are based in Singapore and Malaysia and founded between 2012 and 2018 (see Table 1). They operate on a variety of platforms including Facebook (pages), Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, websites, and YouTube. Meme factories can be a single creator managing a network of accounts and platforms (Figure 1) or a consolidated group of creators (Figure 2) who collaborate informally (i.e. hobby groups) or commercially (i.e. businesses). The ideation may result in contents that are strictly non-commercial, have the potential to be monetized, or are sponsored messages from the onset. Meme factories that operate across platforms may create bite-sized and long-form formats of the same contents, employ different aesthetics to convey the same message across platforms, or channel entirely compartmentalized messages on each platform.

FIGURE 1 (L): ARTIST IMPRESSION OF A SINGLE CREATOR MANAGING A NETWORK OF ACCOUNTS AS A MEME FACTORY, PROVIDED BY AUTHOR.
FIGURE 2 (R): ARTIST IMPRESSION OF A CONSOLIDATED GROUP OF CREATORS AS A MEME FACTORY, PROVIDED BY AUTHOR.

Those catalogued in this study belong to three different modes of operations: Commercial meme factories whose core business is to create original meme content and incorporate advertising; Hobbyist niche meme factories that create or curate meme contents drawn on vernaculars and aesthetics to interest a specific target group; and Meme generator and aggregator chat groups who rely on volunteer members to collate, brainstorm, and seed meme content across other platforms.

COVID-19 content pivots

In light of COVID-19, meme factories have shifted to adopt four strategies: Firstly, some focus on producing entertainment by gauging and challenging the tonality of accepted humor in light of the rapidly progressing pandemic, and try to curb opportunistic bandwagoning; Secondly, some emphasize Public Service Announcements, adjusting between niche and mainstream references, by selectively surfacing, calling out, and amplifying specific issues for public awareness, prescribing behaviors, and shaping mindsets and discourse in the public arena; Thirdly, some pivot from meme production per se by considering alternative uses of their platform, serving as a sounding board for debate, reforming internal processes to increase the veracity of their source content; and lastly, some politicize their meme production by recentering the role of memes in the infodemic (access to required information obscured by excessive volume of competing (mis)information), challenging state censorship and authority, recalibrating new boundary lines, and calling out or catering to cross-generational consumption of memes.

Considering Malaysia’s (recently scrapped) Anti-Fake News Act (Al Jazeera, 2019) and Singapore’s POFMA (Bothwell, 2020) – which give the state an overarching authority to be the chief arbiters of the validity of information sources and to impose severe penalties to platforms, media outlets, and individuals for sharing non-sanctioned information, thus constituting a form of authoritative censorship – the role of meme factories in playfully mainstreaming marginalized discourses and subversively challenging the status quo through humorous internet vernacular cannot be understated. They are still the spaces where non-hegemonic views are allowed to survive, thrive, and even be celebrated. They are living archives of evolving vernacular strategies that can penetrate white noise and amplify messages to specific target groups in the age of misinformation. They are factories and vehicles of “subversive frivolity” (Abidin, 2016) that continue to slide under the authoritative radar.

Findings

In the sections below, this paper considers the three original modes of operation and four new pivoted content programming strategies employed by the surveyed meme factories in the time of COVID-19. It is found that the meme factories pivoted content to align with concerns and issues surrounding the pandemic. Their original strategies and new pivots during COVID-19 were determined by a triangulation of three sources of data: Personal interviews with key personnel in each meme factory, digital ethnographic data, and content analysis of specific memes published after the onset of COVID-19 in the Southeast Asian region (see Appendix for detailed methodology). The practices are not mutually exclusive, and while some meme factories draw from a range of strategies, they will be discussed for their dominant strategy at the time of fieldwork.

Meme factories’ original modes of operation

Finding 1a) Commercial meme factories run core businesses to create original meme content and incorporate advertising

MGAG, SGAG, and World of Buzz are commercial meme factories. MGAG and SGAG are sister companies belonging to Singaporean parent company HEPMIL Media Group, and produce videos and sell merchandise alongside their (commercial) meme-making. World of Buzz is one of several platforms owned by Malaysian company Influasia, and focuses on packaging news and current affairs into digestible and social media-friendly formats.

Finding 1b) Hobbyist niche meme factories create or curate meme contents drawn on vernaculars and aesthetics to interest a specific target group

highnunchicken, Kiasu Memes For Singaporean Teens, STcomments, and Weiman Kow are hobbyist niche meme factories. highnunchicken and Weiman Kow produce original illustrations albeit in different styles and for different intentions. highnunchicken is a collective of four artists who produce sartorial takes on Singaporean life in the style of the New Yorker cartoons. Weiman Kow, is a hobbyist illustrator who started sharing her art on social media in 2017. Kiasu Memes For Singaporean Teens is run by a 28-year-old admin and founder who works professionally in the media industry and uses their platform as an avenue to share their creative spin on “hot topics”. STcomments is a Facebook and Instagram account managed by Ernest L who, after noticing “stupid” and “ridiculous” comments on the Facebook page of Singapore’s highest circulating English daily broadsheet The Straits Times, decided to collect screengrabs of these expressions.

Finding 1c) Meme generator and aggregator chat groups rely on volunteer members to collate, brainstorm, and seed meme content across other platforms

Memes n Dreams is a meme generator and aggregator chat group. It was first launched as a Telegram chat group in 2018, and at the time of the follow-up interview grew to over 21,000 members (“memebers”). The network is now spearheaded by 30-year-old Jackie Tan and two other admins (“admemes”).

Meme factories’ pivoted content programming

Finding 2a) COVID-19 Pivot: Memes as entertainment

General Manager Mia of MGAG recalls that when the Movement Control Order (MCO) (Tan, 2020) was first announced, her team decided that this was a “critical time to make content to uplift the spirits” of Malaysians, especially as they are among the most prolific social media content creation companies in the country and most people will now be spending extended periods of time online. One of their in-house talents is the character ‘Penang Guy’ who has the persona of a haughty and uncouth young man, and who complains about social issues in a mixture of colloquial Malaysian English and Hokkien; in light of the MCO, MGAG produced an episode of Penang Guy calling upon Malaysians to stay home through a series of humorously disgruntled complains (MGAG, 2020).

Likewise, CEO Karl of SGAG has directed his content production teams to focus on celebrating “heroes” and “heart-warming moments”. Prior to COVID-19, SGAG usually had focused content streams created in house and avoided reposting others’ contents too frequently. However, to “entertain the [wider variety] of people who are absolutely miserable at home” during the Circuit Breaker (Mohan, 2020), SGAG has expanded its content programming to accommodate audiences outside of their original target group. They now use their platform to reshare posts by other platforms and meme groups, as well as the “stories and content” that were created by others through the online activities and memetic challenges they have organized (Figure 3).

However, such commercial meme factories now face three tensions. Firstly, as media and advertising businesses that need to be sensitive to trending discourses online, they have had to accelerate their publication schedules. MGAG has shifted from publishing memes in six specific time slots to a rolling publication of unlimited content to immediately address or incorporate the latest COVID-19 updates in Malaysia. Mia calls this new routine “the timely meme”, in that her Creative Team are continuously on standby to create and publish original content as soon as there are new COVID-19 developments in Malaysia (Figure 4). An SGAG character Xiaoming also quickly responded to panic hoarding behaviour by staging viral photo-shoot with toilet paper as if a prized possession to lighten the mood (Ong, 2020).

Secondly, due to the rapidly shifting Out-of-Bound (OB) markers – topics censored by the state authorities and tacitly accepted and internalized by citizens, journalists, and other information providers (see George, 2012) – in-house moderation policies have to be constantly updated. MGAG’s COVID-19 meme guidelines include “non-biased” content that does not “bash [the] government”, criticize anyone, or promote negativity. To ensure that best practices are kept, MGAG’s in-house content moderator has stepped up to personally oversee and approve every meme at short notice before its launch. Similarly, SGAG has canned completed video productions before publication, and adjusted the script and subtext of their contents. Karl explains that they needed to stay “sensitive to the context of today’s climate and the situation at this point in time. It’s been a week-by-week adjustment as it gets more serious… [we are] being hyper-reactive to how we adjust our tonality.” The team has issued apologies and redacted content upon receiving vocal feedback, and the shelf lives of some memes have considerably shortened.

Thirdly, despite growing client demands to capitalize on the increasing online traffic, commercial meme factories have had to reconsider client requests that opportunistically capitalize on COVID-19. This is the practice of “grief hypejacking”, where users “bandwagon” on “high-visibility hashtags or public tributes” to direct publicity towards themselves or their own causes (Abidin, 2018b, p.170). Mia divulges that MGAG has had to “politely” reject some of the client requests that felt too self-promotional and exploitative of COVID-19. Karl echoes while some new clients were a natural fit for integrating COVID-19 messaging, such as insurance or internet data plans, others had to be “turn[ed] away”, likely because the clients did not understand the vernacular of meme ecologies at the current time: “our response [was] ‘No, please don’t do that, because it’s not the right time… to be talking about yourself right now as a brand’”.

Finding 2b) COVID-19 Pivot: Memes as public service announcements

The contents by highnunchicken and Weiman Kow during COVID-19 have decidedly served as public service announcements. highnunchicken was one of the earliest meme factories to incorporate COVID-19 into their content stream, in a 22 January comic that remixed the Wu-Tang Clan logo into a ‘Wu-Han Coronavirus” poster (Figure 5). Illustrator JZ recalls: “when [the comic was published… there wasn’t a name given to the virus yet… [the phrase] ‘Wuhan Coronavirus’ was quite common when you did some research… [it was meant to be a] punny joke…” However, to his surprise, many of their viewers were not yet aware of the Coronavirus, let alone able to decipher the pop culture reference. When it soon became public knowledge that branding COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’ incited rampant racism, the illustration collective decided to shift away from “sensitive topics” to focus on localized reactions to the situation in Singapore through strategic dark humor. Since then, highnunchicken comics have addressed panic buying, misinformation from elderly relatives (Figure 6), and the underreported poor living conditions of affected migrant workers (Figure 7), among others.

For hobbyist illustrator Weiman Kow, the directive is more straightforward, as she desires to clarify health-related misinformation and provide instructions for maintaining hygiene in an accessible format: “I believe that comics… that are based on facts are very useful to communicate… because they’re easy to understand”. Given her background in UX, Weiman draws on open sources cultures of collaboration, and makes her comics freely available in hopes that their transmission and translations will be able to better educate the public [Figure 8]. She has also been approached by prominent corporations who have commissioned to make more COVID-19 related comics to facilitate public learning about the correct information and procedures regarding hand washing (Figure 9) and hand-sanitizing (Figure 10).

Above and beyond posting memes that are instructional or thought provoking, these meme factories also contribute to redirecting citizen attention to specific topics and amplifying particular discourses. highnunchicken’s coverage of COVID-19 usually calls out critical issues in the early stages of the information news cycle, before they develop into full-fledged national conversations. Their memes are important for publicizing ethical stances and shaping citizens’ thoughts as they are socialized into a national dialogue. JZ feels that highnunchicken’s role is to “throw out fire-starters” and provoke Singaporeans into reflecting on their behaviors: “We try to… address the whole situation in a funny way… call them out but also shine light on this issue to make everyone feel… self-aware”.

However, such memes may also be appropriated as misinformation against their creators’ wills. Weiman reports that some of her work was stolen by corporations, businesses, and brands who edited her comics into promotional content advertising health- and hygiene-related products. Others bandwagoned onto her growing microcelebrity by publicizing her memes alongside their brand name as if the artist had endorsed their products. At the time of writing, Weiman relies on the goodwill of the public to surface these instances to her.

Finding 2c) COVID-19 Pivot: New initiatives apart from meme production

STcomments and World of Buzz are meme factories whose regular content programming have incorporated COVID-19 related information, alongside a new pivot in their structure and/or processes to amplify specific types of information. The COVID-19 related posts from STcomments have called out citizens who have breached social distancing rules, citizens who are unsympathetic towards the adjustments to the education system in light of Home-Based Learning (Figure 11) and the rising xenophobia towards migrant workers in Singapore (Figure 12) These posts have sparked lengthy debates on STcomments’ Instagram and Facebook accounts wherein citizens affirm these call-outs, patiently negotiate with contrarians, or clarify misinformed takes on current affairs. STcomments thus serves as a platform for peer-education and peer-learning among citizens, and as a sounding board for negotiating the veracity of news sources and outlets against the backdrop of misconceptions. Similarly, World of Buzz has turned its content coverage to focus on COVID-19, covering ‘buzzworthy’ news stories including updates from the government, sacrifice of medical front liners especially during Ramadan (Figure 13) experiences of quarantine centers, and acts of charity (Figure 14).

However, both meme factories have also pivoted to new initiatives specifically to address COVID-19. On 4 April 2020, STcomments started a new content stream exclusively on Instagram Stories to provide “shoutouts for all local businesses/initiatives affected by the circuit breaker measures in my stories”. These shoutouts are compiled in a dedicated Instagram Story Highlight tab labelled “sgunited”, and promote small businesses including eateries, grocery delivery services, and job-seeking services, among others. Although other meme factories have monetised such advertising, this maintains a pro bono initiative by STcomments. Admin Ernest L explains: “[I’m] just trying to help out local businesses as much as we can. It isn’t much but I hope we’ve made some impact. Tough times for everyone and every little bit of help goes a long way.”

For World of Buzz which builds content for its website and Instagram page exclusively from news and social media stories, the pivot has focused on revised Standard Operation Procedures around fact-checking. The team has discovered that many reliable news outlets have published articles that extrapolated source material from non-robust outlets, or based entire news articles on speculation and rumor from internet forums. This is likely due to industry-wide pressures to publish COVID-19 related contents to retain audience interest and maintain ad revenue. The team is now training to assess and interpret primary sources such as industry and academic reports for health- and hygiene-related stories. Co-founder Michelle explains: “[We want] to ensure [that] no other publication will misinterpret [our articles], or mispresen[t] the studies [we have] dissected.” At the time of writing, Michelle is working with her employees to “reduce” the number of COVID-19 related reports they publish, to decentralize the hyper-focus on the virus and distribute reader attention across other stories.

Finding 2d) COVID-19 Pivot: Politicizing memes 

Admins of Kiasu Memes For Singaporean Teens and Memes n Dreams are using the COVID-19 infodemic to rethink the role of memes in the information ecology. The anonymous 28-year-old admin and founder of Kiasu Memes For Singaporean Teens offers that since he runs a “shit-posting site”, he is less concerned about fact-checking for his audiences whom he expects to be able to interpret cynicism and sarcasm. His recent memes have highlighted the exorbitant salaries of Ministers of Parliament in Singapore despite offering to take on pay cuts, inefficacy of Singapore’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, WhatsApp-based misinformation being circulated by boomers (Pang, 2020; Tandoc Jr & Mak, 2020) (Figure 15), and the false sense of security in donning masks when other basic hygiene practices are not kept (Figure 16).

Admin Jackie Tan of Memes n Dreams who personally oversees and moderates the memes that circulate in his Telegram group observes that trending memes has shifted over time, and serve as markers of new normals during COVID-19: “I see [the trends] shifting from memes about the virus and where it comes from… more towards quarantine memes”. More critically, Jackie feels that “these virus memes [are] also a way to cope with the situation, reflecting “people’s current living situation[s] with social distancing [measures]” in place, such as the elderly feeling loneliness from self-isolation (Figure 17), and their ability to continue making jokes despite the circumstances (Figure 18). Memes n Dreams has a relatively relaxed moderation policy that only bans sexual and overtly commercial content. While there were a handful of racist COVID-19 memes posted to the group, Jackie recalls that members have not complained and thus no action has been taken. On reflection, he offers that perhaps such crass humour has been internalized by members as group culture, or that given the very high volume of daily posts, not so much attention was paid to racist memes in the long stream of continuous content.

Both admins are reflexive about the role of their meme factories in the information ecology. The Kiasu Memes for Singaporean Teens admin desires to call out the onslaught of “rampant” misinformation and misinformed reactions he sees from “boomers” who comment on posts from the major English language news outlets in Singapore: “that’s their favourite activity… [to] spew whatever garbage that they can… [and] whenever someone online confronts them about how they are wrong, they just clam up, [or insist] that nobody [has] asked for your opinion, or nobody cares what you have to say”. One of his primary gripes is that censorship in Singapore, even of memes, seems imbalanced because none of the “boomers” spreading harmful content seem to be kept accountable. On the other hand, some meme factories have come under fire.

The admin explains that some of his fellow meme-making peers were “called down for questioning” under Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) (Singapore Statutes Online, 2019a) for creating memes deemed subversive or offensive by the state. However, undeterred by this, the admin felt challenged to be more experimental and boundary-pushing with his content stream: “[I want to] toe the line a bit, and kind of push the edge and see how much I can get away with”. He explains: “I’m not trying to get arrested… I’m always careful about religion and politics [in lieu of Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (Singapore Statutes Online, 2019b) and Sedition Act (Singapore Statutes Online, 2020)], but at the same time, it’s kind of the best content right? The most illegal things, the forbidden fruit…” He later reveals that the macro experiment of his meme factory is to test how “public sentiment” works in the information ecology in Singapore, and how only specific contents out of “a million other offensive posts” get “traction”, receive “public backlash”, and are escalated to “the Ministers’ eyes”.

For Jackie of Memes n Dreams, the Telegram group has become a site for members to share misinformed memes shared by boomers on WhatsApp: “[Those] memes that are circulated amongst the older generation… end up in our group[chat] and we have a good laugh”. Here, WhatsApp-based and Telegram-based memes are perceived as antagonists, with the popular belief that the former are more accessible, spreadable, and lack fact-checking rigour. For instance, this author has observed how some memes that started out as satirical Instagram memes shared by the young quickly evolve into misinformed folklore and misinformation by the elderly on WhatsApp (Figure 19). Jackie points to the demographic of Telegram users who are generally younger and digitally literate enough to discern between memetic humour and misinformation. He offers that satirical or cynical memes that tend to contain “instructions”, or “prescribe some kind of behaviour” have the higher tendency to mutate outside of their context and become misinformation.

FIGURE 19: ARTIST IMPRESSION OF HOW A MEME THAT WAS ORIGINALLY HUMOROUS ON INSTAGRAM AMONG MILLENNIALS EVOLVED INTO HEALTH MISINFORMATION ON WHATSAPP AMONG BOOMERS, PROVIDED BY AUTHOR.

Drawing on his experience as a PhD Candidate in Biological Sciences, Jackie intends to take up the challenge of educating boomers with memes, by using memes like “vaccinations”, as a form of “thought contagion” (Lynch, 1996 in Linden et al., 2017). He explains that by intentionally “exposing” boomers to a certain set of memes, the spreadability of those memes will increase. With careful planning, there are ways to “inject memes” into the boomer meme ecology to “teach them about harmful memes”. Alongside the “harmful” memes that they are already constantly spreading, the new influx of healthy memes drawn from verified sources and prescribing robust information can also help “fight the harmful” ones among the elderly. This strategy might then break the cycles of “social reinforcement” in which “people who are more likely to trust an information someway consistent with their system of beliefs” (Bessi et al., 2015), by conditioning boomers to gradual exposure and acclimatisation. Jackie adds that this is an initiative he would like to formally institute should resources and time be available to him, considering that his work as an meme admin or ‘admeme’ is (still) a (non-remunerated) labour of love.

The role of meme factories, their ability to craft timely and sticky messages, and their potential to effectively seed sentiments among the citizenry is especially important in information ecologies where governments have a tight reign over information flows and censorship. Meme factories allow democratic citizen feedback, contentious opinions, and subversive challenges to filter through to the general populace through the highly mobile and palatable of memes. They are critical avenues for grassroots activism, and hotbeds for encouraging users to hone their media literacies through an timely news-gathering, intentional fact-checking efforts, politicised call-out cultures, and a careful navigation of the ever-changing OB markers of governments who control citizen discourse.

CITE THIS ESSAY

Abidin, C. (2020). Meme factory cultures and content pivoting in Singapore and Malaysia during COVID-19. The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review. https://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-031

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abidin, C. (2016). Aren’t these just young, rich women doing vain things online?: Influencer selfies as subversive frivolity. Social Media + Society, 2(2), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305116641342

Abidin, C. (2018a). Internet celebrity: Understanding fame online. Emerald Publishinghttps://www.emerald.com/insight/publication/doi/10.1108/9781787560765

Abidin, C. (2018b). Young people and digital grief etiquette. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Birth, Life, Death (pp. 160-174). Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/A-Networked-Self-and-Birth-Life-Death/Papacharissi/p/book/9781315202129

Al Jazeera. (2019, October 10). Malaysia parliament scraps law criminalising fake news. Aljazeera.https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/malaysia-parliament-scraps-law-criminalising-fake-news-191010024414267.html

Bessi, A., Coletto, M., Davidescu, G. A., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2015). Science vs conspiracy: Collective narratives in the age of misinformation. PLoS ONE, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118093

Bothwell, E. (2020, April 6). Fake news law may ‘catch on’ during Coronavirus. Times Higher Educationhttps://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/fake-news-laws-may-catch-during-coronavirus#survey-answer

Chen, C. (2012). The creation and meaning of internet memes in 4chan: Popular internet culture in the age of online digital reproduction. Habitus, 3, 6-19. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.363.7029&rep=rep1&type=pdf#page=6

Cohen, J., & K., Thomas. (2020.) Producing new and digital media: Your guide to savvy use of the web. Routledge.

Comics for Good. (2020, n.d.). Mission. Comics for Goodhttps://www.comicsforgood.com/about

Donovan, J. (2019, October 24). How memes got weaponized: A short history. MIT Technology Review.https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/10/24/132228/political-war-memes-disinformation/

George, C. (2012). Freedom from the press: Journalism and state power in Singapore. NUS Press.

Jarvis, J. L. (2014). Digital image politics: the networked rhetoric of Anonymous. Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs, 4(2-3), 362-349. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bup/gd/2014/00000004/f0020002/art00022;jsessionid=8aj0kajbicpo0.x-ic-live-02

Knuttila, L. (2011). User unknown: 4chan, anonymity and contingency. First Monday, 16(10). https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3665

Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., Rosenthal, S., & Maibach, E. (2017). Inoculating the public against misinformation about climate change. Global Challenges, 1(2). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/gch2.201600008

Lynch, A. (1996). Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society. Basic Books.

MGAG. (2020, March 27). Penang Guy asks you to #StayHome. Facebook.com.https://www.facebook.com/mymgag/videos/228430411724231/

Milner, R. M. (2016). The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. MIT Press.

Mohan, M. (2020, April 21). COVID-19 circuit breaker extended until Jun 1 as Singapore aims to bring down community cases ‘decisively’: PM Lee. Channel News Asiahttps://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/covid-19-circuit-breaker-extended-june-pm-lee-speech-apr-21-12662054

Ong, T. (2020, February 7). People all over S’pore clearing out supermarket shelves of food & toilet paper because DORSCON Orange. Mothershiphttps://mothership.sg/2020/02/panic-buying-supermarkets-sg/

Pang, N. (2020, March 31). How do we use messaging platforms such as WhatsApp appropriately in a crisis? Today Onlinehttps://www.todayonline.com/commentary/how-use-messaging-platforms-whatsapp-covid-19-crisis-fake-news

Singapore Statutes Online. (2019a, April 1). Protection from online falsehoods and manipulation billSingapore Statutes Onlinehttps://sso.agc.gov.sg/Bills-Supp/10-2019/Published/20190401?DocDate=20190401

Singapore Statutes Online. (2019b, September 2). Maintenance of religious harmony (amendment) bill. Singapore Statutes Onlinehttps://sso.agc.gov.sg/Bills-Supp/25-2019/Published/20190902?DocDate=20190902

Singapore Statutes Online. (2020, April 28). Sedition act. Singapore Statutes Onlinehttps://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/SA1948?ProvIds=pr3-.

Tan, V. (2020, April 10). Malaysia’s movement control order further extended until Apr 28: PM Muhyiddin. Channel News Asiahttps://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/malaysia-movement-control-order-extended-apr-28-12624310

Tandoc Jr, E. c., & Mak, W. W. (2020, April 27). Commentary: Forwarding a WhatsApp message on COVID-19 news? How to make sure you don’t spread misinformation. Channel News Asiahttps://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/covid-19-coronavirus-forwarding-whatsapp-message-fake-news-12670016

FUNDING

Pre-COVID-19 portions of the fieldwork were funded by a Facebook Integrity Foundational Research Award (USA), January–December 2019.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

ETHICS

The research protocol was approved by Human Research Ethics board at Curtin University, Ethics Office approval number HRE2019-0275.

COPYRIGHT

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative  Commons  Attribution  License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that the original author and source are properly credited.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to express gratitude to the meme factories, founders, and key representatives who have taken part in this study, especially for the entertainment, nuance, and subversion they bring to our internet worlds.

DATA AVAILABILITY

The data for this study are protected by confidentiality agreements and we are precluded from sharing the data with others. 

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Read more…

By Lynda Durack 28/07/2020 News No Comments »

TikTok tries to distance itself from Beijing, but will it be enough to avoid the global blacklist?

HAYOUNG JEON/EPA

Article by Michael Keane, Curtin University and Haiqing Yu, RMIT University

TikTok, the made-in-China, video-sharing platform beloved by youth and influencers alike, is suddenly everywhere in our new world of COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing.

The platform’s growth has been tremendous, but this has come at a cost: it has come under increasing scrutiny from politicians in the US and allies like Australia over concerns about potential breaches of data security and the platform’s perceived ties to the Chinese government.

The Trump administration is now considering banning the platform – and Australia may well follow suit.

The controversies surrounding TikTok are centred around its Chinese origins, and its potential connections or compliance with the Chinese Communist Party and its authoritarian system.




Read more:
China could be using TikTok to spy on Australians, but banning it isn’t a simple fix


There are some reasons to be concerned. The platform is known to censor material deemed sensitive by the Chinese government.

Last year, for example, TikTok was accused of manipulating videos relating to Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and was forced to apologise for censoring a video criticising China’s crackdown on Uyghurs. This prompted claims of it being an arm of China’s state-run media system.

Digital security experts also point to the potential for the data TikTok collects from users to be sent to China’s servers.

But there is not clear evidence yet that TikTok poses a threat to the national security of countries like the US or Australia, or that the CCP interferes in the overseas operations of the company.

TikTok’s physical distancing from Beijing

TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based technology company Bytedance, which also operates a Chinese version of the platform called Douyin.

Read more…

Influencer and social media industries adapting to COVID-19

By Lynda Durack 02/07/2020 News No Comments »
Looking up towards the sun shining through tall trees

Image Gretchen Seelenbinger/Unsplash

Written by Wishcrys

I have been reviewing interview transcripts from my project looking at how influencers, influencer agencies, and social media companies have been adapting to COVID-19, and want to share a few quintessential snippets, paraphrased:

1) Founder, on his staff offering to take pay cuts to keep business afloat: “Millennials get a lot of shit for all sorts of things from us [Gen X, boomers]. But every single young person in my company is working so hard right now. We [generation, company] wouldn’t survive w/o them”

2) CEO, on the difficulty of getting messages out with news saturation: “Everyone is online all the time now, but our interests are very narrowed to the virus. Human rights issues [that the company promotes on social media] are sidelined because we’re worrying about our own selves”

Read more…

Watching television with your ears

By Lynda Durack 25/06/2020 News No Comments »

By Katie Ellis with research by Gwyneth Peaty

In a tweet that has been liked by 1 million people and shared 141,000 times @caringbrat suggests Netflix introduce a category called “easy to follow while looking at my phone the whole time.”

Image of Tweet from @caringbrat

While @caringbrat’s predicament has captured the attention of an increasingly distracted television audience, the category @caringbrat asks for already exists. It’s called audio description (AD) and it’s an accessibility feature for audiences who are blind or vision impaired. You can find it in the language options on Netflix.

For an example of AD see:

Audio description describes any visual element crucial to the story such as facial expressions, actions, costumes, even the weather. While Netflix was the first platform to offer an ongoing audio description service in Australia, Stan has it too, as does Apple TV+, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. Free-to-air television is late to the party.

Read more…

COVID-19 crisis – Students with disability are the first to be left behind

By Lynda Durack 18/06/2020 News No Comments »
Image of children from the back of the classroom

Children at school. Image Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

By Catia Malaquias, PhD Student with Katie Ellis, Director Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT), Curtin University

The Australian Government is saying that “students can now go back to school – but when and how depends on what your particular State government tells you”.

But for students with health conditions, some State governments are telling parents to seek the advice of their family doctor. They are not taking any “responsibility” for parents’ decisions as to when it may be “safe” to return their child to school.

This is particularly the situation for many students with disability, who are recognised as being at much greater risk from the COVID-19 pandemic due to a higher incidence of health conditions, including compromised immunity.

We can anticipate that family doctors, in the face of a new and potentially deadly virus and little research evidence, will be conservative: “If your child goes back to school, they are at increased risk of infection and, if infected, they will have a higher risk of complications etc.”

So what are those parents to do?

Read more…

Fireside Chats at the Open Publishing Festival

By Lynda Durack 16/06/2020 News No Comments »

Project co-lead Cameron Neylon writes about online festivals, celebrating success and the challenges of infrastructure.

Originally posted on the COKI website.

For the past two weeks there has been a very different kind of event running online. The Open Publishing Fest is entirely online, and pretty much entirely decentralized. The concept grew out of conversations between Adam Hyde of the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation and Dan Rudman from Punctum Books, two organisations that in their own way are leading radical change in the scholarly publishing space.

The event grew out of a question. Given the success of the inaugural Open Publishing Awards last year, how could that energy continue in a world where in-person events are limited? From that grew a lightweight and simple approach. People would self-organize sessions and submit them to be added to a calendar.

Read more…

Drones and Daleks: COVID-19 and predatory policing

By Lynda Durack 26/05/2020 News No Comments »

Submitted by Leanne McRae, Curtin Univeristy

Quirky footage appeared in the digisphere last week of a single Dalek – antagonists from the long-running television Dr Who – monitoring the streets of a sleepy English village and directing its residents to stay in-doors. It was shared as a humorous aside to the COVID crisis. The single Dalek trundles down the street demanding that people stay inside and practice social distancing. The ironies of the heritage of Dr Who special effects being notoriously dodgy is conjured as the Dalek bumps down the street.

image of Dalek

Dalek. Google images

Daleks, known to Dr Who fans to be evil invaders bent on conquering the universe and enslaving populations, are an apt representation of the anxieties currently manifesting in the COVID situation. With protestors in the United States demanding a release from stay-home restrictions and footage of the Chinese arc welding people into apartment buildings – most likely leaving some to starve and/or die – the tensions between the need for restricted movement and the extension of the state in demanding our compliance to these rules for public health is currently bubbling up into tenuous and tense ambivalence.

Meanwhile, in Western Australia, the WA police announced the use of drones to monitor and police social distancing in public spaces. The drones will be equipped with flashing lights and sirens. Images also showed drones equipped with a loudspeaker presumably to enable police to yell at offenders and issue the up $1000 fine if found violating public distancing rules.

Image of white drone

Drone Unsplash/Jared Brashier

Hands-off or remote policing is not new with the era of big data enabling data-sets to be used in pre-crime. This is not the sexy supernatural pre-crime potentialities of the Minority Report where pre-cognitives kept in a petri-dish were able to conjure predictions of crime and therefore guilt. Pre-crime is simply predictive mapping of trends revealed by data gathering. For example, if a particular area sees a spike in home invasions, it is not unreasonable to predict that more home invasions are likely to occur in the immediate future and to redirect resources towards that crime prevention.

Read more…

Accessibility will help us get through COVID

By Lynda Durack 21/05/2020 News No Comments »

Submitted by Professor Katie Ellis, Curtin University

Thursday, 21st May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). Now in its 9th year, GAAD aims ‘to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital access/inclusion and people with different disabilities’. The Curtin University Centre for Culture and Technology’s Digital Inclusion and Media Access program focuses research on digital access and inclusion for people with disability.

Our work advocates for inclusive design or the design of mainstream products or services to be used by as many people as possible without the need for special adaptation. The electric toothbrush is a key example of inclusive design. While it was originally designed to help people with physical impairments brush their teeth, the electric toothbrush has now been embraced by the mainstream. The touch screen on your smartphone is another example of disability innovation being used by the whole population.

Social, governmental and institutional responses to COVID-19 and preventing its spread has presented a fascinating social experiment in inclusive design and given us an opportunity to reinterpret findings of our key projects undertaken over the years.

We promote the redesigning of our digital systems so that they work for all potential users, including users with disabilities, and their varying language needs and diverse cultural preferences.

Captions and audio description are a key site of research and we have observed their increasing importance in both entertainment and education during the pandemic.

We have observed a shift in the public’s acceptance and use of closed captions on entertainment media. While they were previously considered a nuisance or visual clutter for people who can hear, they are now used by significant portions of the population binge-watching television.

someone watching TV

Image: Mollie Sivaram/Unsplash

As Jason Kuhe observes in Wired, audiences are turning to captions to understand the soundtrack and dialogue of their favourite shows because ‘when you watch more TV, you miss more TV’.

I also wrote about this phenomena in my book Disability and Digital Television Cultures citing a research participant who found that her hearing housemates always left the captions on the television even if they had not been watching television with her.

I live with people whose English is their second language and so [captions] can be easier for them … I think it helps them learn English as well.

Just as captions provide accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, audio description is a narrative audiotrack describing important visual elements of a television show, movie or performance that provides access for people who are blind or have low vision.

In our project Audio Description in Australia we sought out to discover whether sighted people saw any benefit to audio-described content in the same way that hearing audiences have with captions.

Read more…

Page 1 of 3123