Pivot to coronavirus: how meme factories are crafting public health messaging



United Nations COVID-19 Response//unsplash

Crystal Abidin, Curtin University

Memes might seem like they emerge “naturally”, circulated by like-minded social media users and independently generating momentum. But successful memes often don’t happen by accident.

I’ve spent the past two years studying the history and culture of “meme factories”, especially in Singapore and Malaysia.




Read more:
Explainer: what are memes?


Meme factories are a coordinated network of creators or accounts who produce and host memes.

They can take the form of a single creator managing a network of accounts and platforms, or creators who collaborate informally in hobby groups, or groups working as a commercial business.

These factories will use strategic calculations to “go viral”, and at times seek to maximise commercial potential for sponsors.

Through this, they can have a huge influence in shaping social media. And – using the language of internet visual pop culture – meme factories can shift public opinion.

When meme factories were born

The first mention of meme factories seems to have been a slide in a 2010 TED talk by Christopher Poole, the founder of the controversial uncensored internet forum 4chan.

4chan, said Poole, was “completely raw, completely unfiltered”. He introduced his audience to the new internet phenomenon of “memes” coming out of the forum, including LOLcats and Rickrolling – the largest memes to have emerged in the 2000s.

LOLcat meme reading: Im in ur foldur keruptin yr fylez
‘LOLcats’ were one of the meme forms of the 2000s.
Clancy Ratliff/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Today, corporate meme factories systematically churn out posts to hundreds of millions of followers.

They commissioned artists to “live-GIF” the 2012 US Presidential Election debates in an assembly line of soft political content. They congregated on a closed Facebook group to decide who could “take credit” for a school shooting. They created sponsored political posts for Michael Bloomberg’s Presidential campaign.

On reddit’s gaming communities, activating a meme factory (sincerely or in jest) requires willing members to react with coordinated (and at times, inauthentic) action by flooding social media threads.

Amid K-pop fandoms on Twitter, meanwhile, K-pop idols who are prone to making awkward or funny expressions are also affectionately called meme factories, with their faces used as reaction images.

Three types of factories

In my research, I studied how memes can be weaponised to disseminate political and public service messages.

I have identified three types of factories:

Meme factories can be single curators or collaborative groups.
Crystal Abidin, Author provided

Commercial meme factories are digital and news media companies whose core business is to incorporate advertising into original content.

For instance SGAG, owned by Singaporean parent company HEPMIL Media Group, has commissioned memes for various business partners, including promotions of radio stations, groceries and COVID-19 recovery initiatives.

Hobbyish niche meme factories, in contrast, are social media accounts curating content produced by a single person or small group of admins, based on specific vernaculars and aesthetics to interest their target group.

One example is the illustration collective highnunchicken, which creates original comics that are a critical — and at times cynical — commentary about social life in Singapore.

STcomments, meanwhile, collates screengrabs of “ridiculous” comments from the Facebook page of The Straits Times, calling out inane humour, racism, xenophobia and classism, and providing space for Singaporeans to push back against these sentiments.

The third type of meme factory is meme generator and aggregator chat groups – networks of volunteer members who collate, brainstorm and seed meme contents across platforms.

One of these is Memes n Dreams, where members use a Telegram chat group to share interesting memes, post their original memes, and brainstorm over “meme challenges” that call upon the group to create content to promote a specific message.

Factories during coronavirus

Meme factories work quickly to respond to the world around them, so it is no surprise in 2020 they have pivoted to providing relief or promoting public health messages around COVID-19.

Some factories launched new initiatives to harness their large follower base to promote and sustain small local businesses; others took to intentionally politicising their memes to challenge censorship laws in Singapore and Malaysia.

Factories turned memes into public service announcements to educate viewers on topics including hand hygiene and navigating misinformation.

They also focused on providing viewers with entertainment to lighten the mood during self-isolation.

Memes are highly contextual, and often require insider knowledge to decode.

Many memes that have gone viral during COVID-19 started out as satire and were shared by Millenials on Instagram or Facebook. As they spread, they evolved into misinformed folklore and misinformation, shared on WhatsApp by older generations who didn’t understand their satirical roots.

An early Facebook meme about how rubbing chilli fruits over your hands prevent COVID-19 (because the sting from the spice would burn and you would stop touching your face) very quickly evolved into a WhatsApp hoax saying the heat from chilli powder would kill COVID-19 viruses.

A meme that was shared among Instagram Millennials became distorted and shared on WhatsApp among Boomers.
Crystal Abidin, Author provided

Memes can be orchestrated by savvy meme factories who operate behind the scenes; or by ordinary people engaging in democratic citizen feedback. Beyond the joy, laughs (and misinformation), memes are a crucial medium of public communication and persuasion.The Conversation

Crystal Abidin, Senior Research Fellow & ARC DECRA, Internet Studies, Curtin University, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Christians in Vietnam Hold Another Historic Celebration


Largest-ever event in northern part of country encourages house churches.

HANOI, December 21 (CDN) — For the second time in 10 days, Protestant history was made in Vietnam yesterday when 12,000 people gathered for a Christmas rally here.

The event, which took place in the large square in front of the entrance to My Dinh National Stadium in the heart of Hanoi, was said to be 10 times larger than any prior Protestant gathering in history in northern Vietnam. On Dec. 11 in southern Vietnam, an estimated 40,000 people attended a Christmas celebration in Ho Chi Minh City (see “Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam”).

Local sources said long-requested written permission for the event, entitled “Praise Jesus Together,” never came in spite of several reminders. But four days before the event was to take place, Hanoi authorities and police told organizers – in words as close as they would get to granting permission – that they would “not interfere.”

“One can hardly overestimate the importance of such an event in the lives of northern house church Christians,” said one long-time Compass source. “For many, this will have been the first time to join in a large crowd with other Christians, to feel the growing power of their movement, to hear, see and participate in the high quality, and deeply spiritual mass worship.”

The day before the event, Christians gathered near the stadium for final prayer and to help with preparations. Witnesses said the huge public square at the entrance to the stadium was arrayed with thousands of stools rather than chairs – plastic, backless, and bright blue and red. In 10-foot tall letters, “JESUS’ was emblazoned on the backdrop to the stage.

Invitations had been sent through house church networks even as official permission for the event was still pending. When church leaders decided to move ahead only days before, Christians were asked to send out mass invitations by text-message, leading some to speculate whether this may have been the largest ever such messaging for a Christian event.

Nearby Christians as well as those bussed from more distant areas began to fill the venue hours before the event. They were not dissuaded by a Hanoi cool spell of 12 Celsius (56 Fahrenheit) with a chill wind. Bundled in thick jackets, their heads wrapped in scarves, they waited expectantly without complaint.

They were not disappointed. Witnesses said the throng deeply appreciated a program of outstanding music and dance, a powerful personal narrative followed by a gospel message and an extended time for prayer for the nation. As at the previous event in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 11 that house church Christians had long worked and prayed for, the program featured music from Jackson Family Ministries of the United States.

In a world of globalized gospel and praise choruses, songs included hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” as well as classic praise songs such as “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” Witnesses said the music was accompanied by tasteful, emotionally engaging dance. Top Vietnamese artists performed, including news songs by Vietnamese songwriters, and a Vietnamese choir of 80 sang, as did a Korean choir.

A young man in his 30s who now pastors two house churches told the crowd how an encounter with Jesus proved more powerful than the grip of drug addiction. His story, simply and humbly told, proved an effective bridge to a Christmas evangelistic message by Pastor Pham Tuan Nhuong of the Word of Life house church. Then the winsome Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan, a top southern house church leader, gave a disarming but strong invitation to follow Jesus, witnesses said.

Organizers said approximately 2,000 people then poured forward in response, packing the large area in front of the stage.

The final portion of the program included a time of intense prayer for the nation, with pastors confessing and praying for righteousness for Vietnam’s leaders, as well as for God’s protection and blessing on their land. In their prayers they claimed Vietnam for Christ, witnesses said.

A high point for the throng was the superimposing of a large white cross on a yellow map of Vietnam on the backdrop. As the Korean choir sang a spirited revival hymn, the crowd raised thousands of hands and exploded in sound.

“The sound of crying, of praise, of prayer were blended as one, beseeching Almighty God for spiritual revival in Vietnam,” said one participant.

The event was streamed live at www.hoithanh.com for Vietnamese and others around the world to see.

Until recently – and still in some places – most Vietnamese meet in small groups in homes knowing at any time there could be a hostile knock on the door, a source said.

“None of these groups is registered or recognized by the government,” the source said of the crowd at yesterday’s event. “What you see is Christians standing up!” 

In addition to this event and the Dec. 11 event in Ho Chi Minh City, a large public Christmas rally was held by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) at the Hoang Nhi church in Nam Dinh Province on Saturday (Dec. 19). Some 2,500 people gathered in the church’s large courtyard, with sources saying 200 responded to an invitation to follow Christ. 

In Tuy Hoa, on the coast of central Vietnam, a Christmas program is planned for Saturday (Dec. 26) in a 4,000- seat theater. Many smaller events are also planned in other areas, part of an unprecedented public display by Vietnam’s Protestants.

At the same time, the freedom for Christians tolerated in large cities has not reached some more remote parts of the country, where ethnic minority Christians live. In Dien Bien Dong district of Dien Bien Province, authorities on Tuesday (Dec. 15) orchestrated immense ethnic social pressure on a new Christian couple to recant. The couple told Compass that police added their own pressure. 

“The police said they would beat me to death, and take away all my possessions, leaving my wife a widow, and my children orphans with no place to live,” the husband told Compass. “I folded. I signed promising that I would no longer follow God. I really want to, but it is very, very hard to be a believer where we live, as the officials will not allow us.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

ANOTHER GIMMICK: Text Messaging Questions to the Preacher during the Sermon


Is this a gimmick or a legitimate innovation for preaching? During sermons, the Rev. Mike Schreiner of Morning Star Church (United Methodist denomination), allows text messages to be sent off – to him that is, with questions relating to the sermon.

The so-called ‘Director of Worship,’ Amie Haskins, receives the messages on the church mobile phone. These she screens and then types questions into a keyboard to be sent via a computer connected to Schreiner’s lap top in the pulpit.

With the questions appearing on his screen, this allows Schreiner the ability to answer relevant questions during the sermon.

The text messaging also engages the young people of the church and they listen more intently than they did before.

The text messaging is part of the wider ‘technological ministry’ operating at the church, which includes lighting controls, presentations on the large screens above the stage, wide-screen plasma monitors in the church’s coffee shop in the lobby, etc.

Apparently the texting fad is taking off across the US and is even used to some degree in the Mars Hill Church at Seattle.

Part of the philosophy behind the texting fad seems to be to be more appealing to people so that they come to church and get more involved in what is actually happening. Undoubtedly this would be an attractive and seemingly successful method for getting people involved and coming along, especially those who love their gadgets these days.

I am sure that texting has its place in the ministry of any modern church and can prove very useful to send messages to large numbers of people at once and for keeping in touch, however, the use of texting in the local church context seems to me to be out of place.

Preaching ought not to be confused with teaching, with the two being different aspects of a church’s ministry. Certainly any true preaching will include teaching, but teaching need not include preaching. Preaching is the authoritative declaration of the Word of God to the people of God by the God-called preacher of God. He comes with a message that is to be heard by the people of God for the people of God. The message is not to be tailor made to the felt needs of the people sitting in the congregation nor is it to be modified to suit the desires of those sitting there as expressed via texted questions to the preacher.

The danger is that the preacher will be moved away from his task and go off message to pursue certain tangents that may not even have been the course he intended to take as the messenger of God to the people of God. He comes with the Burden of the Lord and he must speak and be heard as that messenger.

Preaching is a declaration and explanation of the Word with relevant and searching application and as such is not a dialogue, no matter what form that dialogue might take.

For more on this read the article on texting in church at:

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/religion/story/EC394B244877FB16862574CD00081AAD?OpenDocument