Meme culture takes a concerning turn during troubling times

May 19, 2020 — by Ben Li and Allen Luo

Meme creators shouldn’t use events such as the coronavirus to fuel their creations.


When jokes get out of control, they can end up hurting someone or an entire family. This was experienced first hand by a mother and her down-syndrome affiliated daughter in 2008 when, unknowingly to them, CBS News and “Dancing with the Stars” professional Valentin Chmerkovskiy posted a photo of the daughter at a baseball game.

However, instead of the typical mother-daughter feel good picture, this one depicted the daughter drinking a “sugary” drink, with the caption “letting your kid become obese should be considered child abuse.” The family, offended by this photo and caption, later sued and settled with CBS and Chmerkovskiy.

While Chmerkovskiy may have had no intent  except to entertain his audience with the stunt, it spread widely and brought hateful comments and threats against them. 

This early example of a meme shows the risks of going for laughs in all situations. Creators should ask themselves how their works could be read and misused as they circulate and go viral.

Fast-forward a dozen years, and these dangers are more acute during the time of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, the pandemic has given meme creators a rich source of inspiration. 

The nature of memes demands a constant cycle of new, trendy posts daily, or even hourly, since the sites they are posted on, such as Reddit and Instagram, constantly refresh with new content. The ones deemed the funniest rise to the tops of pages, where they are seen by thousands, while the lackluster are buried under hundreds of new posts.

Seeking fame, many meme creators don’t even think about the potential consequences of their posts; they instead treat their memes as sources of mere entertainment or ways to gain internet points such as Reddit upvotes or Instagram likes. 

Examples of distasteful memes are common. One such meme about COVID-19 reads “When the Chinese student starts coughing” with pictures implying death, while another pokes fun at how dangerous the disease is by saying “If the coronavirus is so deadly, why hasn’t it wiped out the homeless? They live outside. There is no social distancing and they can’t wash their hands.” 

Sophomore Enoch Jung believes that memes should not make light of topics that others may care about deeply.

“I remember seeing a meme about religion once that made me very angry and frustrated,” he said. “It doesn’t feel good to have these jokes mocking things that you take seriously.”

In reality, most creators try to avoid offending someone when creating a meme that focuses on a serious topic such as the coronavirus, but they often don’t realize the extent their memes can be offensive to someone. Memes they view as harmless can come off as extremely rude and condescending for others.

“It's not like you want to make fun of the bad things that are happening,” said Reddit user and avid meme creator u/Floof_Buunies. “You just want to make something that blows up and makes people laugh.”

Religion can be one of the more touchy topics that appear in memes. Memes that incorporate religion and other topics such as race, gender, or politics always have the possibility to offend someone, but they are still some of the most commonly made memes on the Internet. 

And even for the people who are not personally offended by such memes, many still realize the potential impact of them on someone who has been affected by the situations these memes often make fun of. 

“When it’s not exaggerated too much or is oriented a certain way where people know it’s a joke, it’s fine,” sophomore Christian Li said. “When it goes overboard and becomes more of an insult than a meme, those who are on the receiving end will feel really hurt and offended.”  

Memes are simple, fun projects that people make to get laughs and likes from others. However, there is a line between harmless fun and offensive comments that some memes cross. When memes become offensive, they become less humorous and instead uncomfortable for others — and potentially libelous. If creators can keep these risks in mind, there are plenty of good jokes to tell without belittling others.

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