What Do You Meme, Covid-19? Studying the Visual Culture of Politicians During the Pandemic

© Copyright 2021 Payton Flood, Ryerson University


            For my digital exhibit, I created a copy-cat project of the popular adult card game What Do You Meme?  In this pandemic-themed deck of cards, viewers will observe five photos of various global politicians during the pandemic as well as ten pandemic-themed phrases to accompany those photos.  The goal is for observers is to assign a phrase—some of which are positive, most of which are negative—to the photo of the politician they feel creates the best meme.  The goal of combining out-of-context images with out-of-context phrases from various politicians around the world will be to study whether, without bias, we are able to humanize their actions and words or if the bureaucracy remains a shield that protects them.  My research question is: How can memes speak to the public’s trust and satisfaction in governments and political leaders by examining the choices they have made throughout the pandemic?  In an attempt to answer this question, I will examine meme theory, pandemic meme culture, and public trust and attitudes towards governments.

The Process      

A photo of two people playing "What Do You Meme, Covid-19?," a card game by Payton Flood
Figure 2. Payton Flood, What Do You Meme, Covid-19?, 21 April 2021. Digital photograph. Canada. ©Payton Flood.
A photo of the full deck of "What Do You Meme, Covid-19?," a card game by Payton Flood
Figure 1. Payton Flood, What Do You Meme, Covid-19?, 21 April 2021. Digital photograph. Canada. ©Payton Flood.

            The process of creating my digital exhibit started by scouring the internet for viral or news-worthy images of political leaders throughout the pandemic.  At first, my intention was to source only pictures of politicians that arose when said politician came under fire, however, I soon realized that I was inserting unconscious bias into my work.  From there, I switched gears and sourced images—good or bad—that sparked national and international conversations on social media and in news media.  It is from these conversations that I drew inspiration and created the accompanying phrases.  Some are targeted at specific politicians; at the hypocrisy of their actions, as that is where the conversation was directed.  Others were pulled from conversations where the public saw themselves mirrored in a particular politician.  After compiling these images, I worked on branding them to resemble a real deck of What Do You Meme? cards as well as designing the phrases to look the same (see Figure 1).  After the process of creating my work, I staged two players each holding five phrase cards and displayed a pandemic politician image to recreate what the game would look like and what memes could be created if it was played (see Figure 2).

The Form: Why Memes?

            Memes are described as “small units of culture that spread from person to person by copying or imitation” (Memes in Digital Culture, 2).  Internet memes are unique in that their intertextuality capitalizes on the blending of pop culture, politics, and participation.  Internet memes have become a fundamental part of contemporary digital culture.  Though popularity and relatability vary from person to person, generally, internet memes shape and reflect social mindsets en masse.  In this form of participatory media, “user-driven imitation and remixing” are “highly valued pillars” (Memes in Digital Culture, 4).  Because relatability and the reflection of social mindsets are key factors in meme culture, it was important that politicians during the pandemic be brought into this digital conversation.  The medium allows for players to express their opinions and frustrations while privately holding them accountable as political leaders or just generally relating to them as average people.  By staging my meme project as if it were being played, I hope observers will see two directions they can take; one of which is to relate their feelings to the image and humanize the global leaders, the other is to criticize the image and hold politicians accountable for their actions.  Photographs were once renowned for their truthfulness; they were used to ensure the validity of a situation—evidence or proof that could not be refuted.  However, digital photography has since eroded the association between photography and truthfulness (“The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres,” 343).  We now know that pictures can lie; they can be taken out of context, manipulated or misconstrued.  Memes play into that deconstruction of truthfulness, intended or not, and are “more about the process of meaning-making than about meaning itself” (“The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres,” 344).  This also allows creators and observers to take the reins of their own meaning-making, thus inserting their opinions into a visual culture that is universally accessible.

The Context

            Playing cards have been a part of human history since the ninth century.  Though the original medium is unknown—some believe the first cards were leaves, others believe they were remnants of book paper—the standardized four suit cards entered into fashion in Europe during the fourteenth century and the rectangular shape was normalized in the fifteenth century.  The rounded corners, observed in four suit cards and What Do You Meme? cards are curtesy of a manufacturing change in the nineteenth century that aimed to make cards last longer (Daily Times, 2016).  Society is acquainted with and trusts visual and oral culture.  When it comes to the pandemic, visualization devices give “orientation in a situation of uncertainty” and they also “stem from a visual culture tied to managerial decision-making” (Hoof, 231).  Memes, as a visualization device and as a card game, work in the same fashion.  Because memes require assigning the certainty of a phrase to an image, which is, therefore, a decision-making process, I felt that they were the ideal medium for examining public reliability and trust in the government.  A study conducted in New Zealand—where, thanks to swift lockdown measures from the government, community transmission was almost nonexistent—revealed “that trust in government is strongly associated to adherence to health guidelines” (Sibley, Chris G., et al., 625).  Results from the study concluded that, contrary to political belief, “bold and decisive action—even that which puts the economy at risk—has the potential to bring people together at the national or state level” and that New Zealanders reported increased trust in politicians and police, and increased satisfaction with the government’s performance thanks to the success their bold and decisive lockdown measures ultimately achieved (Sibley, Chris G., et al., 625).  Unfortunately, lockdown measures in Canada and other countries have not been as bold as those in New Zealand, and as a result, have not been as effective at reducing community transmission.  And so, it would not be unorthodox to suggest that in countries where lockdowns did not receive the same severity and were therefore not successful, that public trust in politicians and police, satisfaction with the government’s performance are either unchanged and have even decreased.


            Through my research and the creation of my pandemic meme project, I uncovered that memes play a vital role in the reflection and reproduction of public opinion by means of visual culture.  My hope is that observers and those who play the game virtually question their trust and satisfaction in the government and political leaders as we ride out the third wave in Ontario.  This project is by no means meant to sway observers’ political alliances, but rather it is meant to force the observer to question our leaders’ accountability and handlings of societal threats.  Humour can be used to celebrate the actions of some or criticize those of others.  However the observer chooses to play the game, they should be left questioning the shield of bureaucracy protecting that protects politicians.

An orange cat playing What Do You Meme, Covid-19?, a card game by Payton Flood
Figure 3. Payton Flood, What Do You Meme, Covid-19?, 21 April 2021. Digital photograph. Canada. ©Payton Flood.





Disclaimer: This digital exhibit and What Do You Meme, Covid-19? is in no way affiliated to FuckJerry’s What Do You Meme? and any similarities are purely inspirational. Not suitable for ages 10 and under. Pet approved (see Figure 3).






Works Cited

“A Short History of Card Games we Enjoy.” Daily Times, 2016. ProQuest, https://search- proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1780495013?pq-origsite=summon

Hoof, Florian. “Media of Trust: Visualizing the Pandemic.” Pandemic Media, Meson Press, https://pandemicmedia.meson.press/chapters/education-instruction/media-of-trust-visualizing-the-pandemic/

Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2014. ProQuest, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/reader.action?docID=3339690

Shifman, Limor. “The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 13, no. 3, 2014, pp. 340-358. Sage Journals, doi: 10.1177/1470412914546577

Sibley, Chris G., et al. “Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Nationwide Lockdown on Trust,

Attitudes Toward Government, and Well-being.” The American Psychologist, vol. 75, no. 5, 2020, pp. 618-630. ProQuest, doi: 10.1037/amp0000662.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.