09 November 2012


'YouTubers as satirists: Humour and remix in online video' [PDF] by Patrícia Dias da Silva and José Luís Garcia in 4(1) eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government (2012) 89-114 discusses
the role humour plays in politics, particularly in a media environment overflowing with user-generated video. We start with a genealogy of political satire, from classical to Internet times, followed by a general description of “the Hitler meme,” a series of videos on YouTube featuring footage from the film Der Untergang and nonsensical subtitles. Amid video-games, celebrities, and the Internet itself, politicians and politics are the target of twenty-first century caricatures. By analysing these videos we hope to elucidate how the manipulation of images is embedded in everyday practices and may be of political consequence, namely by deflating politicians' constructed media image. The realm of image, at the centre of the Internet's technological culture, is connected with decisive aspects of today's social structure of knowledge and play. It is timely to understand which part of “playing” is in fact an expressive practice with political significance. .... In online remix, popular culture allows creative production beyond consumption, entailing a process of selection, transformation and redistribution. These online everyday practices hence gain a political dimension, whose importance as grassroots participation is directly tied to their interference in the mediascape.
As citizens seem to drift apart from forms of political participation once predominant making many fear the failure of democracy, other forms – referred to as non-conventional – appear to have been gaining visibility and relevance. Pippa Norris (2007) acknowledges a rise of alternative organizational forms of activism related to the growth of cause-oriented politics, as opposed to citizen-oriented politics, linked to elections and parties. The process of globalization as well as privatization, marketization and deregulation have reinforced “the need for alternative repertoires for political expression and mobilization” (Norris, 2007, p. 641). Looking at approaches that rethink the public sphere as a theoretical construct and as a reality, one may find a positive perspective on the segmentation of the public sphere – of which the Internet is strongly blamed – regarding it as a strength and not a sign of demise. Nancy Fraser's (1990) conceptualisation of “counterpublics,” in which distinct publics instil the democratic debate with vitality as opposed to a monolithic and exclusivist public sphere, offers a theoretical framework which provides heuristic possibilities to the study of online citizen participation.
In YouTube, amateur videos constitute “a new form of vernacular speech – speech through the production of original and appropriated images and words” (Strangelove, 2010, p. 156). Talking online means to manipulate images, meme-making and sharing these video creations. “Citizenship is, in part, a question of learning by doing” (Dahlgren, 2006, p. 273), including the experiences in seemingly non-political contexts, and talking is a significant practice in the political experience of citizens, beyond political discussion carried out in formal settings. Exposing dominant political discourse through critical comment is one of the political activities of online amateurs, and humour plays a part in leading that process to the next step: playfulness contributes to mobilisation and to grabbing the attention of the media (Flichy, 2010, pp. 58–9). Developing what Edwards and Tryon (2009) call “critical digital intertextuality,” YouTubers do not restrict their actions to decoding or opposing content that is presented to them; rather, they enhance their media literacy by contesting the transparency of such texts.
Remixing or appropriation, characteristic of culture jamming and other forms of intervention in media culture, is the focus of our analysis. A key element of situationism, subversion was considered “an all-embracing re-entry into play” (Vaneigem, 1974, p. 150). The realm of image is perhaps at the centre of the Internet's technological culture and is connected with decisive aspects of today's social structure of knowledge and play. It is timely to understand which part of “playing” is in fact an expressive practice with political significance.
In this article, a brief genealogy of political satire, from classical to Internet times, is followed by a general description of the Downfall meme, a series of videos on YouTube featuring footage from the film Der Untergang and altered subtitles. Amid video-games, celebrities, and the Internet itself, politicians and politics are also the target of such twenty-first century caricatures. The analysis of these videos enabled us to identify the relation between politics and the media as a strong subject of parody and to understand how the character of Hitler was chosen to deflate politicians' constructed media image. This is but one example of how the manipulation of images is now embedded in everyday practices and may be of political consequence.
 The authors conclude that
Humour is part of humanity's History, and satire in particular seems to thrive when it is demanded as a form of expression by both society and individuals. In the twenty-first century, this need seems to be present, as newspapers, television, films and the Internet display more and more instances of pictorial satire. One can hardly deny “satiric media texts have become a part of (and a preoccupation of) mainstream political coverage,” but has this made “satirists legitimate players in serious political dialogue” as Amber Day (2011, p. 1) claims?
A closer examination of the sample of Untergang remixes here discussed shows us YouTubers employ remixing and humour as methods of exposing the weaknesses of politicians and the political system, following the long-standing tradition of satirists, countering messages created in the context of institutional political communication. Remixing implies that not only the strategies of political actors are exposed, but also the inner workings of the media and the relation between the two. Through image manipulation, politicians and media actors are turned into their own discrediting representatives, participating in their own mockery. Humour therefore plays a role in twenty-first century political discussion, rather than merely diverting the attention of citizens from such matters. In this sense, satirical remixing may be regarded as a new form of participation, especially as cause-oriented political action, and contribute to the formation of counterpublics, bringing new vitality to democratic debate. Yes, these videos can hardly be compared to the work of masters of literature like Swift or Orwell, whose social critique remains thought-provoking to the day. However, websites like YouTube allow vernacular instances of satire to be registered and easily accessible beyond their iteration – both in geographical and temporal terms. They may not be as enduring or remarkable, but they are part of what is to talk online, including talking politics.
Regarding online satirical remixes' value in the promotion of online political discussion, we note that emotions weigh in political engagement. They may play an important role in both grabbing the attention of viewers and thus contribute to raising awareness on specific issues, and galvanising them to take part in political discussion. Moreover, satirical remixing appeals not only to the emotional side of citizens, but also to the intellect. By breaking down official messages, satirical remixing becomes a lesson in media literacy and rhetoric: it exposes how political images – in the broad sense of the word – are produced, are arranged and can be manipulated. Moreover, the intertextual character of both satire and remix imposes high demands on video watchers, as to fully understand the references that are invoked.
Notwithstanding its role in denouncing the flaws in the media, politicians, political institutions and political systems or triggering political discussion, there are limitations to satirical remix as a tactic for affecting the balance of power. Hess (2009) notes in this regard the production of two illusions: firstly, a perception that there is freedom of speech on this medium, while inducing a belief that this form of participation replaces forms of political expression such as petitioning or protests; secondly, a feeling of satisfaction for being able to speak one's mind through online video, even if there is no audience. For Hess, YouTube may allow the dissemination of messages, but is not successful in creating an organized community. Participation in political debate may be restricted to finger-pointing instead of looking for consensus building or offering proposals of the citizens' own making. Political satirical remix's contribution to discussion is hence grounded on a negative stance, in which an agreement may be reached on what is undesirable, but it seldom offers alternatives and may even heighten divergence.
Highly derisive or nonsensical videos perform above all a safety-valve function, and have reduced transformative consequences. Their focus of attention is only held until a new target of mockery comes along, making parody seem trivial and a generator of white noise. Satirical remixes that appeal to knowledge of affairs, or even contribute to extending it, aim for a more permanent impact that causes change in some way, even if only in terms of awareness. Like culture jamming in general, in order to be subversive political remixes must have a goal beyond the appropriation of images, which itself constricts criticism: images may be able to carry over some of the dominant meanings embedded in them. The circulation of satirical remixes enables them be reframed and co-opted and, on YouTube, they can turn from critique to generating profit, sometimes even for the benefit of the object of commentary. Uploading to YouTube leaves remixers and all participants in the resulting online discussion subject to the company's policies, with the lack of control this implies.
At a time of revival of Read/Write creativity (Lessig, 2008), inherently intertextual, a product of juxtaposition and bricolage, satire seems to have found fertile ground to flourish. Faced with a world of politics detached from their own world – “politics as usual” – parody became a rhetorical practice at the disposal of citizens to express their views, and engage in dialogue with others. Offering an alternative language for discussing political issues, the parodic satires are in stark contrast with the “politically correct” forms of debates previously privileged. Uploaded to a worldwide repository, the videos are accessible to (almost) anyone with an Internet connection. These images hence become part of communication, not in the sense of broadcasting, or even narrowcasting, but of the creation of an imagetic commons, allowing them to be reused, remixed, reinterpreted. Even so, co-opting and astroturfing – false grassroots movements – are also taking place, and slacktivism is only the pushing of a button away, as Morozov (2011) cautions. The answer to the long standing question of the role humour plays in politics continues open, and as this article is being written, the horizon of citizen empowerment remains cloudy. Nevertheless, if in Juvenal's time it may have been difficult not to write satire, in today's world, it is also hard not to sing, paint, film or remix it.