How did the peach emoji become the symbol of political karma in American history? Like all things politics, it started with a scandal. On 28 December 2019, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker for the House of Representatives, announced that President Donald Trump was charged with abuse of power for political gain, among a slew of other charges, leading to his impeachment.
Along with going down in history as the third president to be impeached in Congress, Trump’s impeachment will most importantly be the first one to be documented through memes. Although the flurry of gross misconduct is enough to write a novel, this isn’t about the dramatic twists and turns of political corruption. This is focusing on the power of the meme in the midst of political turmoil and its new peculiar role in shaping American history.
TikTok, Instagram and Twitter have been flooded with distinct brands of humour commenting on the presidential impeachment, with the peach emoji as the symbol of political justice. Originally a go-to sexting staple, the peach emoji has now infiltrated tweets, memes and captions with its new meaning, and has even surfaced as a photoshopped face of Trump as a peach. With the impeachment seen as its own holiday within a holiday, hashtags such as #impeachmas trended with many Americans and internationals watching with bated breath for the next turn in this long-awaited saga.
The use of memes to celebrate and voice opinions of a political nature is a new phenomenon amongst millennials and gen Z users. But what does this mean? Screen Shot asked American Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) and millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) what they thought of the flurry of impeachment memes. A 19-year-old first-year university student confessed that she’s not that into politics, but considered herself to be political. “It’s complicated and messy. I try not to get too involved,” said the 19-year-old who is a TikTok enthusiast.
One American student studying in London commented on how these memes were skewing internationals’ opinions of the American government. “I thought they were funny but misleading because people who aren’t American didn’t understand that being impeached isn’t the same as being removed,” she said. “Also, most marginalised groups won’t face danger if they travel to America. The president and his views aren’t a snapshot of how the country is.”
A 24-year-old fashion designer from Chicago thought the memes were quite funny and represented how quickly young people could express themselves online, but also how some boundaries can easily be crossed. “They’re funny, but can sometimes go too far,” said the designer. “I’m political, but I’m trying to go on a social media detox right now.”
According to Global Web Index, millennials and gen Z users spend on average 60,772 hours a year on social media, meaning they’re bombarded with devastating news regarding corrupt governments, climate crisis, violence and assault—we all know how heavy it can get. It’s no wonder, then, that some young people are opting to stay off social media altogether for the sake of their own mental health. Sometimes considered as a coping mechanism to the turmoil happening right now, it makes sense that memes are the go-to for younger generations to express their reactions to specific events.
Meme culture has always resided between comedy and tragedy, acting as a gateway to the minds of the people, filled with nuanced humour and exploring minute, complicated, sometimes heavy, emotions that can’t quite be expressed through words alone. Some say it’s not right to poke fun at the US’ misfortunes through memes, and that people are losing their ability to distinguish between seeing comedy in tragedy and just being insensitive. But what else can we do? Everything in the world is politically charged and it’s harder not to comment on the hardships we’re exposed to every day.
Maybe we can’t distinguish between what’s appropriate and what isn’t anymore, or maybe memes are the only way we can cope and extend the delusion a little longer that justice is prevailing. We know the issues behind the memes aren’t funny. We know these are all veiled attempts at grieving. Grieving a world rapidly changing for the better? For worse? Who knows.
We are holding onto optimism as for dear life, and memes aid in boosting morale. On the plus side, I can’t imagine what historians in the future will make of these memes. Classroom screens glowing with PowerPoint presentations of a photoshopped face of Trump on a peach explaining the era of one of the most corrupt presidents in US history. These memes, tweets and TikTok videos will be significant artefacts and considered important tools to learn about American history and the start of this new decade. Is that wild or what?
It’s funny how the apparent generational rift can divides us—new gens are often criticised by some of our predecessors, be that our social media habits and apparent phone addiction or the presumption that we don’t care for the world around us. Yet, when we do share our opinions on urgent issues such as climate change or poor political policy, we are labelled as ‘snowflakes’.
Being the ‘social media generation’, it isn’t surprising that we end up resorting to social media activism, with many now turning to TikTok to resonate with a wider and younger audience. TikTok is rapidly increasing in popularity, especially amongst gen Z audiences, who make up over 50 per cent of the platform’s user base. So how did TikTok become the go-to-app for politically driven content?
This week, the UK is about to have one of its most important General Elections in recent history, which will be a turning point in determining the future of the country’s politics; naturally, our social media feeds are covered with news about this. Ela, perhaps better known by her Instagram handle @sunkidi, has recently published a TikTok video on her Instagram feed, which has now gone viral, questioning why people vote conservative. “I made it on a whim really. I’m in my pyjamas in the video aha. I make really stupid TikToks when I’m bored and post them on my private Instagram, it was never meant to go on my public insta but my friends thought it was funny so I posted it there,” Ela tells Screen Shot.
The video has now received over 93 thousand views, and has been shared by hundreds, with Ela receiving overall positive responses, as not only did she manage to start a conversation about something incredibly important and find a way to engage with people online, she did so through humour. “I think every generation uses different means to express ourselves. Memes can cover all sections of life so there’s something for everyone to have a giggle at,” says Ela. It appears that as a generation we tend to turn to memes, humor and now TikToks to voice our concerns, and it is incredibly effective.
“I think social media is so important for this election because it’s giving people access to information that isn’t broadcasted by mainstream publications and it’s giving people who are suffering under a Tory government a voice.” There is also a real push to get young people to vote in this election, firstly, because the election determines the long-term future of the youngest members of the country, and, secondly, since there has previously been a lack of young people in the electoral register. A large majority of gen Zs were unable to vote in the Brexit referendum, for instance, because they were underage at the time. Since this current election was announced, over 47,000 new applications have reached the voting age by September alone. Ela is not the only one who used TikTok as a means to create awareness for this election; the Brexit Party is an avid TikTok user, while young supporters of other parties also turn to TikTok to create politically driven content in regards to the election and the current state of British politics.
It is uncertain what exactly influenced new voters to register, but activism and social media influence have played an active role in that. So do we owe it to ourselves and others to be political on social media? “I think we do owe it to ourselves to be political!” Ela tells Screen Shot. “I think social media activism is so important. I remember In 2014 finding out about the Ferguson riots before the mainstream media had reported it. I also think the media can be so quiet on important issues that people need to know such as the Hong Kong riots and killings of Muslims in China for example. I wouldn’t have known about that if it wasn’t for social media.”
It is true that there are many cases in which social media has managed to report on news before mainstream news outlets have; the Sudan crisis being a great example of such, or the most recent Chinese concentration camps for Muslims, and social media activism has been pivotal in raising awareness to these issues. Teenager Feroza Aziz recently went viral after posting a TikTok disguised as an eyelash tutorial in which she speaks about what is happening, urging people to take action—with the Chinese app temporarily disabling her for doing so. That hasn’t stopped Feroza, however, as she tells the BBC that she is not “scared of TikTok”.
The future belongs to the new gen, and we are claiming it by fighting for a better, kinder future, TikTok by TikTok, if that’s what it takes.