Your Racist Meme Isn’t Helping

3 minute read

On November 17, 2015, Charlie Sheen when on The Today Show to publicly acknowledge the rumors and confirm that he has HIV, and has since 2011. His interview cast him in a very different light than the Adonis with tiger-blood that had last graced small screens in 2014. He was nervous and he stuttered. He said he had almost certainly not transmitted the disease, thanks to the severe stack of anti-retroviral medications he’d been prescribed.

Months after Sheen revealed his diagnosis, researchers at San Diego University noticed a massive spike in Google searches for the disease. There were more news articles about HIV being published and syndicated. Social media was more focused on the disease. The researchers called it the “Charlie Sheen Effect,” and highlighted how the increase in coverage correlated with an increase in donations toward groups researching the disease and potential treatments. I’m going to repeat that: an alcoholic drug-abusing celebrity trope did one interview about HIV and it led to a notable positive shift in HIV coverage and funding.

A few months ago, on May 28, a zoo employee shot a Western lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. The gorilla, named Harambe, was shot after a young boy entered his enclosure and was at risk of being injured. Thanks to rapid news cycles, the death became a media highlight, especially on Facebook. I heard about it first from friends, since I grew up in Dayton, not too far from Cincinnati.

It didn’t take long for Harambe’s death to become a meme. The first memes I saw about it were on 4chan, where his death was being mourned in an exaggerated fashion, in contrast to the mourning of Tamir Rice. (If you’ve forgotten or don’t know, Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old boy shot and killed by Cincinnati police for having a toy gun. The officers who shot him were cleared of all charges back last December.) Before long, the memes jumped from 4chan to the wider Internet. The hashtag #dicksoutforharambe went viral. People mashed Harambe up with every other trending meme. It was claimed Harambe was shot on Hillary Clinton’s orders. I’m sure many people who’ve participated in the trend were completely unaware of the racist undertones, but such is the way with so much contemporary racism. Other participants made their bias more known. A current petition on change.org uses the hashtag #gorillalivesmatter.

You might expect there to be a “Harambe Effect,” similar to the way there was a Charlie Sheen Effect. That because of the massive coverage of Harambe’s death, there would be an uptick in interest in gorilla conservation efforts. After all, if Harambe’s death was a tragedy, we should be working to prevent the deaths of other gorillas. Right? Well, let’s look at the Google Trends.

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Well, it’s understandable that “gorilla conservation” looks like a flat line compared to Harambe. After all, Harambe was one of the biggest memes of the past month. So let’s look at gorilla conservation on its own.

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Over on the left, you can see the effect that Jane Goodall’s numerous documentaries during the era had on interest in gorilla conservation – and remember, we’re seeing pre-smartphone era compared to now, so it’s pretty remarkable that interest was so high then. On the right-hand side, you see a recent uptick, followed by a decline to the lowest recorded levels of interest. Maybe that uptick is caused by Harambe’s death? Kind of hard to tell at this zoom. Let’s check.

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Well, that’s something – the uptick does match up with Harambe’s death – the high point is from May 29th until June 4th. However, almost immediately after the mainstream media stopped covering Harambe, and his death transitioned into a widespread meme, interest in gorilla conservation fell again to record lows.

Mourning Harambe’s death doesn’t just trivialize and mock the response communities have to the murder of their members by police. It also doesn’t do anything to raise legitimate awareness for the protection of the Western lowland gorilla. If you aren’t an edgelord, and would like to actually do something to remember Harambe, considering donating to the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.