Connecting Through GIFs: Exploring Symbolism, Humor, Visuals, and Themes in Political Activism

GIFs As a Tool for Political Activism

GIFs are inescapable, infiltrating every way we communicate online. And with a series like Black Girl Magic, GIPHY is making a conscious effort to fill in the gaps of representation. Lawson has also curated subchannels celebrating black hair, contemporary social activists and even black love.

10 On Your Side reached out to two other CIBH employees and both corroborated Neal’s account of the incident.

1. Symbolism

The ubiquity of GIFs within contemporary internet-based communicative environments demonstrates that they are widely accepted as a medium for interpreting and communicating information and emotion. They can be used as a means to construct identity and share humor, and as a tool for political activism, as demonstrated in the example of the ‘Plastic addict’ GIF.

These gifs can offer a symbolic mediation of the past and future, connecting people in new ways to historical figures such as Anna May Wong while simultaneously challenging and upending hegemonic cultural hierarchies through an imagined project of de-reification. GIFs that re-work the ‘eroticized and Orientalist glamour’ of Wong’s image can help to rescue her from this reification, providing contemporary users with a more ‘humanised’ version of a figure they might be familiar with.

The brevity of the format can also be useful for displaying snippets of visual data such as an animated timeline or graph, and it is easy to embed a GIF into a tweet to attract attention and encourage others to engage with a particular topic. However, this form of augmentation should be done carefully, as GIFs can become over-emphatic and lose their meaning in the process (Murphy, 2017).

2. Humour

Using humour is an effective way to draw people into a campaign and this activism gif does just that. By creating a sense of humour with the use of the name ‘plastic addict’ it draws the audience in while still keeping the message clear.

However, being comedic about such a serious issue requires careful consideration. As Yeo explains, being “preachy” or taking oneself too seriously can actually work against environmental communication efforts, by further polarizing people and solidifying in-groups.

Siskind believes that humor is an important tool to help inspire people, especially when it’s focused on human heroism and ingenuity. After all, everyone wants to be on the winning team.

3. Visuals

Using visuals in activism gif can be extremely effective. It helps people remember the message, they can feel more connected to it and it is also more eye-catching compared to text. Having a lot of images can help you with SEO, and people will stay on your site longer.

GIFs are also incredibly accessible, which is important for a cause that is trying to reach as many people as possible. This means they can be used in a variety of contexts and platforms. For example, GIPHY has a number of series dedicated to specific topics, such as #BlackGirlMagic, contemporary social activists and black love. Culture Editor Jasmyn Lawson says that the company has been able to fill gaps in representation by putting in extra effort for particular collections.

For example, they have created a series about ‘Plastic Addicts’ and used different images to create a sense of diversity. The use of humour works well here as it draws the viewer in and makes them think about how they could be a Plastic Addict too.

4. Themes

This gif highlights the issue of plastics and the effect it has on the environment. It uses a simple colour palette and type to create a calming gif that also draws the audience in.

Rhiannon Armstrong, supported by The Space and Unlimited, created this series of slow-looping GIFs to challenge the current climate of hostility in online spaces. Using her lived experience of neurodiversity, the project uses gently looping GIFs to create a more inclusive online space, in solidarity with disabled people and others who find social media hostile. This series was timed to coincide with Black History Month, with curated subchannels for black hair, contemporary social activists and black love.

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