Coronavirus memes help an isolated world cope with 'existential dread'

The online world has been using humor to deal with the anxiety around COVID-19. Psychologists say it's a healthy response.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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Abrar Al-Heeti
6 min read

Meme accounts across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have responded to the COVID-19 outbreak with a powerful defense: humor.

Angela Lang/CNET

For the past several weeks, as the world has grappled with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, 26-year-old Deellan Khanaka has fought feelings of despair.

"It kind of feels like the world is ending," says Khanaka, an events coordinator in Berkeley, California, where things have more or less come to a grinding halt amid a statewide lockdown. Other states, cities and countries have imposed similar lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the newly identified  coronavirus .   

Tank Sinatra meme

Amid great uncertainty, humor can be a reprieve.   

George Resch/Tank Sinatra

To take her mind off things, Khanaka has made a habit of checking in on friends and family via FaceTime, taking better control of her sleep and going on walks to avoid being cooped up for too long. She's also largely been using humor -- via memes in particular -- to help alleviate stress.  

"It's the only thing that really makes light of the existential dread that is the heavy cloud over our heads," Khanaka says. "It's nice to know you're not alone in your experiences, even though you're physically and socially isolated." 

As COVID-19 spreads to more cities and claims more lives, meme accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit have cranked out more content seeking light and humor amid the darkness and uncertainty. Memes poking fun at everything from hoarding toilet paper to going stir crazy while in quarantine have dominated social media feeds. When a TV reporter was approached by bison at Yellowstone National Park, his amusing reaction became an instant meme about social distancing. People have even made coronavirus and quarantine-themed playlists on Spotify to stave off boredom and provide a comedic take on song titles like "Don't Stand So Close to Me" and "Take My Breath Away."

Spinning humor out of tragedy is by no means a new phenomenon. The Civil War era in the US was largely considered "the age of practical joking." Gallows humor helped soldiers cope with tragedy during World War I and World War II. Letters, posters and songs at the time poked fun at the enemy and the soldiers' own predicament. Kilroy Was Here, a graffiti doodle that Americans began drawing across a variety of obscure places during WW II, is said to be the world's first viral meme. 

Today, memes have become a common way of processing fear and tragedy through humor. Earlier this year, after Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed by a US airstrike in Iraq, "World War III" quickly began trending on Twitter. It didn't take long for meme accounts to begin creating content about impending war -- some of which was criticized for being insensitive, distasteful or coming from a place of privilege. Still, those memes largely provided an outlet for some people to diffuse feelings of doom and uncertainty. Memes can also help people struggling with depression and anxiety to find comfort.  

"Using humor is just how people cope in grim circumstances, and it's a very healthy response," says psychologist April Foreman, an executive board member of the American Association of Suicidology. "Human beings are wired to cope, and we're wired to be funny -- even darkly humorous." 

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Global reach

What makes the current situation unique, Foreman notes, is its global impact. Billions of people around the world are in the same predicament -- many are staying home, living in fear of the virus' rapid spread -- and are connected digitally through smartphones, computers and social media. People use these outlets to stay in touch and to relate to one another through humor. 

Unlike other tragedies such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters, COVID-19 is a slow-developing crisis where the guidance is to stay home and do nothing, notes psychologist Bart Andrews. As a result, there's a "sense of helplessness in inaction," he says, since this isn't a scenario where people can help by getting together for volunteer drives or by pulling people out of buildings. They can't even release anxiety by going to the gym or to church. Instead, they turn to memes.

"Using humor as a coping strategy and connecting with other people who have that same approach has been greatly normalized through the digitization of our culture," Andrews says. "Now, people who use humor as a coping strategy have instantaneous access to millions of other people, and we find our niches and networks." 

Quarantine meme

People online have found ways to make light of even dire circumstances like quarantine. 


George Resch, director of influencer marketing at BrandFire and meme maker behind the Instagram account Tank Sinatra, says humor is always his first instinct when a difficult situation arises. He's posted content ranging from mocking people who refuse to follow social distancing rules to the struggles of looking OK during virtual meetings. He's also poked fun at the idea that someday, we'll tell our grandkids that amid this pandemic, all we did was share memes

While the overall response to Resch's content has been positive, he acknowledges that a couple of doctors and nurses have reached out to him saying they'd appreciate it if he didn't make light of such a serious situation. 

"My response to them was, 'I fully understand that this is serious and I appreciate you guys being out there helping people. However, humor is how I've always dealt with things and I can't stop now,'" Resch said. "Not just for me, but for people out there who are freaked out, sometimes a little laugh is the only bit of sanity you have in your entire day." 

Amanda Jacobsmeyer, a 26-year-old publicist in Harlem, New York, says that for a generation that grew up on Tumblr, humor is a way of coping with just about anything. 

"It's a little bit of a reprieve from having to feel constantly scared or anxious or worried about other people," Jacobsmeyer says. "It doesn't remove those feelings. It just distracts me from them for a minute, which is nice."

The threat of misinformation

In our search for positivity and more information, there's a risk of spreading misinformation via infographics, tweets and memes, whether intentionally or not.

Take, for example, what happened earlier this month, when a couple of Twitter users seemingly found some good news about the positive impact of millions of people staying home because of the virus. Swans and dolphins had apparently returned to canals in Venice that had been deserted by humans, and elephants in a village in Yunnan, China, got drunk off of corn wine until they fell asleep in a tea garden. These reports went viral and were shared on Instagram and TikTok, offering a bit of optimism -- until news came out that they weren't true

"The phenomenon highlights how quickly eye-popping, too-good-to-be-true rumors can spread in times of crisis," reporter Natasha Daly writes in a National Geographic piece about the fake news. "People are compelled to share posts that make them emotional. When we're feeling stressed, joyous animal footage can be an irresistible salve."

Coronavirus meme

Memes can be an escape from -- or a way to poke fun at -- the influx of bad news. 

George Resch/Tank Sinatra

Generational differences can also play a role in spreading misinformation. Younger people who are better versed in meme culture might be more skeptical and careful when they come across information that seems outlandish or that contains tongue-in-cheek humor. It might be harder for older audiences to understand satire in a meme. 

There are, for instance, several memes pointing to unsanitary conditions and experiences, joking that anyone who's survived those situations will also survive coronavirus. That is, of course, not true, though Khanaka admits this kind of content can contribute to a false sense of security for some people.

Foreman advises people to be thoughtful about not only what content they consume, but who they follow on social media and what information they pass on. She urges people to check the accuracy of content before reposting. 

"If there's one thing we've learned from interference with our elections and other things in the world, we know that people can intentionally use memes, humor and social media as very effective attitude influencers and behavioral propaganda," Foreman says. "Nobody is immune to it."

Coronavirus meme

Distracted Boyfriend gets the quarantine treatment. 

Bay Area Meme Council/Instagram

There's also a danger in taking humor too far. Social media influencer Ava Louise caused a stir when she shared a video of herself licking a toilet seat as part of something she dubbed the "coronavirus challenge." The video caused an uproar on Twitter as people slammed her for undermining the severity of the disease. Basketball player Rudy Gobert also faced backlash after he jokingly touched several reporters' microphones and audio recorders during a press conference, before testing positive for COVID-19

Foreman says digital communities are generally good at regulating people who have gone too far by giving them feedback, banning them or removing harmful content. Jokes that incorporate mindfulness or that poke fun at the odd characteristics of the situation are more effective at improving people's moods than something that causes harm, she says.  

For people like Khanaka, humor has been a much-needed relief in a time of heightened fear and anxiety.

"Without humor, the alternative is to just wallow in sadness and isolation, which is not healthy," Khanaka says. "It's a way of coping and connecting."

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