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Laugh in Case of Emergency: Framing the Pandemic Through Memes in Italy and Russia



During the COVID-19 pandemic, meme culture prospered. New topics, styles and problems emerged from meme-sharing, resulting in a specific genre – quarantine memes. Although some of the possible causes could be linked to the lockdown boredom and consequent increase in screen-time among internet users; we argue that the other cause has to be sought in the complex role memes had (and still have) as instruments of symbolic framing.

As De Rycker (2018) put forth, a crisis is a human activity carried out knowingly and intentionally. Understanding the COVID-19 pandemic as a crisis, we aim to analyse quarantine memes as a participatory practice of ‘doing crisis’ – in particular, by framing its meanings and making sense of changes in everyday life.

Quarantine memes exist in the context of uncertainty, risks and fears about people’s health, restrictions of freedom, stress and changes in daily routines. The creation of memes that emerged from this context frames the pandemic and the virus in a variety of ways, not only suggesting different points of view but also establishing norms, encouraging (dis)belief and satirically or creatively commenting on new COVID-related practices.

Using a combination of digital ethnography and content analysis, we observed the meme-related participatory practices of quarantine memes on the most popular webpages in two countries: Russia (VKontakte) and Italy (Facebook). Temporally covering the first wave and the subsequent pandemic containment measures (February-October 2020), we distinguished a set of framing strategies that are suggested via memes by online audiences: alienation, avoidance, awareness-raising, critique, domestication, subversion, escapism and acknowledgement of emotions. Comparing and contrasting the topics and symbolic strategies that emerged in those countries, we showed that symbolic framing via memes is not a straightforward phenomenon, but a long-nuanced process in which different perceptions of the virus overlapped each other and changed through time.