When printing material gained popularity in Europe, satire became an important political tool to control public opinion. In particular satire, a visual and verbal type of news discourse, the so-called political cartoon, enjoyed great success. They were seen as historical records of the way of thinking of people in a particular social context and time. Indeed, along with society, these rather humorous visual representations of political attitudes have evolved accordingly.

The Plumb-pudding in Danger , 1805 by James Gillray.

The Plumb-pudding in Danger, 1805 by James Gillray.

New ways of communication, and the endless opportunities that the internet brought about, helped this process of gradual change. Well-respected political cartoonists were abruptly replaced by social media users able to produce short-live content that has a great impact on the audience. However, regardless of the form they acquire, print or digital, we are left wondering whether these political illustrations have the power to trigger any social change at all or, on the contrary, they are mere ways to channel political disappointment and invite to a sort of fatalistic way of looking at political realities.

Political cartoons are an important tool to frame social crisis. This is because, contrary to journalists who strive to produce unbiased content, cartoonists are encouraged to choose a side. Because of their humorous nature, some experts argue that these illustrations are more provocative and influential than other forms of opinion. In this regard, there have been a couple of examples of social protests that have used cartoons to amplify the ideas of the movement. For example, the members of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as Wooblies, used political cartoons to share their ideas and unify workers as a social class to fight the prejudices of capitalism during the Great Depression. However, there aren’t any records of the opposite: political cartoons that had triggered a social movement or protest.

Fred Thompson on The Great Depression for  Hard Times , 1970.

Fred Thompson on The Great Depression for Hard Times, 1970.

A more recent example that supports the idea that political cartoons are mere means of channelling our political disenchantment has to do with one of the most infamous figures of the present: Donald Trump. At the end of last month, the President of the United States decided to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, sparking the fury of citizens across the world. Classic print political cartoons and memes were equally produced, as a response to the saddening and enraging news. However, they achieved little more than to ridicule Trump´s leadership style, or lack thereof. These visual pieces of opinion discourse proved, again, to be a simple aid to help us carry on with our lives in such unstable times, while still having a way to react and revolt, albeit irrelevant to the actual matter.

Adam Zyglis on Donald Trump and climate deal pullout for  The Buffalo News , 2017.

Adam Zyglis on Donald Trump and climate deal pullout for The Buffalo News, 2017.

In a serious tone, this cartoon by Adam Zyglis, published in The Buffalo News, satirises the politically incorrect use that Trump makes of his Twitter account, while inspecting the consequences of the Paris withdrawal. Although the author employs a humoristic approach to the issue, it also reveals the repercussions of this decision while making a severe critical point.

In a different vein, the memes produced in social media did not serve any other purpose than poking fun at this rather anachronistic political choice. In a fast-paced environment such as the internet, memes emerged as a one-dimensional satirical illustration; they don’t engage with the issue and, therefore, their moral message and practical impact are limited. Print political cartoons, on the other hand, tend to engage with the socio-political context, participating more substantially to the debate. This results in a more intricate representation which instigates internal reflection among the audience.

Using satire as a tool to express opinion can be a double-edged sword; it can serve as an amplifier to a social movement, but it can still be insufficient to trigger social change by itself. Moreover, satire can produce severe backlash. For example, recently, the writers of Saturday Night Live considered the possibility of stopping the jokes about Donald Trump, because this could minimise the importance the unethical policies carried out by the current US administration. This is probably the worse consequence of cartoons as tools for opinion discourse: their satirical and humoristic approach may minimise issues that represent a serious risk to the society: if we can easily laugh about it, is it really that bad?

Words: Sergio López

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu