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The Power of Memes in Crisis: the potential for emotional contagion of memes during a crisis

Tabatabai Sara

ORCID: 0009-0003-6165-6978

Postgraduate student, Department of Mass Communications, Peoples' Friendship University of Russia named after P. Lumumba

6 Miklukho-Maklaya str., Moscow, 117198, Russia

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Bulgarova Bella Akhmedovna

ORCID: 0000-0001-6005-2505

PhD in Philology

Associate professor of the Department of Mass Communications at RUDN University named after Patrice Lumumba

117198, Russia, Moscow, Miklukho-Maklaya str.6.

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Abstract: The subject of the research is the study of the influence of memes during crises. Internet memes as a communication tool and new media languages are able to create and spread emotions that can promote social cohesion, as well as increase social confidence, which is considered vital during crises. Given the importance of Internet memes as a powerful tool to strengthen social cohesion and trust in difficult times, it is important to give an idea of how memes and emotional contagion can be used in crisis communication. The aim of the study is to provide a more complete understanding of the role of Internet memes, especially during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, in emotionally affected Iranian social media users. To achieve this goal, the study used a mixed-method approach, content analysis including COVID-19 memes on Iranian social networks and a quantitative survey using a questionnaire developed by the researchers. The statistical sample of the study consisted of 150 Iranian social media users who were randomly selected. The novelty of the research lies in the study of the function of memes in crisis communication and emotional contagion, especially in the context of Iran. The study expands the boundaries and offers new insights into how memes can be an effective tool to strengthen social cohesion and increase trust in difficult times. The focus of the study on the Iranian context also adds to its novelty, as it provides specific information that is not available in the existing literature. The study provides empirical support to politicians, especially Iranians, in tracking public opinion on critical topics, or in managing collective emotions via the Internet and stimulating and mobilizing public action by individuals. Memes can be used for crisis communication and public participation. The results of the study indicate the widespread use and recognition of memories in Iran during the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of income tax information for expressing feelings and interest. Emotional contagion through memes is moderate and mostly mental, with respondents believing that memes are more effective, fast, and desirable than other types of messages and posts.


memes, emotional contagion, Iran, crisis communication, social media, digital culture, viral discourse, generation Z, COVID-19, analysis


We live in the midst of the countless crises and emergencies ongoing in our world today, which have resulted in stress [1], anxiety [2, 3, 4], Boredom [4, 5] and public panic [2]. Crisis could give rise to mental and psychological effects [6,7] as well as antisocial behaviors offline [8] and online [9]. Studies have pointed out that emotion is a crucial factor that affects individual behavior and decision-making, especially in an emergency [10, 11]. Uncertainty and unpredictable factors during emergencies make people panic and more vulnerable to others’ emotions, which could influence people’s decision-making negatively [12, p.2145]. When people catch others' emotions, their judgments and decisions can be influenced via emotional contagion [13, 14, 15, 16]. The concept of emotional contagion implies the transmission of emotion from person to person, which is affecting the way people think and act [17].

Emotions in cyberspace, like in the offline world, can spread from person to person and have been accelerated despite the digital environment, technology, and social media [18]. In other words, the Internet world has provided many channels for the spread of information and emotions that can quickly turn individual fears into collective panic during crises. Liu et al. mentioned that emotional contagion might boost the spread of information among a group [19]. As well as essential information, this mechanism can make fake news and rumors viral, which are problematic in crisis management [20, 21], to the extent that the WHO during the COVID era mentioned the fight against the infodemic [22]. Therefore, studying and understanding emotional contagion as one of the underlying mechanisms of the digital world is very essential for crisis management and communication. Due to the recent COVID-19 crisis, it can thus be considered a case study to research emotional contagion.

The need for emotional communication increases significantly in critical situations [23], such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the propagation of emotional content in cyberspace, which was the only option during the COVID-19 quarantine, led to faster emotional contagion. According to Jajarmi shared emotional content via emotional contagious mechanisms leads to empathy, cooperation, and voluntary acceptance of health policies such as staying at home, masking, reducing stress, and maintaining social interactions in Iran [24]. During the COVID-19 crisis in Iran, new media and communication tools can lead to collective actions such as participating in health campaigns and accepting health guidelines voluntarily by establishing extensive online communication while maintaining social bonds [25]. Abdollahi and Rahimi have analyzed the comments during the early peak of the COVID outbreak in Iran and described the performance of the government and the people during the outbreak from the perspective of social media users.

According to respondents, the cause of the intensification and epidemic of COVID in Iran is due to:

1) Poor government performance; such as: a) inappropriate communication (lack of information transparency and inconsistency of morbidity and mortality statistics, minimization of disease and uncertainty of disease characteristics); b) week crisis management (confusion in decision making, poor compliance with government decisions according to medical standards, lack of appropriate policies such as not quarantining Qom city at the beginning of the COVID, no travel restrictions, lack of health facilities and lack of economic support for the people, etc.).

2) People's performance: lack of Responsibility and non-compliance with health protocols, lack of cooperation and association with grassroots groups and physicians.

Based on their survey, stay-at-home campaigns have led to increased awareness and public participation, and self-awareness resulting from the spread of online messages is a major factor in preventing virus spread. Based on this research, netizens have been able to invite people to follow health protocols by posting religious, moral, and emotional messages about COVID, focusing on the role of the people and their performance in defeating the virus away from government and policy blame. Their results showed that emotions play an important role in users' attitudes [25]. On the other hand, Farahati believes that the focus on dissemination of media messages on COVID-19, receiving negative statistics about COVID-19, or even showing the facts of COVID-19 and its catastrophes in Iran and around the world leads to increased anxiety, stress, impatience, frustration, and distrust, which can be explained by emotional contagion as their underlying mechanism [26]. Also, studies by Mokhtari Hesari et al. show that rumors and incomplete and unreliable information on social media can lead to the spread of misunderstandings of COVID-19 disease in Iranian society and endanger their health, which mostly rely on emotional content to go viral [27]. One that accounts for the crisis, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, is the heavy reliance on online and digital communication evidence, which indicates the effective role of digital emotional content in spreading or limiting the consequences.

Amongst emotional digital content, those that include visuals and humor are able to convey complex emotional concepts easily [28]. Viral captioned images or video prevalently humorous colloquially known as memes defined by Huntington as «a form of visual rhetoric» [29] or so-called «expressive repertoires» by Nissenbaum and Shifman [30] are paragon for emotional communication [31]. There is some evidence to suggest that memes mostly associated with the expression and occurrence of emotions. It would seem that memes are the approach and way of looking at things through emotions. This supports the idea that memes can be considered as the emotional and personal perception and knowledge of something that is basically expressed in the form of humor digital artifacts. Today, memes occupy a large volume of messages sent via cyberspace and have different dimensions for study and analysis. Memes as a repository for the public sharing of opinions, emotions and ideas could be counted as the dissociative reflection of the collective voice. Mandeep & Chanchal Sachdeva in a survey of 112 media users found that respondents mostly sent their favorite memes to relatives and friends. They most liked the educational humor memes about COVID, which led to a change in their behavior [32].

Internet memes, as indispensable and widespread digital artifacts, were used to express and communicate emotions during crises such as the coronavirus pandemic [33, 34]. COVID-19 memes by evoking negative emotion (using stressful content, expressing fear, showing failure in controlling pandemic situations) and humorous expression depicted the situation, government, and people performance during the COVID-19 outbreak. Dynel by studying the COVID-19 mask memes explained that these memes narrate the behavioral patterns and reactions to the basic shortcomings of hygiene items such as masks, tissues, and... in society. Also, he claimed that memes depicted the weakness of the country's policies in protecting their citizens, which led to bewilderment, and as a result, some citizens applied unusual tools such as water bottles, plastic and doll masks, strange clothes, etc. to protect themselves from the virus. These memes have also ridiculed the improper use of masks [35]. However, his research conclusion about the use of images of human subjects as constructive images of memes is a novelty that could inspire new studies about participatory patterns in memes. This suggests that emotional COVID-19 memes' messages, with the help of visual imagery, could evoke people's emotions and convey a story to the audience by establishing emotional communication and, hence, play a prominent role in streamlining news and changing or denigrating collective actions. Some COVID-19 memes are warning messages that convey the emergency situation of society, which could attract a large audience due to their sensitivity and objectivity. There is evidence to suggest that digital humor and memes are the collective defense strategy and coping mechanism suitable for COVID-19 tragic conditions. According to Cancelas-Ouviña (2021), the COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a new era of mass imprisonment and stress for the world, and Spanish citizens were isolated in their homes and unable to physically interact with family members, friends, and their colleagues. People try to deal with stressful situations differently, and memes (humor) are one of the most common and widely used strategies to deal with the deplorable situation in society. The COVID memes with humor depicted the grief, fear, and suffering of the Spanish people, who are very outgoing and used to spend a lot of time outside their house before the coronavirus outbreak but were locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic [36]. Motivational messages to increase citizens' tolerance, lifestyle changes, adhering to health principles, and changing behavioral patterns such as attention to keep social distance, using masks in public places, washing hands with antibacterial gels, and vaccinating were the main themes of memes in this era.

In light of what has been discussed, this article's goal is to introduce and define the topic and go on to summarize by investigating the memes impact on emotional contagion during times of crisis, a topic of theoretical and practical significance. Theoretical contribution is to be found in the article’s ability of linking Internet memes research, emotional contagion and crisis. Hence COVID-19 as a case of crisis with most online communication is selected to study emotional contagion happened by internet memes about COVID-19 In Iran. Despite studies proving that internet memes have been one of effective communicative artefact in critical situations to cope with stress and express emotions, in Iran, memes are not very familiar concepts. Nonetheless, during COVID-19 pandemic, as a consequence of living in quarantine, as well as Iranians' special interest in humor and satire, COVID-19 memes gained popularity. This research supports the idea that Iranian memes as a part of country oral humor could be indicator for some cultural, political and social issues before they become a reality .Using the aforementioned studies as a basis and taking the COVID-19 situation in Iran as an example, this study regards Internet memes as a captioned image macro unit in online communication and explores the emotional contagion caused by the most viral memes in the early peak of COVID-19 disease in Iran by a survey of Instagram users. In order to pursue said objective, we relied upon three sources of information. First, researches about COVID -19 memes, second, related COVID-19 researches retrieved from the Iranian context, third, an extensive literature review of the three streams that are relevant for the declared purpose: (1) sociology of emotions; (2) emotional contagion stem from virality literature; and (3) Internet memes and the function of humor in memes, which is mainly a kind of 'emotional sharing' that can also consist of a complaint against any issue [37].Emotion, emotional contagion and Memes

This research could be found at the intersection of virality literature that is interested in memes to investigate the emotional contagion mechanism as an underlying mechanism of online virality [38]. To the best of our knowledge, emotional contagion can be elucidated by the social power of emotions as well as symbolic interaction theory. Therefore, theories of emotion as social phenomena could set out a comprehensive conceptualization for this study. There is a considerable amount of literature on emotions. Various approaches have addressed emotions. Lawler & Thye considered emotion as a negative or positive evaluative state that is relatively low in elements and contains cognitive and neurotic elements that are not completely under human control [39, p.218]. The classical approach to emotional contagion emphasizes its basis in mimicry in individual contacts, including gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and laughter as nonverbal signals [38]. The mimicry processes occur based on mirror neurons between humans as social creatures and spreading positive or negative emotions [40].

Along similar lines, one of the main approaches toward the mechanism of emotional contagion argues that all emotions are socially constructed and thus take on different forms and numbers in different societies [41]. In other words, societies can produce as many different emotions as can function for their social system. According to sociologists, apart from the basic emotions that have a biological basis, some emotions are created and transmitted only through human interaction. On the other hand, in many cases, it is not us who create them, but only we experience them [42]. According to this viewpoint, emotional contagion affects not just individuals but also larger networks and communities by influencing people's emotional states and expressions. People’s thoughts and actions are greatly influenced by their emotions [43]. Therefore, emotional contagion can have lasting consequences since group feelings arising from emotional contagion can persist longer than individual emotional responses. Hence, the emotion contagion study aims to shed light on how emotions propagate during social interactions and how being impacted by the emotions of others influences the dynamics of the social interaction.

Social constructivists develop the claim that the number of emotions is dependent on the social processes that produce them in each society. Hochschild writes: «Cultural patterns influence the people of a society in such a way that they express the emotions that they think they should express in society» [44]. In his point of view, emotions are interactive in nature and are formed based on whether they are appropriate or not for the social situation. He develops the claim that humans evaluate the appropriateness of an emotion in relation to the situation, not by examining the emotion in the abstract world. This comparison provides a natural measurement criterion for the evaluator so that he can evaluate the situation and show the appropriate emotion in that situation [44]. In his view, the actor, under circumstances, actively interacts, evaluates, monitors, stimulates, suppresses, and shapes his emotions. In other words, he «works» on his emotions in order to stimulate and display the emotion that is appropriate or, conversely, to suppress and eliminate the emotion that is inappropriate. Thus, his proposed term of «emotional labor» means trying to change the intensity or quality of a particular emotion so that emotion is in harmony with the social situation. Emotional labor also takes on different forms.

There are varieties of techniques for doing emotional labor: 1. Cognitive technique: trying to change images, ideas, or mental thoughts to change the emotions associated with them; 2. Physical technique: trying to change physical states along with emotional experiences such as preventing tremors; 3. Emotional technique: trying to change the observable emotional states in order to change the inner feelings and emotions (such as laughing or crying).

These three techniques are different, but it is possible to use them simultaneously. If the threefold harmony between one's situation, cultural norm, and emotion is lost, emotional labor plays a decisive role in re-establishing the balance between one's social status, cultural norm, and one's observable emotion. In this case, the person tries to focus on the facial expressions, external gestures and small sets of observable images, to present an image of himself that is in line with the requirements of the situation, which Hochschild compares to the English school of acting (surface acting). However, it is possible to try to transform one's emotions in order to create an appropriate emotional adaptation to the situation so that the observable manifestations of one's emotions are in harmony with the emotional requirements of the role (American acting or deep acting) [44].

The main theoretical premise behind social construction theories and symbolic interaction is that emotions are largely dependent on the definition of situations, emotional words, and emotional beliefs, which therefore change over time and space. As a rebuttal to this approach, positivists outline emotions as unchanging, automatic, and patterned reactions to specific groups of social stimuli. For constructivists, one must focus on discourses about emotions and how to use emotional words. That is, emotions are not material but are constructed or may be negotiated through individuals during interactions [45, p.453]. Unlike constructivists, symbolic interactions are more inclined to recognize the influence of primitive emotions on human interactions. The terms symbolic interaction and emotions stand for the common product of «generalized motivations» and «specific socio-cultural factors». The same motivation, depending on the situational symptoms, may be experienced as joy or anger. From both constructivists and symbolic interactions points of view, since definitions and situational labels differ over time and between cultures, likewise, emotional experiences must vary over time and across cultures. In other words, the key characteristics are not psychological emotional experience but socio-cultural; thus, by expanding the meaning within and between cultures, different emotions are created and recognized. Social conditions, goals, and intentions of the actor are very important and fundamental for the emergence of emotional experiences and their quality [46, p.320]. Emotion is evoked as a psychological reaction to social stimuli, and humans have the ability to create, manipulate, and modify symbols to guide their behavior and that of others. Love, hate, anger, and sadness are actions that are formed by actors when defining and interpreting a situation. Goffman emphasizes that humans are active in producing their emotions. Humans, according to their definition of an external situation, control and express their emotions [47, p.82]. When needed, actors are drawn to cultural logic and vocabulary that determine how and what emotions should be expressed. Goffman is premised on the assumption that individuals are theatrical actors on stage and play roles that are culturally driven. He claimed that people also consciously manipulate their facial expressions, speech, and body movements to «maintain the effect of display rules». Also in interpersonal scenes, they use visual representation tools such as clothes or objects to communicate with people who support ideologies and emotional norms [48, p.26]. Some theorists consider emotions to be constructed and dealt with by the dominant cultural elements of society, as Clifford Geertz argues that "not only ideas but also emotions are cultural creatures" [49]. Emotions, as the senses that people feel, interpret, reflect, express, and manage, are evoked through social interactions and are influenced by social, cultural, interpersonal, and situational conditions. We often find ourselves in everyday life with surprising emotions and expressions of emotions that are accepted by society and considered appropriate [50, p.16]. People observe certain behaviors occurring more frequently in others and modify their own. This creates social influence that has an impact on behavior and also causes emotions to spread. These emotions spread like viruses and are called emotional contagion, in which one person’s emotions transfer to another through a social appraisal mechanism. Several studies support the idea that all types of emotions, including anger, sadness, happiness, and joy, get contagious [51]. A growing body of studies has examined and proven that emotional contagion occurs in digital communication as well [52]. Along similar lines, studies claim that an emotional «arousal hierarchy» followed by the evocation of anger or anxiety are key explanations for the spread of information [38]. Thereafter, emotional contagion is attracting considerable interest as an underlying mechanism of viral information in today's digital world.

Turner argues that, in order to create emotional arousal in a person, there must first be certain expectations in his mind about what will or should happen when he enters a situation. These expectations are those that create an individual’s interpretation and definition of a situation, and they may have originated from a variety of sources. They influence a person's behavior and reaction to the behaviors of others in the situation [53]. According to him, emotional arousal is influenced by the nature of expectations, inconsistency and unfulfilled expectations, the intensity of emotional arousal, as well as the situation and expectations of others. Human emotions are expressed in an attempt at role-playing and role-making. As Alfred Schutz claims, we have a social interpretation of everything, and that is what we all share and benefit from. The conscience connection between the people of a society brings them together in understanding the issues, and everyone adapts himself to other views and perceptions, because if one stays in its position, one would not be able to understand all aspects of the issue [54, p.79]. Therefore, in order to understand a problem comprehensively and from different angles, it is necessary to participate in others understanding of that issue. This is the basis of common life and common sense that governs society [55, p.375].

Building on this fact, emotional contagion seems to be an adaptive strategy to function in groups for survival. It can enable rapid communication of opportunity and risk, mediate group interaction, and help humans adhere to social rules and norms, such as maintaining harmonious interaction with a powerful ally. Emotions serve to focus human attention and motivate him to take action in a way that helps him survive and thrive. Moreover, for this survival function to operate optimally, humans are highly sensitive to emotional signals in the environment. Regarding the emotion evaluation theory, emotions are a response that reflects a person's evaluation of the importance of something in the environment for his or her well-being. Many studies confirm that emotions play a prominent role in the process of human decision-making and cognition as well as determining factors in their behavior, especially in the face of a crisis. Uncertainty and unpredictable factors during emergencies make people panic and more vulnerable to others’ emotions, which could influence people’s decision-making negatively [12]. Thus, in critical situations, fear and anxiety are the most prominent emotions, and by sharing them, fear gets contagious among people, and the more irritating the source of the emotion, the greater the possibility of contagion [56]. There are considerable studies published on the dominance of fear and anxiety as emotions responding to the COVID-19 pandemic situation [57, 58]. According to Shahshahani with the rapid growth of the COVID-19 virus, public anxiety and worry have also increased. Lack of proper understanding of the disease has led to stigma, discrimination, and emotional damage to the patient. In the meantime, the media have a dual function. On the one hand, by disseminating the right information, encouraging people to follow the health protocol, and sending health messages, they can make people aware of prevention and treatment methods and thus prevent it from spreading too much. On the other hand, viral dissemination of information and a focus on COVID news lead to fear and anxiety among people [59].

During the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing emotions was limited to online communications due to quarantine, which caused faster emotional contagion, attributable to the new media capacity for virality. Evidence indicates the effective role of new media and communication tools during crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic [60]. Internet Memes, as an emerging example of new communication tools, are paragons for emotional communication [31]. Memes have the ability to arouse emotions in people which is a prominent factor during crisis [61]. There is a body of studies proving memes effectiveness in critical situations to cope with stress and express emotions. They are visual interpretations of simple information, ideas, or thought processes that help convey messages to the general public [62]. In other words, memes can be considered a tool for venting emotions and escaping critical situations. Tsafi Sebba by analyzing 302 memes about COVID-19 in Israel, considered those memes as disaster jokes. Those memes were initially a reaction to COVID-unknown conditions. Later COVID memes were about new emerging lifestyles, such as online education, the need to stay home, and how the simplest relationships between people have been banned. COVID memes generally represented netizens' responses to confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, and family problems arising from pandemic conditions. COVID memes used nostalgia and local Israeli literature to depict lifestyle changes due to the pandemic. These memes also led to the emergence of new terms. She concluded that humor messages during crises are an important way for people to find creative emotional outlets [63]. Eskandarian claims that, the critical situation caused by the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran has led to changes in lifestyle, values, and attitudes of individuals, as well as how to consume cultural products. Media-generated content about COVID has led to spontaneous or systematic actions and reactions, such as home quarantine, which have been reinforced by various campaigns such as #stayathome #, #nototravel #, and so on. During quarantine, people receive most of their information from the digital space, and the use of social networks has led to a reduction in stress. Messages and jokes created on social media (such as a spouse running away from home) indicate the targeted use of social media by individuals and the roles of messages and cultural consumption in observing quarantine conditions that increase people's life expectancy [60].

Memes and COVID-19 in Iran

Meme is a very emerging phenomenon in Iran and is often known among social media users who are under 30 years old, which refers to generation Z, or digital natives [64]. Therefore, the content of memes mostly expresses the collective views, concerns, and emotions experienced by this age demographic in Iran. Hence, memes can reflect this generation's stereotypes or reinforce them. Correspondingly, this generation's discourse through memes can frame and construct special stereotypes toward other groups. Referring to Rogers theory on diffusion of innovation, this generation in Iran can be considered the innovators or early adaptors who regard new media adaptation and, hence, have the greatest impact on the way new ideas, technologies, or phenomena spread and are perceived among Iranian media users. Therefore, in the case of coronavirus memes, unlike the rest of the world, where memes are about more serious adult issues such as work from home, mothers' issues with household during quarantine, and concern about expenses, most viral and popular Iranian memes were related to the issues of the student generation. Iranian coronavirus memes and their virality time revealed that they were mostly generated from the beginning of March to the end of May 2020, which was the first peak of coronavirus in Iran. In addition, during this period, we witnessed a sudden increase and the start of activity on a large number of pages generating and sharing memes in Iran. Persian meme pages that have been active in Iran before the arrival of the coronavirus and whose average likes per post are more than 500 can be divided into two general categories: 1: Iranians living in Iran; 2: Iranians outside Iran. Due to the differences in the living conditions of these two groups, there are also differences in their memes. Furthermore, Iranian memes about coronavirus have been in line with the general memes in the world, and common coronavirus characters and symbols have been used to make memes or induce common concepts; nevertheless, some coronavirus memes were generated from the distinctive conditions of Iranian life and culture during the pandemic. In March, at the beginning of the pandemic in Iran, Persian memes about COVID-19 mostly were generated in response to the anxiety and fear of occurred critical condition. They tried to relieve and create a sense of mutual empathy and sympathy with the help of natural humor evoked by memes. In the quarantine situation where people's social connections were reduced to online communication and face-to-face communication was cut off, memes were able to convey a good feeling to Iranian users instantly or briefly by mocking the existing conditions and lead to their encouragement. In other words, at the beginning of March, as people facing a collective concern, they tried to increase optimism and hope along with reduce anxiety by producing memes and messages in social media.

Among the most viral memes in the world, in response to the collective panic at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, were memes about toilet paper crises and the empty shelves of supermarkets with essential items. while the Persian version of those memes proudly reflected on the differences in Iranians’ styles of hygiene, hence, unafraid of toilet paper shortages. Instead, they depicted Iranian panicked by empty shelves of stores over tea as an Iranian favorite beverage. These types of Persian memes are mostly generated by Iranians outside Iran. At the same time, there were common memes generated about the lack of masks that depicted creative solutions to this problem.

Most Persian memes about the coronavirus were generated in response to quarantine boredom. Iranian quarantine memes focused more on people's concerns and complaints about the long quarantine, uncertainty, monotonous life, and quarantine lifestyle. Memes about quarantine lifestyle included obesity and overeating, changes in sleep patterns and losing time, increased anger of women and mothers, problems with education and online classes, appearance concerns (due to the closure of hairdressers, gyms, etc.), creativity out of inaction, and increasing activity in social media.

There is some evidence in memes that suggests that critical situations such as pandemics have both positive and negative effects on Iranian society. On the positive side, Iranians became aware of the importance of their basic needs, such as food and health, and everyone was the same in this regard. Therefore, people communicated and helped each other in order to overcome the crisis, which could increase solidarity. A negative aspect of the current crisis could be the increasing focus of Iranians on their own values, culture, group, and family. From an evolutionary perspective, it is all about the survival of our own genes. The uncertainty lets us build up a kind of cultural anxiety buffer, i.e., a buffer system that protects us from experiencing an existential threat. To put it simply, we can observe that people have a less positive attitude towards members of outgroups. A number of Iranian memes referred to value change and depicted how new lifestyles changed cultural customs as a consequence of the coronavirus. Due to the coincidence of the Iranian New Year with the national lockdown, a large number of memes were produced about changes in New Year customs and Nowruz celebrations because of quarantine. New year visit as a custom, changed to online visit during Nowruz and holidays, and Eidi (a new year gift) replaced by online deposit. The Haft-Sin table (an arrangement of seven symbolic items whose names start with the « س » letter pronounced as «seen» as a traditional custom in the New Year) items were replaced by detergents, disinfection, masks, etc. As well as changes in the 13-bedar ceremony (the day of reconciliation with nature that is held on the 13th day of the New Year) that is held online.

Надпись: Figure 1:memes collected from perisan(https://instagram.com/persian?igshid=MmVlMjlkMTBhMg==)

Case study design and methodology

The research method is quantitative and documentary. The sample for this study consisted of 150 Iranian Instagram users who were selected by a purposive random sampling technique. The research tool is a questionnaire (a researcher-made questionnaire), and the unit of analysis is at the micro level. Regarding the validity and reliability of the questionnaire, the final questionnaire has been considered for validity with the approval of expert professors in this field. The validity of the indicators is based on their formal validity. The validity of the main index items of the research was investigated using the internal reliability method, and for this purpose, the Cronbach's alpha coefficient technique was used, where 0.7 Cronbach alpha values indicate acceptable internal consistency. Data analysis was performed by IBM SPSS Statistics 26.

In this paper, the emotional contagion definition grounded in reviewed studies is conceptualized as the transmission of emotions between people during communication, in which each person can send perceived emotions to others and make them widespread. To measure emotional contagion in this study, the transmission of emotion caused by COVID memes among users has been indexed in two dimensions: mental and practical, and has been measured by the items listed in Table 1.

Table 1:Operational definition of emotional contagion

Dependent variable



Emotional contagion

Mental contagion

  • I think these memes express my feelings very well
  • I think memes express what I mean better than words
  • Most of the time, using memes is more desirable to me than words

Practical contagion

  • How willing are you to share your favorite meme for your friends?
  • How willing are you to share your favorite meme for your family and relatives
  • How much do you comment on memes?
  • Do you have a new idea for making a COVID meme?

COVID-19 Memes: in accordance with our literature review, internet memes are a cultural acronym that, thus, as a form of communication, evolves with those who use them. Memes are informational units that circulate in the collective consciousness through social contact. The ingrained style of thinking is formed by copying this collective mindset. Memes carry codes and information that correspond to social norms and behavior. Thus, memes are actually shared behavioral, normative, and perceptual norms within a culture [65]. Internet memes are popular images, texts, or videos that, in addition to being entertaining, have a message [66]. In this research, COVID-19 memes are Internet memes about COVID-19 that were made during the peak of COVID-19. The following questions about memes have been used:

· Have you ever made a meme?

· Would you like to receive such memes?

· How do you feel most about watching COVID-19 memes?

· Which COVID-19 memes are most appealing to you?


The results of Table 2 identified that, from the majority of respondents’ point of view, memes convey emotions to a moderate extent (50%), and according to 78% of the respondents, the emotional contagion by memes is practically moderate. In other words, memes almost cause users to share their favorite memes among friends, relatives, and family, which motivates them to publish and make new memes or comment on memes. According to 62%, most emotional contagion by memes is done mentally. In fact, memes express them well in terms of feelings, and through memes, meaning can be expressed better than words, and memes are more desirable than words, and with immediate mental impact, they convey the message to the audience faster.

Table 2:Percentage distribution table of emotional contagion by memes











Contagion in mental level









Contagion in action level









Emotional contagion









Based on the results in Table 3, 75.3% of respondents are very interested in receiving memes about the coronavirus. The results also show that only 32% of respondents have generated memes on various themes.

Table 3:interest in receiving memes percentage distribution table

Have generated memes

Interested in receiving memes



Very interested

Somewhat interested


Not very interested

Not at all interested








According to Figure 2, 36% of respondents felt boredom, 23.3% felt dissatisfaction or discontent, 16% felt fear and anxiety, 15.3% felt anger, and 9.3% felt hope and cheerfulness or happiness, respectively, from COVID-19 memes. Most of the coronavirus memes induce feelings of boredom and are fed up with the quarantine situation and the critical conditions of the people and the country.

Figure 2:COVID-19 memes' percieved emotion

The results of the ANOVA test in table (4), in the 99% confidence interval with a significance level of sig = 0.000, F = 29.60, identified respondents’ preferred themes effect on emotional contagion, indicating that differences in respondents’ preferred themes have different emotional contagion levels. The results of Dunnett’s post-experimental test confirmed that the average emotional contagion varies according to the differences in themes of the memes.

Table 4:F test (analysis of variance) between memes' them and emotional contagion

Emotional contagion

Levene Statistic

Sum of Squares


Mean Square



Between Groups







Within Groups







According to Figure 3, memes with the themes of cosmetics and sanitation (referring to the closing of beauty salons) and aggressive and violent behaviors (referring to family conflict due to quarantine conditions) are more emotionally contagion, and religious themes convey the least emotions.

Figure 3: linear diagram of emotional contagion based on theme of memes

The results of the ANOVA test in table (5), in the 99% confidence interval with a significance level of sig = 0.000, F = 24.750, identified the effect of users' experienced emotions on emotional contagion, indicating that differences in users' experienced emotions have different contagion levels. The results of Dunnett’s post-experimental test confirmed that average emotional contagion varies according to the perceived emotion.

Table 5: F test(analysis of variance) between users' experienced emotion from meme and emotional contagion

Emotional contagion

Levene Statistic

Sum of Squares


Mean Square



Between Groups









Within Groups










Graph in Figure 4 revealed that COVID-19 memes that evoke boredom are more likely to be emotionally contagious, and memes that express hope and cheerfulness-happiness are less likely to be contagious emotionally.

Figure 4: Linear diagram of emotional contagion based on memes emotion

Discussion and conclusion

The present study discussed the effect of memes during crises on emotional contagion among netizens and showed the widespread use and acceptance of memes in Iran, especially in times of crises such as COVID-19. Based on the results of this study, memes released in critical situations in Iran were identified as an appropriate and efficient tool for expressing feelings and concerns. Therefore, sharing these emotions in memes has led to emotional contagion. The results of the study showed a significant difference in the effect of content and emotion components in memes on the tendency to receive and propagate memes, which, due to the dominance of negative charge in most memes, explained the contagiousness of negative emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. The negative emotional contagion during the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran was confirmed in line with previous studies [57; 58; 67]. The negative emotional contagion can lead to a negative emotional and behavioral pattern among their Iranian audience. A negative atmosphere may lead to social frustration, passivity, reduced social responsibility, and blaming others, which in turn slows down the crisis management process and even leads to antisocial behaviors [8]. Thus, themes and emotions in memes, which spread the most among other netizens, are an important factor during the crisis.

Based on the conducted research, this paper presents the following findings:

1. The results of this survey and documentary studies showed that the very high level of negative emotional contagion by COVID memes in Iran is due to the low tendency to spread positive memes on the one hand and the very high tendency to share memes with negative content such as boredom, stress, etc. On the other hand, during COVID-19, the most negative contagious emotion among COVID-19 memes among Iranian users has been categorized under the boredom term, which Robert Plutchik has identified as a mild disgust emotion [68, p.1955]. An increase in boredom during the COVID-19 epidemic was also reported by some previous studies [5, 4], which according to recent researches could be the result of social isolation [69, 70]. Therefore, boredom is an appropriate index to represent a large group of COVID-19 memes in Iran. Boredom is sensitive to currently banned actions previously available to the individual, just as in the quarantine situation, in which lots of activities were banned, especially for youth and generation Z, as also depicted in a group of Iranian memes during the pandemic. Boredom leads people toward novelty-seeking behavior, participation in crafting, and surfing online [69] to overcome this feeling. During quarantine in Iran, we have witnessed a sharp increase in the production and consumption of memes, homemade foods, etc. Finally, the adverse consequences of boredom can include eating disorders, depression, and aggression [71]. Therefore, in the present study, all memes with the mentioned themes, such as prohibition of previous activities, too much presence on social media, cooking, eating or sleeping disorders, depression, and aggression, were classified as a general category of boredom. Given that boredom plays a mediating role between self-control and breaking the law and that by increasing boredom, impulsive decision-making and emotional-breaking behaviors increase [72, 69], such as gambling, substance abuse, impulsivity, and risk-taking [71, 73] , therefore, it can be assumed that people prone to boredom may not be sensitive to risks due to reduced sensitivity to feedback and may lose control for ignoring health rules and guidelines during COVID-19 conditions and similar crisis.

2. The research findings also confirmed the effect of memes’ themes on the level of emotion contagion during crisis. In this survey, the classification of memes based on their theme expresses the main concerns of the Iranian people and particularly Generation Z during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the most viral Iranian memes about COVID-19, we found that initially, memes referred to appearance issues such as problems caused by the closure of hairdressers, informal clothes in online classes, or other issues that made people comfortable and reduced their attention to appearance. Some of these memes that attracted our respondents were about the comfort of casual clothes in formal communication, getting rid of the cost of makeup and outdoor clothes, the advantage of the mask in hiding the appearance of ugliness (such as a big nose) and hence the need for cosmetic and beauty treatments (such as rhinoplasty, lip prostheses, etc.), or using masks as a self-decoration and prestigious product, and Iranian creativity when masks were unavailable. Another meme category based on their theme referred to the phase where, due to the increase in patients, the uncertainty for treatment and vaccines, and the widespread dissemination of contradictory news, Iranians turned to home remedies and traditional prescriptions. Therefore, these memes are classified as self-medication, most of which mock mothers as doctors who were constantly prescribed turnips, violet oil, and herbal medicines. Limited memes, also referred to consuming alcohol for treatment and Trump's prescription to consume detergent. The third thematic category of memes in this study referred to the lifestyle created during quarantine. Memes addressed the challenges of living in quarantine with a sense of humor and a mocking tone. Family conflicts, changing and increasing the duties of mothers due to lockdown, and consequently mothers' frustration, challenges, and concerns about online education, having fun with family, and turning to creative activities at home such as cooking and online life were the contents of this theme. In Iran, the first peak of COVID-19 coincided with the celebration of Nowruz as the Iranian New Year. Due to quarantine, this ancient ritual transformed into an online and individual celebration, and many doctors and nurses celebrated it in hospitals to cheer up patients, as depicted by some memes. Along with pictorial memes, new terms such as «ghorona», «koftvid» etc. were created, which need more sociolinguistic research for future research.

3. It should be emphasized that during the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran, memes about appearance and sanitation had the most general acceptance and contagion among Iranian users. Given that in today's world culture, beauty and youth are highly praised and considered ideal, appearance can be considered a place of cultural dialogue between inside and outside. Everyone's appearance is a kind of flag and symbol of their identity, and it is especially concerning for young people and Generation Z who are in the main stages of identifying themselves and can express themselves through their appearance. But in some societies, appearance becomes more important due to custom, rules, or special laws. Iran is one of those societies. Due to laws and regulations, there are limitations on appearance, including the hijab for all women and the ban on wearing shorts for men in public, which sometimes does not comply with the desires of the Generation Z. Some of them may perceive these laws as a kind of invasion of their privacy that has led to dissatisfaction and their attempt to make changes in order to get closer to their true identities and personal standards. This issue has become an important discourse, even a battlefield in Iran. From another point of view, in societies where social inequalities are high and cannot be manipulated or changed, value and status have been destroyed by all kinds of discrimination and deprivation; therefore, symbolic capital and physical capital become more important. As a result, the desire for hypocrisy and pretending to have physical capital in social communication increases because honesty cannot greatly help people's aspirations; accordingly, we may see the prevalence of pretense.

To summarize, during the COVID-19 crisis, incomplete or gossipy news on social media led to demoralization and despair in Iran, but the humor memes were able to reduce the negative and deplorable burden of the transmitted messages and were able to address the concerns of people. By inviting people to produce content and collaborate online, it made quarantine conditions somewhat easier while also providing appropriate training to its audiences and promoting culturalization. The results of Eskandarian and Shahshahani research also emphasize that cyberspace in Iran is a good platform to create a better feeling and reduce tension [59, 60]. In the meantime, COVID-19 memes, as an effective communication tool and language of social media, have an important role in emotional contagion and the formation of collective emotion and public cohesion. Sebba-Elran and Choursia also believe that memes have an effective role in spreading emotions in critical situations [63, 32]. Therefore, this study contributes to linking Internet memes with crisis management, especially by clarifying emotional contagion as one of its underlying mechanisms. Hence, it provides empirical support for policymakers, particularly Iranians, to track public opinion, especially regarding critical issues, or to lead collective emotion via the Internet and stimulate and mobilize public behavior in citizens. The high level of dissemination of anti-discourse memes during crises as a result of this study proves that memes can depict the social, cultural, and political landscape of their creators in Iran and further reveal the complex links between new media and political and cultural arenas. Memes depicting Iranian concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, without bias, can be a mirror of the general view of Iranian life during the coronavirus situation and could lead to social cohesion and awareness; hence, memes can be used as opportunities. The importance of memes, their function, and their effectiveness have been proven in numerous studies. However, in the Iranian scientific community, memes have been severely ignored. It is hoped that this study could be a starting point and serve as a base for future academic research on internet memes in Iran by proving the effectiveness and function of memes in Iranian society. We limit our empirical analysis to Iran and specific cases of COVID-19 memes. In the interest of findings’ transferability, we invite works conducted on a larger sample size as well as research on other crises levels, namely corporate crises. We are aware that our research relied on participants’ self-report; inevitably, it could not measure the emotional contagion directly, and further experimental investigations such as FMRI techniques are needed.

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The article presented for consideration "The power of memes in crisis: the potential for emotional infection of memes during a crisis", proposed for publication in the journal "Litera" in English, is undoubtedly relevant, due to the consideration of the features of memes that were generated during the pandemic in the virtual space. In modern realities, part of life takes place in the virtual space, and today Internet content plays a big role in people's lives, especially after the events of 2019, when, due to the announced lockdown; training, work and communication moved to the virtual network. The author attempts to describe new elements of virtual space that have become a part of people's lives, namely the emotional potential of memes as part of discourse. During the coronavirus pandemic, the world faced a global threat, which led to an increase in anxiety and nervousness among people, which turned Internet memes into one of the tools to overcome fear and anxiety. In this article, the author attempts to consider the development of the Internet meme as a position of realizing its emotional potential during the coronavirus period, and its role in the modern world. The article is innovative, one of the first in Russian linguistics devoted to the study of such topics in the 21st century. The practical material of the study is not entirely clear from the text of the article, namely, the author does not indicate the volume of the selected language corpus, the sampling methodology and the principles of selection. The article presents a research methodology, the choice of which is quite adequate to the goals and objectives of the work. The author turns, among other things, to various methods to confirm the hypothesis put forward. The following research methods are used: logical-semantic analysis, hermeneutical and comparative methods. The research was carried out in line with modern scientific approaches, the work consists of an introduction containing the formulation of the problem, the main part, traditionally beginning with a review of theoretical sources and scientific directions, a research and a final one, which presents the conclusions obtained by the author. It should be noted that the introductory part does not contain historical information on the study of this issue both in general (research directions) and in particular. There are no references to the work of the predecessors. In addition, the objectives and purpose of the study are not clear, which does not allow them to be correlated with the conclusions obtained. The bibliography of the article contains 73 sources, including theoretical works in both Russian and English. Unfortunately, the article does not contain references to fundamental works such as monographs, PhD and doctoral dissertations. Technically, when making a bibliographic list, the generally accepted requirements of GOST are violated, namely, non-compliance with the alphabetical principle of registration of sources. The comments made are not significant and do not detract from the overall positive impression of the reviewed work. Typos, spelling and syntactic errors, inaccuracies in the text of the work were not found. The article will undoubtedly be useful to a wide range of people, philologists, undergraduates and graduate students of specialized universities. The article "The power of memes in crisis: the potential for emotional infection of memes during a crisis" can be recommended for publication in a scientific journal.
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