Multimodal Analysis of Memes in Tweets of Responses to Nigeria’s Minister of Health’s Statement on Resident Doctors In Nigeria


This study examines memes in tweets of responses to Professor Isaac Adewole—former Nigeria’s Minister of Health’s Statement on Resident Doctors in Nigeria. The advancement in technology and online discourse has shown that communication is multimodal rather than mono-modal. The study aims to show that though memes may look humorous, they portray serious ontological issues in the society. The objectives of the study are to examine how through juxtaposing the linguistic and pictorial elements in the memes under scrutiny portray the neglected health sector in Nigeria; and to examine and highlight ways through which the linguistic and pictorial elements deployed to foreground the underlying meanings encoded in the memes under study. The study is qualitative and analyses ten memes gathered from online tweets posted in the months of September—November 2018. Using van Leeuwen (2005, 2015) and Mey’s (2001) Pragmatic Acts Theory, this study analyses tweets containing memes in responses to Nigeria’s Minister of Health’s comment on resident doctors. The study found that linguistic, emojis and other semiotic signifying elements in each meme complemented each other in passing across the intent of the meme creators. The meme creators in some memes deploy abstract concepts to pass across the meaning of each meme; though some of the memes are comical, humorous and funny they embed more meanings beyond the ordinary. This study concludes that internet memes embody covert signifying elements which deal with, and foreground serious ontological issues in a society.

Keywords: memes, semiotic resources, multimodal elements, tweets, linguistic, pictorial

 Bibian Ugoal (PhD) Department of English, Faculty of Arts,
National Open University of Nigeria
Abuja - Nigeria.

1.0 Introduction

Before the 21st century, linguistic items and how they encode meanings in different discourse settings and platforms have been the focus of most academic enquiries. Now, the advances and changes in digital communication allow regular people to contribute to the general media environment through their online activities—and those contributions have the potential to reach a wide audience. The implication of this is that offline and online discourse have taken new forms and dimensions. In other words, communication is multimodal rather than mono-modal. Apart from linguistic elements, online chats and tweets deploy other semiotic resources such as memes in passing across messages (Ugoala, 2020). Memes are remixed media artefacts that are deployed both online and offline to portray sociological, cultural and ideological views about an issue. Coined by a biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976, the term ‘meme’ has been widely adapted in many disciplines, like psychology, philosophy, anthropology, folklore. In linguistics, it has received insignificant attention even though in recent times it has been one of the most deployed semiotic resources in online communication.

Some online tweets comprise reactions to the Nigerian minister of health, Professor Isaac Adewole’s speech on the state of medical doctors in Nigeria. According to the minister, when asked why it is becoming increasingly difficult for newly graduated medical doctors to find a place for residency training in a bid to become specialists in the various disciplines of medicine, the minister said that it is not necessary for all doctors to become specialists in medicine, as some of them can try their hands on other professions or vocations such as farming, politics, or even gown-sewing. To give an example, the minister said that his tailor makes the best gowns in spite of being a doctor https://www.thecable.ng/adewoles-wrong- prescription. This statement cannot be inspiring coming from a medical doctor who has practiced the profession for several decades both in the clinic and the academia, and having risen through the academic ranks to become a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, plus a privilege to serve as the vice chancellor of a foremost institution of higher learning in Nigeria. This seemingly explained why some Nigerians took to Twitter to express their anger in response to the minister’s comment pertaining to resident doctors in Nigeria. Also part of the background knowledge why people reacted so angrily to the comment is that the healthcare sector in Nigeria is in dire straits as a result of poor funding from the Federal Government, unavailability of medication and lack of funding of health facilities amongst other factors. The consequences of these do not only create a want in empathy from the medical practitioners themselves, it also leads to an even greater disadvantage for Nigeria, by encouraging brain drain.

Due to the poor healthcare system in Nigeria, Nigerian doctors find it fascinating to migrate to other countries as a way of furthering their careers and improving on their socio-economic situations. It is therefore not surprising that people reacted both online and offline to the minister of health’s comment on resident doctors. It is against this background that this study takes a look at this emerging form of computer mediated discourse, by analysing people’s tweets in form of memes in response to Nigeria minister of health’s comment pertaining to resident doctors in Nigeria.

Tweets are some of the online tools which youngsters use to communicate; in it, they deploy different semiotic elements to interact. The use of memes is one of such semiotic element. Some scholars opine that internet memes are trivial and humorous (Burgess 2008, Davidson 2009, 2012). Davidson mentions that an accurate definition for the concept of an internet meme is lacking and defines internet meme as “a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence though online transmission (Davison, 2012).” In other words, memes communicate humor based on shared socio-cultural knowledge. We seem to disagree with Davidson’s definition of meme as being merely trivial and jocular items; we argue that memes encode and express deep cultural meanings about an issue.

There are however contrary views to Davidson’s assertion. Some authors say internet memes handle and foreground serious societal issues (Miltner 2011, Shifman 2014). Milner (2012) defines internet memes as “amateur media artifacts, extensively remixed and re-circulated by different participants on social media networks.” This definition corresponds to some extent to the ideas expressed in the theories of multimodality and pragmatics which are also discussed in this research paper. On his part, Shifman argue that in an era marked by networked individualism people use memes to simultaneously express both their uniqueness and their connectivity. As a result of the late arrival of the internet to Nigeria, as against what is obtainable in more advanced countries, scholars in Nigeria have not really carried out many studies on internet memes; this study therefore is an answer to this call. In this study, internet memes are viewed as semiotic resources which are created and used by internet users for communication purposes. Netizens employ different creative ways of communicating different ideas, both serious and trivial on the internet. Multimodal approach and pragmatic tools are adopted in this study in recognition of the need to identify how the ensemble of the linguistic and visual mutually portray the neglected healthcare sector in Nigeria. The way the memes are portrayed in response to the minister’s comment meet the objectives of this study as well encouraged the adoption of multimodal/pragmatics approach in the study of the memes under scrutiny.

The study aims to show that though memes may look humorous they portray serious ontological issues in the society. The memes analysed in this study portray the Nigerian minister of health through his comment as insensitive to the neglected healthcare sector in Nigeria. The objectives are: to examine how through juxtaposing the linguistic and pictorial elements in the memes under scrutiny portray the neglected health sector in Nigeria; and to examine and highlight ways through which the linguistic and pictorial elements deployed to foreground the underlying meanings encoded in the memes under study. The study addressed questions like: how do through juxtaposing the linguistic and pictorial elements in the memes under scrutiny portray the neglected health sector in Nigeria? In what ways are the linguistic and pictorial elements deployed to foreground the underlying meanings encoded in the memes under study?

2.0  Related Scholarship

Recently, internet memes have attracted growing public interest. Earlier studies on the use of internet meme such as (e.g. Milner, 2012) considered meme as public discourse; for their functions as rhetoric (Anderson & Sheeler, 2014), and (Shifman, 2014; Yeku, 2015) for their memetic qualities and photo-based genres. Although internet memes have been seen as colloquially short term jokes or practices (Burgess, 2008; Davidson 2009), an increasingly growing body of research indicates that internet memes may in practice serve to fill deeper needs of the topic they portray than mere humour (Miltner, 2011). Ever since Richard Dawkins coined and defined the term ‘meme’ in 1979 in his publication The selfish gene, several scholars (Davidson, 2009; Miltner, 2011; Milner, 2012; Shifman, 2014; Anderson and Sheeler, 2014) have put forward their own definitions either in support or in modification of Dawkin’s definition. To buttress this view, Olesen (2009) points out the lack of agreement in a definition of the notion of ‘meme’ by scholars; and defines meme as “any form of cultural phenomenon that can be copied from one mind to another” (Olesen, 2009). This operationalization of meme positions the term as a social and cultural phenomenon from a starting point. We do not intend in this article to dabble in this controversy of definition of the term ‘meme’. Instead we focus on the meaning potentials of the linguistic and pictorial ensemble that foregrounds the socio-cultural meaning of the Nigeria Minister of health’s ‘demeaning’ comment on resident doctors in Nigeria. One uniting variable in scholars’ definition is the notion that memes are visual signifying tools through which socio-cultural ideas whether serious or jocular are expressed.


Shifman (2013) reexamines the concept of ‘‘meme’’ in the context of digital culture. The study after evaluating the promises and pitfalls of memes for understanding digital culture, addresses the problem of defining memes by charting a communicationoriented typology of

3 memetic dimensions: that is, the study analysed the video “Leave Britney Alone” to illustrate the unity of the typology of mimetic dimension. The study concludes that some memes are now an integral part of the netizen vernacular, and suggest that more work be done on meme analysis of digital content.

Elad et. al. (2015), employ a large-scale quantitative analysis to reveal structural patterns of internet memes, focusing on two forces that bind them together: the quiddities of each meme family and the generic attributes of the broader memetic sphere. Deploying content and network analysis of one thousand and thirteen (1013) meme instances (including videos, images, and text), they explore memes' prevalent quiddity types and generic features, and the ways in which they relate to one another. The findings show that a higher cohesiveness of meme families is associated with a greater uniqueness of their generic attributes; and the concreteness of meme quiddities is associated with cohesiveness and uniqueness. The study also discusses the implications of the findings to the understanding of internet memes and participatory culture.

Internet meme is used to describe evolving content that rapidly gains popularity or notoriety on the Internet. Given the growing interest in Internet memes, there is surprisingly little scientific work in Nigeria on the phenomenon so far. In particular, data-driven models that would allow for characterizing the dynamics of a meme or even for forecasting its longevity or peak circulation are scarce. Most studies on internet memes in Nigeria have focused more on the humorous side of memes (cf. Adegoju and Oyebode, 2015; Onanuga and Ajao, 2017). Others have examined more areas of memetic discourse (Yeku, 2015; Anurudu and Obi, 2017; Dike 2018). While Yeku (2015) looks at photo- based memes in Nigerian digital publics, Anurudu & Obi (2017) examined memes as metaphors. Dike (2018) looks at how memes can constitute viable tools for opposing Nigerian politicians’ flaws. Although these studies have considerably contributed to the literature on internet memes especially in Nigeria, having examined memes from the perspective outlined above, none has looked at the ensemble of linguistic and images in memes as collective meaning making tool in Nigeria; this is the thematic thrust of this present study.

Yeku (2015) looked at the way photo-based memes in Nigeria constitute a signifying locus for the representation and circulation of political identities in the country’s digital publics. Many Nigerian users of social media deploy new media skills to show how political actors and political identities intersect in Nigerian networked society and how the new media are increasingly becoming sites of civic engagements and sources of political criticism. The study recommends that an effective way through which a sense of self- determination within the context of Nigerian politics is to be regained, is through the creation of internet memes that recuperates a reinsertion of popular agency into the processes of Nigeria’s democracy, with proliferating ideas subverting social structures.

Adegoju and Oyebode (2015) examined the patterns of humour evidenced in the deployment of Internet memes (both verbal and visual) in the online campaign discourse of the 2015 presidential election in Nigeria. The study  analysed Internet memes produced and disseminated between December 2014 and March 2015 during the presidential election campaign. They opine that one of the most popular forms of humour on the Internet is memes. They say that because of the identity construction motif that is associated with memes, agents of memes select targets outside the in-group and criticise the targets’ behaviour for ideological purposes. Adegoju and Oyebode (2015) considering Archakis and Tsakona’s view on humour applied Van Dijk’s socio-cognitive model in their analysis with particular reference to the theoretical concept of the ‘ideological square’, which encapsulates the twin strategies of positive ‘in-group’ description and negative ‘out-group’ description. The study complemented Van Dijk’s model with Neuendorf et al.’s taxonomy of theoretical perspectives on humour. The study reveals that the memes deployed in the presidential election online campaign discourse largely serve uncivil purposes to detract greatly from the electoral value of the targets.

Onanuga and Ajao, (2017) assessed twenty Internet memes from Facebook on former president Jonathan’s nationwide anti-fuel subsidy removal. The semiotic analysis aimed at identifying the audiences’ perception of Jonathan’s image whether positive or negative, alongside his online representations and frames. The discussion of the images was validated with the audience’s comments on the online posts. The study identified the prevalence of negative memes and further noted their implications on Jonathan’s online impression. The findings of the study showed that negative frames which may have contributed to the former president’s defeat at the 2015 polls are strong evidence and sign of the urgent need for governments to develop a citizen-centered dialogic approach through engagement in all forms of media; that is, traditional, current, and emerging media.

Anurudu and Obi (2017) examined memes as an emerging trend in Internet discourse as metaphorical constructs used by individuals for communication online. Analyzing five tweets selected at random from ynaija.com, an online news blog for youths, they observe that internet meme is an evolving trend used for satirical illustrations and expression of intents in multimodal ways. The study drew from conceptual metaphor theory of cognitive linguistics to investigate the use of visual metaphors across Twitter which reflected consumer’s feelings on Jumia and Konga’s Black Friday sales in Nigeria. According to Anurudu and Obi (2017), internet memes serve as a strong rhetoric for ideological manipulations.

Dike (2018), examined Nairaland meme pictures’ as part of opposing Nigerian politicians’ impunity, animosity and incompetence during Nigeria’s 2015 electioneering, focusing on the candidates for the office of the president, under the platform of the two major political parties in Nigeia, both claiming to be suited to effect new and positive changes within Nigeria’s sociopolitical space. The study looked at meme pictures on Nairaland mimicking, ridiculing, and condemning the candidates as corrupt and incompetent politicians. The study analysed twenty-one memes selected through a non- participant observation of twenty discussions on the politics thread of Nairaland, during the electioneering period between October 2014 and January 2015. Appling the analytical tools of critical discourse analysis (CDA) framework, the study examines the processes through which contesting issues of power are embedded within the memes. In showing how pictures become visual representatives (pictorial representations) of the different levels of political animosity and ineptitude exuded by Nigerian politicians, this paper reveals the protest value of Nairaland meme pictures in resisting the sociopolitical imbalances that characterize Nigeria’s electioneering process.

Although Dike’s study failed to clearly point out that the society covertly aids impunity by not punishing corrupt leaders promptly, it has shown that internet memes encode meanings that have the ability to foreground societal feelings about an issue. Apart from Anurudu and Obi (2017) which focused on memes in online sales, all the other works focused on politics; none focused on the affordances memes encode of how an important sector—healthcare in the Nigeria has been neglected.

This article proposes an alternative way of looking at memes from a theoretical framework that argues that memes are in fact linguistic and pictorial icons which transmit meanings, ideas and views of the socio-cultural happenings of a given geographical location. This article constitutes a novel approach to memes because it examines memes using central concepts from multimodality and pragmatics which have not been included in previous studies. We argued that memes are not accidental; the ensemble of each meme is consciously chosen by the meme creator.

2.1  Linguistic and pictorial ignification  patterns of internet memes

Memes, though a relatively new way of using images are one of the more pervasive forms of visual discourse that combines semiotic resources and discursive approaches to analyse the persuasive elements of visual texts. Meme creators use “multimodal grammar” (in other words, images and captions) to express and share ideas and opinions. Part of the information gathered in the studies reviewed above is that internet memes use short phrases and witty sayings. Although most linguistic structures of memes do not following strictly the word formation process in English, their structural presentation do not hinder the meanings they express.

Milner (2012) states that memes are used in networks of mediated cultural participation as multimodal artefacts (the integration of image and text) to tell a joke, make an observation or advance an argument. De la Rosa-Carrillo (2015) is of the opinion that memes have become synonymous with a particular brand of vernacular language used by internet users when they post, share or remix digital content to communicate jokes, emotions and opinions.

When Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ in 1976 in The Selfish Gene, he said ‘We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. (Dawkins, 1976).

A cursory look at memes on the internet shows that there are countless other pseudopictograms of expressions and objects which are regularly added to typed communication. Emoticons, code-mixing, pidgin, formal language, slang or any other form capable of representing glyphs can be used to frame meme content as positive or negative, serious or joking, or any number of other things. D’Angelo (2009) argues that because memes are highly visual and intertextual, meaning they reference multiple texts and events, like other forms of visual signifying elements, they contain visual arguments that viewers can perceive which may influence their opinion about an issue.

All memes (online and offline) are capable of existing in different semiotic systems. The language affordance of meme aims at communicating through linguistic items; that of visual deploys emoticons and other pictorial elements. These are all evident in the memes studied in this article.


Foss (2004) avers that memes are rhetorical artifacts open to individuals to construct meaning. This way, memes can act as visual persuasive devices. Memes can contain many visual rhetorical techniques stemming from the intertextual practices of appropriation and juxtaposition used to create them. They can be satirically humorous when referencing societal issues, also acting as tools to criticize social vices. Milner (2012) identifies types of memes and separated them into remixed images and stable images, arguing that image macros are not only the most common genre of memes, but are also “one of the clearest examples of inter-play of imitation and transformation in the process that guides the construction of memes.” De la Rosa- Carrillo (2015) refers to Brown (2012) when describing image macros as “captioned images that typically consist of a picture and a witty message or a catchphrase. The structure of an image macro usually consists of a picture with text above and below the image in the macro”. Variations of the typical structure of an image macro can also occur, especially when the image macro is used to comment on something. Image macros without any text also occur. Image macros with variation in structure or without text are normally referred to as reaction shots. What all these views by scholars show are that memes have unique forms of presentation; words in whatever presentation and images are deployed in memes to foreground the author’s intention. Apart from words, memes deploy visual signifying elements that encode meanings of the social issues they tend to portray. The photo in the meme usually provides either the non-verbal aspect of the context, or the background information needed in order to interpret the meme correctly.


3.    Theoretical Thrust

Multimodality and pragmatics are the theories upon which most of the arguments in this paper draw their impetus. The concept of multimodality was developed in the early 2000s and originated, in particular, from the work of Michael Halliday on language as a social semiotic system. According to Jewitt (2013, p. 252), Halliday’s work shifted the attention from language as a static linguistic system to language as a social system. A basic definition of multimodality is suggested by Stökl (2004, p. 9), for whom “multimodal refers to communicative artefacts and processes which combine various sign systems (modes) and whose production and reception calls upon the communicators to semantically and formally interrelate all sign repertoires present.” For van Leeuwen (2005, 2015), whose propositions guided the analysis in this paper, the term “indicates that different semiotic modes (for instance language and picture) are combined and integrated in a given instance of discourse or kind of discourse.” Finally, Jewitt (2014) summarizes the key assumptions in studies of modality: all communication is multimodal; analyses focused solely or primarily on language cannot adequately account for meaning; each mode has specific affordances arising from its materiality and from its social histories which shape its resources to fulfill given communicative needs; and modes concur together, each with a specialized role, to meaning-making; hence relations among modes are key to understand every instance of communication. In the specific case of meme communication, co-occurrence of text and picture the last assumption according to Jewitt, proves very useful.


Multimodality provides concepts, methods and frameworks that assist in the collection and analysis of visual, aural, embodied and spatial aspects of interactions and environments. With internet memes, the choice of resource and the social context in which the meme is interpreted are central to successful interpretation of the meme.

Van Leeuwen (2005, p. 285) defines a semiotic resource as all the materials and artefacts or actions that we use to communicate. Here van Leeuwen mentions some very important characteristics that can be applied to memes. Firstly, a meme has a meaning potential. Almost every meme is created with the purpose of expressing something. This can be an emotion or an opinion. Memes can also be created to express the intent to apologise, ask a question, etc. This will then be the meme’s meaning potential. Very importantly, van Leeuwen states that the meaning potential is actualised in concrete social contexts. The interaction between modes is itself a part of the production of meaning.”


Mey (2001) shifted from the paradigm of theoretical grammar to the paradigm of language user in the late sixties and early seventies. Mey (2001, 2007, 2008) point out that meaning in discourse must not be approached through an analysis of speech acts alone but should incorporate nonverbal aspects of conversation as well as aspects of the situation. Pragmatics studies the use of language in human communication as determined by the conditions of society. Mey (2001) is a substitute for Austin’s 1962 speech acts, which he claims “lacks a theory of action”. Mey also avers that the theory is deficient in action and situation. Mey’s pragmatic acts theory suits the analysis of the data in this paper because it is a functional-based approach to the study of meaning; being an action and situated based theory that interprets data based on contextual knowledge. According to Mey (2001:221), a pragmatic act is instantiated through an “ipra” or a “pract”, which realizes a “pragmeme”; as “every pract is at the same time an allopract, that is, a concrete instantiation of a particular pragmeme”. Pragmemes are speech acts in context and, in particular, are speech acts in which a particular linguistic form has been selected in view of the context or situation type in which the utterance has occurred; what Mey (2001, 30) calls “the linguistic version of the ‘human condition’. Pragmemes are interpretations of speech acts for which a number of contextual clues are mobilised.






Mey (2008: 261) says about Pragmemes that:


‘As to pragmatic acts, they consist of two parts: an activity part and a textual one

…. In the activity part, one finds the speech acts and other, related acts (interactional, prosodic, psychological, physical, etc.), while the textual part contains the various features (tense, modality, deixis, etc.) that characterize the more or less linear sequence of linguistic units involved in the production of the pragmatic act.’


From Mey’s postulations about Pragmemes it is discernable that both the activity part and the textual part when they occur together are mutually inclusive. Pragmatics provides the platform for analysts to make inferential judgments concerning an issue. All meanings cannot be got from the surface structures of modes. Inferential meanings are also key to a successful interpretation of the ensembles of memes. This study adopts Mey’s (2001) postulations and adopts the stand that the main task of pragmatics is not only to ask how users ‘mean what they say’, that is, how they communicate, but also to ask how ‘they say what they mean’; employing the linguistic devises that society provides them with. The “implied identification” is central to Mey’s pragmatic acts, in the sense that, the importance is not on the “said” but the “unsaid”. The hearer is usually influenced (set up) to see the speaker’s act, as no act is explicitly made. According to Mey (2001) since ‘‘pragmatics is the study of human communicatively using language in the context of society’’ then analysts should, critically examine, and try to understand, the social functioning of language and its various manifestations of use both offline and online.


In this study, internet memes are viewed as semiotic resources which are used by internet users for communication purposes. Netizens employ different creative ways of communicating different ideas, both serious and trivial on the internet. Multimodal approach and pragmatics tools are adopted in this study in recognition of the need to identify how the ensemble of linguistic and visual mutually portray the neglected healthcare sector in Nigeria. The way the memes are portrayed in response to the minister’s comment meet the objective of this study as well as necessitate the adoption of multimodal/pragmatics approach in the study of the memes under scrutiny.


4.    Data Collection and Methods

According to the minister of health,


 "It might sound selfish, but we can't all be specialists. We can't. Some will be farmers, some will be politicians. "The man who sews my gown is a doctor. He makes the best gown. And some will be specialists, some will be GPs, some will be farmers." https://www.thecable.ng/adewoles-wrong- prescription


The extract above is the section of the speech that generated so much backlash from the public on twitter. The minister made the speech at the 38th Annual General Meeting and Scientific Conference of the National Association of Resident Doctors of Nigeria (NARD) on Friday, September 21, 2018. The minister’s speech is on Youtube and on online newspapers. The comment generated a lot of reactions some on the traditional media and on the social media. The video was listened to and compared with online newspapers’ version of the speech. It was found that there were no discrepancies in the video and the online newspaper contents. The twitter comments on the video containing the minister’s speech in form of memes were downloaded. The twitter posts were chosen because of their non-interactive nature. The twitter reactions came in the form of linguistic and non-linguistic elements; that is, posts with only texts and posts with graphic images with texts. Text only memes were not taken. Because of time and space we decided to purposively select the memes for this study. Ten memes were chosen for this study.

In online tweets, active participants in the comment thread that is, those who write comments are registered users who most often display nicknames, while passive, non-registered users can only read the comments, the author of this article is one of such passive participants. The present paper concentrates on the comments written by active participants. The memes were downloaded from twitter handle and analysed with insights from van Leeuwen (2005, 2015) and Mey’s (2001) Pragmatic Acts Theory. The postulations of Mey’s previously unforeseeable visual implicature aided in drawing inferences from texts only and from the ensemble of the image and text which constitute each meme.

4.1    Data Analysis



Figure 1


The human image in the meme Osita Iheme popularly known as ‘pawpaw’ is a diminutive Nigerian actor who is popular for his comic, humorous and mischievous roles in film. The meaning of the image and text goes beyond the ordinary. The helplessness and hopelessness of the average Nigerian doctor is portrayed here. The sternness in the face of the human image connotes Nigeria’s resident doctors who are not happy with the minister’s comment. Juxtaposing his size with the size of the luggage he is carrying creates a sort of desire from the viewer to want to help with the luggage. In this meme, he symbolizes Nigeria doctors and their helpless state. The average Nigerian doctor wants to get out of the country of ‘helplessness’ after being told by a minister who is supposed to push for their interest that ‘… some will be farmers, some tailors and some politicians…’. At another level, the big luggage could mean the huge problems Nigerian doctors are facing. He is not carrying a small sized luggage but a big one, a reflection of his desire not to come back to the country.

This meme is simultaneously serious and funny, one of the cases in which the picture does dominate occurs when the meme shows a person who is famous for saying something. The picture itself is worth the reader’s attention and the text merely emphasizes the attributes of the person depicted in the picture. In this case, the reader is expected to be able to retrieve from background knowledge the specific information which justifies the appearance of the famous person in the meme (e.g. what he typically said or did that leads to the creation of the meme). Osita Iheme is famous in some of his films for not tolerating any harsh situation.


Figure 2


Coegnarts and Kravanja (2012) suggest that the quality of a text should be represented either in terms of abstract or concrete concept. Within the image above, our source domain is concrete since the image can appeal to our sense of sight. The meme presents a boy with half broken head, who ought to be dead if in real life, the image is used to depict and conjure in our minds how empty-headed the Professor who is the minister of health is, to make the statement that has led to the creation of this meme. His insensitivity to the plights of medical doctors in the country sets him up as empty-headed as depicted by the meme above. The image’s upward gaze is as if looking inside the Professor’s head and then concludes it is empty. The Professor’s utterance shows he is not conscious of the state and condition of the healthcare sector in Nigeria, this, to the meme creator shows he is empty- headed. The image is used to appeal to our sense of reasoning and sight. The linguistic items and picture of this meme is an exemplification of Barthes’ (1964) notion of anchorage, in which words help the user to reach a more fine-grained interpretation of the related picture, as intended by the creator of the meme, or vice versa.


Figure 3


The linguistic items across the image of the half shown hand reinforce the meaning encoded in the image. The expression is an idiomatic one; for the minister who is supposed to know better to make such a statement, to the meme creator ‘things are getting out of hand’. The minister’s utterance suggests helplessness and hopelessness of not only doctors, but everybody who will in one way or another need the services of healthcare personnel. The interrogative expression on top of the image ‘Chai! Farmers kwa??!!!’ is a code-mixed outburst of frustration. The onomatopoeic item ‘Chai’ is used mainly by the Igbos to express distress; ‘kwa’ is also an Igbo expression to show emphasis. The meaning jointly conveyed by ‘Chai! Farmers kwa??!!!’ is further expanded in the image. The double question marks and the multiple exclamation marks suggest frustration and anger in the tone of the meme creator. Ordinarily the idiomatic expression would be viewed as an ontological expression which can be used in any situation to express abnormality, but when assessed within the context of the minister’s speech and the accompanying code-mixed items, the meaning becomes clearer.



Figure 4


This is a comic yet serious meme. The image of Nigerian actor Odunlade Adekola with raised hand in the meme has appeared in so many memes and has won the Face of Nigerian memes. In this meme, he is presented as trying to slap another man; ostensibly, the meme creator frames the man as a potential and intending medical student in Nigeria. The text assists the reader to contextualize the meaning of the image. The ellipsis at the end of the linguistic structure is expanded further in the visual image. The text and the image seem to suggest that potential and intending medical students need to be beaten for saying they want to study medicine in Nigeria. No need studying medicine in Nigeria, since after all, when you graduate, according to the minister who is a figure of authority you would be told to go be ‘a farmer, a politician or a tailor’.


Figure 5


The image and the linguistic items of this meme seem to be combined for entertainment purposes. But beyond the denotative comes a deep ontological question. The meme presents the picture of a helpless street tough little boy with a bottle of beer in hand ostensibly asleep as a result of drunkenness suggested by the half empty bottle of beer by his side. According to Jewitt (2013, p. 251–252), the “meanings in any mode is always interwoven with the meanings made with those of other modes cooperating in the communicative ensemble’. The beer’s effect on him is juxtaposed with the minister’s comment. The beer is a metaphor for the minister’s speech. Just as an overdose of beer makes someone weak, a critical assessment of the minister’s comment has the ability to weaken one. The construal of meaning here is culturally charged. The language is pidgin mostly used by Nigerians for communication in informal settings.


Figure 6


This meme has a header which provides some background information in assessing the other semiotic elements that the meme is comprised of. The inferred dialogue between the minster and doctors now makes more meaning with the knowledge of the header. All collectively depict the dire straits condition of medical doctors in the country. The meme sets up a kind of dialogue between the minister and the doctors; the minister’s comment in alphabetized text and the doctors responded in the weeping image. Thus, the meaning of the dialogic text expands and is elaborated in the image representing weeping medical doctors in Nigeria.

The situation in the country is bad enough, the minister for health compounds it with his statement. The meme, though a caricature of weeping doctors, is clear enough to pass across the message that doctors are not happy with the statement. Chan (2011) says that the relationship between a text and the image is enhanced when the text adds an informative element to the picture.


Figure 7

This meme creator in the text elapsed some of the minister’s words; stating ‘…some will be farmers…; seem to be the part of the minister’s comment that is most annoying to him. The whoosh sign close to the man’s head signifies the slap which the viewer did not see, but was been made to see through the whoosh sign emanating

from the slap from the cartoon character ‘batman’. The dazed feeling is like that of a man being slapped hard on his head as depicted in the image. Through the deployment of the kinesthetic semiotic element, the meme creator has drawn the viewer into the signification process.



Figure 8



This meme combined so many semiotic elements in foregrounding the sociocultural environment that gave rise to the meme. The meme creator has deployed weeping emojis, verbal, and human image in its signification. According to Eco (1984, p. 7) an author has to foresee a model reader who is, supposedly, able to deal interpretatively with the expressions in the same way that the author deals generatively with them. The weeping emojis contribute emotional meaning to the meme. The three semiotic resources reinforce the meaning in each. In the verbal, the meme creator mentions ‘weep’ the weep is reinforced in the weeping emojis and also demonstrated in the human image weeping. The category is related to what Jewitt (2016) calls multimodal ensemble, where all the modes combine to convey a message’s meaning


Figure 9


The human image in this meme—El Rufai, a onetime minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria and the present Governor of Kaduna state who is famous for commenting on social issues is probably used in this meme to add some measure of effectiveness to the meaning of the meme. He is ostensibly depicted responding to the utterance of the minister of health. He is captured with a frown and a hand gesture close to his head to support the linguistic code of this meme that ‘all ministers have gone crazy’. The gesture of the human image juxtaposes with the linguistic to portray the intended meaning of the meme creator. Here according to Wu, (2014), the words are supplementary and play an exemplification role to the picture. That is, the words exemplify situations in which the gestures provided by the picture might be produced. The picture plays the role of exemplifying and amplifying the meaning of the text. The meme, because of the human image in it is worth the attention of the reader, and the text merely emphasizes the attributes of the person depicted in the meme. In this case, the reader is expected to be able to retrieve from background knowledge the specific information which justifies the appearance of the famous person in the meme (the image in the meme is known for his critique and comments on social issues). So, the meme creator seemingly uses this knowledge to draw the reader into the signification process. The picture may help trigger an incongruity during the construction of an appropriate scenario for the interpretation of the meme; this is what Yus (2013a) labeled make-sense frame.

Figure 10


The human image of Mr. Falana, whose stage name is Falz is a Nigerian musician, an actor and also a comedian. The deviant spellings of some of the lexical items in the text of this meme show anomaly. When juxtaposed with the minister’s comment that led to the creation of this meme the meaning becomes clearer. Out of context of the verbal text, the human image and his position may not make much sense, but viewed in context the meaning of the expressionless face and a distant look becomes clearer. The human image with an expressionless face, a distant look and his hands on his head with the text jointly portrays helplessness and a somewhat bleak future for the common man and the healthcare sector in Nigeria.


4.2  Discussion of findings

The linguistic, emojis and other semiotic signifying elements in each meme complemented each other in passing across the intent of the meme creators. They subtly foreground the general theme of the memes which is the neglected healthcare sector in Nigeria and the seemingly insensitivity of the minister of health to the plight of resident doctors in Nigeria. The undertone meaning of the memes is a passionate plea to the government and other relevant authorities to focus attention on the healthcare sector.

With regard to the second objective of this study, the study notes that in spite of the fact that some of the meme creators use cartoons characters (fig 6 and 7), the meaning they express is not shrouded. The linguistic items in the memes pass across meanings that have been expanded more in some of the accompanying images. Some use known human figures who are Nigerians to draw attention to the message of the meme. The creator of the meme of figure 3 uses an abstract concept to pass across the meaning of the meme. Some of the memes are comical, humorous and funny (1, 4 and 5) in spite of this, they embed more meanings beyond the ordinary. Perhaps the decision to use comical, humorous and funny memes by the meme creators is to draw attention to the undertone meaning of the memes, that is, the neglected healthcare sector in Nigeria. Using humorous memes to pass across messages is sometimes an


easier vessel to use when one wants to communicate a serious problem.

All the memes in one way or another contain visual clues that viewers can perceive and connect with the meanings of the meme creators; recognizable glyphs represent the intent or emotional state of the person transmitting them. For example, figure 6 uses the carton of weeping doctors to draw the viewers into his mode of signification. In other words, the carton has according to Chan (2011) enhanced the modal affordances of the perceived verbal dialogue between the minister and the doctors. The human image in figure 9 is a typical example of Wu’s, 2014 postulation that the words exemplify situations in which the gestures provided by the picture might be produced. This shows that pictures generally play either the role of exemplifying, amplifying or accentuating the meaning of the text, or are combined with the text in order to generate interpretations which can only be obtained from this combination.


5.        CONCLUSION

This study has established that internet memes embody covert signifying elements which deal with and foreground serious ontological issues in Nigeria. It has also been established in the study that internet memes are meaningful when analysed based on the socio-cultural context of the happenings of a particular issue. All the verbal and pictorial elements in the memes are meaningful in the context in which they have been used. Memes, because of their persuasive nature are able to draw viewers into the argument constructed be the meme creator through the reader’s cognitive role in completing the unmentioned meanings in the memes.

This study has gone beyond identifying how the ensemble of the linguistic and visual elements in memes embody deep meanings by suggesting ways of looking at internet memes beyond their superficial appearances. Online memes express the feelings and ideas of tweeters along with the advances and changes in digital communication. Yet one thing that remains the same is humans’ desire to connect with one another and create a shared culture. Trivial as they may seem, memes contribute to this shared culture by fostering people’s imagination, creativity and involvement in society through new media.

Internet memes are examples of how images, linguistic items, art, language, creativity, myths, and popular culture relate with one another. The memes analysed in this article contain the aforementioned, as well as reflecting the state of the healthcare sector in Nigeria and some people’s state of mind concerning the sector. It may be that not all viewers will take away the same message from a meme, just like any other literary piece of work. The analysis in this article of the memes regarding the health minister’s comment on resident doctors might encompass a more cultural and sociological twist, this differentiation, should be subjected to further empirical analysis. Because of the paucity of research on internet memes, it is also clear that more work is needed in excavating the wealth of knowledge deriving from the different manifestations of internet memes, the meanings they encode in digital communication.


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