Russian censors have determined that one of the most popular forms of Internet meme is illegal. According to Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s media watchdog, it’s now against the law to use celebrities’ photographs in a meme, “when the image has nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.”
The new policy comes on the heels of a court decision in Moscow, where a judge ruled that a particular photo meme violates the privacy of Russian singer Valeri Syutkin. The court’s decision targets an article on Lurkmore, a popular Wikipedia-style Russian website that focuses on Internet subcultures and memes.
An illegal meme
The meme in question is an image macro built on a lyric from an obscene Russian song from 2005. The phrase, “Bei Babu po Ebalu” (usually shortened to “BBPE”), translates roughly to “Smack the Bitch in the Face.” The song belongs to an obscure musician named Nambavan (“Number One”), and appeared on an album titled “Sex, Drugs, and Russian Girls.”
According to Lurkmore, the meme based on Nambavan’s offensive lyrics first emerged in 2008 on the Russian imageboard 2ch.ru, where users posted links to the music video, as a way of insulting each other. 2ch users then toyed with different image macros, overlaying the “BBPE” phrase on photos of pop star Philipp Kirkorov and actor Aleksey Panin, but singer Valeri Syutkin eventually became the face of the meme.
The meme seems to work best with Syutkin because of the singer’s reputation for saccharine, romantic music that is especially popular among women. In other words, the joke is that he is perhaps the last person anyone would expect to attack a woman.
So long, image macros?
An image macro is “an image superimposed with text for humorous effect.” Even if you’ve never seen this term before, chances are you’ve already encountered more than a few image macros.
One of the most common ways to get laughs with this type of meme is juxtaposition. The obscene sexist lyrics of Nambavan’s song are basically the opposite of what you’ll find in a song by Valeri Syutkin.
In this sense, it would be fair to compare the “BBPE” meme to something like “Advice Dog,” where Internet users start with a photograph of an adorable puppy and attach advice that is often unethical or deplorable.
Roskomnadzor’s vague new policy threatens to do more than crack down on potentially defamatory juxtaposition, however. By saying it is illegal to add celebrities’ images to memes that “have nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality,” the Kremlin could be opening the door to banning a whole genre of absurdist online humor.
Consider some other popular image macros, like “Jeff Goldblum Is Watching You Poop” (a bathroom joke based on a screencap from the 1986 horror remake The Fly) or Eduard Khil’s “Trololo” (another music-based meme), which use celebrities to make jokes that are so senseless or obscure that it would be easy to conclude such memes “have nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.” If Roskomnadzor wants, it could use this new policy to ban a wide variety of Internet memes.
Three lousy options
RuNet Echo spoke to Lurkmore’s founder and chief administrator, Dmitry (David) Homak, who said one of the problems with challenging the court decision against the article about “BBPE” and Valeri Syutkin is that he’s received no official documents from the Russian government:
They evade the defendant [Lurkmore] by any means necessary. “You can’t challenge it,” they tell you. “We don’t know if you’re the guys who own the site, and we don’t want to hear from you.”
Homak says he now has to choose between three unappealing alternatives:
(1) he can try to find a way to establish standing and challenge the ruling in court,
(2) he can block the article for Internet users based in Russia, or
(3) “there’s always the option of telling them to fuck off, which would get us blocked in Russia, but that’s probably not the smartest move.”
If history is any indication, Lurkmore will probably opt to block the “BBPE” page for Russian users, which is the strategy it has taken several times already, when Roskomnadzor has blacklisted or threatened to blacklist the website for content about suicide and illegal drugs. Homak has until early May to decide what to do.
What’s the point of banning this stuff?
Besides musicians with hurt feelings, it’s not unthinkable that Roskomnadzor might one day apply its new policy on memes to other kinds of public figures, like politicians. If this ever happens, it could theoretically become illegal to photoshop a shirtless Vladimir Putin onto a bird, or a bear, or any of the other dozens of animals you can find the Russian President riding in a cursory search on Google Images.
Banning all shirtless Putin memes, let alone trying to close down the “BBPE” photo of Syutkin, is an impossible task, of course. Roskomnadzor’s pressure on Lurkmore, like much of its policing of the RuNet, is meant instead to scare other websites into censoring their own content.
As for Syutkin, he says his mother is the one who convinced him to take Lurkmore to court over the meme. “I know I’m not alone here,” he told the newspaper Izvestia. “I want to help instill some order on the RuNet, so personal data is used with respect.”
Given that the “BBPE” meme is more than six years old, however, many RuNet users—including most people in the Lurkmore community—suspect that Syutkin’s concerns have less to do with Russia’s Internet culture than with promoting his name to rescue sales of his latest album, which debuted last month.