ASU students cope with their fear of lack of privacy online with memes

Students use memes to shed light upon serious subjects

What do some ASU students, Mark Zuckerberg and former FBI director James Comey all have in common? They all cover up the cameras on their computers. 

Some students find the act an easy, simple solution to lower privacy concerns when logging onto their computers. Others find humor from the potential “FBI agent spying on them” through the little black dot on their computers, resulting in what millenials do best – make memes. 

During a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2016, former FBI director James Comey said that he covers the tiny camera on his computer. He said people should take responsibility for their own safety and security by covering up the cameras on their laptops too.

Greg Wise, a professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences who recently won an award for his book Surveillance and Film, has had his laptop camera covered with a Post-it note for a few years now. 

“In a system where there are malicious hackers out there, unencrypted or unprotected computers can be taken over, hacked or other things,” Wise said. “It's not necessarily paranoia, it's part of an appropriate caution and that is very visible to the world because we actually do see the sticker over the camera.”

There are even companies like C-SLIDE or MySpyBlocker who sell webcam covers to laptop users.

FBI agents might not actually be watching students scroll through Reddit for hours or listen to the same Frank Ocean song on repeat, but the Twitter world has developed a popular meme that says they are.

The new memes about the lone FBI agent watching through the lens of a computer camera sparked Wise's interest.

“Surveillance is part of our understanding of everyday life,” Wise said. “A lot of our social media is doing things to be watched. We're posting things on Instagram so other people will look at it or post (content) that others will respond to, which is another form of surveillance … These jokes about an FBI agent, my FBI agent that I have, is a way of joking and acknowledging that someone is always watching or that one is wanting some sort of feedback.”

Wise said that this type of meme has become a form of self-deprecating humor.

Michael Tristano, a graduate teaching associate in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, said he believes that communication through memes is a very valid type of discourse. 

“I think that it is easily dismissed as something to be pushed aside without any actual impact or meaning or ramifications, but when it is so saturated, and you see it so often, there's a reason for that," Tristano said.

Tristano said that this type of dark humor is not new, and is reflected in political cartoons dated centuries ago. He said with the growth of technology, memes have become more available to use as a source of humor and awareness. 

“I think the (memes) that get picked up and go viral do so because they are doing their job well," Tristano said. "I think humor is a way to cope with things sometimes ... Before we can sometimes process and typically engage in those scary things, the first thing we need to do is accept them, let them in and make sense of them, and sometimes humor is the way to do that."

Tristano said that humor is also a tool to engage in critical discourse. 

"We can make points through humor and we can advocate, we can challenge, and more," Tristano said. "(Humor) is a sense-making tool that is a way that we can figure out how messed up some things are, and it is underrated as a powerful tool too often.”

Justice studies freshman Olivia Bartholomaei said that she does not use her laptop camera, so she decided to cover it up a few years ago. She said she does not like the idea of anyone potentially watching her.

Bartholomaei said that covering up one's laptop camera is a personal preference.

“I think cybersecurity is incredibly important in our growing technological world, but I think it is up to the individual to decide what is the best option for them," she said.

Bartholomaei said that she believes millenials are really good at shedding light upon scary or uncomfortable situations.

“We constantly joke about our mental illnesses, family issues and other social problems," Bartholomaei said. "This generation’s sense of humor is sort of twisted, but we are able to come up with hilarious memes for possibly horrible situations.”

Reach the reporter at or follow @jessiemy94 on Twitter. 

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