Memes to an end: The underbelly of Reddit’s IndianPeople Facebook

When Asif Raza Rana, a Pakistani government worker, posted an image to his Facebook page on 13 September 2015, he had no idea that it would make internet history. It was a photograph of him shaking hands with a man named Salman, above two small photos of another man—Mudasir—who had been crossed out in each one with a lime-green X. Colourful WordArt letters at the top blared “Friendship ended with Mudasir / Now Salman is my best friend”. A caption explained that Rana was parting ways with Mudasir because the latter had become “selfish” and “proudy”.

Rana’s post got thousands of shares and likes, and in the three years since he first uploaded it, it has spawned countless memes riffing on its “Friendship ended with X…” phrasing. For example, a recent one, made and circulated after this year’s fractious G7 summit, showed Donald Trump shaking hands with the leader of North Korea under the heading “Friendship Ended With Western Allies / Now Kim Jong Un Is My Best Friend.”

One of the engines that fuelled Rana’s post and its virality was r/indianpeoplefacebook, a forum (or “subreddit”) on the social news aggregation website Reddit. The blurb that introduces r/indianpeoplefacebook to newcomers defines it as a place where anyone can post “screenshots of Indian and other non-English speaking internet users discovering the wonders of Facebook and other social media”.

Three days after Rana made the announcement, a Reddit user shared a screenshot of it to r/indianpeoplefacebook, titling the post “Mudasir done fucked up.”

It became wildly popular across the internet, and news outlets soon began running articles about the severed friendship. Some of them even wrote follow-ups a month later, when Rana posted another image to announce that he and Mudasir were friends once again.

Rana’s meme is still r/indianpeoplefacebook’s biggest claim to fame, but the subreddit has grown at a steady clip since then. From about 41,000 subscribers when Rana’s meme was first posted, it now has over 340,000. R/indianpeoplefacebook has also since emerged as a watering hole for humour about how South Asian people supposedly behave on social media—a subject of jokes that, in today’s increasingly niche-based meme culture, seem to be getting more and more popular both on and off Reddit.

As this meme economy of voyeuristic “cringe” humour grows, so too does the potential fallout. Apart from the racial stereotypes that this supposedly harmless mockery furthers, it also raises serious questions about the privacy of people like Rana who are the butt of the jokes. The exposure of content meant to be, at the very least, semi-private is a dangerous tool in the hands of the troll or the cyberbully, for instance.

It’s high time we examined what today’s internet is laughing—or cringing—at, and why.

Engines of mockery

Many of the popular posts on r/indianpeoplefacebook draw their humour from the grammatical mistakes that their subjects have made. For example, one popular post is a Facebook screenshot of a photo of a man and a woman on a motorbike with text on top of it reading “Lyf is Short, Be a Racist” (seemingly a mix-up between “racing” and “racism”).

Another one is a screenshot of a Twitter interaction between a transgender woman and a South Asian man, in which the man misunderstands the word “trans” as “trains”, saying that his father drives a train and telling the woman to “stay strong” even though “trains is hard job”.

The subreddit often mocks South Asian Facebook users’ enthusiastic—and often amateurish—use of Photoshop. “No one loves Photoshop like Indian people,” said Felix Kjellberg, who runs the most watched channel on YouTube and is better known by his username Pewdiepie, in a video he made this January.

‘Indians love Photoshop’

One of the things Redditors on r/indianpeoplefacebook and YouTubers like Felix Kjellberg (aka Pewdiepie) like to pick on is Indians’ supposed proclivity for Photoshopped images

He runs through and laughs at some of r/indianpeoplefacebook’s most popular posts, including a terribly Photoshopped image of a man standing “backstage with Eminem”, and one that shows a man who has clearly Photoshopped Justin Bieber’s haircut onto his own head. Many other YouTube channels have made similar videos, racking up thousands if not millions of views.

However, what Kjellberg’s video, and most other videos like it, focus on the most is r/indianpeoplefacebook’s screenshots of South Asian men being sexually aggressive in online interactions with women.

For example, one of the most popular posts on the subreddit is a screenshot of a Facebook Messenger conversation in which a South Asian man asks a woman to “Send me ur vegana pic”; another popular post shows a Facebook conversation in which a man tells a woman he has “Anudeispedia”, a “rare disease” which requires him to see women naked or he will die—“you can’t find on google don’t search,” he says, and tacks on a “Just send bitch” at the end, for good measure.

Such content would not be out of place on other subreddits that spotlight sleazy interactions with women, such as r/CreepyPMs or r/niceguys. Posting these types of conversations on a subreddit named r/indianpeoplefacebook, however, has undertones of racism, implying that there is something inherently “Indian” about such behaviour. The fact that many of the individuals who post and comment on this content are not South Asians only compounds this issue.

The moderators of r/indianpeoplefacebook themselves have attempted to address these problems. In a stickied post at the top of the subreddit from 10 months ago, they announced that they would be “tightening down on the type of content we allow, because frankly looking at this sub can be horrifying at times and we want to change that”.

The post clarifies that contributors to the subreddit should seek to “laugh with the subject of the submission, not to laugh at them”, and that “We do not want to promote racist stereotypes.” The subreddit, the moderators remind people, is “not r/CreepyPMs or r/cringeanarchy”. They claim that those who post racist content will be temporarily blocked from contributing to the subreddit, with the worst offenders receiving permanent bans.

The subreddit’s scope is “making fun of people with minimal comprehension of the English language”, not racial slurs, say the mods

But despite this assurance, some of the rules of r/indianpeoplefacebook seem to curl in on themselves in contradiction. For example, one rule—titled “Racism is forbidden”—declares that “while the scope of this sub dictates that we are making fun of people with minimal comprehension of the English language and the resultant culture barriers, we don’t allow racial slurs or any other forms of discrimination”.

It’s hard to see how “making fun” of people struggling to deal with cultural barriers would be non-discriminatory.

‘Viral serendipity’

Many of r/indianpeoplefacebook’s posters seem unbothered by the brushes with racial prejudice that the subreddit may have.

A Reddit user named “Bhundcollector” has frequented the forum for around three years. Bhundcollector is of Pakistani descent, but, he said over messages, his heritage had little to do with his discovery of the subreddit—he was living abroad when his Syrian roommate first showed it to him.

When asked whether he believes the subreddit has a racism problem he declined, saying that overall, “being a strong opponent of PC [politically correct] culture I must say people need to chill”. He said he believes “Pakistanis and Indians do fit the sexually regressive stereotype prevalent in the sub for the most part, due to the inherent effects of cultural and socio-religious norms therein.”

“The goray [white people] aren’t really exposed to this type of thing on a daily basis”

Bhundcollector, Reddit user

Bhundcollector was, in fact, the person who first posted Rana’s “Friendship Ended With Mudasir” image to the forum. He did so after seeing the post on his Facebook feed; “I guess it was one of those ‘perfect storm’ moments when Reddit publicity is ripe for the taking,” he said. “A ‘viral serendipity’ of sorts.”

Although the image became extremely popular, garnering Bhundcollector lots of “karma” (Redditors aggregate points based on the number of “upvotes”—similar to Facebook’s “likes”—their posts and comments get) he believes it’s not a particularly funny meme at all. He speculated that it became incredibly popular because “the goray [white people] aren’t really exposed to this type of thing on a daily basis”. He, on the other hand, said he sees “this kind of thing on shitty fringe/cringe desi meme pages all the time”.

He’s likely not exaggerating—many popular Facebook pages traffic in content similar to the kind that is posted on r/indianpeoplefacebook. The major difference, however, is that most of these pages cater to a South Asian audience that speaks at least English and at least one Indian language, expanding the linguistic ambit of the screenshotted content. Reddit, meanwhile, has mostly a Western audience (though it’s not possible to say what percentage of subscribers to r/indianpeoplefacebook specifically are South Asian).

Facebook pages such as Humans of Jharsa, which has around 80,000 followers, and ShitIndiansSay, which has almost a million, seem to have almost entirely South Asian followings. Both pages, like r/indianpeoplefacebook, often share pictures of social media posts by South Asians that are deemed ripe for mockery.

They generally post r/indianpeoplefacebook-style screenshots alongside other types of off-colour in-jokes—what have recently been termed “dank memes”, used so often that they become a staple or even a cliché. The memes on such pages—and to a larger degree, those on some private groups on social media—often play on highly inflammatory topics, such as religion, caste and sexual violence, according to a recent Vice article.

But while many “dank meme” pages and groups have come under criticism or been banned for posting sexual or politically controversial content, the “cringe” humour based on screenshots of people’s social media seems to have, for the most part, escaped public scrutiny or censure.

More caution seems warranted. Forums in which social-media screenshots are shared without the original poster’s knowledge or permission can subject the original poster to many risks, including “doxxing” (the non-consensual sharing of one’s personal details), cyberbullying and harassment.

The first rule of r/indianpeoplefacebook states that all social-media screenshots in which the poster has not redacted the subject’s personal information—things like full names, locations and Twitter handles—will be deleted. This does not, however, specify that people’s faces must be blurred out or masked in any way; doing so is not common practice on the subreddit at all. These precautions then do nothing to prevent those who already know the subjects of the posts in real life from recognising that they are being mocked online.

The dark side of such memes became clear in India last year, soon after the story of a young man named “Sanjay Kapoor” went viral. An Instagram account under that name posted photographs of a young man (“Sanjay”) and an older man (“Durgesh”), along with commentary that told an outrageous story about how Durgesh had repeatedly catfished—or tricked into a relationship—Sanjay.

The story, it soon came to light, was completely false, fabricated by someone who knew the men and sought to hurt them. The older man in the photos, it turns out, was the younger man’s disabled father. According to New York Magazine, the younger man fell into “deep despair” at the revelation that his father’s photo had been used in such a way.

#PlaneBae and a worrying trend

Internet “fame” can be a bitter pill even when measures are taken to protect a subject’s anonymity. This July, a woman named Rosey Blair live-tweeted a long thread in which she relayed a story about people sitting near her in a plane—a man and a woman who had just met and who, in her view, had an instant connection worthy of a juicy romantic comedy.

Blair posted photos of the pair, but none that showed their faces; she did not post their names. The thread went viral, and the man from the plane—a professional football player—cheekily outed himself as “#PlaneBae” online. The woman did not speak publicly at all, but internet commenters managed to find her anyway, and, according to a statement she released through a lawyer, she has since been “doxxed, shamed, insulted and harassed,” and chose to deactivate her social media accounts in the wake of it.

For now, though, such cautionary tales do not seem to have dampened the internet’s enthusiasm for social media screenshots.

Other subreddits have cropped up to host different types of voyeuristic humour about South Asians on social media. In r/indiangirlsontinder, which has a little over 2,000 subscribers, Indian men post screenshots of conversations with and bios of Indian women on the dating app Tinder. This subreddit has more stringent privacy rules than r/indianpeoplefacebook, demanding that people redact all personal information, including photographs of people’s faces—although lapses still can and do occur.

Worries about harassment on r/indiangirlsontinder seem pressing because, judging by many of its comments, the subreddit seems to be a powder keg of sexual resentment. “We all know, how biased Tinder is for Indian guys,” the subreddit’s description reads. “We hardly get any match and even if we are lucky to find one… you may find girl bio ‘not for a hookup’.”

A trope often discussed on r/indianpeoplequore is Indian Quora users’ supposed obsession with educational status

Another subreddit devoted to screenshots is r/indianpeoplequora, in which people share pictures of Indian people’s posts on Quora—a social-media question-and-answer site that has, in recent years, experienced a dramatic influx of Indian users that many non-Indian users have perceived as disruptive.

A common trope that is often discussed on the subreddit is the fixation on educational status that many Indian Quora users supposedly exhibit—one popular post shows a “rollercoaster of a question” that reads “What do American girls think of BITS Pilani CSE/EE undergrads who had also qualified IIT but did not join because low rank?”

Another popular post delights in the gruffness of a NASA employee’s response to a question asked by a (presumably Indian) user about whether the organisation requires job applicants to know Sanskrit or Vedic mathematics. “No,” the employee writes. “Sanskrit is of no professional interest or value to anyone working in a space program.”

The list goes on.

***

Through all of this, Asif Raza Rana seems to be the rare—perhaps the only—subject of a post on r/indianpeoplefacebook who has taken control of the spotlight that the internet has thrust upon him.

Over Facebook chat, Rana told me that it was one of his Indian fans who first told him about Reddit, soon after which he did an AMA (short for Ask Me Anything). It’s an interview of sorts that celebrities often do on Reddit, in which they answer questions from commenters. A year ago, Rana was even made a moderator of r/indianpeoplefacebook.

When asked about the response he has received from the internet, Rana said that “many people support me and many sarcasm me on many points”—with those in the second group often telling him “strange things about friendship”.

But, Rana said, he does not respond in kind when people are sarcastic with him. “Silence is better than quarrel.”

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