The Harmful Potential of “Harmless” Memes
by Hanna Newby
Many young people (and older ones, too) discuss memes, reference them in their daily lives and conversations, and contribute to the circulation of these memes by sending them to other users or posting them on their own social media platforms. Oftentimes, memes are made in good fun with the primary purpose of being funny or relatable. Many memes have political purposes or are social commentaries. However, some memes do more harm than good. Meme trends can form with harmful messaging toward undeserving public figures or regular people. Memes created for comical purposes might intentionally or unintentionally purvey harmful, misleading, or downright false messages. The ease with which such memes circulate can allow harmful memes, like the Ugandan Knuckles meme of 2017-2019, to gain traction before people have time to consider the ethical ramifications of the content. The Ugandan Knuckles meme’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes is a perfect example of the rapid way harmful content can circulate worldwide via the Internet.
VRChat and Knuckles’s Origin
VRChat is a gaming website that allows users to create avatars for themselves that they can speak through and to play games in virtual spaces with people from all around the world. Users can create customized avatars and have great freedom on VRChat to do whatever they want (VRChat, 2020). The Ugandan Knuckles meme originated in early 2017 when a Youtuber known as Gregzilla used the character Knuckles from the Sonic franchise as an avatar on VRChat. Gregzilla posted a review of the video game Sonic Lost World in which he used an animation of Knuckles to make Knuckles say what he wanted. The video saw immense user engagement, with Gregzilla gaining thousands of followers after he posted it to the Internet. Before this, in 2016, another Youtuber known as VirtuallyVain posted a Youtube video playing Call of Duty: Black Ops in which he characterized himself as an African drug lord, using an African accent to say “Follow me, I know the way.” Nearly a year later, a DeviantArt user created a 3D model of the Knuckles parody so that any user on VRChat could download and upload it to the game (Don).
After Gregzilla’s review and use of the Knuckles avatar, the idea spread. More and more users on VRChat started adapting the avatar. Players using Knuckles as an avatar started speaking the words “do you know de wey” and making spitting noises in an effort to troll other user. Trolling is a term used to describe actions taken by Internet users to annoy or bother other users. Players used Knuckles to lure other users off their intended paths solely to wreak havoc on their game progress and experience. Trolls using Knuckles typically spoke the phrase “do you know de wey” with an African accent as a result of associating Ugandan films like Who Killed Captain Alex? and Zulul with the Knuckles avatar. The sequence of events that allowed this association to begin remains a mysterious process to many who have tried to pinpoint Ugandan Knuckles’s exact origin (Don). It is difficult to explain exactly how the accent became linked with the avatar, but the association spread quickly. The model and phrasing continued circulating and the Knuckles avatars abounded across the platform. This trolling appears to have originated with little harmful intention beyond causing a minor annoyance to game users on VRChat.
Iconographic Tracking of Knuckles’s Spread To Different Social Media Platforms
In her work entitled “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetoric and Circulation Studies,” Laurie Gries writes that “Iconographic tracking employs traditional qualitative and inventive digital research strategies to (a) follow the multiple transformations that an image undergoes during circulation, and (b) identify the complex consequentiality that emerges from its divergent encounters” (337). To trace the transformation and circulation of the Ugandan Knuckles meme and to investigate the ethicality of the meme, I focused my efforts mainly upon Twitter, where the Knuckles memes were most popular beyond VRChat. I used the advanced search capability to find the earliest examples of references to Ugandan Knuckles. I looked at a myriad of these examples and analyzed their use before moving to later and later uses of the Ugandan Knuckles meme on Twitter. Circulation of the Ugandan Knuckles meme on Twitter and in general was heaviest from mid-January 2018 to March 2018. After investigating the evolution of the meme, I engaged with more and more popular references to Ugandan Knuckles on Twitter. I then started looking at sources that questioned the ethicality of Ugandan Knuckles to investigate when people began to take a closer look at the reasons for the meme’s creation. After this, I looked at a few Instagram pages dedicated to Ugandan Knuckles to investigate the spread there and then widened my search to examples of merchandise that included Knuckles. In this way I aimed to take a look at the various forms Ugandan Knuckles took across platforms and then to hone in on the ethicality of Ugandan Knuckles in general.
Ugandan Knuckles did not remain upon VRChat. Indeed, the use of the model spread to Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Reddit. Andy Walker in Memeburn wrote that “A YouTube video titled ‘You Do Not Know The Way’ hit the world’s biggest video site three days prior to Christmas 2017, featuring a number of. . . ‘Ugandan Knuckles’ avatars, uttering the title’s phrase… mentioning ‘ebola,’ drinking ‘blood’ and ‘clicking’” (Don). Millions of people viewed it, although the creator of that video has since deleted the account. Gaming Youtubers like Loserfruit, LiveTAT, and Jameskii, who uploaded their gaming experiences on VRChat, included clips of the inundation of Knuckles avatars on VRChat. Hundreds of users started using the Knuckles model and speaking through him using Ugandan accents (Walker).
In early 2018, the Ugandan Knuckles meme began its transformations, circulating across and within social media sites in various contexts and uses. Images and clips of Knuckles started spreading to Twitter, with users mentioning Who Killed Captain Alex? or reusing the meme for their own purposes. The earliest mentions of Ugandan Knuckles and “de wey” appeared on Twitter on January 5th, 2018, with users such as @totaledlist and @6th_hakai0shin being among the first to quote “de wey” and use the hashtag and tag “ugandanknuckles.”
After Knuckles’s first appearances on Twitter, in which the Knuckles meme and its relationships and trends became attached to the phrase “de wey” and “ugandan knuckles” hashtags, posters starting using “de wey” in other contexts. In the image below, @nolbatdej described a conversation with his mother in which he answered her serious questions about attending a school program with references to Ugandan Knuckles and “de wey.”
Seen below, @markiplier posted what seemed to be a serious question on Twitter, asking “How different would the world be if we made lying punishable by death?” to which @MadKingKiwi trolled jokingly, “A better place because Ugandan knuckles will show us ‘de wey.’”
Both of these tweets kept the essence of the original purpose of Ugandan Knuckles, which was to troll users, but started applying that trolling attitude to serious conversations in their lives and on social media platforms. The same trend occurred on Instagram and other platforms, with Ugandan Knuckles becoming ubiquitously recognized and applied to various situations as a way to troll people digitally and in daily life.
Many accounts devoted to Ugandan Knuckles started cropping up on Instagram, with one user, @ugandan.knuckles.memes, combining the Ugandan Knuckles meme with other memes and pop culture occurrences around that time. In one post, included below, Knuckles advises users not to “follow the way of the Tide Pods,” referencing the Tide Pods memes that were also highly popular in early 2018.
Ugandan Knuckles leapt from VRChat to social media to physical merchandise, recognizable either by his slightly distorted red body or the quote “de wey” applied to various scenarios. Ugandan Knuckles became available on stickers and stationery on redbubble.com. Ugandan Knuckles appeared on ugly Christmas sweaters, socks and posters, metal pins from various sites, t-shirts from Walmart, and many more merchandise sites and establishments.
Why Ugandan Knuckles Went Viral
What made Ugandan Knuckles so popular? So ubiquitous? So fun to quote? Faith Agostinone-Wilson writes that “the sheer reach of social media via its sharing features … make[s] things like racism, sexism, homophobia and violence something refreshing and different when presented in online contexts” (114). Ugandan Knuckles appears to be just one instance of that; the playful nature and new identity given to the character is so fun and new that users find it humorous and do not consider how harmful the reworking of Knuckles may be to certain groups. It seems as though the trolling mentality that users loved so much on VRChat was infectious. Users would team up on VRChat so that dozens could use the Knuckles model just to troll other users. This trolling was fun for them, and the fact that the concept of Ugandan Knuckles, his “knowing de wey,” and making clicking noises did not really make sense made it all the more arbitrary and thus more hilarious. Users delighted in confusing other users, and used “de wey” as both a copout for serious questions and a way to annoy those who did not understand the meme. @FNarrates on Twitter posted a Ugandan Knuckles meme referencing ebola, stating that “Ugandan Knuckles is the funniest thing and the worst part is IDK WHY!!!!” Knuckles made no sense, and users loved it. @Leafninja81 responded to @FNarrates, agreeing that “[she didn’t] get it either but [she] CAN’T STOP!!”
The Harmful Nature of Ugandan Knuckles
But did users get too caught up in the hilarious usage of Ugandan Knuckles’s nonsensical noises? Gries writes that “Micro-level investigation is… necessary to recover an image’s consequentiality, which… sheds light on how images become rhetorical as they circulate, transform, and affect change via their multiple encounters” (345). Indeed, when one does not get too caught up in the supposed hilarity of Ugandan Knuckles, it becomes apparent that Ugandan Knuckles is not as carelessly harmless as he at first seems. Indeed, the trolling capabilities of Knuckles seemed endless, but most of it was meant in good fun. But despite the harmless intentions of his origin, the association of Knuckles with a Ugandan accent and other things related to Africa, such as ebola, are arguably quite unethical consequences.
The damage, however, had already been done. Ugandan Knuckles had spread across the Internet and beyond it. No longer just a model to use among gaming communities, users on Twitter and Instagram started using the Knuckles meme to troll other users or make funny jokes for the sake of getting a laugh. High school students started referencing the meme aloud in class. Ugandan Knuckles appeared on various forms of physical merchandise for those who did not understand the meme to purchase and wear, further circulating the meme and drawing attention to it. People started using the Knuckles Snapchat filter created by @vladislov_ on Reddit. Its spread was so fast, the content of the meme so oddly thrown together through combining various jokes from multiple video games, that people did not consider the harmful nature of the meme before they started reposting it and perpetuating racist stereotypes by doing so.
Simon Weaver, in his own examination of racist humor, writes that “embodied racist humour can, in particular readings, rhetorically support racist conceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘work on’ or express racist ambivalence and incongruity” (416). This “goes some way to explain the damage to social relations often caused by offensive humour” (Weaver, 416). Knowyourmeme.com acknowledges the potentially offensive, socially damaging humor of the Knuckles meme in particular, stating that the meme “has been accused of promoting ethnic and racial stereotypes against Africans, though defenders. . . have claimed the character is…based on…Who Killed Captain Alex?” (Don). Companies who reposted images of Knuckles started facing backlash, such as when “Twitter users began accusing [Razer, a gaming] company of promoting racism by posting…the meme” (Walker). Memeburn’s analysis of Knuckles includes the fact that the meme “has portrayed a number of falsehoods and stereotypes of Africa…mention of ‘ebola’ is common… however, Uganda…did not record any cases of the disease during the most recent outbreak” (Walker). These false stereotypes are harmful to African culture and black people, perpetuating ideas and presenting false information through the circulation of the Ugandan Knuckles meme. The meme’s ‘carefree’ use and spread nonetheless promotes these harmful stereotypes and “racist conceptions of ‘truth’” (Weaver, 416).
Brett Molina writes about how one game, Roblox, “told developers Ugandan Knuckles is not allowed within the game” (Molina). Molina further wonders whether Ugandan Knuckles will follow the path of Pepe the Frog, a meme which has become a figurehead for alt-right groups, even though Ugandan Knuckles “isn’t…a nod to white supremacism…but…is wound up in racial stereotypes” (Molina). Indeed, the stereotype achieved new levels of offensiveness during its circulation when in other “reproduction[s] of the image” (Gries 344) Knuckles appeared to be wearing blackface in a Youtube video posted by user @Twitch Clips Hourly.
Users started arguing about whether the meme was meant only in good fun or was intentionally harmful. But does it matter if memes are meant in good fun if they still manage to perpetuate racial stereotypes anyways? Intention is not always linked with outcome, especially in today’s society, pervaded as it is with the rapidity of social media messaging. The meme spread so quickly throughout social media that no one took the time to consider the potential harm in using the Ugandan accent to speak as Knuckles. Using the accent as a way to troll others has very negative connotations, and associating Knuckles with ebola and blackface indicates how harmful the meme truly is because of the way it promotes racial stereotypes.
The circulation of Ugandan Knuckles, then, has some extremely harmful rhetorical effects. Users could start associating Uganda and Africa with the trolling and unserious nature of the memes. The intentional misspelling of Knuckles’s “de wey” and the cacophonic clicking noises that accompany Knuckles animations provide an overall lackadaisical and unintelligent attitude around Knuckles, and by extension, Uganda and Africa. This perpetuates racist stereotypes and associations with Africa under the guise of harmless hilarity.
The Ugandan Knuckles phenomenon speaks to the ways the seemingly wonderful and wildly entertaining world of digital rhetoric can have very harmful repercussions. Users see something funny and repost it, or use the content themselves to get a quick laugh or feel united with the community surrounding that meme. Users often get so caught up in the swiftly circulating meme that they do not first consider the content of the meme and whether it is harmful or not. Social media and other digital spaces used for things like gaming are wonderful ways to connect people and spread information to vast groups in a matter of days, hours, or even minutes. However, this positive affordance can have extremely harmful repercussions, and Ugandan Knuckles is just one example of this.
Indeed, Ina Seethaler writes of the way the Internet “perpetuates the commodification of Asian women’s bodies via an imperialist and patriarchal gaze” (117). A similar instance occurred when “a series of political cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad [in 2006 were] seen as particularly offensive” (Smith, 148) because of the way they utilized negative stereotypes against Muslims. These cartoons circulated quickly and were made in order to get laughs, but ended up being extremely harmful and prejudiced. These are only a few examples of how internet users can capitalize upon racial, ethnic, and other stereotypes in order to go viral, accrue fame, and spread harmful messages without careful thought.
The Importance of Consideration Before Posting or Reposting
People become so used to the ease of circulation thanks to digital communication platforms that thinking before posting is becoming a quickly lost concept. Digital media platforms entice users to join the discourse surrounding political events, social trends, and even memes. The temptation to participate in the discourse, however, should not be succumbed to until a user has thought carefully about the content they want to contribute. Unfortunately, the network digital media platforms create gives users the chance to spread harmful trends because of how easy and fast it is to spread them. It follows logically for users that if everyone is posting about it, it must be acceptable. And yet this is not the case. In fact, the very reason that everyone is posting about something should signal to users that it is of greater importance for them to consider the ramifications of joining the discourse before they do so. This careful consideration is exactly what is necessary to slow down the spread of harmful memes, even just a little bit. Users must take time to step out of the rapidly evolving sphere of meme culture before they join in. This could ultimately work to counter the ease with which unethical memes and messages spread, making the realm of digital media and digital rhetoric a safer and more acceptable place for people from all around the world.
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@Leafninja81. “Duuuude!!!! During my last D&D session, I asked in Ugandan Knuckles
fashion, if anyone Knew De Wey to the keep we were looking for and the whole group
turned into a bunch of spitting, clicking fools!! I don’t get it either but I CAN’T STOP!!”
Twitter, 13 Feb. 2018, https://twitter.com/Leafninja81/status/963474062457622529.
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Hanna Newby is a student at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. This article was written during the spring semester of her junior year. She is currently studying Political Science and English (Professional and Public Writing) and will graduate from Auburn in May of 2022. She is also a student-athlete on Auburn University’s Division I Swim Team. After graduating from Auburn, Hanna intends to attend and graduate from law school and one day work as an Intellectual Property Attorney.
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