There’s almost no limit to the amount of ways false information spreads online. Social posts and deepfake videos are just some of the methods that come to mind, but false narratives and misinformation also find their way into jokes and meme posts. No, you didn’t read that wrong: we now live in a world where memes can be weaponized.
So what can you do to combat memes of mass destruction? How do memes like this spread, and are they even that harmful? What should you know when it comes to dealing with these sorts of posts?
You’ve got questions and we’ve got answers. We spoke with three experts in our recent Dialogues & Debates panel (part of our Mozilla Festival panel series) about how memes meant to push a narrative are created and spread. You should watch the panel if you can, but if you can’t, here are a few key takeaways from each of the three panelists.
Brandy Zadrozny, investigative and features reporter at NBC News covering the internet, platforms, and politics
- Memes tend to follow a “call and response” pattern: “One genre of meme that continues to be popular is mail-in voting misinformation. Now, with many genres of meme, there tends to be memes from both sides — one from the far right spreading disinformation and the progressive response. When it comes to memes from the far right like the one that says, “If you won the lottery, would you mail-in your winning ticket? Why or why not,” it evokes a feeling. There’s no fact-checking that meme, which makes it really powerful. In response, the progressive left came out with the fan-cam video about a love of the [U.S.] postal service.
- Memes can be laundered, and end up in mainstream media: “The word ‘digital soldiers’ comes to mind when we think of groups like Q’Anon, because they get marching orders from people like President Trump, and there’s a narrative that’s seeded. And they take that narrative and create a bunch of content, which then spreads to local news, say about mail dumping, turned into a meme, in a way that misinforms, will then make its way to gateway pundit or other far-right websites and then make their way to talk radio and Fox News and then back through the White House lectern. The narrative cycle isn’t always easy to follow because they feed off each other.”
- There’s a difference between offering harmful content and suggesting harmful content: Research shows that most people who discover extremist groups were brought there by recommendation machines — which companies won’t tell us how they work. We’re seeing groups like this are growing and thriving. The fact that they’re growing thanks to recommendation engines is a bad thing. As a former librarian, if someone walked into the library and said, ‘I want to check out Mein Kampf,’ I would give it to them. What I would not do is, and what recommendation machines currently do, is set up a display case in the front that says ‘If you like, Mein Kampf, you’re going to love The Turner Diaries and these other books!’
Dr. Joan Donovan, Research Director at Harvard Shorenstein Center and creator of Meme War Weekly
- There are four key attributes to look for in a meme: “[When we look at memes] we try to look at four key qualities for the meta-communication. One: memes don’t tend to have an author or brand — they tend to be anonymous. Two: they’re really meant for people already part of an in-group and they tend to reinforce those bonds. Three: memes are sticky, they sometimes have a slogan or a twist that really sticks with you. Four: they’re participatory, you can remix them. You can use the template to swap in and out different slogans.
- The platform where a meme lives matters: “It’s really important that we disaggregate the various platforms memes can live on, and think about accountability across them. The reason we don’t necessarily talk about Twitch or Pinterest as a hellscape is because their policies and teams chose to focus on something specific, and decided if they weren’t serving those communities then it wasn’t content for their platform. And we know that communities like the gamer community on Twitch, for example, isn’t perfect. But Twitch also can be quick to react when things start to become a problem — of course after a long time and a lot of harm. We don’t get the same kind of network effects when platforms like Facebook and Twitter fail to moderate.”
- Ultimately you are the product, not the customer: “Platforms’ algorithms are trained to serve you something new every time. So it’s disingenuous for a site like YouTube to say, “we’re just a library, everyone loves the library!” But that’s not how their system works. We end up in these situations because we lack good definitions about what platforms do, what their public interest obligations are and who are their consumers — not who are their users, but who are their clients. We have to realize that the clients they’re serving are advertisers.
Kenyatta Cheese, co-founder of Know Your Meme and Everybody at Once
- Memes are made with communities in mind: “A meme is any idea that spreads from person to person and anyone can take those memes and make their own version, to make it more relevant to the people they’re sharing it with. Memes at scale are really fascinating, that’s when you see it become this emergent form of communication. It’s culture, and they only make sense in the communities they’re shared within. That gives it a different feel than other types of media we’ve dealt with in the past.”
- The four-step process that leads to a meme gaining traction: “The amplification of memes is more complex than it used to be. It now includes major media platforms and politicians and marketers and people who hope to exploit platforms in some way. But once you amplify [a meme], then you’re giving it more surface area, meaning other people can take it en masse and replicate it themselves. There’s this four-phrase process: ideation, iteration, amplification and then replication. Then, eventually, the meme dies off, but the community and the effects of this meme stay for a while.”
- Memes cater to our emotions, that’s why they work so well: “Memes aren’t just things that happen on the internet, they happen within us. We all look to others to make sense of the world, we look to others to confirm our own experience. When our emotional centers are aroused, that is the part that compels us to take action, me, for example, tapping on something to share, retweet or to like. If we look at memes in this way, and the effects they have on the mind or the body and our relationships, we start to see another dimension to all this. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram — they aren’t just information networks, but also emotional networks. They’re ways to share and spread emotion through a system to find out if we resonate with others around us.”
As with most internet things, memes can bring us joy but also — surprisingly, and disappointingly — can also cause harm. A harmful narrative gets meme-ified and then spreads. Recommendation algorithms surface the meme to new audiences, further reinforcing a harmful narrative. More disappointing is that even though technology enables this, it isn’t technology’s fault — every step of the way, humans are to blame. It’s clear now, more than ever, that we can’t have nice things.
Share carefully. Make sure not to amplify crap.