Angry women and smug cats. Tiny green Jedis. Gummi bear challenge. 2019 was full of memes both irritating and ingratiating, and as usual we as a public could not get enough of them. Easily shareable, graphically enticing, sometimes inspirational, memes spread rapidly across all social media platforms. For something so fun and silly, what could be the harm?
Well, it turns out those memes may not be entirely innocent. According to the work of Clemson University professors Patrick Warren and Darren Linvill, those memes may be the work of Russian trolls. The Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) played a role in the 2016 election by promoting false information on social media. While fake news stories remain a major problem mostly by diverting attention from real news, Linvill and Warren’s work reveals a new complication.
“(T)he IRA’s goal was two-fold: Grow an audience in part through heartwarming, inspiring messages, and use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and doubt,” they wrote jointly in a guest column for Rolling Stone on November 25, 2019. It was a stealth attack, using fuzzy messaging to trick audiences into following fake social media accounts. Then, once an audience was large enough, the social media account would then post false information, often deeply racist or focused on religious divides. These fake posts were interspersed with other light, fluffy meme content, a “camouflaged” juxtaposition intended to provoke an emotional response.
However, there’s more to sharing memes than becoming a target for false information. Many memes recycle copyrighted content, and it can hurt artists and creators. Lawsuits have been filed by content creators who did not receive proper payment for the use of their work. But more importantly, memes have proven an excellent vehicle for spreading misinformation. The rise of the antivaccination movement, which has been credited for an international rise in measles cases (and 144,000 deaths in 2018 alone) was shared widely on social media via memes. Social media and memes have also been blamed for false cures for Ebola virus and overall vaccine hesitancy. With all of these problems in mind, what’s the solution?
The answer requires no time, effort or money and can be implemented immediately. Simply put, don’t share memes. Ever. Memes are hard to fact-check, partly because they don’t cite their sources. Without its original source information, trying to verify an exact statistic in a meme can be challenging. In addition, memes are hard to categorize, making false information difficult to detect before it spreads. In the end, it’s best to be aware, never share and keep all memes off your accounts.
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