Analytics

Are memes the digital gateway to social media manipulation?

The internet is teeming with funny photograph and GIF memes. But a closer look reveals that the medium often conveys sinister political messages, as well. That is why media literacy is key.

The year 2020 has been challenging. It is no wonder that many people have turned to humor to lift their spirits. Unsurprisingly, coronavirus-related memes are trending. Memes often parody people or events by repurposing existing imagery. The world meme derives from the Greek word “mimeme,” which means imitation. 

Memes can serve as harmless entertainment, as well as communicate political messages. For a while now, they have been deployed in US election campaigns. Dan Pfeiffer, who served as White House director of communications under US President Barack Obama, is convinced that pictures, memes and videos shared online are hugely important in winning over the electorate. 

“Political campaigns are now modern information warfare — massive state-adjacent propaganda operations with Twitter bots that fuel outrage and drive media coverage, Facebook pages that are run out of former Soviet republics and reach more people than The New York Times, and foreign countries like Russia trying to actively intervene in the election,” Pfeiffer wrote in the US tech magazine Wired in February. 

‘Pandemic real-time radicalization’

In the United States, memes are routinely used for political reasons. Donald Trump Jr., who refers to himself as a “General in the Meme Wars” on Instagram, is one of many high-profile figures disseminating such politicized images. One of them shows President Trump pointing at the viewer. The accompanying text reads: “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.” In July, Twitter stopped the meme from being shared on its platform because it used a copyrighted photo. 

Meme-based “information warfare” is much less common in Germany and the rest of Europe. Yet here, too, automated bots are touting candidates and amplifying misinformation.

This is evident in the online discussion about the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic. Supporters of measures to slow the spread of the virus are attempting to square off online with pandemic deniers, who sometimes refer to themselves as Querdenker, or “unconventional thinkers.”

Such groups have found their share of allies on the internet. “Coronavirus deniers are undergoing an unprecedented, pandemic real-time radicalization,” the tech journalist Sascha Lobo wrote in a recent column for the newsweekly Der Spiegel

Lobo said this “lightning radicalization” happened through social media, where online communities with overlapping interests began to mingle. “Coronavirus deniers or Querdenker do not constitute a homogeneous group,” he said. “The movement was somewhat different in summer 2020 than it was in autumn 2020 — in part because it has been infected with ideas from the QAnon conspiracy theory.”    

Divisive messages have also been shared within Facebook groups that are generally considered apolitical. During the summer, calls to join rallies against the government’s coronavirus measures were posted in a ride sharing message group, sparking heated discussion about the state of affairs. Several users complained about the misuse of the group and left. 

‘Their preexisting beliefs’

Social media platforms provide fertile ground for fringe groups to flourish. While social networks were originally set up to allow users to network and communicate with each other, there is now a real danger of people getting caught up in echo chambers. “If users only rely on sources that confirm their preexisting beliefs this causes a fragmentation of the public sphere,” said Lars Bülow, a professor of linguistics at the University of Vienna. 

Bülow said social media allowed like-minded individuals to band together in cyberspace and also increase individual political participation. In that sense, online platforms may catalyze democratic change. “We can see this with regard to feminism and environmental politics,” Bülow said. “Yet they are also a risk when coronavirus deniers use them for their purposes.”  

Some leaders and activists have called for social media platforms to be more heavily regulated. Many politicians and lawmakers want to see rules adopted to ensure our online interactions become more respectful and balanced.

“We need to promote media literacy, and start with schoolchildren,” said Michael Johann, a researcher at the Department for Media, Knowledge and Communication at Augsburg University. Only then will internet users of all ages be able to critically evaluate content shared online.

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