In a world that is increasingly visual, memes have taken root as a form of political propaganda. Memes, the simple arrangement of words on an image or panel of images, began as a form of humor, often self-deprecating and meant to play to an audience privy to the inside nature of the joke. However memes have quickly expanded as a tool leveraged by political interest groups looking to push an agenda. Memes offer a visual shorthand, quick to be created, adopted, and shared in our tech-savvy and networked modern culture. Memes work as propaganda because of their simplicity, much like posters seen during WWI and WWII meant to rally troops and enlist soldiers. They prey on our emotions and often utilize a “wink-wink” sense of humor to grab our attention.
Memes become viral because their visual nature is easy to understand – at quick glance we can pick up the meaning of a meme and often have a strong emotional reaction one way or the other. Our instinct then is to share the meme, especially if it supports our personal position on an issue.
The problem with memes is that they often purport lies and untruths, because their visual and viral nature lead them to quickly spread without the ability (or even interest) for people to check their validity. Photo editing tools have become so prolific that even those with the most rudimentary technology skills can create altered memes that pass as real.
Furthermore, early research suggests that humans have a difficult time telling the difference between a real and altered image. This makes it even easier to spread disinformation campaigns – the proliferation of visual tools to create memes, and the lack of human ability to distinguish the fakes.
Confirmation bias is our innate human tendency to search for information which will validate our existing opinions and viewpoints. Confirmation bias contributes to our inability to distinguish fact from fiction in images, as we look for evidence to support our beliefs. These two altered images of women on opposing sides of the debate over gun control in America help us to understand the frightening power of fake viral memes.
An image of Emma Gonzalez, gun control advocate and survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting was recently published on the web. In the original photo, Emma is ripping up a shooting target.
However the image was altered and recirculated on the web, showing Emma ripping up the Constitution instead. The image of a woman who people already believe to be disregarding the Constitution was spread quickly on the web amongst gun rights activists.
Would you have been able to spot the fake if it was the only version of this image you had seen?
As a reaction, people who support tighter gun control restrictions took an image of NRA Spokeswoman Dana Loesch and made their own alterations.
The implication here is that Loesch and the NRA are the ones who are dismissing the Constitution.
While the images can be debunked with a quick Google search, the unfortunate truth is that both versions of both images are now widely out there on the Internet. Their existence proves the biggest challenge of these widely circulated fake memes – their determination to hang on and remain part of the public record, and the ongoing conversation.
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Fleishman, J. & Miranda, C.A. (2018). Analysis: How images – sometimes manipulated and altered – are shaping the seething world of our politics. The Los Angeles Times.
Haddow, D. (2016). Meme warefare: How the power of mass replication has poisoned the US election. The Guardian.
Hasic, A. (2019). Why propaganda is more dangerous in the digital age. The Washington Post.
Nightingale, S. J., Wade, K. A. & Watson, D. G. (2017). Can people identify original and manipulated photos of real-world scenes? Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (30).
Tenove, C. (2019). The meme-ification of politics: Politicians & their ‘lit’ memes. The Conversation.