Members Only | April 19, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The danger of memes

Why they are the most efficient form of propaganda.

An example of a deceptive meme. Dorner murdered four people before killing himself.
An example of a deceptive meme. Dorner murdered four people before killing himself.

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Like most people on social media, I enjoy a good meme. A favorite internet culture moment was when people were talking about storming Area 51. Some memes had me in tears I was laughing so hard. 

But even though most memes are comedic quips, these media objects have a darker side when used as propaganda. Memes make us laugh, but they also can be one of the best, perhaps the best, ways to spread misinformation – especially when they deal with issues of identity. 

Though most memes are comedic quips, these media objects have a darker side when used as propaganda. Memes make us laugh, but they also can be one of the best ways, perhaps the best way, to spread misinformation – especially when they deal with issues of identity.

We’re hooked on social media because it allows us to curate and express our identities. Most of the time this is relatively innocuous. Clicking the like-button after a friend posts a quote from “Seinfeld,” isn’t just affirmation – it isn’t only to demonstrate your amusement. It’s to show the larger digital community that you like “Seinfeld.” 

We aren’t always conscious of this, but no one is immune to the dynamic – whether it’s reading a “21 Things You’d Only Understand If Your Parents are (Insert Ethnic Background)” listicle on Buzzfeed or quote-tweeting something you disagree with. The reasons memes are so effective as propaganda tools, however, is because they appeal to our identities as well as the emotional linkage arising from them. 

If your father is a firefighter, firefighter memes are going to have a particular resonance. If you support one political party versus another, memes from the opposing side seem so clearly stupid you can’t fathom anyone thinking they were funny. To paraphrase Professor Limor Shifman, author of Memes in Digital Culture, memes seem trivial and mundane, but they actually reflect deep social and cultural structures. 

This is why memes are often the most effective propaganda tool. They merge identity and ideology in ways other media cannot. In an effort to make this less conceptual, let’s think about the meme below.

It shows a police officer and military man named Christopher Jordan Dorner. He presumably passed away in February 2013. Aside from pictures of him in various uniforms, there’s other symbols like the American and Blues Lives Matters flags. Below the thin blue line reads the words “All Gave Some – Some Gave All.” Based on the text of the meme and the political discourse in society about police, it would seem safe to surmise this man died in the line of duty. 

You share it, because you want to show support for police and those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice. You share it, because you want to show everyone your patriotism and political allegiances.

Maybe you have a spouse, a sibling, a parent in the military. Patriotism is therefore inextricably linked to family. It’s in your heart, not just a concept others talk about. Maybe you think police get a bad wrap nowadays, and Dorner’s death shows how out of touch critics are. 

Maybe you support it because you dislike Black Lives Matter and proudly declare Blues Lives Matter, but want to solve your cognitive dissonance (ie, “Am I racist?”) by showing support for a Black officer. 

There could be myriad reasons why you share, but no matter what it is, it’s likely going to be deeply personal and linked to your identity. 

Your attachment to the meme’s ideas, beliefs and virtues could moreover prevent you from asking a relatively obvious.

Who is Christopher Dorner?

He’s is a former Los Angeles police officer who “murdered four people and prompted a massive, days-long manhunt that ended when he shot himself to death in a cabin in the San Bernardino mountains after engaging in a fierce firefight with law enforcement officers. Dorner had been fired after an LAPD review board found he had falsely accused his training officer of excessive force. Dorner held that his termination was retaliation from an endemically racist police department and his rampage was an attempt to clear his name.”

This example shows how easy it is to be so consumed with our own identities that we become useful idiots for others. 

The meme’s creator is likely a troll who knew people would like and share it reflexively without understanding what they’re doing. 

But what made the meme to spread propaganda? What if its creator wasn’t a troll, but a snake oil salesman or false prophet? What else could go viral – a meme bearing fake Black crime statistics, or falsely accusing a prominent politician of having child pornography, or a picture purported to be Muslims rushing over the border, which is a misappropriated picture of soccer fans rushing the field after their team won the championship? Extreme, yet mundane examples.

Are people going to fact-check every piece of media that comes across their timeline? Of course not. As media consumers, we often share things in passive and reactionary ways. We see something we like, We share it. If it contains political messages that conform to our worldview, we click the share-button. All of this is very effective, heuristic and happens in no more than a few seconds. 

This is the danger of memes. 

Through their textual (in the visual and literal sense) elements and their shareability and virality within our digital attention economy, memes are great ways to augment the emotional responses (fear, anger, resentment, vehement agreement, etc.) tied to our identities. 

They are the most efficient form of propaganda and misinformation. 

Joshua Adams' writing has appeared in Colorlines, the Post, The Guardian and USA Today. He's currently writing a historical sci-fi fantasy novel. Find him @ProfJoshuaA.

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