Memes And Their Role In Spreading Fake Content – OpEd


Internet memes have been known for years as tools to make fun of various subjects. They are found in every corner of the Internet.  Most recently, some found them very powerful to target politicians, spreading false information about Covid-19, and distorting historical facts and events. 

Following the outbreak of Covid-19, many malicious actors started spreading disinformation about the crisis; memes were used in this case to mislead the public; for instance, a viral meme claimed that Covid-19 cases are much higher now than before their vaccine was introduced. The meme was designed to be funny as it shows an elephant attempting to enter a room from the window, pointing to the known elephant in the room idiomatic expression. Poynter Institute and many others news outlets debunked the meme. In other cases, some memes may convey much shallow and easy-to-debunk information, but still, they find believers and those who are ready to share them, such as claiming eating meat from a vaccinated animal will let you be vaxxed as well, and no single politico ever died of covid

Memes have also been used in politics to advance the interests of some groups or defame their opponents. Following the January 6 riot, a Facebook circulated meme claimed the rioters were actually paid capital police and members of Antifa. This meme attempted to mislead the public by placing two different persons, a rioter, and a policeman, together in the same meme. In other cases, memes were used to share outdated information without providing the reader with the full context. In December 2019, a Facebook meme claimed that the insurance company Progressive is owned by Peter Lewis, who is donating millions to the Democratic party and other left-leaning organizations. The meme did not mention that he died in 2013. Some political memes were also used to misquote politicians to delegitimize them in front of their followers. Another example is the meme that claimed the Lincoln Memorial was defaced by protestors who were demonstrating against racism in the area. 

In some cases, memes were even used to distort historical facts, to persuade readers to support a particular ideological opinion; for example, In December 2019, a Facebook post claimed the existence of a 28th Amendment to the American Constitution that bars lawmakers from exempting themselves from having to comply with current laws. Facebook later took down the meme, which the fact-checking organization also debunked. 

Some also found memes a perfect tool to frame how we think about public issues. The Yew York Post published a meme that depicts Nina Jankowicz, who was supposed to direct the disinformation governance board, with a statement big sister is watching you, this meme attempted to convey a limited and inaccurate message by equating the board with the idea of the surveillance state that appeared in George Orwell’s famous novel. 

Memes are powerful in disinformation because they are easy to create and circulate, unlike other forms, such as writing an entirely fabricated news story or creating a video. Moreover, it’s much easier to recall a meme’s content because they are usually made simple to contain a lot of information. Furthermore, the amusement factor in the design of many of these memes makes them readily accepted by many without pondering over the intended harmful message. Tech platforms should apply new content policies to remove disinformation memes. Automated detection and removal could also be a potential solution, but hard to implement. 

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