Manipulative Memes : How Internet Memes Can Distort the Truth

Political internet memes were used on a large scale for the first time during the 2012 US Presidential Election (remember Texts from Hillary and Romney hates Big Bird?). Initially used as a form of entertainment, the purpose of these funny images changed during the 2016 election. Memes started to dominate news headlines and were used to influence the political views of social media users. Palmer Luckey – founder of Facebook’s Oculus product – invested millions in a group responsible for generating and spreading anti-Clinton memes (see for example memes mocking Clinton’s health or spreading rumours that she was running a pedophile ring). During the 2016 elections, memes were not “just funny” anymore: they had become a tool to influence voters.

Memes contain certain manipulative techniques that make them suitable for transferring a distorted view of reality. Memes need to be interesting enough to survive online. Successful memes are simplistic: they convey “one uncomplicated idea or slogan” (Shifman 2014, 67). Memes can distort reality as they often present a simplistic message. Through their briefness, facts can more easily be left out. There is limited space for sharing detailed information or presenting counter arguments. Simplified messages can be especially persuasive if viewers have little or no knowledge on the topic that is being addressed. This simplicity means that memes almost completely rely on visuals to convey a message.

Visuals are effective for propagandizing political views, as images are less threatening and can reach a larger audience than text. Moreover, visual frames have a stronger influence on an audience than textual frames, as their influence is more subtle. A distorted view of reality can be created using manipulated or photoshopped images. Visuals can be highly effective in arousing emotions, which can effectively influence political views.

Memes often contain humour, which is a powerful way to influence opinions. People who often watch political satire tend to have a more negative perception of political candidates and less trust in politics. An example of the persuasive power of humour is Tina Fey’s parody of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. These parodies were found to have a negative effect – a so-called ‘Fey Effect’ – on how voters evaluated Sarah Palin. Humour is also powerful because it makes a message stick with its viewers. By now, many have forgotten much of what Sarah Palin actually said, but Tina Fey’s portrayal of her lives on.

Research on the impact of memes on people’s views is scarce. Williamson, Sangster and Lawson show that exposure to feminist memes increases endorsement of feminist beliefs. Recent research indicates that viewing political internet memes results in stronger feelings of aversion compared to viewing non-political memes. Findings of my undergraduate thesis – though not significant – show that people generally rate politicians more negatively after seeing him or her portrayed in a meme compared to portrayals in a normal image.

Memes are likely to be shared between friends. Online people can decide who to link with and what pages to follow. A study by Pew Research shows that nearly 60% of respondents find discussing politics with people they disagree with “stressful and frustrating”. Some might even block or unfriend those with dissimilar political views. The negative perception of politicians can be strengthened if social media users are only confronted with persuasive political memes and no posts providing counterarguments to those memes.  Disinformation can have large consequences, especially when people are not exposed to a diversity of opinions online. This fear should be taken seriously as young people today have indicated that social media is their primary source of news.

The power of memes to successfully spread rumours is especially frightening when their persuasive power and large reach is taken into account. In a time when Russian trolls are spreading fake news and wealthy investors such as Palmer Luckey spend money on online propaganda, memes play an important part in shaping the state of our current democracy. Misinformation serves as a collective warning for democracy when citizens are emotionally manipulated to distrust entire population groups or their own democratic processes. The aim of Luckey’s investment was not only to get Trump elected, but to also prove the persuasive power of “shitposting” and the use of humorous images for political purposes.

Ofra Klein

( @ofra_klein)

PhD Researcher

European University Institute

Ofra Klein