Sep 13, 2018

Meme wars: How disinformation is taking form in memes

Meme wars: How disinformation is taking form in memes

We all know and have seen memes. Those funny images, usually a pop culture reference, on our social feeds that have large typically witty and frivolous jokes plastered across them.

But somewhere along the way the memes of cats and smug frogs evolved into a resource of intent used to push a commentary or specific narrative into the public realm. While it’s hard to think that something as cavalier as a funny image could influence an election or cause damage to a brand, it has happened. And it’s continuing to happen.

A war is raging on in social media, and it’s a war that many are overlooking: meme wars.

What is a meme war?

A meme war, at the core, is defined as when two opposing parties use memes to go back and forth with their argument. You’ve most likely seen social media users go back and forth sending memes on Twitter or Facebook. But meme wars aren’t just unique to individual users, political parties, and large brands are also engaging in meme wars as a new way to interact with their audiences and cleverly comment on an issue in a way that doesn’t seem direct or malicious.

For example, a brand that is regularly engaging in meme wars is Wendy’s. The fast food chain, known for their fresh never frozen beef, has leveraged memes as a way to quite literally address the beef between its competitors. For instance take this example of Wendy’s jab at McDonald’s.

wendy's meme wars

It can be hard to view a meme as a coordinated threat, as it’s hard to think of anything based in humor as dangerous. But that’s exactly what makes it so. While Wendy’s is using a reference from the release of Avenger’s Infinity Wars to make a comment about McDonald’s burgers, it can cause some consumers to question why Wendy’s would target McDonald’s and further question the quality of the beef in a Big Mac. While intending to be funny, this meme could ultimately cost McDonald’s sales and valuable customers.

That’s exactly how the shift from memes being innocuous to being used as a way to shape consensus with social media users that don’t have much context on an issue, occurs.

How did this happen?

Social media is a crowded space. With over 2.6 billion people on social networks, it can be a challenge to make sure what you post is organically seen or heard by a larger audience. The algorithms in place today have even made it challenging for your friends and those in your networks to see what you post.

As a result of this, there has been a competition over narrative control. Social media has become a battlefield. It’s more than just spreading around a funny picture, it’s an aggressive competition for space and spin. And naturally the intention of memes have had to evolve along with it. These images that had purely humor based content shifted took on a political and more targeted type of humor.

And as this shift occurred, the content format of memes grew in popularity. More and more people were being exposed to them, following memes based accounts, and sharing them on their various social media channels. The problem is that as memes became more socialized, those unfamiliar with the original intentions of memes began believing the social commentary made on these images was based in truth. And meme creators took notice and used this to their advantage, of getting their audience more plugged in with the narrative that they wanted to push.

What does this mean?

We’ve seen the effects of meme wars in action. Simply look no further than the 2016 presidential election. As a result we think about memes in the scope of today’s political climate. Much of the Russian propaganda that was created to meddle in our election, was pushed out in the form of memes. One of the most popular is that of Hillary Clinton depicted as devil in a boxing match with Jesus, from a Russian run Facebook group called "Army of Jesus".

Hillary vs Jesus meme

This is just one of many examples of how memes are being created to be divisive and weaponized. What started as sophomorically poking fun at a topic has now shifted into being fuel for disinformation campaigns that can put both our democratic processes and brand reputations at risk if we aren’t cautious.

Social media disinformation is becoming more and more widespread. It’s taking on new forms, like memes, and manipulating brand image. It’s up to those publishing content to be diligent and honest about what they are posting and reposting. The next time you think of taking the bait from the competition and engaging in an online feud, even if it might be an excellent publicity scheme, research what you’re posting before you hit publish.

You can learn more about meme wars in episode 2 of New Knowledge CEO, Jonathon Morgan’s podcast Tech Society.

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