Memes started off as a form of niche online humour; particularly good at sending up the irony and absurdity of everyday life, memes were usually what made people say, “I love the Internet!” They were a form of social currency that helped develop the puckish culture of the net, defining a whole generation’s way of seeing the world.
But, these days, memes have moved on from simply making fun of life’s little idiocies and are now often used as a type of political persuasion. Memes lit up social media during the Trump and Brexit campaigns of 2016. Some were shared millions of times. Unfortunately, however, not all of them were in good faith. There were a lot of lies and falsehoods flying around at that time, the whole Pizzagate conspiracy theory being an especially egregious example, and memes were used to spread misinformation for political propaganda purposes. There were videos clips edited to make Hillary Clinton look like she was having a seizure; George Soros was consistently portrayed as some kind of super-villain, often using anti-Semitic tropes; and a Facebook page called “Blacktivist” that prolifically shared memes was set up purely to cause racial acrimony, and was later linked to the Russian government. More recently, we have seen the resurfacing of Rothschild conspiracy theories in the form of simplistic memes, as fellow Imagine Athena writer Robin Gilbert-Jones wrote about earlier this year.
Don’t worry, I’m not decrying the lost innocence of the Internet. I still think, for the most part, that the Internet is a force for good. In my own life, it has exposed me to ideas, places and people I probably never would have heard of before. It has opened up whole new worlds of meaning for me. It has democratised public discourse. Information is so much more readily available now and everyone can easily express and publish their views.
But I think we cannot be naïve about the nature and activities of bad actors on the Internet who deliberately set out to sow division and spread confusion. The anonymous nature of communication online compounds this problem, because we cannot always be sure who the author is of a meme.
What this phenomenon emphatically underlines is the important, and perhaps undervalued, role that editors play. In the absence of that, when material is just being shared freely online, as memes always are, critical engagement by consumers of media is absolutely crucial. We should never accept anything we consume at face value. And we should be especially sceptical when it seems to flatter all our biases.
The beauty of the Internet is that it is an open system. It has allowed so much creativity and quirky humour to flourish. It should remain that way. Meme-making should continue apace, but its limits have been tested and more savvy consumption of online political literature is necessary in order to prevent the whole system being undermined by bad actors.