I Meme You No Harm

Josh Simpson | 6 February 2017

Memes. We’ve all liked them, shared them, maybe even created them: those images, videos, and texts that are humorous (or at least attempt to be). They’ve replaced, in the online world, the editorial cartoons of print newspapers and journals. They are made to become viral in a time when “140 characters” seems more a description of our attention span than of Twitter’s prescribed limits and increasing amounts of information are crowding the real estate of our screens.  

Let’s talk about the more serious aspect of memes (don’t groan). Do they desensitise us to the real issues behind all the jokes? Are they responsible for the recent proliferation of #fakenews and “alternative facts,” formerly known as lies?

Here’s a meme:


This is a caricature of U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump’s administration is working to repeal the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare). According to the Washington Post, 18 million people could lose health insurance if Obamacare is repealed without replacement. The joke is an obvious, somewhat callous play on the word “covered” and the possibility that millions will lose health insurance.

Here’s another meme:


This meme engages with the recent speight of worldwide protests such as the Women’s March and the demonstrations protesting the #MuslimBan. These protests saw millions of people come together to make a statement about what they perceived to be threatening to society. Given the effort necessitated by such wide-scale, global activism, what does it say to the protestors that, at least for one meme creator, their protests are becoming dime a dozen? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine that such scathing treatment could encourage so-called “protest fatigue.”

We know that memes (like any other photo, video or media) can certainly have a desensitising effect on people, particularly when viewed repeatedly. The repeated presence of these media in our daily lives, in our news feeds and even on our televisions, can cause people to become numb to the central issues at play. They can also lead to the oversimplification of complicated issues, leaving no room for discussion or debate. That’s bad enough, but is there something even more sinister lurking underneath?

We all know what propaganda is: biased information used to promote a particular political cause or viewpoint. It’s clear how memes might be used as propaganda. In fact, they’ve been used in attempts to destabilise governments. Accordingly, there is now big business behind creating and using memes as propaganda. Take a look at this article from Wired.com, which discusses “think tank” organisations dedicated to spreading misinformation on various topics, from LGBTQ+ rights to immigration.

As the article in Wired.com highlights: “’[f]or the lay person who reads about these topics for 10 minutes a week, I don’t think there is an easy way to see who’s full of it,’ says Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.” The article further highlights that “’[m]isinformation and fake news triggers hot cognition— it bypasses your focus on accuracy and goes directly to your feelings [and] [i]f the misinformation confirms their prior policy position, they are far more likely to say it’s accurate.’”

So not only are readers desensitised by memes, they often can’t tell what’s real and what’s not real. Thus consumers of memes can, essentially, choose to believe what they already believe, trapping themselves in a never-ending cycle of misinformation and confirmation bias. If they come across something they don’t believe or that threatens their preexisting notions, well, that’s just #fakenews, of course! We’ve all seen the recent prolific use of the hashtag #fakenews to denigrate even meticulously researched and sourced newsl. This is not to say that fake news doesn’t exist, but it’s important to note that it’s an easy charge to levy at real news items and events. In addition to the broader issues, memes can have a personal impact; there are often real people behind the jokes who are personally affected. How can any real debate or conversation take place in such an environment?

When we throw out tags like “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) and offer up soundbite summaries of long articles, we discourage critical reading and thinking. The more prevalent this becomes, the more people are encouraged, in today’s 140-character world, to rely on others for “informed” opinions rather than deciding for themselves. Because who has time to really read and debate anyway, right?

Are you even still reading this? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

About Josh

Josh Simpson is a student on the MSc in Creative Writing program at the University of Edinburgh. He previously practised law for ten years in Miami, Florida, and now is currently working on a fiction novel based on his struggles with mental illness and survival. You can find him at joshuaksimpson@icloud.com and @misterjsim on Twitter.

Article edited by Harriet MacMillan and Charlotte Kessler.

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