Meme’s as misinformation (and disinformation)on social media

How many of you have clicked on a meme on Facebook? Be honest.

Memes are a popular way of getting a message across with a catchy graphic and a short but choice selection of words. They are intended to convey a point in a few seconds with minimal thinking involved. That is if the graphic and the text match.

But what about what the meme is telling the viewer and reality? Quite often there is degree of separation between the reality and what is being implied.

Much of the time the meme might be based on regurgitated information that was correct at the time of publication, but which is no longer the case. Many of them are completely harmless as people generally know enough to realize it is outdated.

A more concerning meme is the type that believed by people with a social disconnect, or who come from backgrounds where education was not such a high priority. Without any thought they might be unwittingly passing on disproved information. Almost none of these meme’s have references attached so it is difficult to track down who the author was or where their information came from. Many might have been written as a joke, but have somehow become gospel. Others were simply written out of boredom, got popular on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media and took off.

These meme’s are problematic because potentially anyone who can use a computer and has an internet connection could compile one with just a bit of training. Sometimes those meme’s are also made by people and organizations who honestly should have known better – New Zealand Labour Party and a meme going around about walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (now Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership). It was made for the 2017 election. Labour are now in office and this misleading meme – it was dubious then, and it is more so now – continues to exist. Labour could take it down right now if they so chose to do so and many have called for them to do so, but I could find it on Facebook now I if I wanted to.

Others exist as well. They range in content. Some are medical advice that has been shot down enough times over that no reputable medical professional would support it. Some are flat out lies about political announcements and policy. Some were made overseas and went viral, somehow catching on in New Zealand even though it was demonstrably obvious that it had nothing to do with this corner of the world.

Most recently I have seen meme’s about the Kilauea volcanic eruption in Hawaii. These memes have been concerning because there have been a few instances of people taking the maps released by Hawaiian state government officials and the United States Geological Survey They have then expanded the map so it looks like a significant part of Hawaii is being inundated by lava and then used the print-screen function to create an image and posted it, ignoring the fact that over 90% of the island is still fully accessible. These do not help because they exaggerate the scale of the problem – yes it is a substantial eruption and yes it is causing major disruption. People then think “oh, the holiday will have to be cancelled, or nobody will want us to visit”.

And there are those that are simply disinformation. They were intentionally written to mislead. Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story. Sometimes political discourse runs into scientific research and the science is dismissed under any one or more of a range political disguises – the sky is falling; fake news; mainstream media – and so on. These are the most destructive as they are deliberate attempts to swing the public discourse down a route that might have large scale adverse results and has been widely discredited by those who have spent their careers thus far – be 4 years or 40 years – researching and making an honest attempt to understand their subject.

Some media outlets are unfortunately complicit in deliberate disinformation campaigns. Russia Today and Fox News are two such outlets, but there are others. Since the advent of mainstream journalism, the principles of journalism have slumped somewhat. It is not to say no good journalists still exist as many do, but corporate media where making a profit seems preferable to upholding the principles of the Fourth Estate, does seem to have an unfortunate propensity for tabloid news ahead of real news. Sometimes unfortunately that transmits as memes.


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