Are Viral Memes Ruining Politics?

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Introduction

The government has become more of a side show act in the last few decades, and the distraction tactics are meant to keep people from looking to closely at what laws are passed, how nation’s money is spent, and who benefits. Today this process revolves around corporations, which governments are coming to resemble more and more. While the Internet has the capacity to disseminate valuable information which could lead to effective change, it also has the capacity to be the most efficient time wasting tool ever created. The need to go viral is the same pressing need which drives all greed, and the products greed creates often distort the truth. Viral memes not only distort the truth, but capitalize on misunderstanding for the sake of humor. While this could be innocuous, all too often when applied to politics the practice homogenizes the discussion to the meanest common denominator.

The Great Dumbing Down of Politics

A meme is like a stupid pill with the side effects of laughter, attention deficient disorder, and embitterment. There is a fine line between comedy which is empowering and uplifting, and comedy which is disempowering and counterproductive. The former comedy can educate and lead to positive action (see Bill Hicks) while the latter comedy leads to self-satisfied inaction (The Daily Show). Too much laughter over an issue that should create enough righteous rage to cause a change of mind and behavior leads to the opposite: a feeling of having accomplished something through the emotional release of laughter. While in the case of The Daily Show this is one of the most highbrow examples, memes bring out the absolute worst in this psychological equation. 

Justin Adams with The Daily Chronicle explains the little known history of where memes come from. To the majority of web surfers they simply appear on social media or, GASP, the news, but all viruses begin somewhere. While the word “meme” used to mean a cultural artifact which takes hold of a culture (like Garbage Pail Kids in the 80s), since the creation of the Internet, “’meme’ has come to apply to artifacts of the Internet culture. If the Internet is a community, then memes are the running inside jokes that the community shares. They are highly derivative, self-referential, simple and designed to entertain” (Adams). Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with this process inherently, but when applied to the seriousness of democracy and politics which determine how people live the guffaws are dangerously misplaced as they oversimplify an important conversation.

 Adams likens the trade of soul-punishingly stupid memes to the drug trade. He shares, “Memes are traditionally spawned on the dark side of the Internet that is “4chan.” It’s basically the Internet’s meth lab” (Adams). After its dark creation, the meme is picked up by many different sites, Imgur, Reddit, Memebase, and 9gag. Adams clarifies, “They’re much more friendly and safe to use than going straight to the source. They don’t produce. They just distribute” (Adams). From there the meme travels into the social media pipeline of the and becomes a virus. 

Analyzing this issue from the other side of the pond, British commentator Jamie Bartlett with The Telegraph emphasizes that memes actively distort, dumb down, and further limit the political discussion from an already highly polarized starting line. He writes, viral politics is fun but it makes me nervous. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like my politics argumentative, aggressive, shouty, but wherever possible accurate and detailed. Viral politics is the opposite. Short, overly simplified, snappy, and scant opportunity for discussion.  What matters is views, hits, shares, likes. Don’t care how you get them, just get them! And that incentivizes content to be more outrageous, simple, or funny. It also produces something else: the narrowing of political discussion, since virals tend to percolate within the same group: and that can close off , making the converted more zealous, and more entrenched. (Bartlett)

This is the heart of the issue, mass media consumption marketing applied to the most divisive aspects of the political process magnified by, well, the more magnified it is the more successful the meme. 

An alarming aspect of the question of the validity of memes undermining the political process is that the inanity is not limited to the Internet chatter, but makes its way into the real world and real politics where stupidity can become law. This occurred when Paul Cookson posted a rant on Facebook about the higher prices during school breaks. Soon after, 150,000 people had shared it and raised an e-petition to address the issue in Parliament gained the necessary 100,000 signatures to force the Backbench Business Committee to consider it (Bartlett). 

Memes Lie

There are more and more cases of some rant and meme taking on the attention and force which wastes the time of politicians who could be working on more valuable issues. Memes are pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to gain coverage and usually to attract someone to a product. When this is utilized in the political arena, the lines between government and corporation, truth and fiction becomes even more blurred. Jamie Bartlett emphasizes that this backlash could directly affect how politicians relate with people, as

Viral politics might also mean that politicians become ever more fearful of speaking off the cuff, terrified of speaking their mind because there’s a team of Photoshop-campaigners on hand to twist and mangle their words. Or they start speaking in viral language, in the hope their quotes can be viraled. And so politics becomes ever more staid, scripted and dull – and yet more polarized and entrenched. This is the last thing we need. (Bartlett)

With so many new outlets prone to slanting, twisting, or outright lying it is more essential than ever to keep clear the channels of communication for facts when possible. Memes are so often distortions and misrepresentations, but their cute and catchy nature has them sticking in the mind very much like an insidious virus. While this can be fun when considering the mind of a cat, “In the worlds of politics and public policy, false memes often have very real effects, providing the basis for bad laws that hurt people, or twisting people’s view of history to make them easier prey for extremist politicians” (Allen). When considering how beliefs turn into facts, the power of the false meme cannot be ignored. Here is a brief list of powerful false memes which linger in the American consciousness:

•97 percent of scientists believe in Global Warming theory.

Columbus was warned he might sail off the edge of the world.

Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from her house.

Thomas Jefferson, who was in favor of slavery, probably fathered one or more children with Sally Hemmings. (Allen)

Memes have the capacity to stick in people’s minds much longer than the truth will, even if it is learned. This is partially due to the attached image for visual learners, and the laugh response, which makes it more fun to believe (1st Web Designer). Unfortunately trust in the Internet reliability is quite high, perhaps because things look truer in writing then when some smirking person parrots it on Fox News. An Oxford Internet Survey found, “users identify the internet as the most reliable source of information over television and radio (at 3.6 on average, with 5 being totally reliable” (The Conversation). An interesting perspective on this concept is that a meme is known to be an inside joke, and gets its humor from how it twists information into different contexts as in: the incident of a police officer seemingly casually pepper spraying a group of Occupy protesters at a University campus in late 2011. While this incident did take place it also gave birth to a popular meme. This meme shows the police officer photoshopped in a series of as well as other contemporary and historical settings. (The Conversation)

A recent paper by physicist Delia Mocanu and her collaborators at Northeaster Universtity titled, “Collective Attention in the Age of (Mis)information” found that one of the biggest reasons people choose to believe information found on Facebook is their clear distrust of information shared on the television, in series depicting politicians, and mainstream media (Keating). In this context truth and reliability is not an issue, as the joke is in the different context of the cop. This is one reason memes should 1) Not be believed to be factual; 2) Stay out of politics. 

When mainstream media panders to the masses who revolve around memes they not only devalue themselves by artificially value memes. A current example of this manic fixation is mainstream media vetting Donald Trump’s use of name calling as a valid political tool. Trump “has come up with ‘low-energy Jeb,’ ‘little Marco,’ ‘lyin' Ted,’ and ‘crooked Hillary.’ More recently, he’s trotted out ‘goofy Elizabeth Warren,’ ‘crazy Bernie Sanders,’ and the Clinton alternate ‘heartless Hillary’” (Chotiner). This creates a culture of wholesale degradation of the political process, as any parent will attest a child will continue to act out as long as the action gets the attention they desire.

The media should have called out this behavior of name calling as petty, bullying, and inappropriate for a presidential candidate hopeful. There responding to the tactic empowered it, lowering the standards for the entire discussion. This has led to a host of Trump name calling memes which only increase the amount of attention given to the bad behavior, which up until recently the Democratic party has to avoid. However, pulled down by the curve of stupid, “A couple of weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee coined a nickname for Donald Trump: dangerous Donald. This fell somewhere short of the sublime” (Chotiner). Thus the entire political debate over who should run for president has denigrated into name calling. This is one of the many signs of the dumbing down of politics, of which Trump is the poster child, and memes only offer lubrication to this terrible downward spiral. 

Conclusion

Memes are harmless toys in the realm of popular culture, but when those toys are related to politics the game of life the game can get ugly. So far the results moving from the net to Congress and Parliament have been paltry wastes of time, but what happens when memes take on the power to influence who goes to war?

Works Cited

1st Web Designer. “The Power of Internet Memes And A Lot Of Fun Along The Way.” 8 Apr. 2016. Retrieved from: http://1stwebdesigner.com/power-internet-memes/

Adams, Justin. “A Brief History of Memes and How They’re Destroying Our Political Culture.” Daily Utah Chronicle, 29 Nov. 2015. Retrieved from: http://dailyutahchronicle.com/2015/11/29/a-brief-history-of-memes-and-how-theyre-destroying-our-political-culture/

Allen, Steven. “The Court of Memes: Why people believe fake facts.” Capital Research Center, 26 Aug. 2014. Retrieved from: https://capitalresearch.org/2014/08/the-court-of-memes-why-people-believe-fake-facts/

 Bartlett, Jamie. “Viral memes are ruining our politics. Share if you agree.” The Telegraph, 27 Apr. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/politics-blog/11565661/Viral-memes-are-ruining-our-politics.-Share-if-you-agree.html

Chotiner, Issac. “No, Donald Trump Is Not Good at Nicknames.” Slate, 1 June 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/06/no_donald_trump_is_not_good_at_nicknames.html

Keating, Joshua. “Study Explains Why Your Stupid Facebook Friends Are So Gullible.” Slate, 18 Mar. 2014. 

New Noise Magazine. “5 Reasons Why You Should Stop Sharing Your Political Opinions On Facebook.” 24 May 2013. Retrieved from: http://newnoisemagazine.com/5-reasons-why-you-should-stop-sharing-your-political-opinions-on-facebook/#

The Conversation. “Hard Evidence: how does false information spread online?” The Conversation, 16 Apr. 2014. Retrieved from: http://theconversation.com/hard-evidence-how-does-false-information-spread-online-25567