“Internet memes: misinformation machines or vectors of truth?” – notes on the panel at #ijf17

I’m at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and these are my notes from a panel session featuring Joanna Geary, An Xiao Mina, Farida Vis and Claire Wardle talking about memes.

“Meme reflect cultural undercurrents” – An Xiao Mina, Meedan

An Xiao Mina opened by reminding us that memes are “a digital object that is shared and remixed by multiple people”. We very often associate them with silly cat videos, but they can be very serious, for example an outbreak of people posing for selfies wearing sunglasses in China, in a show of support for a lawyer who had “disappeared”. Although humour is a big component – a study looking at animal memes revealed that donkey jokes are big in Kyrgyzstan, and that there is a noticeable increase in goat-based humour as rural communities move online. But again, the political is always there, as anyone who spends anytime looking at the social media internet output of Syria and Iran will tell you.

The life-cycle of a meme is more involved these days, and they have begun to bleed out of the internet and into the real world. She cited as an example Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “nasty woman”. Within seconds a hashtag sprung up. Within minutes people were remixing images like the cover of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” album. Within hours you could buy products displaying the phrase “Nasty Woman” from online stores. And within days people were posing for selfies with those products.

An Xiao Mina stressed that memes reflect existing cultural undercurrents. And, she said, they have “an affirmative, emotional role in digital space” – allow people to communicate, share their values, and feel like they belong. She said the internet, so often dubbed the information superhighway, could equally be called the “affirmation superhighway”, with memes one of the tools people use to reflect their culture and validate themselves.

“How do we make sure we don’t look like the dodgy uncle dancing at the wedding?” – Claire Wardle, First Draft News

Claire Wardle started her section with a clip from a This American Life of one of the alt-right’s blowhards claiming that they had memed Donald Trump into the presidency of the US, and had shit-posted their way into the future.

Claire suggested that people should read Ryan Broderick’s recent work looking at the teenagers trying to influence the US election via memes. They are organised, using freely available digital tools, are in communication, and are sophisticated in the way they target people. They want, for example, to get people who are a bit racist to spread their messages, but not really, openly racist people, as that discredits them. Most of them seem to be 16 year old boys, whose parent’s are oblivious to what they are up to. As is much of the media.

It is a constant source of frustration to me that having “the internet” and “what goes on in the grim corners of the web” is looked down upon as a beat for a journalist. When controversies suddenly erupt – like the reason Easter Egg Hunt row in the UK – they often reflect conspiracy theories and memes that have been passed round on Facebook for ages suddenly pushing their way into the mainstream. The reporting that emerges seldom then reflects the cultural undercurrent that has fuelled the controversy, instead preferring to interpret at face value the one specific instance that has bubbled up to the surface.

Claire said that when we look at how sophisticated these campaigns are, we should realise that it is incredibly hard to combat the visual side of spreading “fake news”. It’s pretty easy to spot a recently registered domain name in Macedonia is chucking out trash for cash. It’s a lot harder to visually analyse material and have computers make judgements on their veracity. And meme-makers will defend their inaccurate creations. I and colleagues once spend a couple of days on the receiving end of heaps of abuse for daring to debunk some of the memes associated with the #CameronMustGo hashtag.

Memes are a powerful visual way of communicating to our audience, but how do we make sure we aren’t looking like the creepy uncle dancing at a wedding?

“Memes. It’s complicated” – Farida Vis, Visual Social Media Lab

Farida Vis said that we have to be careful about evolving systems that are effectively putting parental guidance stickers on this type of content – “Memes are bad, m’kay”. People don’t care that junk food is bad for them, they still want it. By labelling political memes as dangerous and subversive you are only adding to the attractiveness of being on the shitlord side of the web’s culture war.

Memes are often shared very quickly to comment on news situations, Farida said, and they can function as acute social commentary – a very sophisticated way to speak truth to power. The idea that they can be true or false, she said, is simplistic.

Farida went back to pre-social web days of 2005 to look at the memes that emerged around Hurricane Katrina – many of which were driven by mainstream media perpetuating widely held stereotypes of African-Americans, that in the aftermath of a disaster black people “loot”, while white people “find things”. She questioned the way that people describe things as “deeply racist” memes – it isn’t the memes that are the problem, she said, it is the racism.

We know, she said, that there are certain ways that people respond in the aftermath of certain events. We know what types of rumours tend to circulate very quickly. After terrorist incidents, the internet will often focus on who the perpetrators might be. This isn’t new. The internet did it after the 1995 Oklahoma bombing – nbut you can be sure that people weren’t looking for someone who matched the profile of Timothy McVeigh.

Farida recommended people spend a little time looking at Know Your Meme, and praised it for the attention to context that it provided when explaining the origins and meanings of memes. She pointed out that the lack of diversity in our news rooms often prevents us from challenging the under-lying stereotypes that power memes.

“These are cultural short-cuts” – Joanna Geary

Joanna Geary was more upbeat in her look at memes – reminding us that they are, at their best, a celebration of joy and shared culture on the internet. She showed the original Fresh A Voca Do clip and then I got the giggles and that made it hard to take notes, proving her point.

Joanna said that as a cultural entity and a communication style, memes are as uniting as they are dividing. In that respect, they are not different from any type of communication.

Joanna heads up the curation team at Twitter, explaining that with their target audience being under-25, they simply have to be on top of how these people communicate with each other if they want to reach them – and communicate those stories in a way that makes sense. The Twitter Moment product couldn’t exist if it didn’t use and react to memes.

As well as being a whole way of reinforcing the joy of the ridiculousness of life, memes also give people a way of expressing often complex things and emotions quickly. They become cultural short-cuts and allow people to make statements much faster and with more emotion.

She cited the recent angry backlash to Pepsi’s now pulled ad which appropriated the imagery of protest moments to sell fizzy drinks. The anger was visceral, and expressed visually – juxtaposing Pepsi’s sugar-coated imagery with shots of police brutality.

To report on this you need human beings who treat these forms of communication with a seriousness. We should be making sure that if you really care about covering the #BlackLivesMatter community, then you should also be seeing their usage of memes as part of that community and part of the story.

Find all my blog posts from the 2017 International Journalism Festival.