Meme — is an idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme.Wikipedia
This week has been a whirlwind, to say the least.
On October 1st, the President announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. This article will not discuss what that means, what the implications are, or take any political stance — rather, it will discuss the path that this information took.
It was 12:54am on the East Coast when the president tweeted. A lot of East Coasters were either in bed or just about to go to bed. As a West Coaster, I was still awake, and watched the entire timeline unfold from Hope Hicks testing positive, to the eventual above tweet.
My best friend was asleep as all of this was happening. When we called yesterday to discuss, they told me that they first heard about the positive test through memes on Instagram. They hadn’t heard it from the ‘news-news’ — rather through derivatives of the above tweet. Not an official news source.
The President’s diagnosis is extremely serious, and is full of conflicting emotions for many of us. I am including Jake Tapper’s State of the Union, because he eloquently explains the sheer cruelty of the President’s neglect to America, concluding with a message of “ Get well and get it together” to the President. I will not be including any COVID memes in this article.
But the memes that were generated were more than just jokes — they were visual news sources, effectively transmitting information across platforms and to users about the president’s diagnosis.
Think about the process:
- We learned about the President’s positive case on TWITTER. This was the mode of communication chosen to tell us something VERY important.
- People began to respond to the tweet (572,000+ responses to be exact)
- Memes were generated almost instantly
- And thus, network sharing and cross-platform posts led to some finding the news out via meme
Beyond Trump’s diagnosis, think about all the things that have happened so far in September 2020. RBG’s passing. Kenosha. Rochester. The fires. Portland. The debates. The tax returns. Breonna Taylor’s case.
Just one of these probably could have been a news cycle item for an entire month — but 2020 is evolving at a rapid pace. So we use memes.
What are memes?
Memes, via Wikipedia: an idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme.
The Wikipedia article is pretty meta about memes, and poses the fascinating parallel between meme virality and biological evolution.
For the purposes of this article, I will focus more on political memes as news sources, but meme culture is deep. MIT wrote a piece in 2018 about where memes come from and exert their influence. As you can see in the below diagram, it’s pretty complex.
Most of us learn visually. We like to consume short-form content. That’s why TikTok, Instagram, etc., are all so popular — we like pictures. Memes convey a lot of information in a short amount of time.
But you have to understand deep Internet to truly get some of the memes that are floating out there.
The Science of a Meme
Reply All, one of my absolute favorite podcasts, has an entire segment called ‘Yes Yes No’ that breaks down tweets. These tweets are usually quite ‘Deep Internet’ and require understanding of multiple online events. I’ve broken down one of their segments below to give a glimpse into the complexity of this topic.
Area 51 and Bret Stephens
This tweet from Casey Johnston is the tweet that the Reply All team dissected:
Some background – in sequential order, the New York Times newsroom got bedbugs back in 2019. So Dave Karpf, an associate professor at GWU, called Bret Stephens, a NYT reporter, a bed bug — specifically tweeting:
Bret Stephens didn’t like that. So he then emailed Professor Karpf and Professor Karpf’s boss.
Area 51, which is what Casey Johnston is referencing, is referring to the Area 51 Facebook event, in which people were going to storm Area 51 to see what’s going on. Matty Roberts created the event after listening to Bob Lazer on Joe Rogan’s podcast stating:
“If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens”
So Casey Johnston’s tweet is referring to all of the above, essentially stating let’s storm Bret Stephens (whose newsroom has bedbugs and who has been called a bedbug) a la Area 51-style, a naruto run.
To understand this tweet, you have to understand:
- Area 51, more specifically Storm Area 51
- The NYT bedbug problem in the newsroom
- Why someone would call Bret Stephens a bedbug
That’s incredibly convoluted — convoluted enough that the Reply All team made a podcast about it.
You have to be very online to understand some of these memes.
Someone on Reddit made a history of memes video, detailing the most popular memes from 2004–2019.
Memes are essentially based on this deep knowledge — you have to understand the context, the background, the ~meaning~. Some of them make sense, but others you have to know what the meme format means, like with the Area 51 meme.
Memes and Social Media
Memes are primarily distributed through social media. So what role does social media play in society?
A surprising large number of people in the U.S. trust social media as a way of getting news about COVID, relative to the U.K. and Germany. According to the Oxford and Reuters study:
“Only a small minority of our respondents identify social media as their main source of news (about 1 in 7) it is clear that platforms play a keyrole in how people access and find news and information about the coronavirus”
About one-quarter of those surveyed in the U.S. trust social media as a way of getting news about COVID- much more than that in the U.K. and Germany.
The article then goes on:
“Younger people rely much more on newer, more visual networks like Instagram and Snapchat for information about COVID-19. Even TikTok, popular with teenagers, has been used to pass on public health messages such as the Vietnamese song and dance about handwashing which went viral.”
I think there is a crossover between social media and news apps too. Most news sites post their articles on Twitter — thus, I would estimate that actually ~2/3rds of young people get their news from social media.
There is skew to getting news from social media. We often create our own echo chambers, hearing from those that think the same way we do, and can ignore things that we maybe don’t want to pay attention to.
Pew also found that people who use social media for a news source were less likely to follow some of the below topics — but I think the element of choice (being able to choose what we consume) via social media influenced the results. The social media users might not be following those topics closely, but they know about them.
According to Pew Research, when asked 29-fact based knowledge questions about current events, the social media group was more likely to report that they were ‘Not Sure’ rather than giving a yes-or-no answer.
It is not that most adults who rely on social media for political news chose wrong answers to these 29 questions. Instead, they were much more likely to say they were not sure: An average of 39% of social media news users said they did not know the answer across these questions.
It’s not that the social media group gave answer was wrong about current events, just that they were unsure. This highlights the barrage of information the social media feeds us, more so than the users not paying attention. Social media is an endless cycle of refresh-and-reload, and we consume hundreds of datapoints every time we log on. The ‘Not Sure’ is a signal of information overload, not information ignorance.
Here are some of the 29 questions that drove the above results:
There’s room for social media to be more educational. Can memes help with that?
The News and the Memes
There’s a crossover between news and memes. The news is meant to give us objective information about important things, versus memes which can skew the information in a subjective way.
With each day of 2020 feeling like an entire year, the lines are getting increasingly blurry between news and memes. There is almost too much information to keep up with.
Memes have an element of virality. If we want to get information out quickly, what better format than memes? It normalizes the news (somewhat), makes politics something that can be more bearable (if possible) to discuss, and can encourage people to do more research (hopefully).
Memes are visual.
News articles are not.
Memes lessen the blow of the surreal nature of the current state of the world. Things are overwhelming, and every single day we have to process information that directly impacts our everyday lives. Memes bring levity to the intensity of what we are experiencing. Memes can have the power to make us take a step back and reconsider events, but there’s risk for desensitization and disassociation.
It is extremely important to note that memes can be incredibly offensive. Things like the memeziation of Breonna Taylor are extremely harmful. Her death is not a joke.
It’s a fine line. These are memes that are designed to make people question their beliefs (like “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor”) but ultimately can trivialize the issue at hand and diminish the seriousness and importance of truly arresting the cops that killed Breonna.
Also, there are many meme accounts that are hateful and racist. The “Pepe the Frog” meme evolved into a “politically active, racist, and anti-Semitic” meme back in 2016.
Memes are tools of navigation, meant to be used in conjunction with actually news sources. We use them as methods to process the massive amount of information that is thrown at us every single day.
Remember the toilet paper fiasco earlier this year? This meme is a cultural artifact of that time. The time when Americans were rushing grocery stores to get toilet paper, of all things. This meme conveys the intensity of that event, the ludicrousness that only comes with hindsight, and brings humor to a very odd situation.
We now have a visual museum of 2020, archived in memes and other short-form content, for better or for worse. Even SNL was “flat and uninspired” after its first episode back since COVID-19 lockdown began. The world is so bizarre right now that it’s become difficult to build satire around it.
Memes are not journalists. But they do help us process 2020, and piece together everything that is happening, to an extent. We are all tired.
Should they become our primary source of information? No.
But do they serve some sort of purpose as we all navigate the eon of 2020? Yes.
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