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Memes Are to Make You Laugh; But What if They Spread Disinformation?

Memes are increasingly being used as carriers of fake news, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Updated
WebQoof
4 min read

[VIDEO EDITOR: RAHUL SANPUI]

Meme

/mẽm/

(n.) an image, video or text piece, usually humourous in nature, which is copied and spread rapidly by internet users.

Anybody who has been on the internet even for a short while, doesn't need the above definition to understand what a meme is. We all receive and share several of them with our friends and families on a daily basis.

Remember how the Bernie Sanders meme broke the internet after an image of the Vermont senator wearing oversized mittens and brown coat on the day of President Joe Biden's inauguration went viral on social media? Or how the angry and disappointed look of a Pakistani cricket fan during a World Cup match between Pakistan and Australia in 2019, made him a sensation in the world of memes?

  • 01/02

    Bernie Sanders' photo, from Joe Biden's inauguration, which became a popular meme.

    (Photo: Twitter/Screenshot)

    <div class="paragraphs"><p>Bernie Sanders' photo, from Joe Biden's inauguration, which became a popular meme.</p></div>
  • 02/02

    Muhammad Sarim Akhtar, a Pakistani cricket fan, became a popular meme after an image of him being angry and disappointed went viral on social media during the 2019 Cricket World Cup.

    (Photo: Twitter/Screenshot)

    <div class="paragraphs"><p>Muhammad Sarim Akhtar,&nbsp;a Pakistani cricket fan, became a popular meme after an image of him being angry and disappointed went viral on social media during the 2019 Cricket World Cup.</p></div>
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While memes mostly appear harmless, they are increasingly being used as potential carriers of disinformation and fake news, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We analysed several such memes that were being shared on different social media platforms and spoke to researchers to find out what makes a meme the 'weapon of choice' for those who want to peddle false information and what can be done to moderate them.

MEMES AND COVID-19 PANDEMIC

While in the past we saw memes being used to spread disinformation and propaganda during the elections, legitimise homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism, they are also used to promote vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories amid the pandemic.

Anti-vaxxer groups, like Awaken India Movement, are using these memes to push their propaganda on Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

  • <div class="paragraphs"><p>You can read our fact-check on claims about COVID-19 vaccines killing people, <a href="https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/will-all-vaccinated-people-die-in-2-years-fact-check#read-more">here</a>.</p></div>
  • <div class="paragraphs"><p>You can read our fact-check on claims around masks being a government propaganda <a href="https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/misleading-anti-mask-study-shared-to-claim-masks-dont-prevent-covid-19">here</a>.</p></div>
  • <div class="paragraphs"><p>You can read our fact-check debuking this claim <a href="https://fit.thequint.com/fit-webqoof/covid-19-vaccine-magnetic">here</a>.</p></div>

The Quint's WebQoof team has done several stories debunking these rumours around COVID-19 vaccines and masks.

BUT WHY ARE MEMES BECOMING SO POPULAR AMONG FAKE-NEWS PEDDLERS?

We spoke to Anunaya Rajhans, writing faculty at Ashoka University, who said that memes are an excellent choice, not only for propagating disinformation but for any sort of narrativising in a community.

“Disinformation is not new but new forms of disinformation are emerging, which pose a concern because we do not know how to regulate them. And memes are an excellent choice, not only for propagating disinformation but for any sort of narrativising in a community, in a society, or in a discourse. The most obvious reason why they are such a good choice is that they lack authority and accountability."
Anunaya Rajhans, Writing Faculty, Ashoka University

Rajhans, who closely follows the internet meme culture, added that we hardly ever know who created a particular meme, which, in turn, allows people to create content without a sense of accountability.

HOW SERIOUSLY SHOULD MEMES BE TAKEN?

Several people argue that memes should not be taken seriously even when they are insensitive and problematic. But who decides which memes are problematic and which ones should be called out? To answer this, we must first understand that memes are byte sized information packages with a lot of loaded context and relatability which makes them the perfect fit for viral content on internet.

While most of us might think of a meme as just a funny piece of information on internet, Richard Dawkins, who first coined the term in his 1976 book, 'The Selfish Gene', described them as ‘units of culture’.

Unlike cartoons or other forms of satire, they are not dependent on the name or reputation of the author but become a collective property of culture.

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To further understand the difference between memes and other forms of satire, we spoke to Arathy Puthillum, senior research assistant at Monk Prayogshala.

“With respect to cartoonists, they have a particular platform, which is usually gate-kept. But, it’s very difficult to draw the line (between problematic and non-problematic memes). A lot of people have been trying to figure out for a very long time and differentiate between what is legitimately funny and what is funny in a deprecating or harmful manner.”
Arathy Puthillum, Senior Resarch Assistant, Monk Prayogshala

Once they go viral, memes take a life of their own as no one is answerable for the hateful and transgressive ideas they represent. Over the years, we’ve seen how memes were used by Russia to influence the US election in 2016. Their roles in conflicts across the globe, like those between Israel and Gaza, China and Hong Kong, and even India and Pakistan, were also noteworthy.

  • 01/03

    Several memes targeting Hillary Clinton were widely shared during the 2016 US Presidential Elections.

    (Photo: WhatsApp)

    <div class="paragraphs"><p>Several memes targeting Hillary Clinton were widely shared during the 2016 US Presidential Elections.</p></div>
  • 02/03

    Memes are regularly being used to target protesters in Hong Kong.

    (Photo: WhatsApp)

    <div class="paragraphs"><p>Memes are regularly being used to target protesters in Hong Kong.</p></div>
  • 03/03

    Several memes targeting Wing Cdr Abhinandan went viral on social media in Pakistan after the Balakot Air Strike.

    (Photo: WhatsApp)

    <div class="paragraphs"><p>Several memes targeting Wing Cdr Abhinandan went viral on social media in Pakistan after the Balakot Air Strike.</p></div>

IS IT POSSIBLE TO MODERATE MEMES?

Researchers across the world have acknowledged that memes have become a problem. However, there is no guaranteed tool that can be used to moderate memes on the internet.

Although many have pinned their hopes on the use of Artificial Intelligence, most researchers argue that it isn’t equipped to understand the context behind memes yet.

Rajhans said that while Artificial Intelligence has been constantly improving, it is very difficult to use it for content moderation. "Computers need to be told what to censor and for any such coding to take place, we must first have a collective understanding of what is problematic and what is not problematic," he says.

Clearly, with memes becoming more and more impactful by the day researchers have landed in a Catch-22 situation on content moderation.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>To meme or not to meme?&nbsp;</p></div>

To meme or not to meme? 

(Photo: Twitter)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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