“How memes got weaponized: A short history”
MIT Technology Review, October 24, 2019
Humans and technology
By Joan Donovan
“Memes come off as a joke, but some people are starting to see them as the serious threat they are.”
In October 2016, a friend of mine learned that one of his wedding photos had made its way into a post on a right-wing message board. The picture had been doctored to look like an ad for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and appeared to endorse the idea of drafting women into the military. A mutual friend of ours found the image first and sent him a message: “Ummm, I saw this on Reddit, did you make this?”
This was the first my friend had heard of it. He hadn’t agreed to the use of his image, which was apparently taken from his online wedding album. But he also felt there was nothing he could do to stop it.
So rather than poke the trolls by complaining, he ignored it and went on with his life. Most of his friends had a laugh at the fake ad, but I saw a huge problem. As a researcher of media manipulation and disinformation, I understood right away that my friend had become cannon fodder in a “meme war”—the use of slogans, images, and video on social media for political purposes, often employing disinformation and half-truths.
While today we tend to think of memes as funny images online, Richard Dawkins coined the term back in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene, where he described how culture is transmitted through generations. In his definition, memes are “units of culture” spread through the diffusion of ideas. Memes are particularly salient online because the internet crystallizes them as artifacts of communication and accelerates their distribution through subcultures.
Importantly, as memes are shared they shed the context of their creation, along with their authorship. Unmoored from the trappings of an author’s reputation or intention, they become the collective property of the culture. As such, memes take on a life of their own, and no one has to answer for transgressive or hateful ideas.
And while a lot of people think of memes as harmless entertainment—funny, snarky comments on current events—we’re far beyond that now. Meme wars are a consistent feature of our politics, and they’re not just being used by internet trolls or some bored kids in the basement, but by governments, political candidates, and activists across the globe. Russia used memes and other social-media tricks to influence the US election in 2016, using a troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency to seed pro-Trump and anti-Clinton content across various online platforms. Both sides in territorial conflicts like those between Hong Kong and China, Gaza and Israel, and India and Pakistan are using memes and viral propaganda to sway both local and international sentiment.
About the Author:
Joan Donovan leads the Technology and Social Change Research Project in the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.