Memes, and social media more generally, are incredibly powerful tools that contribute to the normalization of ideas, beliefs, and overall culture. The things that we are exposed to in our social media feeds have significant potential to reinforce certain ideas, and perhaps misrepresent how commonplace and accepted they really are. Despite this significant power to contribute to and shape cultural hegemonies, it seems to me that most people generally consider memes–and nearly all social media content–not quite as seriously as they ought to.
One of the significant issues when studying interactions in online communities is that it is impossible to every fully determine the intent or purpose of any given content. For example, when a particular meme instance is created, there really is no way of determining how much of it is a joke, and how much of it is actually meant sincerely. This is further complicated by the fact that the concept of authorship really doesn’t apply to memes. Even if you can identify the individual who posted something to social media, more often than not they are simply re-sharing content that they found elsewhere, and are not the original creators of a particular meme instance.
However, it doesn’t matter if something is meant as a joke or not. All that matters is how it is perceived. And in the case of many Internet memes, most people don’t take them very seriously at all. Because of this, we’re not necessarily pay attention to the other effects that they may have. They may present ideas in a casual and joking manner, but in doing so can also reinforce the notion that the ideas they are common, widespread, and accepted.
In her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Whitney Phillips draws comparisons between mainstream cable news pundits and Internet trolls. She argues that the two are actually more similar than most would think. They both amplify and spread certain messages which has the effect of promoting various ideologies. This is an unsurprising statement in the context of cable news, but its a notion that is less frequently ascribed to online communities–trolls or otherwise. However, it is nonetheless true that the Internet and social media services have made it possible for an individual to reach an incredibly large audience, possibly setting up the potential for memes shared via social media to behave very similarly to talking points repeated verbatim by talking heads.
However, the scale of their possible ideological effects is vastly different, largely due to the different positions that each holds in society. When we watch TV, we’re expecting to be “talked at.” We’re primed and ready for advertisements to pitch their products and for the cable news to promote certain viewpoints. We expect this to happen, so we’re able to better prepare ourselves for it, and thus diminish the potential effect.
But in the case of social media, we don’t have this same automatic defense. Whereas on TV there is a certain degree of separation between the people that appear at the news desk and the “real people” that play those roles, individuals we interact with online seem more like actual people. We understand that cable news anchors are not “real people” in the same way that someone posting on Instagram is. Whether it is fully realized or not, there is a distinction between their “TV persona” and the real person. (Just think about the difference between Stephen Colbert the person and Stephen Colbert the character!)
When we’re looking at memes, we don’t have this same level of separation. We expect that the content that we come across is being shared by actual individuals, and not necessarily that of a constructed persona. Whether or not this is actually the case is a future project I hope to work on, but the end result is the same: we’re not “expecting” to be inundated with ideologies–so we’re not as aware when they are present.
For example, when Fox News accuses CNN of being “fake news” we are able to accept that that’s just part of their brand, image, and overall messaging as a right-wing conservative news outlet. When Sean Hannity makes this assertion we know he’s “not a real person,” in the sense his TV persona is different from the real person that he actually is. Of course, it is entirely possible that the real Sean Hannity truly believes these things, but as mentioned previously there really is no way of knowing true intent. However, the fact remains that we’re able to see such as thing as a media story coming from “not a real person” so we’re able to file and categorize it in our minds accordingly. It isn’t necessarily taken as seriously.\
But when we see similar claims of “CNN = Fake News” in our social media feeds, the effect is entirely different. It reminds us that there are in fact real people who think these things, not just cable news personalities. Even though seeing this image won’t necessarily change anybody’s opinions about CNN, it reinforces the notion that there are real people who really believe these things. Of course it doesn’t hurt when the President himself amplifies the idea, and has reached the point that the relation between CNN and Trump & the Republican Party has become somewhat of a meme in and of itself. It’s something that we joke about and can make fun of.
However, because we see images like this primarily as jokes, we run the risk of becoming blind to the other effect that it is having. Namely that it is normalizing certain cultural beliefs and ideals. You don’t have to agree with it to help it grow, and through social media and memes it is entirely possible that we just come to accept that this belief (the distrust and outright hatred for CNN) is indeed valid, widely held, and eventually becomes normalized.
So yes, a lot of the stuff we come across on social media and in the memes that we see is largely seen as joking, humorous, and not meant to be taken too seriously. But it’s important to keep in mind that even if something is viewed as a joke, the effects that it can end up having are nothing to joke about at all.