Political memes: negatively influencing young voters

October 11, 2017 — by Katherine Zhou

Here is a typical scene that occurs thousands of times across the nation each day: an 18-year-old wants to find out what’s going on in the world. Instead of checking CNN, FOX or reading The New York Times, this teen decides to open his Facebook app, where his timeline is flooded with memes.

These memes, or humorous images, videos or text with references to pop culture, are now their own form of language, a kind of shorthand that has taken the place of traditional dialogue. Memes are also replacing traditional humor, such as comic strips and editorial cartoons.

Virtually every teen who has social media follows meme accounts, and many high school conversations contain at least one reference to them.

Although it may seem strange, memes have a profound influence on teens’ political beliefs because they spend so much time looking at them and often believe what they say — even though they’re often the definition of fake news.

For example, take the Zodiac Killer meme. During the Republican primaries, it jokingly accused Texas senator Ted Cruz of being the Zodiac Killer. Most of us would recognize this meme as nonsense, but according to the Brown Political Review, “in a recent survey from Public Policy Polling, almost 40 percent of Floridians reported they were either confident or ‘not sure’ whether Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer, with a full 10 percent responding confidently that they in fact thought he was.”

More serious memes can also spread misinformation. One of my Facebook friends re-shared a meme before the 2016 presidential election, claiming that because African-American candidate Dr. Ben Carson went to the library every day when he was young and is now successful, there is no such thing as white privilege.

Not only is this message hurtful, but it was made by someone who clearly hadn’t researched the complexities of white privilege.

These false assumptions like the one presented in the Ben Carson meme have become a recurring theme for meme pages. Deep down, most people don’t go to meme pages to gain a new perspective; they go in order to validate their already existing views. Unsurprisingly, most political meme pages swing extremely left-wing or extremely right-wing.

Memes can also be used as a form of propaganda. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was a joke on social media, mocked so frequently on meme pages that she lost substantial appeal among younger voters.

By contrast, Donald Trump didn’t even need to spend the millions of dollars his opponents did on TV advertising because of the vast number of supporters who spread his messages on social media (including many of them created by Russians, but that’s another story). Surprisingly, even older Trump supporters have taken to social media and meme pages to spread his views.

According to The New York Times, “a study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who analyzed high-performing social media posts during the final two months of the campaign, nearly two-thirds of the most popular election tweets were either anti-Clinton or pro-Trump.”

Along with that, many people who spread or created memes about Trump were not necessarily supporters, but were simply joking because they didn’t think he had a chance at winning.

According to the Chicago Tribune, many Trump supporters on 4Chan, a right-wing online forum, supported the candidate simply because he was meme-d about so much.

“‘I'm f---- trembling out of excitement brahs,’ one 4channer wrote, adding a very excited Pepe the Frog drawing, a symbol of Neo-Nazi white supremacy. ‘We actually elected a meme as president.’”

These memes also had an impact in affecting Trump-leaning voters, many of whom perceived even satiric memes as facts.

These meme pages have helped further divide our already divided nation. Conservatives don’t believe what liberals are saying, and liberals don’t believe what conservatives are saying because of the great amount of misinformation out there.

Social media websites such as Facebook and Instagram should have more people  fact-checking the information spread on memes, and try to regulate political meme pages that may masquerade as actual news.

Most importantly, people themselves should make an effort to get their news from somewhere besides a social media website.

 

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