Memes and visuals come to the fore

“What concerns me more than the fact that memes and visuals spread misinformation is the idea that the media industry as a whole may be falling behind agents of disinformation when it comes to fluency with the norms and practice of internet culture. This leaves many journalists and audiences vulnerable to new forms of manipulation.”

If 2017 ushered in a growing awareness and conversation in the Western world about the impact of misinformation, disinformation, and media manipulation, 2018 is the year we start taking memetic misinformation and disinformation seriously.

As Nausicaa Renner wrote early in 2017, “The fake news conversation has taken place in the realm of words, but that’s missing a big part of the story. Much of the content that circulates on Facebook are images, often memes.” And indeed, in a recent talk at MisinfoCon London, First Draft director Claire Wardle highlighted memes and visuals as one of her group’s top lessons this past year: “Just because it’s easier to parse text doesn’t mean that’s all we should be doing…Agents of disinformation know that it’s all about visuals and memes. Our brains are a lot less likely to be critical of visuals.”

Memes, of course, don’t just have a role in misinformation; they are increasingly a part of our general media landscape. Whether it’s the Distracted Boyfriend, Bernie Sanders photo remixes developed and circulated by Russian propagandists, or illustrations and hashtags brought to protests, memes are part of our political culture, utilized by advocacy groups and the president of the United States alike to spread messages. In 2018, journalists will be paying more attention to them, whether as tools of media manipulation, advocacy and amplification, and, yes, even journalism.

Here are four key questions journalists should ask as we look toward 2018:

  • What do we mean by “memes”? Internet scholars and researchers have long been debating what memes are and how they operate, and being more precise about what we mean by memes will be necessary to developing strategies for working with them. Visual Social Media Lab’s coming typology of visual misinformation will be critical here, and we can also learn a lot on how others talk about memes. Amanda Brennan, Tumblr’s meme librarian (yes, that’s her job title), defines memes as “pieces of content that travel from person to person and change along the way.” This means we need to consider more than images: text-based memes, hashtags, videos, and even forms of offline content count too.
  • How do memes spread information disorder? If we run with Brennan’s definition and take a more expansive view of memes to include pieces of content that are not visual, the challenges of addressing information disorder can seem overwhelming. But it’s important to understand that on the internet, content is frequently remixed, recontextualized, and repurposed across a variety of media, spread by both people and bots on public and private social networks in ways outside the bounds of traditional journalistic media. We have to understand these dynamics if we want to meaningfully address them, and, in addition to the folks I’ve mentioned already, groups like the media manipulation research group at Data & Society are working to articulate these patterns.
  • How can journalists use memes? While memes and visuals spread information disorder, we also need to understand that they are now key to the communications landscape. In addition to the information they convey, they also carry notions of emotion, narrative, and identity. It’s time for a broader discussion in media about how and when we should utilize memes and visuals effectively. Creative visuals developed by AJ+, Chequeado and BuzzFeed provide key examples in this regard, as do catchy visual explainers circulated by groups like the ACLU. We in journalism should begin to discuss this more broadly, to develop best practices around how to utilize memetic media effectively in our work.
  • How can we work collaboratively and across disciplines? Importantly, memes often rely on catchy visuals and phrases, and consequently, they spread globally in ways that other types of content do not. We’ll need to build global, multilingual coalitions to fully understand their scope and reach. Journalists and bloggers at the recent Global Voices Summit have begun thinking through strategies for identifying and tracking memes as they spread globally and across languages, and Viz Lab is developing a dashboard for tracking misinformation memes. As well, our work at the Credibility Coalition aims to develop indicators of misinformation for many types of online content, and to do that effectively, we need a diverse, multidisciplinary group with global perspectives.

What concerns me more than the fact that memes and visuals spread misinformation is the idea that the media industry as a whole may be falling behind agents of disinformation when it comes to fluency with the norms and practice of internet culture. This leaves many journalists and audiences vulnerable to new forms of manipulation. In 2018, we should start tackling this challenge urgently and in earnest. It would meme a lot.

An Xiao Mina is director of product at Meedan and project lead at the Credibility Coalition.

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