Stop Sharing Political Memes

Modern politics has always been replete with issues about which people feel passionate, sometimes aggressively so. But the culture wars currently raging in the US, Canada, and across much of the industrialized West seem to be particularly fraught. In my 50-plus years, I have never seen so much anger and hostility among citizens of otherwise stable countries. Some of these people will participate in protests or engage in civil disobedience, but many more will employ the political meme to express their discontent. Given how widespread the phenomenon has become, it’s worth asking whether political memes actually advance advocacy goals and our knowledge of important issues, or if they simply feed an unconstructive cycle of anger, misinformation, and polarization.

The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins, who used it to describe units of culture, socially transmitted and imitated across generations in ways synonymous with genes—adaptive ideas survive, while maladaptive ideas perish. But in the social media age, the word usually refers to “an image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users often with slight variations.” The subset of memes that focus on politics are generally designed to boil complex issues down to a digestible combination of emotive image and sloganeering text that flatters those who agree with its message and provokes those who do not.

Most academics who study memes agree that they are poisonous to healthy public discourse (“toxic” is a word that crops up a lot, even in the scholarly literature). One scholar bluntly called them “one of the main vehicles for misinformation,” and they tend to distort reality in several ways. By their very nature, they leave no room for nuance or complexity, and so they are frequently misleading; they tend to lean heavily on scornful condescension and moral sanctimony (usually, the intended takeaway is that anyone who agrees with the point of view being—inaccurately—mocked is an imbecile); they make copious use of ad hominem attacks, straw man fallacies, and motte-and-bailey arguments; they intentionally catastrophize, generalize, personalize, and encourage dichotomous thinking; and they are aggressive and sometimes dehumanizing. They are, in other words, methods of Internet communication that display all the symptoms of a borderline personality type of mental disorder. Of course, it’s possible to construct a meme that is short yet still thoughtful and sophisticated, but these are few and far between.

The best evidence we have today is incomplete and limited, but it suggests that political memes have a net negative effect on society. If the idea is to persuade or advance practical advocacy goals, then there is little evidence that they work. To the contrary, they may be counterproductive—the evidence we do have suggests that they contribute to political polarization, distort issues in the name of political expediency, and provoke indignation, hatred, and intolerance (on both sides of the political spectrum). Yes, the available evidence is fragmentary and would certainly benefit from better and more open science designs. However, it accords with larger observations about social media and political polarization. Perhaps new and better research will reveal that alarm about the negative effects of memes is simply another moral panic comparable to those that arose around video games or smoking in movies. But since memes add almost nothing to public discourse that would offset the risks, it’s probably worth hesitating before sharing them.

During my time on social media, I’ve noticed that many of the people who complain about our political and cultural polarization—and social media’s role in it, specifically—nonetheless gleefully participate in one of the more evident examples of its toxicity. These aren’t random anons on the Internet, but mainly Facebook friends I’ve known and liked for years. Until perhaps five years ago, they seemed like intelligent and rational individuals without melted brains. I’ve sometimes engaged with meme sharers in an attempt to glean a sense of their motivation, but these exchanges are seldom productive. People get strangely protective of memes, and become much more defensive when challenged than if an op-ed they’ve shared is disputed. Longer form communications seem to be open to rigorous but respectful debate in ways that memes are not. It doesn’t appear to matter whether one attempts to debate the content of the meme itself, or the practice of sharing memes—criticizing a meme can feel tantamount to insulting someone’s child.

This may be partly because political memes invariably flatten political and ethical complexity into binary narratives of good and evil. They are cast as profound moral statements signaling allegiance to the in-group, and so they are meant to attract approval (likes, reshares, and praise) not discussion or objections. Certainly, many op-eds are partisan garbage, but political memes are a compact version of all that is wrong with modern discourse. To suggest that someone’s virtuous declaration is actually just the kind of spiteful dishonesty they say they deplore in opponents is likely to produce significant cognitive dissonance. The most common retort—that it’s “just a joke”—is unsatisfactory. Bipartisan memes can also be funny, but the whole point of the political meme is to deride and humiliate. They are bullying dressed as humor.

Another common response is “They did it first” or “They deserve it,” the kind of argument we are taught is irrelevant in kindergarten. If the other side has misbehaved, how does it help to respond with the same kind of misbehavior? “I am playing them at their own game” and “holding them to their own standards” is a poor and self-serving move—once you participate in the game according to those standards, they become your standards too. The upshot is a downward spiral of mutually destructive conduct in which the only motivation is to outdo an opponent. In psychology, blindness to one’s own faults and hypersensitivity to an opponent’s (even when they are identical) is called myside bias. And this is particularly prevalent in the tribal warfare waged on social media.

Political memes are calls-to-action, and they offer a cost-free means of engaging in advocacy that requires very little of the individual in terms of time or resources. But in that sense, they represent a kind of faux-advocacy because there’s little evidence that they do much to effect real-world policy change. If anything, the derision and complacency in which they trade almost certainly turns potential allies off. That just leaves the true believers to like and recirculate such content within an increasingly conformist echo chamber. The incentives are perverse.

Political memes are most likely ignored by most of the populace, or at least those who are not perpetually online. But they serve as a cheap kind of holy writ for the obedient foot-soldier on the Right or the Left, further circumscribing their ability to think critically or acknowledge the possibility of error. You can’t be a good Republican unless you believe Democrats want to steal every election. You can’t be a good Democrat unless you believe Republicans want to create a fascist state modeled on The Handmaid’s Tale (and yes, I know some people reading this are crying “But they do!”).

Political memes are basically a doorway into stupidity and misery. Seeing a fair number of people I know and respect walk through that door has been a depressing but eye-opening experience. But these poor unfortunates are rubes: victims of a business model centered on stoking outrage and conflict. We need to find ways to understand our opponents better. They are, after all, our fellow citizens. We could start by taking a straightforward step in the right direction: Stop sharing political memes.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/07/23/stop-sharing-political-memes/

Good post. I wrote about memes back in May after reading an earlier Quillette article o the topic (‘Confessions of a Social-Justice Meme Maker’). My post on the subject is here: Memes, Political Persuasion, and Political Intimidation.

If I were clever enough, I would create a meme showing the Federal Reserve printing oodles of cash, going into the wallets and purses of a number of people who were standing about, bidding up the price of a loaf of bread. So there, . . . you see? I could convey a fairly complex idea by a simple but effective means. (An idea which desperately needs conveying, BTW.) Thus, memes can be a force for good.

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I not sure appealing to people’s respect for complexity and nuance is going to discourage progressives from sharing memes. Progressivism only works in meme-form. While less sophisticated conservatives have been seduced by social media’s demand for brevity and stupidity into sharing the dumbest of memes, progressives have perfected the sucker-punch-and-run method of debate which memes embody. When we say we wish memes would go away, we’re actually saying we wish the terrifyingly stupid ideas that are consuming the minds and arousing the activist impulses of our friends, neighbors, and relatives would go away. And they’re not going away.

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Did you talk to people who like and defend mems in general or just the political ones? Anyways you’re preaching to the choir mostly here I think.

You say it’s unlikely to change anything but a plea to stop would also come from the side taking the most damage from these memes, and would be motivated to portray itself as middle ground when making the plea.

Plus it’s art. The line between politics and humor is fine. You could claim anything political.

You call it divisive but seeing many people’s idea of unity these days, some actual diversity doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Unless you’re just trying to hold on to your waning power. Good luck with that.

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Political cartoon, which can be seen as a forerunner of memes, have been with us since at least the late 1800s. In my post linked above, I asked:

“Is the effect of today’s bad memes any worse than that of scurrilous political cartoons in, say, 1900?”…and answered

“I think that it may be: In 1900, literacy (in a broad sense) was on an upswing, and key cultural institutions of society were encouraging more of it, as did the technologies of the time. Whereas today, literacy (in the sense of being able to read, follow, and understand arguments of some complexity) seems to be on the decline, a trend certainly aggravated by the short-attention-span nature of much Internet media.”

Also, the always interesting Sarah Hoyt compared memes with proverbs:

Of all the ways people have come up with to avoid thinking, I like memes the most. They are so ridiculously easy to fall into. You see the words, you see the picture and you go “ah ah, that’s so true.” Even when on a minute’s reflection it makes no sense whatsoever…I think in a way it follows the same pattern that proverbs followed in more ancient cultures…While proverbs were ways not to have to think or short cuts around thinking, they weren’t, by themselves, pernicious…Proverbs are in a way, the encoding of societal wisdom into short cuts to lead people into ways that have worked before…Memes are similar, but you have to remove societal wisdom and put in “the commanding forces of culture and mass media”.

See Jargon, Proverbs, and Memes

Well I guess the author of this article came across a meme that was deemed to be hurtful or inappropriate and therefore went on this tirade suggesting censorship of this form of communication.

The other side of meme’s not discussed in the article is that it is todays way for the ordinary man in the street to convey a commonly shared sentiment. It propagates because it touches a nerve, similar to the way stand up comedy does. Back in Roman times this was conveyed via graffiti. The emperor and the senate could pontificate to their hearts content, and then get instant feedback in the form of graffiti. How else to the people get a voice? Emperors like Julius Caesar with huge ego’s were very sensitive to graffiti.

Take this one for example, if you are a Democrat and are sensitive to how your party is being perceived by a large portion of the population it might give you food for thought.

If not, then you will suggest that this form of communication get discontinued.

I challenge anyone to convey so much so concisely and so effectively using any other means of communication.

I like this one that is not particularly political put sends a message about how one generation might see the next today. It works from both ends of the age spectrum.

I personally think the meme is a great improvement on graffiti. Long may it live and prosper.

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However this flies in the face of another stance Quillette (and the Right in general) hold when it comes to the telling of actual jokes. In this telling it is comedians, and comedy in general, which are a necessary component in the free market of ideas. They have the ability to lampoon and satirize sacred cows and in doing so speak truths that otherwise cannot be spoken.

However when it comes to humorous memes this principle is discarded. Instead the lack of nuance, ability to unfairly satirize, and the use of mockery become undesirable things which are harmful. This is exactly what we Progressives have been saying for years.

I ask, how is sharing a 30 second clip of Dave Chappelle being one-sided, mocking, and unfair so different from someone sharing a one-sided, mocking, and unfair meme? How is one an important safe guard for liberal democracy, while the other is “toxic” and manages to “distort issues in the name of political expediency, and provoke indignation, hatred, and intolerance”. In what way are comedians not using a “business model centered on stoking outrage and conflict”?

And just as importantly, how are memes this incredibly powerful and corrosive when the essay admits that they are “ignored by most of the populace” and the only people who pay attention to them are those who already believe in what they say?

Ironically the reason for this dissonance is spelled out within the essay.

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If it’s “unfair” that means it’s not true. So counter it with truth. Truth is 1/3 what makes an effective meme (the other two parts are humor and brevity).

Of course if you cant counter it with truth because it’s already true then by all means complain about how it’s “unfair” and try to ban comedy. Again good luck. Doing away with comedy is not progress. Comedy actually seperates us from the lower animals. I know you’d like to tear it all down and be down there with them. People like me and Chappelle are going to ensure you have to use force to acheive these regressive aims. Show your true face.

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“Caricature is one of the most important artistic methods in expressing political and social criticism and protest in the language of satire and humor. Political cartoons became very popular in the July Revolution (1830) and during the reign of King Louis-Philippe of France due to his corruption and inefficiency, as well as pressure and opposition to freedom of expression and the publication of critical newspapers. The caricaturists of this period protested against the actions of the king and the courtiers by the leadership of Charles Philipon and with publishing satirical cartoons. The King’s representation became a pear as an artistic movement and a symbol of royal corruption.”

“The process of these artistic protests and the use of pears by a significant number of cartoonists created a movement that can be called the “Pear Movement”. These publications were distributed to a good level of the society, and the publication of pear cartoons caused them to be depicted everywhere, and the pear shape was painted on the walls of Paris by people and even children for a period. The “Pear Movement” also had a significant impact on the subsequent socio-political developments in France.”

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I smell a rat.
A grooming contagion plague is upon us ergo the end of western civilisation is nigh’ kind of rat that shows up at any form of resistance to corruption & injustice. The new right is a very different animal from its predecessor. The market place of ideas just doesn’t quite sell as much as fear mongering….

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While I always appreciate Quillette’s general targetting, this article is pointing in the exactly wrong direction. Saying memes are bad is like saying analogies are bad or slogans are bad or elevator pitches are bad. It’s such a dumb way of thinking I can’t believe the author is acting like there’s a point to what they’re saying. And what makes them think that sharing some political books or speeches are any less likely to lead to the problems they describe?

What they actually seem to mean is that incendiary, poisonous, thoughtless, etc. etc. etc. communication isn’t helpful. I’m not sure if they felt like that article wouldn’t get published if they tried to just make that point (it wouldn’t, it’s pretty obvious and represents no new thought). So they blame these communicative issues on memes and hope they get published for connecting politics with social media? Or, worse, they really don’t get that a meme is contentless–it’s a style or medium of communication. It in and of itself is nothing.

So unless they want to say slogans are bad, summaries are bad, cartoons are bad and a hundred other important ways humans represent complex ideas are all bad, this article seriously missed the mark.

Ooooh, maybe it’s being ironic, and it’s hidden point is that professional sounding research articles written by old folks about social media genres are so out of touch, they’re what’s actually bad …

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Consider that he put Right before Left when saying Right “and” Left. Consider that he added a parenthesis saying how he knows peers who will say it’s totally true that the right banning the murder of unborn humans means they want to enslave women:

You can’t be a good Democrat unless you believe Republicans want to create a fascist state modeled on The Handmaid’s Tale (and yes, I know some people reading this are crying “But they do!”).

And you’ll understand that the point is to try to stop these mems altogether because the memes are kicking the author’s home team’s fucking ass.

Who is going to be complaining about comedy “dividing” everything? The ones who can utilize truth/humor/brevity effectively or the ones who only stand to get their righteous asses kicked by the truth?

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Your daily reminder that inflicting brain damage upon people’s brains results in the damaged brains embracing leftist values.

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I would argue that the reason for your own dissonance regarding comedians and comments/jokes which you deem as being somehow “unfair” (as if comedy is a matter of fairness… wtf?) is spelled out within your own commentary and further bolstered by the fact that you did not connect this to the final quote of your reply…

I should also point out that the urgency which Progressives attach to their beliefs is a function of white supremacy since urgency is a creation of white supremacy. The logical end-point, of course, is that Progressivism is white supremacy.

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Dear Quillette editorial board,

Suggestion for a new article: Stop Sharing "Thoughts and Prayers"

Both can be pernicious in the minds of some…

I don’t think I agree here. Speaking un-carefully, I’ll generalize broadly and say democrats have very few well thought out complex policies. Most of what they believe are passionate statements (the world is gonna end, save the world, green energy will fix everything, my body my choice, black lives matter, trans rights are human rights, etc.)

If you took away this style of communication from democrats, they wouldn’t have anything. I admit I got so annoyed by the essential problem of the article I didn’t study it to truly get at the author’s intent, but my best sense is they think they’re an above the fray, impartial smart person with just enough of an understanding of complexity to be dangerous. When they write that all memes are bad, I think they think they’re actually being helpful and trying to stop something that they actually understand at only the most superficial level.

In reality, humans cannot live at full-complexity, we cannot cognitively function at anything close to full-complexity, so everything about our mental systems are designed to give us digestible, accessible, ideally reasonably accurate representations of whatever we’re looking at. Memes can be a wonderful tool in that endeavor and they can confuse the hell out of folks–just like all communication.

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The publication giving them voice can offer a clue. Show me a right wing quillette author and I’ll show you a leftist stooge who is slightly less a stooge than the other stooges eagerly shouting them down.

Seriously show me just one.

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My point, which i stated clearly, is that both political memes and political comedy are justified (or damned) by the same arguements. If you support both, good for you! If you think neither are worth anything, good for you! Both are intellectually defensible positions.

The dissonance i mentioned was in believing that one is legitimate and necessary while the other is toxic and destructive. This appears to be Quillette’s position.

I get it though. I mentioned Chappelle in a less than flattering way, so fanbois like you and Gamma got triggered and responded in defense of him, rather than to the arguement i was actually making.

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