Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Memes, Virality, and Propaganda

Posted on | July 31, 2020 | No Comments

Today we are faced with a new and potentially ominous form of manipulation, an insidious form of propaganda dissemination. I’m talking about the viral spread of memes. The “meme” has emerged as a powerful communication device in the modern world of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. A meme here refers to a digital image, usually a jpeg or PNG, with a short text caption that is easily posted and shared. Usually, they imply a joke or political message that can be diffused quickly and widely to a broad audience.

In this post, I examine the proliferation of memes and their potentially damaging effect on political culture. I discuss the rhetoric of memes and particularly the viral spread of memes as a new form of propaganda. Propaganda utilizes elements of powerful media techniques, to have specific effects.

What is propaganda? One of my colleagues at New York University, had an apt description. Media ecologist Neil Postman called propaganda an “intentionally designed communication that invites us to respond emotionally, immediately and in an either-or manner.” Propaganda is the use of powerful rhetorical forms that work on the individual to energize, promote, stimulate, and determine ideologies. Propaganda can mobilize support for political action as well as pressure for the legislation and implementation of specific policies.

    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. – Joan Donovan

What makes memes more insidious is that the propaganda is administered by some of a person’s most trusted friends. The goal of a meme is to to spread rapidly through a population, to go viral. This is a diffusion process where a meme is shared from person-to-person or person-to-group, despite the existence of weak links. The goal is to reach a point of exponential growth for the meme’s exposure and influence.

The success of the virality depends on a high “pass-along rate” where individuals are motivated to share their meme to others. A common communication network facilitates virality as a meme may be “retweeted” in the Twitter environment or “shared” on Facebook. It helps if the process is easy – clicking a button rather than cutting and pasting. This is setting the bar low, but decisions are made very quickly and dependent on relatively weak motivations.

An important measure is the virality rate, the number of people who went on to share your meme compared to the number of unique views or impressions it had during a certain period. You can get this metric by dividing the number of total shares of the meme by the number of impressions. Multiply that figure by 100 to get your virality rate percentage. The higher the percentage, the better the meme.

Memes can be created with a program like Adobe’s Photoshop or Adobe Spark. You can also a specialized meme generator application on the Internet or your mobile phone, such as Word Swag.

Memes are designed to crystallize or fix sets of meanings that Postman argued causes us react quickly and emotionally. They draw on bits of culture, such as slogans, cartoon images, and brand items that are small and easily remembered. They are packaged semiotically with images and text juxtaposed in ways that invite us to construct more complex associations. They are usually structured enough to draw us into some preferred meanings, yet evocative yet enough to draw on the reader’s string of cultural, economic or political associations. Memes are usually vague enough to leave much for our imaginations to interject.

Memes are much like posters in that they remove authorship. The effect can be ominous, creating an authoritative “voice of God.” No one “has to answer for transgressive or hateful ideas.” Memes can be weaponized and diffused quickly through society.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. He has also taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand. He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas and has taught there in the Digital Media MBA program at St. Edwards University He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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  • About Me

    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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