Something is happening with the way in which we acquire and share knowledge, something that might explain the current issues that we are having with the spread of disinformation. The steady erosion of authority and expertise is a well-documented phenomenon, but what is interesting is what is replacing it. While some blame fake news, social media, blogs, YouTube videos, and many others, the reality is that one medium has risen above everything else as the most effective disseminator of misinformation and falsehood.
Enter the meme.
How did we get here?
Undoubtedly we’re living in the golden age of disinformation. Although one could easily argue that propaganda and disinformation have always been the norm, at least people used to rely both in experts and authoritative sources. There was some sort of shared reality, and a basic understanding of the meaning of truth.
The internet has made us more suspicious of media in general, but perhaps most importantly, it has also made us less reliant on authority because it often gives people a misguided idea of their own level of expertise. In an age where so much information is one quick web search away, we have become used to thinking that a quick read of a Wikipedia page on the biography of a historical figure, or a YouTube video on how to cook an egg, make us feel more intelligent and capable than we really are.
At the same time, we are reading fewer books, and watching more online content. This is not so bad per se, I remember how people used to bemoan television, and how it would eventually make people stupid and it would kill literacy. In reality TV did not do such thing, and the fact that people spend more time streaming content is not problematic in its own right. I have found some amazing documentaries on Netflix, and YouTube is filled with excellent explanations easy to digest in subject as varied as philosophy and physics. I can honestly say that I have learned about quite a few subjects that I always wanted to explore, but hadn’t found the time to read a book, or had the inclination for a deep dive. The YouTube format lends itself to the exploration of a few interesting subjects, and there are young and talented content creators who are both willing and capable to explain complex issues in a short period of time, using visual tools to illustrate their points.
The problem is not the internet as such, but the fact that we seem to have given up on experts, and while there are lots of authoritative content online, there’s much dross, and not only that, there seems to be a reliance on easy to share images such as memes.
We could argue that memes are just a continuation of propaganda and advertising. For the most part memes have become a social phenomenon that allows us to have a shared visual language in which to convey humorous content. I have been fascinated with how memes have become the new signpost of coolness and being “in the know”. In the past, young people used either fashion or music as a marker of coolness, as a music pedant I would signal my coolness by showing off my musical knowledge of obscure bands. But this knowledge was hard to come by, I had to know about music groups through magazines, and buying rare music was difficult in Costa Rica in pre-internet times. Things have changed now, music knowledge is easy to come by when you have Shazam, SoundHound, Spotify and Google. So the coolness signifier has become the meme. I recently overhead a young man was describing a meme to his friends, and I swear that he said “you wouldn’t know about it”. Gen Z uses memes as hipsters used rare indie bands.
It is in this environment that memes have become extremely powerful, and they seem to be swaying people towards disinformation. Anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, Q, and the alt-right have become excellent purveyors of memes. This would not be so bad if their targets would have another source of information, but at the same time as memes are being deployed to disseminate disinformation, we also have the aforementioned erosion in the trust of authoritative sources. So we have a toxic combination in which people read disinformation in the shape of viral memes, and distrust any source that could debunk such disinformation. So the meme become undisputed truth.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy memes, but I am afraid that without critical thinking, and with a growing mistrust in expertise and authority, we are headed for disaster.
But then again, there must be a meme that destroys the above argument in one image (no OK, Boomer please, I’m Gen X).