While many memes—especially the ones on mainstream platforms such as Instagram—can be harmless, self-deprecating reflections on the human condition, they can also be a powerful vehicle for mis- and dis-information. Meme campaigns are one of the most prevalent tactics for disseminating propaganda online.
Meme formats vary, but are primarily photos overlaid with sarcastic or playful text. They spread across the social media landscape, most prominently appearing on 9gag, Tumblr, Reddit, and fringe sites such as 4chan and Gab. Political memes or politically-charged memes about brands spread at an alarming rate. The bite-sized, visual nature of memes, as opposed to articles or videos, makes them conducive to sharing and in turn, capable of infiltrating mainstream destinations and making their way to your grandparents’ Facebook feeds. This makes them difficult to curb once they’re in circulation.
Memes Influencing Politics
Political memes are not to be considered lightly–they can influence real-life events. Storyful identified a campaign launched on 4chan and Reddit’s The_Donald forum to encourage the president to adopt a new slogan, #JobsNotMobs.
On October 12, 2018, Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert cartoon strip tweeted the phrase, encouraging others to use it. The same day, the phrase spread and was turned into a meme on Reddit and Twitter. Six days later, during a rally in Montana, Trump used the slogan, telling the crowd “Democrats produce mobs, Republicans produce jobs.” He later tweeted the hashtag as well.
Memes Threatening Brands
During the Nike-Colin Kaepernick controversy, hundreds of memes were launched in the same visual layout as the ad, mocking the quarterback and the brand. On fringe platforms like 4chan, alt-right posters revived issues of cheap foreign labor and sexual harassment lawsuits against executives to smear Nike.
Seven hours after Nike announced the campaign on September 3, mentions of “Nike” and “labor” increased 3,110 percent, with the hashtag #BoycottNike peaking on Twitter. Popular memes emerged from the fringes, including a meme with the Nike logo paired with “Just Blew It,” driving the conversation on Twitter.
Seizing on the backlash to Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, fringe networks users promoted New Balance as a competitor with a more conservative corporate ideology. Alt-right communities on 4chan and Gab created memes labeling the brand the “Official Shoe of White People.” This forced New Balance to speak out and remind customers that its values do not align with the narratives perpetuated by these misleading meme campaigns.
There may not be a foolproof way to protect brands and society from the creation of and exposure to misleading memes, but detecting emerging threats and understanding how they spread is a start.
This article is part of our Anatomy of Social Media Controversy series, in which we make sense of the social media tactics impacting brands, politics and consumers in recent years.