How Memes Can Spread Dangerous Ideas

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Internet memes are an excellent way to send powerful messages to millions of people. But what happens when they are used for malicious purposes?

By Matthew Kovacev in ModernDiplomacy: Memes have been a means of transmitting messages for centuries, proliferating immensely in recent decades due to their mass proliferation through the internet and their ability to broadcast messages to a massive audience. They have quite a bit of cultural significance and can be based on almost anything, provided they achieve viral status. However, memes have been subject to abuse by malicious groups and actors.

From the Blue Whale Challenge, an internet challenge that resulted in multiple suicides worldwide, to terrorist organizations like ISIS, which use internet memes to recruit young people, memes can be used for malicious purposes. Even toxic subcultures like MGTOW serve as a pipeline towards the incel movement. Indeed, such male supremacist organizations are not strangers to using memes and viral media to propagate their ideas and recruit young men and boys to their cause. In fact, one influencer, who goes by Sandman MGTOW, often posts such misogynistic memes and videos on his Twitter and YouTube channel.

These kinds of memes are easily identifiable by their bias towards a specific issue and their often-political message. One great example of a meme that has been subject to abuse by malicious actors is Pepe the frog. Based on a character by Matt Furie, this meme was abused by the alt right, being depicted as controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. The meme was so badly abused by these far-right actors that it was listed as a hate symbol by the ADL.

Memes have also influenced major world events like the 2016 election in the United States and the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010’s, which garnered immense media attention through the use of internet memes and viral media. This shows that memes can have the power to influence elections (albeit slightly) and topple oppressive regimes. Being a powerful tool for spreading information, there is also the use of memes for spreading misinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic mediated a sizeable but modest anti-vaccine movement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. These anti-vaxx groups used social media like Facebook and Reddit to spread memes full of misinformation and pseudo-science It can also be argued that memes were effective tools in spreading misinformation around the elections of 2016 and 2020 in the United States. Memes, while powerful, can be used by malicious actors such as far-right groups and anti-vaxx groups to peddle false information. This has contributed to the US having a COVID death toll of over one million, higher than most other countries worldwide.

The world has progressed quite a bit in the information age. People are able to communicate ideas with millions of people worldwide in seconds. The proliferation if information has never been more efficient in history. That is why the threats that arise from the mass proliferation of memes and viral media are so dire. As was seen during the 2016 and 2020 US elections, COVID, and Arab Spring, memes can be spread to convey messages that can change nations, affect millions (perhaps even billions) of people, and topple dictators. It has become possible for people to change the course of history with a single tweet or a single meme on Reddit or Instagram going viral.

What can we do to stem the massive proliferation of memes that serve to recruit people into dangerous organizations and fill their minds with misinformation? The answer lies in how we confront our biases and how we detect misinformation. People need to be informed about how they can detect bias and propaganda, in addition to using independent fact-checking services. By identifying propaganda from malicious actors and misinformation from online groups, we can stop the spread of dangerous memes before they proliferate.