Joel is a journalist and researcher with a background in developmental and behavioral psychology, as well as cognitive development.
Memes and Their Uses
Online argumentation and the changes it has undergone over the years is a fascinating study in itself. What has cropped up more recently in this realm is that a great deal of online argumentation has been reduced to soundbites and memes in order to carry the argumentative force.
In this article, we will attempt to explore the sociology of online argumentation as it relates to the use of memes in rhetoric as a substitute for well-reasoned argumentation.
What Is a Meme?
“Memes” are almost universally conceived of as funny pictures paired with a couple of words in order to make a rhetorical point – usually a contentious one which targets a specific subject for ridicule. However, when one looks at the relevant sociological research related to memes, one has to defer to the technical definition of “meme.” The psychology glossary defines a “meme” as:
… a piece of information that is passed from one entity (person, book, etc.) to another. Often memes are social or cultural in nature and are ways [in which certain] aspects of culture are passed from person to person so that the information is understood. They can also be ideas, parts of ideas, sounds, songs, and all sorts of other pieces of information that get passed on. Memes have been compared to viruses because of the way they self-perpetuate and spread from person to person.
From this definition alone, it may be seen how a meme would be an extremely effective tool to perpetuate an idea. Given its virulent nature, a meme compacts a simple idea into a digestible format which may then be easily dispersed to a wide audience. Moreover, it is likely to stick with the individual rather than quickly be forgotten.
One does not need to be educated into a meme as they would into a structured argument—they merely need to see the meme, and it has done its job.
Memes as Propoganda
In his Psychology Today article, “More about Memes,” Dr. Jesse Marczyk frustratedly explains that psychologists can define a meme by what it does but still don’t have a firm grasp on why it catches and spreads.
However, without understanding the mechanics of memeology, as long as one knows what a meme looks like, it becomes clear that memes are actually a much older form of disseminating ideas to the public: propaganda.
In 1935 – at the height of one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in American history – Leonard W. Doob and Edward S. Robinson wrote an article titled “Psychology and Propaganda” in the academic journal The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The authors have this to say:
“he term ‘Propaganda’ has come to mean the employment of non-logical, or affective, appeals in the public dissemination and modification of ideas, attitudes, and beliefs.
Propaganda is to be contrasted with those types of communication that make use of factually accurate and logically adequate explanation. It is related to “persuasion,” which connotes, in addition, a more intimate contact with people, and a more marshalling of evidence.
Looked upon it this way, the concept of propaganda is psychologically significant. When programs of publicity differ in the amount of reflective thought which they stimulate, such differences are clearly psychological.
One could not create a better definition of internet memes than the one which Doob et al. employed for propaganda.
Why Propaganda Works
Given their catchy, comical, and seemingly innocent nature—and given the fact that they self-propagate—memes make for the perfect propaganda tool. In his article, “The Con of Propaganda,” Dr. Noam Schpancer says this:
Savvy propagandists …draw their power in large part from the fact that their targets are not aware that propaganda is being used on them. In this way, propaganda is not a magic show but a con. A mind that is not trained to detect and neutralize propaganda is a gullible mind, ripe for the swindle.
Propaganda: Seven Features
In 1937, the liberal philanthropist Edward Filene began to fund a proposal by Clyde Miller of Columbia University to create the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA). The institute identified seven aspects present in propaganda. These were:
- Name Calling: Plaster one’s opponent with unflattering nicknames and labels.
- Glittering Generalities: To counterpoint the name-calling, the propagandist uses broadly flattering labels to define its own ends.
- Transfer: Similar to “Glittering Generalities,” Transfer seeks to identify the cause of the propagandist with some person or institution that is generally respected.
- Testimonials: While it is infrequent to see a testimonial in the brief format of a meme, one can still see comical pictures of individuals with a pithy personal statement as if the person pictured were speaking to the reader.
- Plain Folk: When the cause of the propagandist is associated with everyday people such that they are very relatable.
- Card Stacking: According to the IPA, card stacking is when: “The propagandist employs all the arts of deception to win our support… He stacks the cards against the truth. He uses under-emphasis and over-emphasis to dodge issues and evade facts. He resorts to lies, censorship and distortion. He omits facts. He offers false testimony. He creates a smoke screen of clamor by raising a new issue when he wants an embarrassing matter forgotten.”
- Bandwagon: Exactly what it sounds like, the Bandwagon tactic is an appeal to peer pressure, showing how much support the cause has and how isolated the reader will be if they remain unaffiliated with this popular cause.
Why Use Propaganda Rather Than Argumentation?
To readers of memes, or those who traffic in online debates in general, these seven tactics should look very familiar. If one accepts the premise that meme=propaganda, then the matter is practically settled as to why any person representing some idea would choose to employ them as a persuasive device: they are successful at what they do. Says Dr. Schpancer:
…a duality …undergirds our internal architecture: We feel and we think. …Both systems are useful for survival, yet the processes and results they yield are often in competition with each other. And the competition is rigged. Emotional reaction precedes reasoned analysis, like biting must have preceded the evolution of teeth. We are more likely to act on a feeling without much thought than to act on a thought without much feeling. To quote E.O. Wilson: “People would rather believe than know.” The propagandist’s appeal to emotion is therefore bound to find a more ready reception than the scientist’s appeal to reason. Emotional reactions easily drown out and overtake intellectual analysis and fact-based reasoning. That’s the psychological edge exploited by the propagandist.
There is, however, something to be said of the motivation of someone who chooses to use mass persuasion rather than education in order to win followers: education, according to Schpancer, is the antidote to propaganda:
The antidote to the process of propaganda is the process of finding factual truth. The best way we have for doing that is through scientific inquiry, which referees competing claims systematically based on evidence. The propagandist process subordinates the facts to an agenda, even at the price of distorting or ignoring the facts altogether. For science, factual truth is the agenda; it follows the evidence wherever it might lead. Anything counter-factual, anything that obscures or distorts truth is anathema to the scientific project. Propaganda knows how to sell a product. Science knows how to shop smart.
Using Memes to Inflict Doubt
It is actually a very easy task to inflict doubt on any positive belief structure: all one has to do is ask questions. If those questions are answered, just ask further questions. Paint every aspect of the belief structure in as dubious or ridiculous terms as possible. One need not even counter any comprehensive or concrete arguments the belief structure has to offer. One need only select minor aspects of the system and pick at those until they disintegrate, at which point the system dies the death of a thousand paper cuts.
Memetic argumentation manages not simply to appeal to the broadest possible audience because it is easy to understand and absorb; it also immediately disarms any comprehensive arguments the other side may offer by making a mockery of their complexity. Sort of an “if you can’t give a soundbite answer to my soundbite criticism, you aren’t worth listening to” response.
While resorting to propaganda and schoolyard insults does not necessarily indict a system, it does not speak strongly of its reasonableness. To overlook an argument because the argument requires thought and consideration speaks poorly of the person considering.
© 2017 Joel Furches
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on October 29, 2018:
Are memes usually mean?
ie. mean memes.
Is it a Freudian slip that the word meme is made of two "me's"?
ie. me-me. Hence showing self absorbtion etc.
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on November 22, 2017:
Of course you are correct.
We can only offer our clearest ethical thinking to the community. It is up to other's to use their own intelligence and conscience to sift through the information.
If the conscience itself is weakened the process of learning becomes more difficult.
Jessie Watson from Wenatchee Washington on November 22, 2017:
The goal of argumentation on social media isn't to provide substantive counter-argumentation. It's just a constant jockey for intellectual supremacy in the economy of ideas. Both parties are responsible for conceding to a better argumentation even if one argument has the potential to be more correct. It's not about winning, it's about formulating a coherent string of thoughts using logic. People like to assume that being religious is a license to avoid using logic because of the leap of faith required to create an argument for the existence of a God. But I have found that I can construct a well-thought out argument for the necessity of a God without requiring my opponent to take any leaps of faith. I think most people need a solid education in philosophy and argumentation before they set forth on a crusade to prove everyone wrong. Social media would be a fantastic forum of ideas if everyone actually changed as a consequence of being exposed to new or different information. I would go so far as to say that the decline of western spirituality is the reason this doesn't take place to begin with. The average social media personality tends to see the world as a means to establish power when the aim of discussion should be to aim for the truth.
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on November 21, 2017:
Superficial "catch phrases" are used because atheist arguments don't hold up to honest scrutiny.
Demonizing all religions leads to cultural genocide for indigenous people therefore weak atheist arguments focus on right wing backwoods fundamentalists in order to deflect from their awful influence over fragile indigenous cultures whose identities are totally linked to their religion.
I have outlined many such points in a hub critiquing atheism.
Another example is the common atheist habit of "blaming God", yet they say God doesn't exist etc. I call it the Blame God Paradox.