Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or you’re just not part of the latter-day technological revolution that is social media, you know what a meme is — you’ve probably shared your fair share, as have I. We need to stop.
Sometimes we share the little text-laden photos on social media because we think they’re funny. Sometimes we share them because they contain what we think is a message we agree with. That last one is tricky, because a lot of them may only appear to contain a message we agree with. Many of those messages begin to fall apart under close scrutiny. When that happens, we end up looking silly in front of our friends and family, or worse, we try to defend the indefensible and a feud is born.
Why should we stop sharing these messages in a box? Because most of the time we’re not helping our cause or furthering our beliefs. At best, given the way social media functions, we’re just bouncing signals around inside our carefully crafted echo chambers — sending and receiving messages with like-minded friends who already feel the same way. At worst, we’re contributing to the hyper-partisan divide that is stifling this nation’s ability to function politically.
It is simply impossible to boil complex social and policy issues down into a short, meaningful sentence or two, pair that with an eye-catching photo and have the result be an accurate representation of the policy or issue we feel so strongly about. When we oversimplify complex subjects for the sake of a laugh or a like on social media, we end up spreading half-truths and misinformation.
Even worse than fueling rabid hyper-partisanship, these easy-to-devour little nuggets feed the appetites of those who can’t be bothered to actually read something longer than a sentence or two, and that may be the biggest problem of them all. These are the folks who share “news articles” after reading only the headline, who share their friend’s posts because it sounds like they know what they’re talking about. The laziness of this particular group contributes directly to the dumbing down of, well, pretty much everything.
In a few rare instances, a meme actually has the potential to be physically harmful. These are the most egregious because they convey information that purports to help the reader, but that information is flatly wrong and any reader who relies on it will suffer as a result.
For example, one popular meme currently making the rounds on Facebook exhorts readers to enter their PIN in reverse if they’re ever “attacked” at an ATM. Doing this, the meme claims, will prevent the attacker from taking your money and summon the police. Sounds great, right? The problem is, it’s not true. Both ATM manufacturers and the Federal Trade Commission debunked this claim seven years ago, but it nevertheless persists.
Another meme presently circulating on Facebook advises readers who find themselves being pulled over by what appears to be an unmarked police car to dial *112 to be connected to “emergency services” and verify the unmarked car is a legitimate law enforcement vehicle. This meme comes complete with a compelling story about how making the call saved a young woman from who knows what. Like the ATM PIN code meme, this one sounds good, except it, too, is not true — at least, not in the United States. 112 is a global emergency number used in certain European countries to summon help. If you need help in the United States, the number to dial is 911, not 112, and why would anyone dial the *? That’s just silly, and yet, people are sharing it like the best-kept secret in town.
There is a better way to convey what’s on our minds. Share legitimate news articles that adequately explain the social issues and public policy positions you support, or better yet, write a post yourself. Put some thought into it, and if you feel like you absolutely must share a meme, take the time to verify that what it says is actually true. In many cases, it only takes a few minutes at most to fact check a meme.
As for me, I say enough with the pre-fab pictures. Just say what you meme.
Contact Carl Lewis at (580) 310-7520, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.