Memes can serve as harmless entertainment, as well as communicate political messages. For a while now, they have been deployed in US election campaigns. Dan Pfeiffer, who served as White House director of communications under US President Barack Obama, is convinced that pictures, memes and videos shared online are hugely important in winning over the electorate.
“Political campaigns are now modern information warfare, massive state-adjacent propaganda operations with Twitter bots that fuel outrage and drive media coverage, Facebook pages that are run out of former Soviet republics and reach more people than The New York Times, and foreign countries like Russia trying to actively intervene in the election,” Pfeiffer wrote in the US tech magazine Wired in February.
In the United States, memes are routinely used for political reasons. Donald Trump Jr., who refers to himself as a “General in the Meme Wars” on Instagram, is one of many high-profile figures disseminating such politicised images. One of them shows President Trump pointing at the viewer. The accompanying text reads: “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.” In July, Twitter stopped the meme from being shared on its platform because it used a copyrighted photo. Meme-based “information warfare” is much less common in Germany and the rest of Europe. Yet here, too, automated bots are touting candidates and amplifying misinformation.
This is evident in the online discussion about the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic. Supporters of measures to slow the spread of the virus are attempting to square off online with pandemic deniers, who sometimes refer to themselves as Querdenker, or “unconventional thinkers.”
Such groups have found their share of allies on the internet. “Coronavirus deniers are undergoing an unprecedented, pandemic real-time radicalisation,” the tech journalist Sascha Lobo wrote in a recent column for the newsweekly Der Spiegel.
Lobo said this “lightning radicalisation” happened through social media, where online communities with overlapping interests began to mingle. “Coronavirus deniers or Querdenker do not constitute a homogeneous group,” he said. “The movement was somewhat different in summer 2020 than it was in autumn 2020, in part because it has been infected with ideas from the QAnon conspiracy theory.”
Divisive messages have also been shared within Facebook groups that are generally considered apolitical. During the summer, calls to join rallies against the government’s coronavirus measures were posted in a ride sharing message group, sparking heated discussion about the state of affairs. Several users complained about the misuse of the group and left.
Social media platforms provide fertile ground for fringe groups to flourish. While social networks were originally set up to allow users to network and communicate with each other, there is now a real danger of people getting caught up in echo chambers. “If users only rely on sources that confirm their pre-existing beliefs this causes a fragmentation of the public sphere,” said Lars Blow, a professor of linguistics at the University of Vienna.
— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle