domino impact
Credit: By Jacqui Brown on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

For most people, memes are visual materials that have most likely gone viral on the internet, and which are being shared and remixed by multiple individuals to convey humour when communicating with friends.

But in order to understand how and if these images contribute to misinformation as well as online and offline conversations, we have to look beyond the funny purposes of memes and think of them as "reflecting cultural undercurrents", said An Xiao Mina, who leads the product team at Meedan.

She spoke on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Italy yesterday (6 April), alongside Farida Vis, director of Visual Social Media Lab, Joanna Geary, head of curation for Twitter Moments, Jennifer Lee, co-founder and chief executive of Plympton, and Claire Wardle, who leads strategy and research at First Draft.

"If we think of the internet as an affirmation superhighway, where people are looking for validation, memes have an affirmative, emotive role in the digital space," added Xiao Mina, who is currently working on a book about internet memes and global social movements.

She explained that they usually originate from an event or a situation, such as one presidential candidate referring to another as "such a nasty woman". Hashtags then start appearing on social media platforms, followed by visual memes, product memes like hats or t-shirts and so on.

"Memes are increasingly a part of the physical world, not just the internet, and they interfere with larger media environments."

The 2016 US election has been dubbed as "the meme election", with some people saying they "memed [Trump] into the presidency", Wardle said, so it is important to look at the role they play in misinformation too. She also pointed to a BuzzFeed article on how far right supporters in France are creating and using this type of images in an apparent attempt to manipulate French people on social media.

"These are images sitting in a Dropbox folder that anybody can take, remix and push out online. Memes are a sophisticated way of how people consume information, it's not just teens having a laugh."

Often memes are a "response from an audience who doesn't feel like they're being listened to, so they create their own content". Newsrooms should try to understand these materials and incorporate that knowledge into how they cover the issues memes revolve around.

However, it is much more difficult to pick up and identify memes online than it is to track links to articles spreading misinformation, she added. This is why journalists should know the context in which memes are created to understand why people perceive them as being funny or relevant.

Vis agreed, explaining that most measures taken to identify and combat misinformation are centered around text. Dealing with images is harder because memes are "often shared to quickly comment on news events" or as a way to "speak truth to power'".

Their meaning can also change depending on the social or national context and who is producing them, so it can be difficult to keep track. Platforms such as KnowYourMeme have been created, writing in detail about the origin and context of popular memes and updating the content regularly.

"We mustn't equate memes with virality," Vis said. "Some only circulate in small groups, while a lot of memes are inside jokes or rife with intertextuality."

She gave an example which happened earlier this week, when Pepsi released a new ad and was subsequently forced to pull it after it sparked backlash on social media because it trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement.

"We have to understand what is this movement people are tapping into and what are the larger issues. How come people are using iconic imagery of protests and police violence to comment on a Pepsi ad, how are they reusing other memes?

"These are the questions into which research can dig much deeper to try to help. What could a KnowYourMeme platform for journalism look like and how can we move beyond 'this may be fake content' flagging to bring additional context to readers?"

Geary said the fact that people responded visually to the Pepsi scenario reinforced that this is how the majority of their conversations now happen, and journalists have to understand what methods people use to communicate and bond together and why.

The reason why some memes pick up and become a phenomenon while others don't also goes back to communities and what issues they identify with and care about. "As a cultural identity, memes are as uniting as they are divisive," Geary said.

"If we don't engage with that, then we're not doing journalism for that community."

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