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While political cartoons have been with us for centuries, a new form of visual communication, the Internet meme, has spread wide and far over the last decade and a half.

The ability to spread fast is part of the nature of the meme, a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book The Selfish Gene to describe a unit of information, culture, or behavior that passes from one person to another, akin to the way genetic information travels from one generation of an organism to the next.

Unlike biological processes that transfer genetic material, memes do not require physical contact in order to spread. In fact, the ideal medium for meme-propagation has been the Internet, especially social media, where thousands of memes are traded and mutate daily.

The same MIT Press series that includes my recent book on critical thinking also has a title on memes that explains their growth and development as part of Internet culture.

So, what constitutes a meme versus some other mix of words and images, like a cartoon?

Well, here is an example provided to me by my son, a budding linguist and meme collector:

If a few of you are laughing your heads off while the majority is left scratching your still-attached noggins, this illustrates a key element of meme culture in which visual jokes like this one appeal to an in group, a group that gets smaller as memes become more obscure (through jokes that require recognizing references to previous memes, for example).

Historically, such in-jokes would be “in” with just the few people in proximity to share them, but in today’s interconnected world the number of people who “get” a meme is large enough to form a community, similar to communities that form to support people with rare diseases or share and debate outlandish beliefs in how John F Kennedy met his demise.

The ability to create inside and outside groups while binding those groups together gives memes a unique kind of persuasive power in our tribal political age. But do they constitute arguments?

To answer that question, consider these two memes that made the rounds during the 2016 presidential election:

At first glance, these memes might seem like they were designed to appeal to one political tribe while appalling another.

They share a visual language, including words in comparable fonts superimposed on images selected specifically to make a politician looks shifty (Clinton) or ridiculous (Trump). While the Clinton (really anti-Clinton) meme uses a manufactured faux quote while the Trump one simply communicates its point through captioning, they are both designed to quickly communicate easily comprehended negative messages.

Should they be dismissed as childish, given how they lack the sophistication of other forms of visual argumentation, like political cartoons, much less verbal ones like campaign speeches and editorials?

To answer that question, consider memes not in the context of conventional logical arguments but as a form of persuasive communication appealing to something other than logos, similar to negative campaign ads.

For example, during the 2020 election I analyzed two TV spots, one created by the Biden campaign, and one by the Trump campaign that were designed to deliver unsubtle messages (that Trump was an embarrassment who was humiliating Americans in the eyes of the world, or that Biden was a dimwit who couldn’t manage his own teleprompter). Each ad used carefully curated video segments to deliver a message, with voice-over telling viewers what to make of those moving images. The Trump ad even used looping effects, giving his spot an animated GIF quality found in certain memes.

Because memes like the Clinton and Trump ones shown above are largely designed to entertain large-scale in-groups, they are not likely to have much persuasive power beyond a political tribe. But “not much” is not the same as none.

Like negative ads, dismissive or insulting memes can place doubt into the minds of people – including the minds of independent voters who have been swinging elections over the last several cycles. While memes likely reflect, rather than drive, a zeitgeist, consider how much the last two presidential elections were driven by perceptions/accusations of dishonesty, lunacy, or feeble-mindedness on the part of candidates versus debates among candidates or voters over the great issues of the day.

Historically, persuaders such as advertisers and politicians pick up quickly on opportunities created by new communication technologies (print, radio, television, the Internet) and new formats generated within emerging media. So, perhaps we should evaluate the ability of Internet memes to influence dialog and debate based not on what they say, but on who is embracing and coopting the format in order to get you to do what they want.


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