In order for colonists to express their political and social views in 1776 (namely, that they should form their own sovereign society independent from England), they outlined them in a document, supported by both a philosophic argument and a list of 27 indictments against King George. This document is, of course, the Declaration of Independence, and contains what historian Joseph Ellis calls “the most potent and consequential words in American history.”
Thankfully the internet didn’t exist then, because otherwise they probably would have just trolled the King with a meme.
As silly as they might seem on the surface, image memes are a powerful way to transmit ideas and beliefs through a culture. They act as units for spreading an idea from one mind to another as they are shared between people. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success in spreading their ideas… even when those ideas prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. There’s a reason why popular memes are called viral.
If you come across a meme that just feels so right, that confirms everything you already believe and more… That meme is just itching to replicate, to spread whatever idea it carries to its next host. Unfortunately, meme is also probably bullshit: a slick packaging of an idea that the author thought he could only sell by lying about something.
So if you come across one of those memes, why not take a few minutes to see if it is actually true before posting it and infecting your friends and followers with its potentially toxic ideas?
Let me give two examples I came across on Facebook this week. The point isn’t to shame anyone (not least of all the folks who posted them), but to show how they’re false, and why that falsehood helps them replicate their ideas.
Let’s consider this right-wing meme, which asserts 3 things:
(1) The people in the picture are Kamala Harris’ parents
(2) They are from Jamaica and India
(3) Kamala refers to herself as “African-American”
Is it true?
A quick stop at Google shows that Harris’ father is a Stanford economics professor who immigrated from Jamaica, and her mother is a cancer researcher who immigrated from India, so Statement (2) is true.
Let’s look at Statement (3). After Googling several variations of “does Kamala Harris refer to herself as African-American?,” I can find find no instance of Harris herself claiming to be “African-American.” She does, however, refer to herself as “black.” For example, in an April 2019 interview she said “I’m black, and I’m proud of being black. I was born black. I will die black. I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand.”
“African-American” and “Black” are not the same thing, with the latter more often understood to encompass the broader shared culture experience of peoples of color, which includes a legacy of systemic, institutional discrimination. Harris wrote: “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see [my sister] Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
I should note that her Senate page has a third-person description of Harris as the “second African-American woman” to be a Senator from California, and this entire section is more or less copied verbatim on her campaign page. The extent that she is aware of and stands by this description is unknown to me, but it was almost certainly written by a staffer rather than Harris herself. It does, however, illustrate that people often conflate the two terms (African-American and black), either unwittingly or on purpose. For example, both RealClearPolitics (which leans right) and Refinery29 (which leans left) both quote Harris as describing herself the as “only African-American on this stage” at the second Democratic debate, when it is clear from video that she says “only black person.”
Of course, I might have missed a treasure trove of video files of Kamala calling herself “African-American” to a secret society of pro-LGBTQ cultural-Marxists squirreled away on some Breitbart backpage, but even if they existed… so what? Would that invalidate her experiences as a person of color living in the United States? Do racists actually stop and ask dark-skinned people for a quick genealogical recounting before deciding to call them the “n” word? Do racist city planners ask for buccal swabs before deciding which POCs to redline out of suburban neighborhoods? Does a person’s experience of institutional discrimination and racism count less if their parents or grandparents didn’t come from a specific range of longitudes?
What is the idea this meme is trying to transmit?
That you have to be this black to experience racism or discrimination, this black to talk about it in public. It is an attempt to minimize and downplay the perpetuation of racism and discrimination. The meme wants you to think Harris is misrepresenting her ethnicity so that you can discount HER experiences of racial discrimination, oppression, and bigotry, and thus implant in you the idea that it IS okay to invalidate another POC’s experiences.
If you think I’m reading too much into the lazy racist angle of the meme, let’s look at Statement (1). These people are NOT Harris’ parents. The people flanking Harris in the picture are Suniel and Rohini Parulekar. A reverse image search shows that this picture was taken at a California fundraiser for an education non-profit for which the Parulekars are board members.
This is not a family picture, but rather the work of a racist alleging that Kamala Harris is lying about her parentage while actually lying about her parents!
This is a lazy racist meme written by a lazy racist.
This meme is bullshit.
Now let’s consider this left-wing meme, which allegedly shows a pile of human bones from a concentration camp, together with a remarkably prescient quote from Dwight Eisenhower in 1945 about Holocaust deniers.
Is it true?
A Google search for the quote shows several attributions of it to Eisenhower on many sites (like Goodreads.com or Quotes.net), but these sites give no citation for the quote. A search of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum website comes up blank, although it does include several passages by Eisenhower about the horrors of the concentration camps. One even comes pretty close to meme’s quote: in describing his trip to a camp near Gotha in April 1945, he wrote
The things I saw beggar description… I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’.
This suggests that Eisenhower was more worried that the Nazis would attempt to downplay (as opposed to wholly deny) the horrors of the Holocaust as Allied propaganda, and thus weaken the case against Nazi abuses in the coming war tribunals (the famous Nuremberg trials, for example, were to commence in November 1945).
(Not coincidentally, downplaying the Holocaust IS a common tactic used by modern-day white fascists.)
A reverse image search shows that the picture is taken from the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, 1944. So while it is not a picture from the Gotha camp referred to in the true Eisenthower quote, it is representative of the camps that the Allied troops documented.
What is the idea this meme is trying to transmit?
That the Holocaust was real, and that we should be alert to the false claims of those who would deny it… which, you know, I think is a good idea to transmit.
So why the made-up quote?
It’s to give the argument more gravity by having it come from a generally respected historical figure, i.e. the appeal to authority. Unfortunately, lying about what that figure said — and being called out on it — diminishes the good idea of the meme, so we shouldn’t replicate it.
In fact, people propagating false quotes about the Holocaust is one of the things that Holocaust deniers actually use to justify their denial, to convince other people they are the ones speaking the truth: “If the Holocaust was really so bad, why do (((these people))) need to make up fake quotes to prove it?” This is a line of attack used by Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, Steven Crowder, Stefan Molyneux, and other nationalist talking heads.
Even worse, the made-up quote was actually a part of a longer 2008 chain email that asserted “the UK removed The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it ‘offended’ the Moslem (Muslim) population which claims it never occurred.” This claim was, of course, false; the chain email was simply a decade-old example of anti-Islamic propaganda, and a thorough debunking of it can be found at Snopes.
The original chain-email didn’t mention Eisenhower at all, but after a few mutations the meme’s quote appeared as part of a prologue to it, although to be fair, the email only alleged hat Eisenhower said “words to this effect.” Then again, the author of the email is making up angry Ike quotes to add authority to their made-up Islamophobic propaganda, so screw fairness, ya hate-mongering liar.
Thus, not only is the meme’s quote made up, it was made up to use an appeal to authority to help sell an anti-Muslim lie in order to transmit anti-Islamic anger, fear, and resentment.
This meme tries to peddle a good idea, but packages it with a lie used to peddle bigotry.
This meme is bullshit.