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Meme-ification of reason (and politics) — an experiment

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Part of my job at Sachs Media Group is running data experiments that nobody has asked us to run, for the simple pleasure of satisfying curiosity and the attempt to better understand what kinds of things matter to people.

Our themes generally relate back to the space of communications or politics.

For example: does reading news on a mobile device versus a newspaper change people’s perception of social dynamics? (Yes.)

This week’s experiment took a similar approach, using a survey of 1,536 American adults to ask: Does the presentation of a message in meme form change how credible that information seems?

We published a blog post detailing the research methods and findings here.

To recap with a twist: the answer to this question is a little more complicated, and depending on how you interpret the results, a little more than disturbing.

For content that is fairly plausible to start with (i.e., foreign software companies create computer viruses to boost sale of products), presenting it in meme form matters very little.

For respondents viewing this type of content, ratings of credibility were statistically matched between those who saw the message in meme form and those who saw it in text only.

But then there’s the sketchier sort of message.

You know, the type that alleges governments spread sinister chemicals to populations through “chemtrails” or fluoride; pharmaceutical companies hide cancer-curing drugs because treating cancer is more profitable; or … as we chose to focus on in this experiment … (1) the idea that Zika-was-created-by-the-vaccine-industry-to-boost-sales, and (2) reptilian-aliens-disguised-as-humans-control-our-minds-and-seek-world-domination.

As long as we’re going outlandish, might as well test the effect of memes against the best, right?

For these two less-than-credible messages, perceived credibility nearly doubles when the information is presented in meme form.

For respondents viewing content on reptoids in text only, just 6.7 percent rated the content as “very” credible. In comparison, among respondents viewing this identical content via meme, 11.5 percent rated the content as “very” credible.

Similarly, on Zika, 7.8 percent of text readers rated the content as “very” credible compared with 11.2 percent of meme viewers.

In other words, credibility was rated 72 percent greater among meme viewers than text readers on the topic of reptoids, and on Zika, credibility was 44 percent higher among meme viewers.

zika meme


At least historically, memes have been used to convey material that is already established as common sentiment.

Memes, therefore, may be perceived (particularly by low-information consumers) as representative of public sentiment, even when their message is in actuality based on complete bunk.

Even where that first condition is not really met, memes require agreement (in the form of “shares”) to spread between viewers, with each posted meme carrying the endorsement of every person who shared it to that point.

Put in the language of cognitive psychology: we suspect that “memeification” serves as a heuristic or proxy for credibility.

Much like people receive content from trusted messengers with less resistance than unknown spokespersons, memes give people the sense that the content has passed muster with innumerable others, likely including their own online friends.

More simply: the content wouldn’t have been memed if it weren’t considered obviously true to so many already.

Our experiment suggests that memes serve to disseminate information in a way that doesn’t trigger scrutiny from viewers.

Much like certain diseases take hold in the body because they are built to evade immune response, memes are built to communicate the safety or truthiness of a message even where it is not deserved.

While meme authors may not make their quippy art with the intent to deceive, the medium inspires acceptance to a greater degree than the same information would enjoy in text form.

As the 2016 election cycle continues its demoralizing, noxious (click here for more synonyms that all apply, sadly) plod toward November, we can feel at least moderately entertained watching Bernie’s Dank Meme Stash grow.

Perhaps you, too, can contribute to the perception of mass agreement by captioning Kermit, Keanu and Grumpy Cat. Maybe even for the better.

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