An interesting and important post at Quillette: Confessions of a Social-Justice Meme Maker.
I observe that political memes today tend not only to be oversimplified, which goes with the nature of the medium, but also to be insulting. Political communication today has too often abandoned persuasion in favor of approaches which are believed to rally ‘the base’ while insulting opponents.
I am again reminded of something that Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, said to Arthur Koestler back when Koestler was still a Communist:
Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!
A very high proportion of political memes today would cause Munzenberg to nod in approval.
In addition to stirring up one’s own side (good for contributions and for election day turnout!), a sufficiently vitriolic stream of insults can intimidate opponents from speaking out, lest they themselves be subject to such attacks. This intimidation is more effective, though, when a political side largely dominates the channels of communication, as the Left dominates most American media today.
The insult-and-intimidate approach, though, does have a downside: it may well alienate people who are somewhat aligned with the opposing side but may still be persuadable. Even if they are intimidated from speaking out, they may still remember the sting of the insults when they alone in the voting booth. Few practitioners of meme-driven insults and other forms of hostile political communication seem worried about this side effect of their work, though.
A factor that should not be underrated: many people get a certain kind of pleasure from engaging in cruelty while feeling virtuous and also reinforcing their sense of membership in an in-group. See this horrible example from the UK. I’ve seen no evidence that this particular incident had anything to do directly with memes, but I’m confident that the same kind of attitude is well-represented among the forwarders and makers of malign political memes. My 2018 post Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism is relevant here.
As I noted above, memes oversimplify, by their very nature. As the author of the linked Quillette post winds up her piece: “Everything worth knowing is much more complex than any slogan can possibly convey.”
While this is true, it is also true that the kind of simplification represented by memes is by no means a new thing. Political cartoons, for example, can be seen as a forerunner of memes. Is the effect of today’s bad memes any worse than that of scurrilous political cartoons in, say, 1900? I think that it may be: In 1900, literacy (in a broad sense) was on an upswing, and key cultural institutions of society were encouraging more of it, as did the technologies of the time. Whereas today, literacy (in the sense of being able to read, follow, and understand arguments of some complexity) seems to be on the decline, a trend certainly aggravated by the short-attention-span nature of much Internet media.
Neal Stephenson wrote an interesting little book called In the Beginning Was the Command Line. While the book does talk about human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work. He contrasts the explicit word-based interface to systems and to information with the graphical or sensorial interface.