When truth is truly irrelevant

Samsung paid $1 billion in nickels to Apple.
A linebacker defends a gay classmate against a bully.
And when the superstar American basketball player LeBron James was still in high school, he met his idol Michael Jordan.

Events or news can be condensed to the size of a meme and spread quickly through social networks. Does it still matter if the story is true? Yes. And no.

Picture yourself in New Jersey, 1938, listening to the radio. You tune into “The Mercury Theatre On Air” on CBS, not knowing what is going to hit you – as the music of the program fades out, a reporter announces that American cities are under attack from aggressors that allegedly come from outer space. There are no computers, no smartphones, and it’s another 30 years until the Internet as we know it even enters its infant state.

Even though it was a made-up report in Orson Welles’s radio drama “The War of The Worlds,” many people were led into thinking that the attacks actually happened because the news bulletin sounded convincingly real. To the listeners, the authenticity of these events might be best described with technologist James Bridle’s understanding of realism “because it’s so close to our present reality.  A realism that posits an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World. A realtime link.” The show even sparked sensationalized reports that were published in the press the next day.

Fast-forward to 2014. A meme shows up in your Facebook feed. It’s a photo of a note asking a kid to stop bullying a gay student at school. The typed letter was apparently found in the bully’s locker and ends with, “Sincerely, the linebacker with two amazing dads.”

There are no hints as to where the note comes from. Meme-sharing sites like Imgur or The Meta Picture are in most cases just spreading and not originating content like this. Still, in spite of no proof of its authenticity, more than 40,000 social media users shared this picture. It was thought-provoking and hit an emotional point with the people who read it. Or, as the editor of Qparent puts it, “Even if it’s not real, it still made me smile.”

Although the Internet has made it easier to verify information, the effort associated with fact checking often makes users value emotional appeal and personal concern over believability. That can be said not only for memes, but for all forms of online communication, including news. When an editor of the Huffington Post read that Johnson & Johnson was losing its license for cosmetics, she witnessed how quickly the rumour spread among concerned mothers in her own social networks. They feared that the baby powder sold by the pharmaceutical company might harm their children. In the end, no major news publisher ran the article which turned out to be fake, and the editor turned the story into an anecdote warning about gullibility when it comes to information found on the Internet.

Even though it seems hard to compare a cute cat picture – a so-called LOLcat – with serious news that turn out to be fake, both kinds of content can be beneficial to their recipients. Before elaborating upon that, the more evident question is: does it even matter if a meme is actually a hoax or not?

An example of fake information spread through a meme would be the 2013 map of projected wave heights in the Pacific that was misinterpreted as a projection of radioactive waste seeping through the ocean from Fukushima.

A closer look at Clay Shirky’s definition of “communal value” shows how hoaxes like this one can, in fact, be a good thing. If LOLcats convey value that cat-lovers have created for each other (hence “communal”), then phony news or events can provide value to people interested in the topic by provoking thought and sparking conversations. Both kinds of values speak to audiences that are following a particular subject matter.

Debunking fake news, either through manual fact-checking online or through a looking for a reliable source, is an essential experience people need to make in order to become proficient Internet users. Luckily, this lesson is usually less severe today in comparison to what Welles’s listeners went through in 1938. The debunking itself raises curiosity and awareness of hoaxes, and memes are a perfect tool for triggering this behaviour. As a brief and concise way of spreading articles, they are entry points into a topic, even if they don’t show the full picture.

Here lies the responsibility of established news publishers, who are best advised to remain true to their role and expose made-up information. Depending on how they deal with these topics, reporters can deliver conversation starters or show an outdated understanding of digital media and culture. The latter happens when they merely mirror memes as Internet trends without providing the full context that readers need to understand why the information is fake – just like in 2010, when TIME published a collection of meme hoaxes that fooled people in that particular year, without explaining any of the individual pieces.

What’s more, memes that spread fictitious information can also be a source of entertainment, such as satire websites such as The Onion. By packaging information as a meme, Internet users are enabled to launch satirical campaigns that add to the attention a certain topic gets, like the questionable political success of Vladimir Putin, for instance. If it’s a story that strikes a chord with people, just like a locker note from someone defending a gay kid at school, it can raise the overall awareness of minorities being bullied.

Another example: shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a picture showing a tourist on the observation deck of the World Trade Center went viral online. In the background a plane was approaching. Fact? Fiction? It doesn’t matter for the purpose of increasing attention.

With a wide array of media to choose from, media consumers might not be fooled as easily as in 1938. However, hoaxes persist, and there is a need to remind readers to take online information with a grain of salt so that users can learn from debunked hoaxes.

Memes, on the other hand, are a trend that news publishers cannot ignore or dismiss as quirky Internet phenomena. They need to be understood and described as modern means of communication that can start conversations – which in itself is still one of the main goals of publishing today.

2 Replies to “When truth is truly irrelevant”

  1. “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” is the new “Don’t believe everything you see on TV,” but much worse. I’d bet the proportion of bad news sites—ones that don’t check their sources—is about the same as bad news channels on TV. But it’s so much easier to spread information—fake or factual—on the internet! And it’s so hard to find reliable sources online—so easy to be fooled by the emotional appeal of most hoaxes. Did Paul Walker die, was his death a hoax, or was news of the hoax a hoax in itself? It’s complicated.

    I’d never thought of it as a good thing, though. It’s absolutely true that sometimes the value of awareness and dialogue can trump the value of facts. But how often is that the case? Of your three opening examples, only the linebacker offers anything of societal value.

    It would be interesting to see news publishers using memes to spread accurate information—but it needs to have the emotional, humorous or “wtf” appeal. I’ve seen some very poor attempts at memefying news and other bits of information. And I have seen memes spreading factual information, but none that were made by—at least not signed by—news channels.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Shed!

      Memes show that we’re still learning how to communicate online—but no matter how we package our massage, we might never be able to fully eliminate ambiguity from what we say and publish. Whatever topic our messages address, chances are that there are already sources of information on it online, like Paul Walker’s death, for instance. Hence, each individual message about that topic can become ambiguous.

      While this poses a problem to readers who want to know what is true and what isn’t, Lanier points out that ambiguity makes us human and is the reason why human communication tolerates errors better than brittle computer-based communication:
      Without ambiguity, Internet readers would become more passive in their reception as there would be no incentive to double-check information.

      I would argue that each of the memes mentioned above provides at least communal value to the groups it speaks to, be it Apple enthusiasts or basketball fans.

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