The Narrative Potential of Memes in Online Journalism

Memes have a unique precision of expression. We identify them with laughter, but also with their ability to evoke something cleverly and economically.

A 2020 study by The Conversation found depression memes were used as a coping mechanism by people with mental illness. Image by Eumayrs at Wikimedia Commons, available under a CC BY 4.0 license.

In recent years, memes have evolved to form a new online phenomenon. According to journalist Arianna Chatzidakis, this can be described as a “shared cultural experience for internet users around the world.”

So, considering their power as a narrative tool, why aren’t memes prevalent in digital journalism?

According to Professor Jennifer Grygiel, memes have potential to rise up and replace the demographically archaic – and as a result often offensive – political cartoon.

But they can be used for so much more than that. Memes can be the perfect transmedia tool to summarize or enhance a narrative, and – if implemented carefully – could find a place beside the work of mainstream journalists.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins coined the term meme, defining them as “ideas that spread from brain to brain.” But they existed long before this.

Published in 1921, this is considered the earliest form of the Expectation Versus Reality meme. Image from Judge Magazine at the University of Iowa available under the Public Domain.

Today, internet memes are made up of videos, images, GIFs and text. Know Your Meme is considered the best meme archive available, containing essentially anything that has gone viral since Internet 2.0.

To use memes practically, Grygiel suggests publishers hire “freelance memers” – “individuals with a pulse for viral content and an understanding of what resonates with younger readers.”

She envisages them creating “stylized, more professional looking memes” to be used editorially.

Still, aside from Buzzfeed, the Associated Press and a smattering of independent publishers, Grygiel states that “there have been few signs of anyone printing a meme in a physical newspaper or magazine unless it’s controversial.”

“It’s time for publishers to anoint the internet meme as worthy of publication.”

There are, however, problems that can arise when we use memes. These are particularly relevant when considering the practical application of memes in digital journalism.

Problem 1: Misinformation

One of the problems with meme usage is that creators rarely fact check their content. Although the autonomous creation of internet memes undoubtedly adds to their effectiveness, it leaves their audiences open to misinformation.

Public-service website FactCheck.org has highlighted several instances of memes either falsifying or misrepresenting information. This can be done simply by taking an image or phrase out of context and re-framing it.

NiemanLab agrees this is an issue. Their website states that “agents of disinformation know that it’s all about visuals and memes.” Factors like instant sharing and going viral increase this liability.

An example of meme-sharing leading to disinformation. Tweet by Daily Caller, @DailyCaller.

If memes are to become a media asset, fact-checking and source-linking should be a significant aspect of their application.

Problem 2: Copyright

If the content within a meme is owned by the creator (their own cat photos, drawings, etc), they are the copyright holder and can share the work under a Creative Commons license.

Most meme-makers, however, do not take this into account and take their images from other people’s work instead of the public domain or creative commons libraries. Although consequences are rarely enforced, this is copyright infringement.

This changes if the meme fits the criteria of Fair Dealing (Fair Use in the USA), which states that a work can be reused conditionally. Conditions depend on the purpose of the new work being created and the percentage of the original work used.

This applies to the creation and reuse of memes. In 2015, several meme-makers and bloggers were asked to pay up for redistributing the Socially Awkward Penguin meme by its intellectual owner National Geographic.

Problem 3: Bias

Like any piece of content, memes are imbued with the same bias and beliefs as their creators. In a “census of internet memes,” Tel Aviv University determined the “memetic sphere” is “dominated by young, white men.”

This can result in non-inclusive or ignorant content. Misogyny has frequently been highlighted as an inherent aspect of online memes.

In 2018, Sweden’s advertising ombudsman banned the Distracted Boyfriend meme, stating that an internet provider who used it had broken the nation’s rules against gender discrimination.

Journalists have been considering how to tackle bias for a very long time. Memes – although generally involving some form of subjectivity – can offend if used improperly.

This can become particularly complex when considering political caricatures that ancillary bias. In this instance, extra caution should be taken to ensure that political bias does not reflect any form of discrimination.

There’s no doubt that memes have a role to play in the future, but their place in future journalism is less clear.

In their current state, memes are problematic in commercial applications. But this is a powerful medium which has the potential to reach a new audience.

Perhaps, in time, we’ll see them as a real player in the communication sphere.

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