I Hope You Don’t Meme That!

Phone the neighbors, wake the kids, it is time for another Facebook rant! Today’s topic: the misuse of memes as proof of the further dumbing down of America by Facebook.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, you have run across memes on the Internet. Technically, a meme can be any trend on social media. This includes things like Rick-Rolling, LOLcats, Dancing Baby, Hamster Dance, the classic video “All Your Base Are Belong To Us“, and now covers things like trending Tweets and hashtags as well.

But what I’m ranting about today is the misuse of the most common meme, as demonstrated by the classic one above. This is typically a picture, with text superimposed on top and/or bottom.

It is hard to trace back what was the first use of this type of Internet meme. For example, the “It’s a Trap!” picture of Admiral Ackbar is used frequently, and his quote dates back to 1983. That was a simpler time, however. The internet was in its infancy (TCP/IP protocol, the backbone of addressing on the internet, wasn’t introduced until 1982), and the pioneers of the late 80’s and early 90’s were communicating in text mostly on the usenet. You had to download images at what now would seem like impossibly slow speeds, so brevity and wit were the watchwords.

This gave us “leetspeak”, short for “elite speak” and spelled with the characteristic combo of letters and numbers – 1337speak – or by shortening words by phoenetic replacement. Some of this still exist today, in things like “I can haz cheezburger?”,  “n00b” and “pwned”.

Perhaps the first use of the type of meme in question is “Godwin’s Law”. It is based on the observation of Mike Godwin of something that was true on the message boards of 1990, and even more true today on Facebook. Simply put, it says that “as an Internet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” So by this rule, the understanding was that if you try to advance your argument or point of view in a discussion by bringing up comparisons to Hitler or the Nazis (as I have to point out our new President* and his spokespeople are wont to do), you have automatically lost the debate by default.

At first, this was invoked by just claiming “Godwin’s Law” in victory. Once it became easier to transmit photos, this image became popular to declare an discussion completed.

Like I said, brevity and wit.

This became a very popular way to make a joke or cute social comment. Popular meme pictures emerged, sometimes simple stick drawings like Forever Alone, Y U NO? Guy, Troll Face, Like a Boss (also called Fuck Yeah), OK Guy, Rage Guy, and more. As internet speeds increased, photos took over. Some of the classics are Ermahgerd, Scumbag Steve, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Bad Luck Brian, Success Kid, and of course, Admiral Ackbar’s It’s a trap!.

Perhaps a few samples are in order here of proper usage.

Overly Attached Girlfriend


Y U NO? Guy


Bad Luck Brian

You get the idea. These were statements on the absurdities of life, one-liners, or just a quick comment. They were whimsical and funny, sometimes tasteless, and usually meant no harm to anyone.

Where everything has gone off the rails now, is that people have started using this style as a way to express their political views. That in itself, should be no big deal – freedom of speech and all, right? The problem is getting to be that this motif seems to be replacing reason and cogent discussion. What is worse, it is frequently used to express distorted points of view, and even blatant lies. There is a growing trend to trivialize important and complex issues by reducing them to a photo and two or three lines of text. The people who do this seem to feel like they have made some deep and relevant comment on society, when most often, they are just displaying their own personal point of view and/or ignorance.

One of the ways this began was with the “False Quote” meme. You take a picture of someone you disagree with, and add text that at best is taken out of context, but most often is a statement that was never uttered by that person. Both sides of the aisle are guilty of this, as seen in this recent meme.

False Quote Meme

The facts are that the image is from an Oprah appearance, Mr. Trump never said these words, and they never appeared in People magazine as attributed. But that did not stop it from being widely circulated on Facebook. It also became an item “reported” on by various Internet “news” sites.

Related to this is taking a photo of a celebrity, and attributing your own thoughts as theirs via a fake quote. A good example is a “quote” from John Oliver about gun control that was everywhere in social media. In his own words, taken from his HBO show segment on false quotes in general, “… for years now you may have seen multiple photos of me comparing gun control to airport security. It’s an interesting thought. Here’s the thing: I never said that! Even though, I’ve now seen it so many times now I’m starting to genuinely wonder if I ever did.”

And that is the heart of the problem with false quotes. They get repeated so often, that they begin to enter into the collective unconscious as real information.

Even worse are the False Fact posts. These feature either a chart or a list of statistics that are supposed to prove a viewpoint “once and for all”. Here’s an example of what I mean. This one is especially egregious, as it was re-Tweeted and circulated by then-candidate Donald Trump, giving it a false sense of authority.

False Facts

This is commonly used of course to demonstrate that we don’t need to worry about police officers shooting Blacks, as clearly more Whites have been killed by police, and the big problem is Blacks killing each other. There are several problems with this “data”, detailed in this report, but here are some of the basic flaws. First, it came out in early 2016. The FBI’s data for 2015 was not released until the fall of 2016. Second, the “Crime Statistics Bureau of San Francisco” claimed as a source doesn’t exist. Third, the numbers presented don’t match up to the real numbers at all. According to the FBI, the percentage of Blacks killed by Blacks is indeed distressingly high – 90%. However, Whites killed by Whites is almost as high, sitting at 82.4%. The other numbers are off as well, all exaggerated in one direction or another to make the creator’s point. Most importantly, since Police shootings of Black suspects was the cause of the whole chart, the figures for “killed by Police” are totally made up. The truth is, we have no idea how many people were shot or killed by Police departments in the USA, be they Black or be they White. They are supposed to report all police shootings to a central government office, but there is little compliance and no enforcement of this requirement.

Finally, here is the type of meme post that has driven me across the Rantsville City Limits. These have been popping up here and there for a while now, but have exploded in popularity since the election of President* Trump. This is where reason and common sense have been thrown out the window completely. In its basic form, you take a complex issue of the day, reduce it to a simple and often untrue summary, and then finish up with your brilliant analysis. This is usually superimposed over an unflattering or spitefully chosen image. The point of these memes is usually just to ridicule the other side of the argument, not to offer a logical or reasoned defense of the poster’s viewpoint.

Here’s a recent one about the Women’s March, and shows the “False Premise” approach. We start with a statement you are meant to just accept without question. But who said that all liberals don’t believe in biological gender?False Premise In fact, I would think you cannot find a single person who would state that biological gender does not exist. What it is based on of course is a simplistic representation of the complex issue involving people who feel that their personal image of themselves is at odds with their biological gender. So the first line, or original premise, is not true. Worse, the question at the bottom is also meaningless. Even if the premise was true, why would that mean you can’t march for equal rights for all people, genderless or otherwise?

The other recent anti-free speech meme shows a screaming child, and first makes the False Premise that “Protesting ought to be used when human rights have been violated”. Which in itself, is certainly true. But is that the only reason you should be allowed to protest? Apparently so, because it then goes on to say “Protesting because you didn’t get your way is called a temper tantrum”.

No, protesting because you didn’t get your way is called protesting. Labeling people you disagree with or don’t understand as “children having a temper tantrum” is called being demeaning, dismissive, simplistic, and generally an ass.

The very definition of “protest” is:

  1. a solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent: such as a :  a sworn declaration that payment of a note or bill has been refused and that all responsible signers or debtors are liable for resulting loss or damage b :  a declaration made especially before or while paying that a tax is illegal and that payment is not voluntary

  2.  the act of objecting or a gesture of disapproval <resigned in protest>; especially :  a usually organized public demonstration of disapproval

  3.   a complaint, objection, or display of unwillingness usually to an idea or a course of action <went under protest>

  4.  an objection made to an official or a governing body of a sport

Now after watching this football season and seeing the reaction to some of the official’s calls, you may have an argument for calling definition #4 a “temper tantrum”. But the fact is you don’t protest unless some “idea or course of action” is something to which you object. Indeed, the history of this country is full of people who protested, often violently, when they “did not get their way”. The Boston Tea Party was not over human rights violations, it was about taxation (definition 1b above) and trade policies deemed unfair to some. The riots over the Stamp Act started because the lawyers in the colonies “did not get their way” and felt unfairly singled out.

Prime Minister Grenville delayed the implementation of the tax on stamps “out of Tenderness to the colonies”. And Parliament member Charles Townshend, in the same patronizing tone, stated “and now will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our Indulgence until they are grown to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from heavy weight of the burden which we lie under?” The reaction in England was very much that the colonies were full of “spoiled children,” and that did not work out particularly well for Parliament.

I don’t condone violence as a form of protest, but it is naive in the extreme to pretend it is not in the DNA of Americans, and has not been going on for the past 275 years or more over issues on the left and the right. Americans riot when our sports team WINS games, for goodness sake! It is foolish to act surprised and shocked when protesters sometimes break out in violence when they feel they have lost something that actually matters.

I don’t have any answers for gun control, police shootings, political differences, or any of the deep issues facing us today. All I’m asking for is just for Americans to try actually researching, reading and thinking about those problems. Try honest dialogue with each other where you exchange ideas and present your logical conclusions, and not just misuse what started out as a cute little Internet joke device as a bludgeon to beat people who hold an opposing viewpoint, or to perpetuate lies and false information.

Or to put it in meme form,