STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.6, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.6, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society • Civic Ideals and Practices

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MEDIA LITERACY

The Sneaky Truth About Memes

Those attention-grabbing pictures and videos you’re so quick to share may be more powerful than you realize. Here’s what you need to know BEFORE you pass them on.

As You Read, Think About: What makes memes so popular?

As soon as you see the meme, you know you have to share it. The picture of the puppy is adorable, and the caption cracks you up. You quickly repost the image—and you aren’t the only one. Within hours, the dog has been viewed millions of times. 

Sure, Fido is cute and all. But the pup’s fame is more about how it was presented—as a meme. Memes are bite-sized pieces of digital content that are copied and shared widely online. They include everything from animated images to TikTok challenges, and their use is growing. Instagram reported that users shared more than 1 million meme-related posts a day on its app in 2020. 

Memes have a surprising power: They can influence how you view and respond to the world around you. But the “facts” they contain can sometimes be false or misleading. And knowing exactly who made a meme—and why—can be almost impossible to determine. 

That’s why it is important to take a closer look before you repost one, explains Jennifer LaGarde, a digital literacy expert from Olympia, Washington. “We see memes as silly grumpy-cat stuff, but they are highly effective tools,” she says. “They spread very fast, and people want to share them.” 

You see a meme. You know you have to share it. The picture of the puppy is adorable, and the caption cracks you up. You quickly repost the image. But you are not the only one. Within hours, the dog has been viewed millions of times.

Fido is cute and all. But the pup’s fame is more about how it was presented—as a meme. Memes are bite-sized pieces of digital content that are copied and shared widely online. They include everything from animated images to TikTok challenges. And their use is growing. Instagram reported that users shared more than 1 million meme-related posts a day on its app in 2020.

Memes have a surprising power: They can influence how you view and respond to the world around you. But the “facts” they contain can sometimes be false or misleading. Knowing exactly who made a meme—and why—can be almost impossible to figure out.

That is why it is important to take a closer look before you repost one, explains Jennifer LaGarde. She is a digital literacy expert from Olympia, Washington. “We see memes as silly grumpy-cat stuff, but they are highly effective tools,” she says. “They spread very fast, and people want to share them.”

The Power of Memes 

Part of memes’ appeal is that they can shrink complicated issues into easily digestible snapshots. But that’s also a reason for caution, says Jamie Cohen, assistant professor of media studies at CUNY Queens College in New York, New York. After all, meme creators decide which part of an issue to reveal—and in doing so, they can influence your opinion. 

For example, sports fans might make memes about their team’s biggest win—not mentioning that the team has lost every other game. People who don’t know any better might see those memes and assume that the team is one of the best. 

Part of the appeal of memes is that they can shrink complicated issues into simple snapshots. But that is also a reason for caution, says Jamie Cohen. He is an assistant professor of media studies at CUNY Queens College in New York, New York. After all, meme creators decide which part of an issue to reveal. In doing so, they can sway your opinion.

For example, sports fans might make memes about their team’s biggest win but not mention that the team has lost every other game. People who know nothing but what the meme shows might assume the team is one of the best.

Hold off on sharing memes that trigger strong negative emotions like anger and fear.

Some creators go even further and use memes for disinformation—intentionally sharing false messages. They use the images, videos, and text to spread harmful ideas, such as prejudice against certain groups. 

That kind of content is not always easy to spot. Some is hidden as a word or symbol within innocent-looking memes. “The messages can only be read by an inside group” that knows what to look for, Cohen says. Users who share such memes end up promoting the negative message—often without realizing it. 

Even if you don’t click on hurtful memes, viewing negative content can still cause harm. Researchers have found that repeatedly seeing the same false information can make you more likely to believe it. 

Some creators go even further and use memes for disinformation. This is sharing false messages on purpose. They use the images, videos, and text to spread harmful ideas, such as prejudice against certain groups.

That kind of content is not always easy to spot. Some is hidden as a word or symbol within innocent-looking memes. “The messages can only be read by an inside group” that knows what to look for, Cohen says. Users who share such memes end up promoting the negative message. Often, they do not realize it.

Even if you do not click on hurtful memes, viewing negative content can still cause harm. Researchers have found that seeing the same false information again and again can make you more likely to believe it.

How to Read a Meme 

Here are some common tricks to watch out for when you see a new meme—as well as important questions to ask yourself before sharing the content. 

New Africa/Shutterstock.com

STUDY THE WORDS
Meme creators make certain terms stand out to trigger your emotions—so you’ll be more likely to share the memes without thinking. Ask: Why might these words be emphasized? How do they make me feel? 

USE YOUR NOGGIN
What a meme says might sound good, but does it actually make sense? Does it contradict facts you know to be true? If you aren’t sure, check with a reliable source, such as an online encyclopedia or a university website.

SEIZE THE DAY
Think about the timing of the meme. How does it relate to events that are going on in the world? Why would someone want you to see this meme today rather than a month ago? 

CHECK YOUR FEELINGS
Humorous memes can be fine, as long as they aren’t giving you a laugh at someone else’s expense. If a meme is making fun of a certain person or group, don't share it. 

STUDY THE WORDS
Meme creators make certain terms stand out to trigger your emotions—so you’ll be more likely to share the memes without thinking. Ask: Why might these words be emphasized? How do they make me feel?

USE YOUR NOGGIN
What a meme says might sound good, but does it actually make sense? Does it contradict facts you know to be true? If you aren’t sure, check with a reliable source, such as an online encyclopedia or a university website.

SEIZE THE DAY
Think about the timing of the meme. How does it relate to events that are going on in the world? Why would someone want you to see this meme today rather than a month ago? 

CHECK YOUR FEELINGS
Humorous memes can be fine, as long as they aren’t giving you a laugh at someone else’s expense. If a meme is making fun of a certain person or group, don't share it. 

What Not to Share 

The best way to avoid sharing harmful memes is to trust your instincts, LaGarde says. Ask yourself: How does this make me feel? If a meme triggers a strong reaction—especially a negative one such as fear or anger—hold off. 

“If the emotion is really intense, and especially if it causes you to feel something negative about another person or group of people, that’s a sign that should make you think, ‘Hmm, I should stay away from this,’” LaGarde says. 

When your first reaction is to laugh, think about why—and whether a meme’s creator might be using humor to hide another message. One trick to figuring out a meme’s meaning is to put it in your own words, Cohen says.

When a meme includes something that sounds factual, read more about the topic from trustworthy sources, such as government or university websites. Then use your new knowledge to decide whether the meme seems accurate. (Just doing a search using a meme’s exact wording might pull up more content from the same creator, and not necessarily the truth.)

If you’re still not sure about a meme, err on the side of caution by not liking or sharing it, LaGarde says. “You may never be able to determine if that meme is 100 percent credible,” she explains. “But you can determine if there are too many red flags to engage with it.” 

This article was updated on 8/24/2021.

The best way to avoid sharing harmful memes is to trust your instincts, LaGarde says. Ask yourself: How does this make me feel? If a meme triggers a strong reaction, especially a negative one, such as fear or anger, hold off.

“If the emotion is really intense, and especially if it causes you to feel something negative about another person or group of people, that’s a sign that should make you think, ‘Hmm, I should stay away from this,’ ” LaGarde says.

When your first reaction is to laugh, think about why. Might the meme’s creator be using humor to hide another message? One trick to figuring out a meme’s meaning is to put it in your own words, Cohen says.

When a meme includes something that sounds factual, read more about the topic from trustworthy sources. Two options are government and university websites. Then use your new knowledge to decide whether the meme seems accurate. (Just doing a search using a meme’s exact wording might pull up more content from the same creator and not necessarily the truth.)

What if you are still not sure about a meme? Err on the side of caution by not liking or sharing it, LaGarde says. “You may never be able to determine if that meme is 100 percent credible,” she explains. “But you can determine if there are too many red flags to engage with it.”

This article was updated on 8/24/2021.

Write About It! Use the power of memes for good. Create a funny or informative (and accurate!) meme to educate people about sharing content responsibly. Then write a paragraph explaining what strategies you used to make your meme effective and why its message is important.

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