Memes—those bite-sized pieces of media designed for quick consumption—are not new, but their use as a form of political communication saw an increase during the the 2012 election season, and a rapid proliferation during the 2016 and 2020 seasons.
What are the implications? “Research on internet meme effects is still in its infancy,” says Rebecca Ortiz, an assistant professor of advertising at the Newhouse School, “but we can look to past media effects research to hypothesize how people may be influenced by them.”
Ortiz, who taught a course called Instagram and Reality, is now working with Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications, on research about the influence of memes, specifically around political identity.
“Social media are powerful spaces that can reinforce and challenge our beliefs and identities. The most shareable content on social media will reach the most people and potentially have the greatest effect. Internet memes, through use of humor and shared cultural meanings, are some of the most shareable pieces of content on social media and therefore they deserve scrutiny and better understanding as to how they may influence us,” she says.
We sat down with Ortiz to get her take on this powerful form of communication.
Why are memes so appealing?
Internet memes are often created in response to something that is happening in popular culture and/or about topics with shared meanings among groups of people. They are vehicles to bring people together around a shared experience. When you understand what a meme is saying, you are “in on the joke.” It makes you feel part of the group and can provide a sense of community and togetherness—something that we as humans are wired to need.
Are certain types of memes more successful than others?
It’s about whether a given meme is relatable or not. People are more likely to agree with information that confirms their beliefs and past experiences than information that challenges their beliefs and experiences. If a meme’s message is promoting something that a person already thinks is true, that meme may reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. It is also something people are more likely to share with others, which is where we find the real power of internet memes. Conversely, a person may disregard or ignore a meme if it is promoting a message with which they do not agree.
Memes also often use humor and sarcasm. The use of humor in a message can be a powerful persuasive tool. It can even sometimes bring someone’s guard down and get a person to think outside of their belief system.
How do memes reinforce our political beliefs and affiliations?
Using humor and shared cultural meanings, political-oriented memes can also strengthen our political identities by giving us a sense of togetherness with others who also “get the joke.” In strengthening that group identity, however, it may also strengthen disdain for political groups we perceive as oppositional to ours. A lot of political memes demean and devalue oppositional political identities and groups, which may lead to increased polarization.
We saw a lot of political memes like this leading up to the 2016 presidential election and again leading up to the 2020 election. In this way, we can think of political memes as propaganda, but it is not just political organizations or foreign governments creating them. Anyone can create them if they have a computer and internet access. Memes can therefore serve as powerful propaganda to promote political messages.
Tell us about your Instagram and Reality course.
I taught this course for the first time last spring. The overarching focus was on understanding how social media can shape and distort our perceptions of reality. We covered a lot of the topics I mentioned above, such as the democratization of social media (how anyone can become a media producer), confirmation bias (how we seek out and interpret messages that confirm our beliefs) and the use of social media to find like-minded others and create meaningful communities, for good or bad.
Rebecca Ortiz conducts research in health communication, social marketing and entertainment media effects. She has managed and consulted on a number of health communication campaigns and projects focused primarily on sexual health issues, such as sexual assault prevention, HPV vaccination and teen pregnancy prevention. She has taught courses in advertising research and planning, and media literacy. She is the recipient of the 2020 Communication Science, Health, Environment and Risk (ComSHER) Teaching Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. She was recently quoted in the Shondaland.com article, “The Expansive Power of Memes.”