Meme Machine

Now that the mid-term elections are behind us, the dust has begun to settle, and Americans nationwide are hunkering down for a) continued liberal tyranny, or b) new conservative oppression, a few thoughts and observations on political messaging, social media, and the use and abuse of language in the days prior to November 4th…

First, conservatives and liberals propagandize differently, in both style and method of delivery. Most conservative political messages come my way via email, usually forwarded by a family member. The format is most often a lengthy list, seemingly innocuous at first, such as “Little Known Facts About American History.” By the midway point, though, the real message becomes clear, and by the end, I’m being told Obama is the Antichrist. At least half of the historical “facts” are wrong. It makes sense that email would be the delivery method of choice for the right-wingiest among us, since some of the content would get a Twitter account suspended for “hate speech.”

Liberals, on the other hand, prefer social media, and use short, image-based memes to convey their equally fact-free assertions — for example, a picture of the Dos Equis beer guy embossed with, “I Don’t Always Pay Taxes, But When I Do… Oh That’s Right I Don’t Because I’m Rich.” The most popular liberal meme in the days leading up to the elections was the Rush Limbaugh “no means yes if you can spot it” quote. I’m no ditto-head, but the complete quote makes it clear he was asserting the opposite. That didn’t stop armies of Facebook and Twitter users, who obviously didn’t take ten seconds to verify this, from bombarding everyone with it for days on end.

I’m not one to get easily offended by much, but in the days before November 4th, when the deluge was so overwhelming it practically poured off the screen, it was hard not to feel a bit beat up by it all. Whatever people’s intentions may be, the message of any political meme feels the same: Click Like, Or You’re Wrong.

But the main reason I’m writing about this subject (on what is usually a blog about literature) is this: As an English instructor who spends his days trying to convince students of the importance of clear communication, the power of language, the proper use of sources, etc., I get a bit miffed seeing how easily all that is undermined, daily, with a keystroke. The political meme in particular is especially pernicious because it’s not an argument or appeal, and often it’s not even factual. It is the visual equivalent of a sound-bite.

I know, there have always been propagandists: TV mouth-pieces, bloviating radio hosts, holier-than-thou Hollywood celebrities and musicians, and politicians themselves. But that’s them, out there. With social media, we now get it from our family and friends (and well before the cranberry sauce). Big Brother is sooo 20th century. We do it to each other now.

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Meme Machine