The Fake News Meme — Truth May Not Be the Fittest

To understand the viral nature of fake news, or false stories made to look like news reports, we need look no further than the study of memetics. The term meme has two definitions that allow us to examine the spread of news stories like #Pizzagate across platforms online; a traditional definition set by Richard Dawkins in 1976 as any unit of culture that could be measured like genes, and the popular culture definition of a meme as shared content online.

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrote about “Universal Darwinism,” or the concept that evolutionary principles could be applied to the study of multiple complex systems including culture or, in the case of #Pizzagate, the viral nature of digital content. Memes must meet the same criteria as genes to be measured in this way:

1. Inheritance — the gene or meme can be passed down from generation to generation.

2. Variation — the gene or meme undergoes variation as it adapts over time.

3. Selection — the gene or meme undergo selection with the fittest rising to dominate the physical or digital sphere.

These same criteria can easily be applied to fake news as it becomes a growing concern among journalists and media experts. These false narratives are built on inherated bias from political points of view and they vary as each fiction is selected for the strength of its emotional impact. In all honesty, the truth may not be the fittest in the digital kingdom.

Limor Shifman updated meme theory to include more relevant criteria for the digital space occupied by the hashtags and image macros shared on social media. Shifman’s criteria are:

1. Content — the ideology conveyed in the meme.

2. Form — the physical form the meme takes online.

3. Stance — the information memes use to comment on their own content.

If we take #Pizzagate as an example we can run it through all six meme-makeing criteria listed above to better understand the spread of fake news.

1. Inheritance — an inherit bias toward Clinton because of political partisanship providing the stories shared on social media with a common right-leaning trait distributed from generation to generation of the meme.

2. Variation — the #Pizzagate story took on several forms from a simple hashtag on Twitter to larger, drawn out conspiracy theories shared on Reddit. Details of the story took on different variations of the rumor to build a stronger case falsely connecting the Clinton campaign and Comet Pizza to child sex trafficking.

3. Selection — the false narrative developed within the #Pizzagate meme was developed over time across varying platforms online because users function as natural selectors for strong ideas online by making choices to share the fake news stories with friends and followers thus lending some of their own credibility to the story. The fake news meme uses its distributors to gain strength from profile-to-profile as the lie undergoes an editing process to answer or add more questions to the story.

4. Content — the ideology conveyed in #Pizzagate is — in its simplest form — a corrupt Clinton. The story spread quickly because it was built on the distrust of the Clinton, an idea that had already developed strength during the campaign with help of legitimate news organizations casting doubt on her dealings as Secretary of State. While Fox and CNN held panels to speculate what may have happened a seed of disgust was planed in voters minds which primed them to connect Clinton with dubious behavior.

5. Form — the physical form of #Pizzagate changed overtime from site to site, but most fake news takes on the form of news reports written to imitate a blog-style of news writing.

6. Stance — Depending on the ideological preference of the person sharing the #Pizzagate story, the stance of the meme would make different comments on its message. Some people participating in the hashtag or sharing the story called attention to the ridiculous nature of the conspiracy theory, others used their voice to provide credibility to the lie.

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