Using Memes to Fight Fake News

On February 1, 2017, a prominent Bahraini journalist posted on his Facebook page a meme that was widely circulated on social media in the Arab Gulf States, following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. The meme includes a picture of Trump’s mother when she was young with text that had an implied message. Above the photo, the text read, “This is Mary Anne Macleod in 1929. She illegally immigrated to the US.” Below the photo, it said, “Mary is also the mother of Donald Trump.”

I wouldn’t have paid it much attention if someone hadn’t wrote in the comment section, “This isn’t true, according to Wikipedia.”

In fact, this comment led me to make my first verification into a news story to test as part of my endeavors to launch a project aimed at examining the news in the Arab Gulf states.

After simple research, I discovered that the meme was nothing but a false story among many viral ones that were provoked after Trump’s ascension to office.

There is no evidence that suggests his mother was an illegal immigrant. Snopes.com has even revealed her travel records that show she entered and exited the United States with the required visas multiple times, starting in 1929 and throughout the 1930s, with no documented problems. I translated the report into Arabic to have it published.

The journalist was one of the managers I worked with at the Bahraini Al-Waqt newspaper. He currently works as an investigative journalism trainer at an international center. I knew him, throughout the five years we worked together, to be strictly dedicated to accuracy and traditions of the profession. However, what surprised me is that he did not pay the person, who noted that the story was incorrect, any attention. He also kept the meme on his Facebook wall and it is still up there to date. This surprised me.

Is it the power of memes?

Are memes so powerful to the extent that they made an investigative journalist ignore a comment warning him that the news he shared with his followers was false? This is the question that I asked myself. Creators of false news use visual memes to deceive the reader into thinking it is true. Okay then, why not go there and do the same but the right way, I told myself.

During a coaching session with Matthew MacVey, one of the brilliant assistants in our program in CUNY, he encouraged me a lot. He told me, “why not just try.” “Start with the picture of Trump’s mother,” he added, and so I did.

I placed a picture of Trump’s mother similar to that in the meme next to the meme. Above the picture, I posed the question, “Did President Trump’s mother illegally immigrate to the United States in 1929?” Below the picture I wrote the answer, which was a summary of the fact-checking that I had done: “False, there is no evidence that proves that. Documents and passenger manifests prove that she legally entered and left the United States multiple times.” I covered the false meme with a red stamp that read “Rumor”. At the bottom I added a link to the website for whoever wants further information about the story.

“I have argued that we should not limit ourselves in just to articles, we should make social talkers, things to pass along in conversations, so I’m enthusiastic about this.” This was the response of professor Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, when I presented this idea to him. He liked it and said that “If you have un-journalistic memes spreading around, for instance lies, propaganda and junk, it’s pretty cool to use the same techniques to spread truth, facts and corrections.”

Hong Qu, one of my mentors at CUNY, played a huge role in improving my understanding of the world of memes and the difference between meme strategy and viral strategy. “There is a huge difference. The picture or video that goes viral is just a single picture or a single video and people either like it or just unlike it,” he said. “But the picture or video that becomes a meme inspires people who watch it to come up with their own idea on that topic and create their own version.”

“If you are trying to create memes, you have to think that whoever sees that picture can make his own variation of that visual content and that content reaches more people. That’s the meme strategy.”

A false but not unlikely story

This is how my meme-making journey began. I started fact-checking a number of stories and reposting them on social media as a primary examination. I received many reactions that helped me develop my view.

One of the main notes that I recorded is that people sometimes do not want to believe that what they just read is nothing but a fake story. What caught my attention was a comment on one of the memes I had made about a news story stating that the Crown Prince of Bahrain offered building an artificial island in international waters to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, “That might not be true but it is not unlikely to happen.” Someone commented by saying: “But where is the proof that this is not true?” This is something normal. You cannot mention everything in the image, so sometimes it is necessary to post the full results of the fact-checking process on the website.

In fact, my project of fact-checking news focuses on producing three types of content: textual content that I provide via the website; visual content that I offer on social media; and educational content that the blog is dedicated to. Passing the knowledge about fake news is a step towards making the mission of fighting rumors and fabricated stories on social media a collective process and not an individual task or project.

The power of fake news is that they contain a portion of the truth that makes them easy to believe. They are not absolute fiction. They are designed in a way that relates to the initial readiness of those who receive it or at least a certain group of receivers. This is what makes people sometimes refuse to believe that a story is fake. That might be the reason why a prominent investigative journalist would ignore a warning telling him that what he just shared on Facebook is just another misleading story. This is the power of fake news.