A Short Story About My Short-lived Meme Experiment
In December 2016, after the gut punch of the election, the ensuing despair, the fleeting moment of hope in our electors, and finally after the rage that this nightmare was now reality, I decided to do something. Something small, but something I thought might make a difference.
It’s no secret that viral memes created by our asshole in the white house and his political party and the Russians helped win him this election. Yes, memes. Internet memes. Whacky photoshop pictures, you see? The fun slap-em-ups to make you laugh and guffaw were used to spread misinformation and disinformation, far and wide, inflame culture wars, make African-Americans stay home, and ultimately elect the most powerful person to the most powerful office on the planet.
Side note: Political meme wars are still insane to me. We are electing leaders not fucking mascots. And you wonder why we elected a mascot.
So I thought, hey, I know Photoshop, I can do memes. I figured maybe if I could make some memes that were factually correct and target the MAGA hats the same way trump and the Russians did, maybe I could knock some sense into them.
So I created a Facebook page called Fact Check Memes. At first glance it seemed very pro-trump. There was a pro-trump Christmas header, and the description was all about how much the page supported trump. But the memes were all anti-trump. Well, not specifically anti-trump, just true. Which, I guess is anti-trump.
I looked at all the most viral anti-Hillary memes and created my answer to them:
I shared a video showing Trump honoring Hillary Clinton with a STANDING FUCKING OVATION at the inaugural lunch, the woman he said he was definitely putting in prison just a few months prior. I added a caption, “I thought he was putting her in prison?”
None of it worked. At all.
People got angry. I was told I was the one lying. I started to get an adrenaline rush every time I got on Facebook because there were a flood of comments from angry people. (I hate adrenaline.)
But I stuck with it for a bit, responding to commenters, engaging them, pointing them to articles, hoping some of it would seep in.
Most of them were elderly white Americans. I got into it with this one older man about something, I can’t remember what. We were going back and forth for a few days. Then he wrote a reply that kinda broke my heart.
He said, “Hey I don’t know how to turn this off. Every time you reply I get an email saying I need to look at this and I can’t stop it but I don’t want to look at this anymore but I don’t know how to turn it off. Would you please stop replying?”
When I read that, I deleted the entire page.
There is a large and expanding group of people on Facebook that have no idea what Facebook is, how to use it, what they’re looking at, what’s real, what’s not, and yet they can’t stop looking at it because Zuck did such a good job building something that’s bad for people but for some reason they feel they still need. And email notifications are on by default. My mom gets so many emails from Facebook, sometimes she thinks she’s looking at Facebook when she’s just looking at the email Facebook sent her. And when it comes to removing yourself from it completely, well, at this point that’s damn near impossible even if you’re an Internet whiz.
I didn’t want to be the source of pain for this guy. I was angry but I didn’t want to create more anger. Looking back now I realize I wasn’t trying to build bridges, I was trying to prove these people wrong. It was a losing battle from the start.
It’s been two years since my little meme experiment and I still can’t see how this gets fixed. It’s ironic because 10 years ago, to get moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas to use your product would mean you were killing it. But Facebook in particular is so harmful and is doing so much damage and it’s because a lot of these older folks were shoved onto this platform without being told anything about it.
The memes work because they trigger that inner part of our brains that flare up and pisses us off and makes us want to consume more.
And the incentive structure of Facebook, and any social media app, is to encourage this consumption, even though it’s so clearly obviously terribly bad for us. Facebook has created a rash of mental zombies in a meme-feeding frenzy.
There are only a few things left that are good on Facebook. One is groups. Okay there’s only one good thing left. Other than that it’s a hellhole and it’s created a hellscape and we’re all currently living in it.
But isn’t this true of any social media network? I used to think Medium was a pretty pure place and then the MAGA hats started showing up here too. Twitter is a cesspool but I find I can ignore most of the cess most of the time. Instagram is starting to be weaponized more and more. Even LinkedIn, once a respite from anything incendiary, is now no longer safe.
Worst of all, most of what we’re seeing on social media now was created and auto-tuned and targeted to you by bots. They’re not even real humans with real opinions. Which is comforting on one hand, but on the other, we’re humans. We’re no match for millions of bots who never have to sleep and have no trouble repeating the same message over and over and over again until we’re all repeating the shit back as fact.
So what do we do?
No seriously, what do we do? I have no idea.
[insert better conclusion here that makes you feel good and hopeful, sorry I don’t have one]
Sarah Cooper is a writer and comedian and terrified.