But you can vaccinate yourself and those around you.
Content Note: This article features examples of bigotry and other content that may be upsetting or triggering to some folx. My apologies, but it’s harder to make the case to some people without including the examples.
There are many pages on Facebook (but not just there) that post mostly memes and other light and silly content. They can rapidly gain followers because memes are amusing and people like being amused. We like being entertained with relatable content and having an escape from our jobs and daily troubles.
But not all meme pages are created equal.
Where It Often Starts
I first became personally aware of the issue at hand a few years ago with regards to the FB page of “David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe”. Wolfe’s Facebook page has 12 million followers at the time of this writing.
Wolfe is a self-proclaimed health guru, yet has repeatedly promoted dangerous health “solutions”, and discouraged people from seeking proven medical treatments.
A quick rundown of reasons why you should not give Wolfe any of your time or attention:
> He is a flat earther
> He is anti-vaccine
> He has called gravity a “toxin” (and claims you can cure arthritis by hanging upside down)
> He says deer antlers are levitational and an “androgenic force”
> He said that if there was no salt in the oceans, the oceans would levitate right off the earth
Again, he calls himself a health guru, yet displays very suspect scientific literacy.
Science blogger Matthew Loftus (aka The Credible Hulk) is quoted in the article “David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe Deletes Reviews After Facebook Page Slammed With Thousands Of 1-Star Ratings”:
“[Wolfe] uses a tactic of boosting his reach through the use of innocuous seeming inspirational memes to gain followers, so he can later hit them with absolutely insane conspiracy nonsense and terrible health advice. This makes many people not realize just how outlandish his claims really are until they’ve already been sucked in by his ‘harmless hippie’ image and inspirational memes filled with contrived platitudes and deepities, which is part of what makes him dangerous.”
You can read more on this, including several examples in the article “The David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe Effect” from A Science Enthusiast Blog. The article includes the example of the “David Wolfe Certificate” which costs $600 USD and is very likely a scam. Wolfe’s Facebook page is littered with quotes from other people with his name and URL plastered on them.
Wolfe got so infamous that back in 2016 (at which point he only had 3.3M followers), a campaign was started: #DontCryWolfe, to try and discourage as many people as possible from following his page or sharing anything from it.
[Side Note: for some alternative health advice that is actually backed by science and doesn’t cost a cent, I highly recommend checking out Wim Hof]
But this strategy definitely isn’t exclusive to Wolfe. It’s a very easy strategy to execute and it has proven effective so many other pages do it as well.
Meme pages tend to grow fast and swell to big numbers, gaining massive reach and thus massive influence. Things can very quickly “go viral” and do a lot of harm, depending on the content. This is not unlike how celebrities are typically lent “credibility by name recognition” to speak or advocate for things that they have no demonstrable expertise in (such as Autism).
And in case you didn’t know, humans are generally terrible at recognizing and checking our own biases.
Another example of a page that has come under fire for this strategy is Nerds With Vaginas (bonus points if you can already spot a problem). As of this writing, NWV has 3.6M followers.
Unlike Wolfe however, their criticism is not for giving bad health advice but for luring in followers with “harmless” memes while occasionally posting bigoted or discriminatory content. Some people have called the page out and been banned, blocked, or had the admin of the page encourage their fans to harass and possibly dox the whistle blower(s).
Here are a couple examples of bigoted things they’ve posted:
This may seem innocent, but it’s racist. Subtle racism is still racism. It’s wrong to imply that all Asians are tech wizards and can fix any electronic device, as well as to imply that all Asians love rice.
Here is another example of racism. The underlying implication of this meme is that people of colour can’t do their hair properly (or that their hair is “ugly”), and that if you’re white and can’t braid your own hair, then you’re basically just as bad as a black person.
Thing is, this meme could have easily been done without using a person of colour in the negative example. It’s directly targeting people of colour on purpose.
And then there’s this... TW: Rape “Joke”.
Here is an example of them joking about threatening rape on people who complain on their page, using a Bill Cosby reference. To date, Cosby is the only famous man to actually be convicted of a crime in the MeToo movement. The only man convicted is a black man.
This post also directly implies that sharing hateful, bigoted memes (that inspire and incite violence against marginalized groups) is not worth complaining about because there are “worse problems” out there.
Also known as “Not Checking Your Privilege”.
Joanna Schroeder wrote an article titled “A Mother’s Warning: If You Have White Sons, Listen Up” about how social media helped radicalize her son to become more of a Nazi sympathizer and how she caught it and worked with both her sons to help them understand the seriousness of the content in these bigoted memes:
“They like to feel grown up and they like to feel they are no longer falling for baby humor. That irreverence feels good to them,” she said.
What they don’t always know is what crosses the line. The memes begin to normalize ideals that are repugnant, she says. And those ideas can seem to have merit as teens go through the struggles of growing up.
“First boys are inundated by memes with subtly racist, sexist, and homophobic, anti-Semitic jokes and being kids, they don’t see the nuance and they repeat and share,” Schroeder said. “Then they are shunned in school or socially.”
It can push them to their online life and into the hands of those who “understand” them and think everyone else is being “too sensitive,” she said.”
Of course it’s not just younger kids (or even just boys) who are susceptible to this, anyone at any age can be caught by the net. Even if the authors of some of these meme pages aren’t intentionally trying to make you more intolerant, their biases will bleed through in the content they post and share, and thus will influence their audience. That’s not even to mention the bot accounts.
Seeds Planted, They Begin To Grow
The fact that the majority of the content on these pages is either “safe” or more subtly problematic leads to a build up of trust and comfort with the general and casual audience. When the page does eventually drop something problematic, much of their audience will absorb and internalize that without much second thought or resistance. Even if someone gathers the receipts all in one place so people can see the pattern for themselves, they may be unmoved by it. Overall it’s a really effective propaganda method.
This is how the process of radicalization works — you start small and innocuous, and then as that becomes “normalized” and tolerated, you progressively ratchet things up more and more until the thing you started with seems utterly tame and benign. This is why social justice advocates take issue with microaggressions.
This strategy can even be executed inversely and be effective. In the 2011 documentary “Six Days to Air”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park) talked about using an inverted form of this strategy to get episode ideas green lit by the network that wouldn’t have been allowed otherwise. They started by pitching the most extreme thing they can think of knowing the network would shoot it down (which the network did), and then when Parker and Stone suggested the thing they actually wanted to do, it seemed very reasonable in comparison and the network would give them the OK. They said they did this multiple times.
Further Up The Ladder
This phenomenon can also be executed through other platforms besides Facebook and Twitter. YouTube has become a radicalization tool as well. This article, “How YouTube Built a Radicalization Machine for the Alt-Right”, explains with examples and testimony from men who were sucked down that rabbit hole and have since walked away from it.
Another example from several years back: “We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men” by Abi Wilkinson. The article features this excerpt:
“Reading through the posting history of individual aliases, it’s possible to chart their progress from vague dissatisfaction, and desire for social status and sexual success, to full-blown adherence to a cohesive ideology of white supremacy and misogyny. Neofascists treat these websites as recruitment grounds. They find angry, frustrated young men and groom them in their own image. Yet there’s no Prevent equivalent to try to stamp this out.
Much has been written about financial hardship turning afflicted white communities into breeding grounds for white supremacist politics, but what about when dissatisfaction has little to do with economic circumstance? It’s hard to know what can be done to combat this phenomenon, but surely we have to start by taking the link between online hatred and resentment of women and the rise of neofascism seriously.”
Right To The Top
Go another step with this concept and strategy — how and where else could it be applied? Are there entire “news” websites whose editorial content is like this? Where they will publish the occasional subtly bigoted, hate speech defending (or encouraging) article in between other “legitimate” innocuous articles? There certainly are.
This concept keeps going up the chain. TV shows and movies that feature lots of subtly bigoted jokes, or characters with these attitudes who are never truly challenged or never face any real consequences.
And that’s the challenge of being media literate, is to be able to recognize the difference. This is not meant to make you distrust all media, it’s meant to make you think and be more critical of what you’re reading, watching, and hearing. And if you have kids, be aware of the media they are consuming and talk to them about it to make sure they understand the gravity of things. Heck, talk to your grandparents too. They are more likely to be less tech and media savvy especially on the computer.
That is why we desperately need better social education — we need to talk to friends, family, and co-workers (where appropriate) about what is racist and why, about different forms of privilege and oppression that may be less obvious, and about what microaggressions are and why they matter.
Doing so is like vaccinating against a social disease. You can create a social herd immunity of sorts in that the more people who recognize this stuff as problematic, the fewer who will believe, share, or repeat it, and the fewer eyes/minds it can reach and “corrupt”. That corruption is a slow process, but it does happen.
Unlike vaccines for viral diseases, social diseases are much harder to fully eradicate. But as with vaccines for viral diseases that we get on a recurring basis, these conversations also need to continue on a recurring basis. Daily and weekly, not yearly, or every decade. Leaving these conversations for too long allows the seeds of misinformation, resentment, and bigotry to fester and grow, and beyond a certain point they can’t be so easily remedied anymore.
Please be part of the conversation, talk to those close to you, have the uncomfortable conversations. Bring empathy, patience, and kindness with you and challenge your peers to be better.