Meming Ourselves to Death

I was disturbed to read in the New York Times recently that:

As TV, radio and newspapers give way to the megaphonic power of social media, today’s donor class is throwing its weight behind a new group of partisan organizations that specialize in creating catchy, highly shareable messages for Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms. Viral media expertise is emerging as a crucial skill for political operatives, and as donors look to replicate the success of the social media sloganeers who helped lift President Trump to victory, they’re seeking out talented meme makers.

The article is well worth a read and closes with this chilling sentiment:

“This was the missing piece of the progressive infrastructure,” said Jess McIntosh, Shareblue’s executive editor, who worked as Mrs. Clinton’s director of communications outreach during the 2016 campaign. “Everyone understands that what gets shared online matters now.”

While I will grant that memes probably helped Donald Trump win, I don’t think a lack of memes caused Hillary to lose. In other words, gaining meme market share won’t make things better in 2018 and 2020. And I suspect they will actually make things worse.

Memes distract from real issues. They push us further into our ideological corners and inhibit our ability to have conversations with people we might disagree with. Liking and sharing creates the illusion of action, placating the base into thinking they are doing something meaningful. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes:

[On television] the news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

Memes function in a very similar fashion:

Is there a call to action here (besides feeling smug)? This is not a strategy. This is nonsense. The “donor class” may see meme factories as a worth pursuit but they will only exacerbate the real issues: polarization and the erosion of real political discourse in America.