Thompson: Political memes should be researched before they are shared on social media

With election season in full swing, political memes are taking over Facebook and Twitter with stunning inaccuracy. Rumors about Hillary Clinton circulate as facts, Donald Trump is mocked in ways that undermine the dangerous success of his campaign, and current events are misconstrued as they filter through the Facebook pages of the uneducated. The viral spread of misinformation is at an all-time high—and the worst part is that most people are unable to discern between factual information and biased memes online.

First of all, it is important to understand that anyone who knows how to use Photoshop or any other photo editing app can create memes and upload them to Facebook. We see it all the time with photos of animals and celebrities that have been altered to evoke a relatable or humorous response, yet seldom do we believe these memes to carry any factual value. We know the sources of these photos are ambiguous and could be 13-year-olds lost in the technological world, but the vast majority of us fail to recognize that these sources could very well be the same ones producing the political memes that are for some reason taken more seriously.

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Perhaps it is because the content of political memes tends to be more mature or that the intended audience is the adult, voting public. Perhaps it has become easier to trust non-news sources if they appear to cover the same content as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. Maybe it is easy to assume that those who have the time in their day to fabricate political memes also have the time to do their research. Whatever the cause, we need to stop liking, posting and sharing political memes without first checking our facts—and our sources.

For example, recent events surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline Project have (finally) breached the surface of major news publications after receiving much attention on social media. For weeks, protest footage and related political memes have gone viral online, making it extremely easy for anyone who feels so inclined to contribute to the cause. Naturally, this creates more room for error, as was the case when a photo from Woodstock 1969 went viral last week with the caption, “This is why the media won’t show the protest on the pipeline #StayAware.” Just days after the photo was posted, thousands of people had liked and shared it—including many of my Facebook friends—who were completely unaware of the mistake. Although the irony of the hashtag is laughable and I’m sure the person who initially created the post had good intentions, this incident serves as a perfect example of our tendency to believe what we see when it comes to political memes and viral posts on social media.

In many ways, the ignorance behind the spread of inaccurate posts and memes online reminds me of the game “telephone” that many of us played in our elementary school classrooms. What often starts as a valid issue that deserves intellectual discourse is distorted in unbelievable ways as it spreads among thousands of people, so much so that the end result can be almost entirely different than the initial message. For the sake of preventing future instances like the Woodstock-Pipeline confusion, I highly encourage researching political memes before sharing them on Facebook—even if it means conducting a simple Snopes search.