How Memes Can Spread Disinformation

Nov 11, 2020

Online memes can be fun to share, but they can also quickly spread disinformation.


We often think of memes as funny phrases pasted over images of cats, but in reality, memes are now being used for something far more sinister: spreading disinformation online to modify people's behavior.
 
Nick Flann, a professor of computer science at Utah State University, studies memes—ideas or behaviors that spread from person to person—and their impacts on society. Flann said the internet has empowered memes to spread more quickly in two different ways.


The first is the speed at which these ideas can now be shared online.
 
“So how quickly can I receive a meme and have it penetrate my mind and then change my behavior and press the button that says 'Share'? Now that's seconds.” Flann said.

Second is that memes can be spread to a broad audience when shared by accounts with many followers—like celebrities and politicians.


The trouble with this vast sharing of information, good or bad, is that people like to believe they’re immune to influence.
 
“People have a massive resistance to believing that they are susceptible to memes. It's not popular at all this idea that we don't, we really aren't choosing what we want.” Flann said.
 
Merely teaching people about disinformation may not be enough to stop its spread and that detecting and countering disinformation at its source may be the key.
 
“Maybe we need to get in this game of the memes idea and how can we analyze and acknowledge that, for example, you know, they're going to manufacture all this misinformation and disinformation.” Flann said. “So can we acknowledge that? Can we track that? Can we counter it? Can we detect it?”
 
Flann spoke about memes at USU’s Science Unwrapped program this fall. For information on how to watch his recorded presentation, visit www.usu.edu/unwrapped/presentations/2020/meme-menace-september-2020.