I’ve always been a social media user. My first foray into social media was with the now nearly defunct MySpace, where angsty teens (I was one too) shared digital clips of punk songs and lamented the tribulations of black hair-dye and disconnected parents.It was a fun way to connect with friends, and show off your digital social status.
Growing up in the early ages of the internet, my parents had ingrained in me a solid fear of the internet boogie-man, who was lurking in every chatroom preying on little girls like me. Or the “Foreign Prince” who intended to rob me blind after offering me a million dollars. My father recently went as far to remind me that canned beet recipes I find on the internet my not all be safe for use. My parents are fairly young, and internet savvy themselves, they paid close attention to the news, and watched our online actions like hawks. I deeply appreciate their vigilance, as my brother both grew up with a safe knowledge of the online world, and have yet to fall victim to any scams, predators or unsavoury beet recipes.
But what about everyone who didn’t have this kind scepticism ingrained into their minds?
The first time I had this discussion was with a member of my husband’s family, after she shared a meme (a photo usually accompanied by text) with what I felt was harmful misinformation about a political situation. “It must be true, why else would someone post it in the first place”. After that we started keeping an eye on these kind of posts, and were shocked to find the tremendous amount of fallacies being passed off as facts through Facebook memes. Posts regarding political policies, taxation, historical ‘facts’, and even the recently popular ‘life-hacks’, were swirling around the Facebook accounts of our aunts, mothers, and their friends.
To highlight the inaccuracy of meme “facts” one Pinterest user began posting photos of Taylor Swift, overlain with quotes from fascist dictators. The photos attribute quotes made by the likes of Stalin and Hitler, to the pop princess. I jokingly shared a photo with my husband knowing he would appreciate the irony, only to have a family member note how inspirational she is. A prime example of the ease of spreading inaccurate information.
Here is another example that I recently stumbled across on a family member’s Facebook page.
While smearing one’s toes in peanut butter is pretty benign (and admittedly funny to imagine someone doing), I did find a meme that suggested creating a mustard gas to rid one’s house of bed bugs. This was a major red flag for me. I immediately called the family member who had shared the photo, and explained the implications of following the posted recipe. She was shocked and horrified.
Finally, the meme that scared me the most. A post was recently share by a friend of a friend, offering “facts” on a particular religious group, and promoting the use of violence and the spread of hate. Scrolling through the comments I was shocked by the amount of credulity given to the photos; people were taking the memes at face value, spreading judgement, fear and xenophobia. It terrified me that this type of information was moving so quickly, and being eaten up by so many people, who otherwise seemed like rational individuals.
So my question is: are memes the new internet boogie-man? Is the innocuous photo of a bug, paired with a recipe for a potentially deadly gas recipe the new “foreign prince scam”? Will I one day have to instil an almost excessive skepticism of Facebook in my own children?
To my classmates I ask: where do you draw the line in what you believe online?