Engaged Reading Digest: Memes, cancel culture and baby Yoda

Memes aren't just juvenile fun - they're a potent weapon in the political armory, and we have to start taking them seriously.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

It's time we started taking memes seriously. They are, in Dawkins' original conception, ideas that spread and replicate like viruses. And while they have their roots in humour, it's clear that they are a principal tool of political influence online.

The journalism world needs to find a way of interacting with this culture, without always falling back to the po-faced "debunk or explain" approach. And here's why:

Recruited to the alt-right by memes

Absolutely chilling first par:

When I was 13, I was convinced that Jews controlled global financial networks and that black Americans committed homicide at a higher rate than whites. I believed that the wage gap was a fallacy fabricated by feminists, and I was an avid supporter of the men’s rights movement. I accepted all of the alt-right maxims I saw as a Reddit moderator, despite my Jewish upbringing in a liberal household with a tight-knit family that taught me compassion, empathy, and respect for others.
I became part of the alt-right at age 13, thanks to Reddit and Google
An anonymous teenager writes about his brief infatuation with the alt-right, which made him critical of how big tech platforms influence the way we think.

How memes became weaponised

And this makes a lovely follow-on to the last, exploring how memes have become one of the fundamental weapons in the culture war.

How Memes Got Weaponized: A Short History
In October 2016, a friend of mine learned that one of his wedding photos had made its way into a post on a right-wing message board. The picture had been doctored to look like an ad for…

The social status roots of cancel culture

Fascinating five point summary of the psychological attractions of cancel culture — it's all about acquiring social status and defining enemies. For example:

One approach to [social] elevation is to do something good. But doing something good requires effort and the possibility of failure. Fortunately, another option exists: Broadcasting the bad behavior of others. This method works because social status is relative. One person losing social rank is the same as another gaining it.
5 Reasons Why People Love Cancel Culture
Research reveals why social mobs enjoy cancelling people.

So, yes, if you're "cancelling" people, you are contributing to the current political polarisation in search of enhanced social status - even if you don't realise that's what you're doing.

The mess of Meme Law

Warning: spoilers follow for a forthcoming Star Wars thing not yet available in the UK. Proceed at your own risk.

Most GIF usage probably falls under fair use / fair dealing. But it might be a copyright violation. And some hosting companies get nervous when the big corps — like Disney — are involved.

This is another example of the law lagging technology.

The Baby Yoda gif debacle exposes the messy world of meme law
Gifs from The Mandalorian went viral on social media. But then they disappeared
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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.