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The Dark Side Of Facebook Memes

In theory, Facebook could be the greatest tool in the history of human civilization. In practice, for now, it’s great for sharing stuff from the internet. But what happens when Facebook makes its own memes?

James Denham does not have a strong social media following. He’s basically anonymous; type his name into Google, and you’re not going to find anything about him. But in January, Denham ran across an image of what appeared to be two teenagers cruelly hanging a puppy by a string and posted it to his Facebook wall. Text on the image implores users to “share this picture” and contact authorities if they recognize the perpetrators.

The photo has since been shared over 70,000 times from this profile, making it among the most widely viewed content on the site. Yet what Denham apparently didn’t realize at first is this image has been circulating on the Internet for years, and the culprits were identified long ago. The photo is completely useless at this point. It appears somebody eventually notified Denham of the image’s past, as he has left multiple comments on his post trying to alert other users to its history. But it’s been in vain. The photo continues to be spread around by oblivious people every day, despite the comments and despite being of absolutely no use to the world.

Facebook is great for sharing funny things, but the truly funny ones almost always come from somewhere else. These don’t. These are Facebook’s memes.

The share button, in its current iteration, allows users to take content from another user’s profile and re-post it on their own profiles, along with a byline from the original poster. By design, it works like Tumblr’s reblog or Twitter’s retweet functions. In practice, it can work more like a human centipede.

These shared items, which are usually an image that has text, or sometimes an image accompanied by an urban-legend-type caption, carry on the legacy of chain e-mails that were once a major part of Internet culture in the 1990s but have diminished in the past decade as content has grown rapidly and, along with its users, become more sophisticated. That these dumb images, which regularly accumulate tens or hundreds of thousands of “shares,” now rival even the most “liked” articles and videos on Facebook is an embarrassment for the social network.

Some of these shares, like this one recounting a hoax story about a woman on an airplane complaining about sitting next to a black man, were actually once chain e-mails themselves. Snopes.com dates this tale back to 1998. In this case, a photo of a stewardess has been used to make the story shareable on Facebook. At least one posting of this urban legend has more than 100,000 shares and likes.

The NAACP’s Facebook page, by contrast, has fewer than 80,000 likes at the moment. Perhaps if that organization had spent more time spreading made-up stories about bigots in the sky and less time trying to get civil rights legislation passed over the years, it would be more popular on Facebook today.

Like lists of jokes that were once sent around in chain e-mails, these memes are often stupid, mildly offensive, old-man-type jokes. They seem like they’ve been traveling through the Internet for a long while, many having picked up weird cropping, blurriness, or a URL along the way.

The users who post these things are often shameless and have no qualms about asking openly for shares in the caption or in the image itself. These memes above come from a fan page for “Jesus Christ,” a profile that seems to like playing on Christians’ desire to publicly confirm their faith. Beware of Satanas, Facebook. Carlos and otherwise.

Quotations of dubious origin are also a favorite grist for Facebook sharing. People elsewhere on the Internet have debunked the attributions on these Betty White and John Wayne quotes, but that hasn’t made a difference.

It seems like John Wayne or Betty White could have said these dusty witticisms, so they’re spread around just the same. If you think it unjust that some of the most widely shared facts about these two actors on the world’s second most-trafficked website are utter lies, well, you’re on the wrong social network. There are no fact-checking mechanisms on Facebook. The debunkings of these memes are never going to be shared nearly as broadly as the memes themselves, which seem like they will become viral intermittently in perpetuity. John Wayne and Betty White will be “saying” these things on Facebook until its users forget who they are. At that point, the quotes will be attributed to elderly stars like Justin Bieber and that dog from The Artist.

Of course, we can’t expect like-hungry trolls to stop at puppies. Congratulations, babies with serious medical conditions—you’re all Facebook famous! These memes all use the same tactic: exploit a small dying child’s photographs; write a breathless, obviously fallacious caption about how this kid will only get the medical care it needs if its meme scores enough likes and shares; and watch the attention roll in. Meanwhile, the child either recovers without your help or dies. Or it’s already been dead for years. Whatever. It’s absolutely disgusting.

By highlighting the best material, Facebook’s U.S. Politics page demonstrates the site to be home to high-minded voter-to-voter conversation and crucial interaction between elected officials and their constituents. But its seedy meme underbelly is perhaps where the real and most consequential activity occurs. And unfortunately, the shared content here is just as shoddy as what Facebook’s users did to poor Betty White, but potentially much more damaging.

Despite Facebook sponsoring presidential debates, interviewing newsmakers, and commissioning opinion polls, keeping up the appearances of an important American institution and serious media organization concerned with good civic values, the prevailing political discourse is still as rotten to its core as any Facebook meme. It’s telling that the only political item on Facebook’s top 40 “most shared” news article list of 2011 was a blurry, resized infographic of debatable accuracy one newspaper’s blogger had taken off another newspaper’s website. That’s exactly the sort of thing that becomes a Facebook political meme, albeit even more poorly made and less likely to be factual.

The image above, as BuzzFeed’s JP Moore reported in January, has been among the most widely shared by conservatives on Facebook. According to this screengrab from what appears to be a computer-challenged conservative’s copy of Microsoft Word, the Tea Party has never done a single thing wrong or affected a single blade of grass or square foot of pavement, whereas the Occupy “Party” is a heathen taxpayer-funded pit of public masturbation and sexy tuberculosis experimentation supported by noted BFFs Joe Biden and Ayatollah Khamenei and also time-traveling Nazis and Bolsheviks. It’s brilliantly stupid the way only chain e-mail propaganda can be.

These two memes are among the most widely shared by liberals, and they’re both wildly inaccurate. The chart had already been discredited by political fact-check blogs many months before it appeared on Facebook. This Mitt Romney photo is a Getty image from 2008 of the presidential candidate going through airport security before boarding a plane. But somebody decided it looked like the official wanding him was actually shining his shoes, so another meme predicated on misinformation was born.

In this case, the image was debunked by somebody we would expect to be on the same side as those passing this around, the liberal blogger Alex Seitz-Wald, which shows an important point: even the most partisan and ideological members of the political media care about accuracy and maintaining a reputation of trustworthiness. It’s why they spend so much time charging one another about what the facts are, and so often accuse their colleagues of hiding or distorting them. But relatively anonymous, nobody Facebook users have no such responsibility to the truth, and in fact seem to benefit from undermining it.

These political memes may be the most insidious of all, because they could have serious effects not only on the discourse, but on election outcomes as well. Like the old-man jokes or the Christian memes, political images spread quickly in part because Facebook users’ friends are by and large demographically similar to themselves. Most conservatives are mostly friends with conservatives; most liberals are mostly friends with other liberals. These politically insular memes function to confirm and strengthen users’ ideological beliefs, and truth is optional. If somebody could convincingly doctor photo of Romney smearing on foie gras and eating the $5 allowance of a child of a worker he laid off while simultaneously kicking his family dog out of a moving Gulfstream, it would probably have been even more effective. The shoeshine image worked because it fit into the popular perception of that political enemy, and that’s all that matters.

But Internet partisans like @PatriotUSA76 need not seek the truth; in fact, many of them don’t. Unlike media professionals, they have nothing to lose by telling lies. They can spend all of their free time (or more accurately, their time at work) on the Internet making things up until something sticks.

Campaign staffers always worry about the “October surprise,” a last-minute revelation that suddenly turns the election all the way around. Such a revelation could be created on Election Day by a malevolent Facebook user out of whole cloth and, if it seemed at all legitimate, spread quickly among partisan users, motivating them to turn out in higher numbers and, as it began to be seen by undecided voters, potentially flip the election to a candidate who would otherwise have lost. Campaigns, focused on turning out their voters, and the news media, busy preparing their night coverage and taking cheesy photos of the candidates casting their ballots, may not fully catch on to what happened until the next day, when it’s too late to respond.

One can’t just dismiss these memes because they’re dumb, poorly made, and factually challenged. Facebook is huge, and this is its most popular content.

I don’t think most people would ever consider Facebook as a good subject for artistic criticism. After all, it’s just a medium, an online network of friends and sex offenders. Most people wouldn’t consider it a media site, much less a movie studio or an art museum. It’s one of the pillars of the Internet—it’s easy to take for granted.

But Facebook doesn’t want to just be a place where friends post photographs of what each other looks like drunk and congratulate one other on their various romantic decisions. It’s long been more ambitious than that. When Facebook sees other social media sites become popular, it morphs to give itself similar features and control the leak of users to those sites, who could, after all, just up and abandon Facebook forever one day. (In Facebook’s mind, that is. Calm down, Facebook. You’re Facebook!)

It’s clear the company wants its users to see Facebook as a site for publishing content. So if it wants to be treated like a media site, let’s treat it like one. It’s the most popular, deepest, and most destructive cesspool of absolute garbage content on the Internet. Second by second, it squanders its potential by letting the cream fall to the bottom and disgusting, ugly sediment rise to the top. It presents the lowest common denominator to us on a silver platter and expects us to like it. Facebook may now be America’s greatest entertainment, but the junk content that is increasingly working its way into our News Feeds makes eHow articles look like the Great American Novel.

What meme organic to Facebook has ever really worked? Those “25 things about me” and “what people think I do” memes got tiring quickly, but at least they were original and somewhat creative. Otherwise, the Facebook meme mill churns out empty byproduct, and not much more.

The real, persistent memes on Facebook, the ones that come to mind when you stop and think think about your user experience, are things like free-gift-card hoaxes, malware-infected videos, self-replicating link scams, false celebrity death rumors, and fake notices that the site is going to start charging users for the service or cease its existence unless people “spread the word.” That’s the sort of content that’s most popular and successful on the site. Facebook should offer a people’s choice award for favorite new scam each year. Innovation!

It’s long been said that part of the reason MySpace failed and Facebook came to prominence is for aesthetic reasons: Facebook had a clean interface and appeared more secure. I went to a Myspace profile for the first time in years just now, and you know what? It’s difficult to tell which is cleaner. Myspace, at least, doesn’t carry the baggage of all those privacy concerns. Myspace may have been called a social networking ghetto, but the site that was once an exclusive network of Harvard University students no longer looks so different on the inside.

Facebook would be more enjoyable for some people if it went back to the basics and focused on its original role as a virtual hub for maintaining real-life friendships. As some have suggested, it could encourage users to take time to mass-unfriend people and prune their network into a group of true friends they actually care about. Instead of worrying about the threats posed by other kinds of social networks and jamming similar features into Facebook after they become popular elsewhere, the company could focus on cautiously improving what it does best and learn to live among a community of social networks that offer different things to different people.

But it seems there’s no turning back. If enough people complain about these memes littering the site, I’m sure Facebook will find a way to clean it up for the users who don’t want to see it. The company eventually managed to tuck Mafia Wars requests away into the profiles of people who actually want to play the game, to the relief of the majority of its users who just can’t seem to see the vital importance of helping a friend steal a virtual handgun in text-based Chicago. That’s no small feat.

In January, it published a study hailing its discovery that Facebook users aren’t locked in echo-chamber networks of like-minded people closed of from other elements of society; they also friend people with whom they have “weak ties,” users who probably aren’t actually what we would call “friends” in real life, and are more likely to be demographically different and share different content. It is likely these people on the margins who spread the dying-baby hoax memes into your News Feed.

In December, its Data Team lionized the term “lms” as the site’s “fastest growing meme of 2011.” “It’s a testament to human creativity and spontaneity that we can miraculously generate new forms of language in this new medium,” Facebook data scientist Jonathan Chang says in a video as a graph depicting the rise of “lms” flashes on screen. “Lms” means “like my status.” That example of human creativity is people asking others to give them validation on the things they post.

Facebook wants to be a home for content because other social networks are homes for content. But it has little interest in editorializing. It has little interest in the veracity or provenance or quality or cultural worth of its memes. It doesn’t seek to curate content (that WORD); it is an unknowing amplifier.

After all, what would be the point of doing otherwise? Does anyone treat the Internet as a serious subject of artistic criticism? If these people do exist, they’re few and far between. Even though the Internet is a prime source of the modern world’s cultural output, newspapers who employ film critics and art critics and theater critics aren’t suddenly hiring meme critics. Facebook was once covered in the press as a target of venture capital; it is now covered as a business empire going public and making everyone rich. Mark Zuckerberg is covered as a titan of his industry. Facebook is an institution of modern life. It’s the king of the Internet. If nobody else is questioning the quality of the content it promotes, why should it?

On the other hand, they do say everybody is a critic. And sometimes critics walk out on the show.

Jack Stuef is, among other things, a contributor to the Onion. He tweets here.

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