Dealing with Political Disinformation in Memes: A Case for Civics and Media Literacy Education

By rachel Guldin, student voice

Growing up in conservative, rural Pennsylvania, I became accustomed to seeing all our election returns go red. November 8, 2016 was no different: I watched as NBC anchors said one PA county was left to report with votes that would swing the state and the country. I turned off the TV and went to bed. It was my county. I knew Trump won.

I’m politically progressive, but many people I grew up with are politically conservative, so I often see Trump flags at home and pro-Trump memes on Facebook. After the 2016 election, I engaged in too many social media arguments. I started hiding and snoozing Facebook friends and willingly entered a comfortable, algorithmic echo chamber.

So it was a surprise when, in mid-December 2019, a typically apolitical FB acquaintance posted this political meme:

The meme got many likes and some shares. Comments were wholly supportive, suggesting that snowflakes were going to have a rough time accepting this fact!

Fact? No way. That wasn’t how impeachment worked… was it? I didn’t think so, but wait… I consider myself an intelligent person. I did well in AP American History in high school and took political science classes in college. I follow politics closely. But there I was, looking at my phone and doubting my understanding of the impeachment process.

I pumped the breaks and activated my media literacy skills. I hopped on Snopes to search for the meme. Their “false” rating gave me a feeling of vindication and sanity. I posted the Snopes link and a statement debunking the meme on my Facebook page, then I started to dig into the dynamics of this disinformation-in-action moment.

Snopes links the meme back to Jack Posobiec. If the name’s familiar, it’s because Posobiec is the originator of Pizzagate, the 2016 viral conspiracy theory that linked top Democratic Party members to child sex-trafficking and resulted in gunshots fired inside Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. Posobiec deals in disinformation, or the false information intended to deliberately deceive and confuse. Disinformation isn’t new—the Internet has simply allowed it to spread faster than ever before.

One way disinformation does this is by relying on confirmation bias. When it presents ideas that reinforce existing beliefs, disinformation does its job quickly and easily. We are less likely to be skeptical or fact-check something that aligns with something that we think makes sense or want to be true. Disinformation doesn’t only come for the political right. I’ve been fooled, too, by disinformation aimed at leftists. After seeing a meme suggesting Facebook could use money raised with its fundraising feature as charitable giving for tax write-offs, I recommended to my sister that she avoid using this tool. I found out later this was false and learned firsthand that disinformation does not discriminate. This disinformation confirmed my bias that Facebook is a ruthless corporation willing to exploit people through neoliberal policies for profit.

In our current information glut, part of being media literate is sharing information with others: when you find fake news or discover disinformation, its good digital citizenship to debunk the junk for others. I shared facts about impeachment on Facebook and in my family’s text group. This let folks in my network know what is factually correct and the resources to call out disinformation if they encountered it, too. My mom called a few weeks later to say she’d posted the Snopes link when her friend shared the same impeachment meme. Perfect! Yet she was also concerned that she recently heard multiple women discussing the meme as fact at the hair salon, and no one challenged it.

I’m not alarmist or nostalgic for another time when every citizen was well-informed and knew the Constitution. (However, civics education has disappeared and students want it back.) Instead of being defensive and threatened, I see my own experience with this meme as evidence for how media literacy can be integrated into civics education. It’s an access point to simultaneously study the Constitution and media literacy. Issues of media literacy—like misinformation, disinformation, deepfakesbotsTikTokWhatsApp—will only become more important as digital and social media challenge our assumptions about what is authentic and what we can believe. And as we in the U.S. head into the 2020 presidential election season, disinformation campaigns will be waiting for citizens on the left and right. The reality is, disinformation doesn’t stay online. It leaks its way into hair salons, pizza parlors, memes, and voting booths.

Rachel Guldin
Rachel Guldin

Rachel Guldin is a Media Studies doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. She studies critical media literacy education, neoliberalism, and popular culture.

The views and opinions expressed on the Student Voice Blog are those of the student authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NAMLE or its members. The purpose of the student voice blog is to provide student authors a place to share their reflections, opinions and ideas.