Some friends and I have been jokingly wondering about how the anti-vaxx crowd will react when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. My bet is that most will continue their baseless and histrionic caterwauling (if you didn’t know my opinion on the matter, you do now) while quietly going out and getting it for themselves and their families, and a relatively few “true believers” will be fine with everyone else getting it so they can free-load on the herd immunity. I’d wish a figurative pox upon them all, but that’s not as amusing a joke under the current circumstances.

There’s an intersection between the anti-vaxx crowd and the wild-eyed conspiracy theorists, and it landed with a flourish in my social media feed just the other day. While Poe’s Law suggests the strong possibility that the meme’s author may have been spoofing rather than serious, this meme (right) was shared un-ironically by at least a couple truth-to-power crusaders.

There’s a certain obvious power in memes, a power that textual statements and quotes don’t have. I discussed it a few years back, and it’s only gotten stronger. Craft a catchy graphic, and it’ll propagate through social media around the world in the blink of an eye. We all know people who apparently have a lot of free time and a concomitant urge to share “secret knowledge” with the world clutter their feeds with this sort of stuff. The like-minded or similarly-inclined are, I’ve concluded, more inclined to believe on its face information shared via meme than textual assertions. First impressions are very powerful, and first opinions are very persistent, so if someone sees a meme that “clicks,” even if it’s utter bullshit, they’re likely to resist its rebuttal. Especially, especially, if they shared it themselves.

While graphical presentation of information is a very powerful tool, (picture-thousand words and all that), and while informational graphics that are well-crafted and properly sourced are extremely useful (and serve well when they themselves go viral), memes alone are no way to conduct an informed conversation. Furthermore, truth is usually far more boring, and it doesn’t trigger our deep lizard-brain fears the way lurid assertions of hidden plots, overstated or fabricated dangers, and the like do.

This doesn’t bode well for societal harmony. We live in a time of unparalleled access to information. Discourse and debate have never been easier, and we are, collectively, smarter and better informed than at any previous point in history. But, rather than embrace all this, rather than fixate on a rational advancement of knowledge, with proper scrutiny, informed questioning, and perpetual honing of that which we know, we are beset upon all sides by the false, the tendentious, the easily-disproved, and the deceitfully self-promoting, and we instinctively gravitate to all of it. It’s just how we’re wired.

The meme to the left tells the tale. Package up nonsense and junk information nicely, and it’ll travel much faster and farther than unadorned truth.

The use of memes to spread garbage ideas and false “facts” is classic tool-in-a-toolbox. As in, someone will find a way to use that tool in a way that was neither intended nor beneficial. The ease with which they’re created, shared, and re-shared makes them both powerful and dangerous. They are, I’m afraid, significant contributors to the damaging of modern society, the sowing of divisions, and the ravaging of the social civility that keeps us from each other’s throats.

What can we do? As always, don’t contribute to the problem. Default to skepticism, even when a meme validates something you believe. If it stands up to rational scrutiny, great, share away. That rational scrutiny takes, thanks to the same Internet that makes spreading memes so easy, little time and little effort. Use the tools you’ve got at your disposal.

And, for pity’s sake, don’t be a part of the problem.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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