BY LUCA ESPOSITO
MILLIONS OF PEOPLE are sharing fraudulent memes designed to make women and other groups look stupid.
Male trolls are setting up fake Facebook pages such as Feminists Against Vaccines and then pushing out dozens of graphics taking extremist positions designed to engender scorn against feminists.
Any woman who complains is told: “It’s satire, so we’re not the problem. You are, because you have no sense of humor.”
The trolls present themselves as groups of feminists, anti-vaccine campaigners, churchgoers, Betty Bowers, supporters of Michele Bachmann, anti-drug campaigners, or all of the above. Their choice of targets show that they have a particular dislike for women and Christians, so bad luck if you are a female churchgoer.
TRACING THE SOURCES
Some posts have been traced to one “Knox Stonewall Johnson”, although this appears to be a pseudonym. Judged by their targets, the trolls are chauvinistically male, aggressively atheist and strong supporters of the US Democratic Party.
To be clear, this article is NOT referring to parody and satire, which is something most people enjoy (including, often, the people being targeted). The issue is with graphic posts, many of which are brilliantly positioned to lie just over the line that turns satire into deception.
The result is that a significant portion of readers take the postings as clear proof of the idiocy of the target group, be they feminists or Christians or conservative voters. Anyone who points out the fraudulent nature of the post is judged to have suffered a sense of humor failure. Either way the victim loses.
Facebook, which has a policy against fraudulent misrepresentation of individuals and groups, has deleted some of the pages, but the gang simply restarts them. Their “Christians Against Michele Bachmann” page has been deleted and restarted at least 10 times.
IS IT LAZINESS....?
The numbers are high, running into hundreds of thousands of shares. “Several memes have tricked a ridiculous number of people that were too lazy to bother source checking into thinking they were the real deal,” according to the writers of Rational Wiki.
A “Feminists Against Vaccines” meme created as a part of “Photoshop Phriday”, a game organized by the website “Something Awful” in 2013, was recently (in March 2015) picked up and pushed to go viral on the Internet as proof of feminist idiocy.
“A friend posted it to me earlier. I laughed. Two other friends shared it as if it were serious,” said Facebook user Shannon Lee, discussing it in a forum.
In a piece called “The menace of memes: how pictures can paint a thousand lies”, Isabel Hardman of UK’s The Spectator laments the “failure to read the internet critically”.
... OR MALICIOUSNESS?
But others say that it’s not lack of critical thinking, but deliberate hatred of the target groups. Many people know or at least suspect the memes are fake, but share them anyway, with the full knowledge that a significant portion of people will take them seriously.
“People who share the memes often defend themselves by claiming that it is obviously satire and anyone who takes it seriously is stupid, so it’s their own fault,” says Anne Bogdani, a feminist activist. “But that’s wrong. People of all levels of intelligence fall for them.”
She points to the fact that actor (and atheist activist) Stephen Fry took one of the memes as true, spreading them as proof of the vileness of non-atheists. Geneticist Richard Dawkins has also taken the memes seriously, using them as conclusive proof of the idiocy of Christians. Nobody would call Fry or Dawkins unintelligent.
Bogdani points out that when sharers of the memes are challenged, a common response is that “feminists/ Christians/ Republicans say things like this anyway, so that makes it all right to make up stuff”.
“A facepalm does not do justice to the infantile morality behind such reasoning,” she laughs. “My child in the playground would not use such an excuse.”
It's not a small problem. One researcher who collected dozens of graphics which purported to show Christians making anti-science statements traced them back to their sources: not some, but all were fake.
Another group which is deeply worried about the spread of fake news is the journalistic community. Several surveys have shown that Facebook is already the main source of news for many people. They argue that without gatekeepers who have some sense of morality, it’s only a matter of time before serious harm is done. But what we do?
COMEDIANS DEFINE SATIRE
How do you judge whether a meme is satire or fake news?
Professional comedians take Woody Allen’s dictum, “The audience is always right,” as their watchword.
Comedy is defined by the listener, not the speaker. Only if your audience greets your utterance as a joke, is it a joke. If a significant proportion of them don’t realize it is satire, it isn’t satire.
“Will we ever teach people to think before they post?” asked Bogdani. “I don’t know. But I hope so.”
(Image at top from Pixabay/ Creative Commons license 2.0)