Memes are an incredible tool of information exchange; unfortunately they are just as often a fount of misinformation.
We’ve seen lying with statistics. We’ve seen lying with maps. Now, in the heat of the most serious nation-on-nation conflict in decades, we’re seeing lying with memes.
The meme above, although not new, has been rocketing around social media over the past few days in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It pops up almost any time someone criticizes the invasion for its brutality or advocates for a strong Western response. The accounts posting it – mainly the useful idiot crew – are garnering thousands of positive responses, all decrying the United States for imperialism, militarism, and atrocious human rights abuses, if not outright war crimes. If you took these folks at face value, you would think that the US was, in the words of one prominent progressive commentator, “the greatest source for evil and destruction since the fall of the Third Reich.” This sort of moral relativism is nothing new; authoritarian flunkies and anti-American stooges – see one Noam Chomsky – have been pushing these inane ideas for decades. Now these tactics have been updated for the 21st century, where memes are the ideological currency of the day. And although the rhetorical technology has changed, the inaccuracy and misinformation has not. The “USA Bombing List” meme is a case in point.
Lying with statistics is a common practice; when it comes to Israel, lying with maps is just as common.
The map presented above was published by Al Jazeera this week and purports to show that “From 1947 to 1950, during the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’, Zionist military forces expelled at least 750,000 Palestinians and captured 78% of historic Palestine.” The map is not new, and is consistently used by anti-Israel publications, media outlets, and pundits to “explain” how the Palestinians have been historically oppressed by the foundation and continued existence of the state of Israel. The big problem? Almost none of what the graphic depicts is true, a good deal of it is deliberately misleading, and it leaves out crucial context that undermines the point it is trying to make. Here’s an object lesson in not taking everything you see online at face value.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of speech is a fundamental aspect of American society and an important classical liberal ideal, but it is a right which is not always convenient, convivial, or comity-inducing. In fact, allowing the full flourishing of the freedom of expression and speech often includes permitting speech that much of society will find despicable, evil, offensive, or harmful. Unfortunately, there is a strong cultural – and outside of the United States, legal – movement to restrict speech freedoms and police the public discourse, sometimes with actual police officers. This trend is only accelerating with the mass adoption of social media and Internet communications more broadly, as well as the perpetually searchable online past of nearly everyone in society. So-called ‘cancel culture’ is commonplace in certain circles of political and social activism, and virtually every potentially controversial opinion (and many that are not) is met with the metaphorical gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. There are increasing levels of pushback against this trend, but the idea of ‘de-platforming’, stifling, or censoring speech which the vast majority of society considers beyond the pale – support for terrorism and blatant white supremacy, to give two examples – is quite popular, especially among younger people. According to a poll conducted by the Campaign for Free Speech, “61 percent of Americans agree that free speech should be restricted, and 51 percent believe that the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, should be rewritten to reflect the new cultural norms of today. Millennials feel a greater sense of negativity from free speech, with 57 percent agreeing that the First Amendment should be rewritten, and 54 percent believing that possible jail time would be an appropriate consequence for ‘hate speech.’” Despite the strong American constitutional protections for free speech, as seen in the First Amendment quoted above, without a strong cultural presumption and acceptance of the values around free speech, the right itself can be chipped away.