How to Lie with Memes

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.

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The Return of the Useful Idiots

Useful Idiot (noun): a naive or credulous person who can be manipulated or exploited to advance a cause or political agenda

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The term ‘useful idiot’ has a long and storied Cold War history, often being used to pejoratively describe Western leftists who amplified and played into Soviet propaganda. Useful idiocy came in many forms, from outright laundering of Soviet lies (see Walter Duranty) to simply falling for the USSR’s disinformation and false narratives. Some in the latter category still exist today and seriously argue that, for instance, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were not actually spies (apparently they have not seen the Venona Files). Most of these useful idiots were on the political left, but the main thing that their politics had in common was a reflexive anti-American bent. Useful idiocy as a relevant political concept fell out of favor at the same time the Soviet Union did, and most thought it relegated to works of history. Now, just as Great Power conflict has returned with a vengeance, so have the useful idiots.

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