‘This Is America’ And The Ambiguity Of Memes

by | Jul 28, 2020 | Benjamin Radford, Media Literacy, News, Psychology, Skepticism | 0 comments

Misleading memes are a dime a dozen, to use a phrase originating in the 1800s (though today they’re not only free but available by the tens of thousands). People who spend time on social media interact with them constantly, usually in the context of reading, endorsing, and sharing them. Less often they’re refuted or mocked, and even more rarely are they critically analyzed (by folklorists, sociologists, journalists, or the like).

It’s easy to understand why: There’s so many of them. Most memes are anonymous, and could have been made by a sincere activist—or a Russian troll farm, or even an algorithm. Trying to analyze and rebut even a tiny percentage of them would be a frustrating and fruitless waste of time, but now and then I make an exception. This is because memes often resurface months or years after first circulating, so are never really gone.

It’s sometimes worthwhile to take a critical look at a popular meme, to demonstrate how we can apply critical thinking and media literacy to the claims it contains, since often those lessons can be applied to other memes as well. Regardless of the topic, there are common mistakes and logical fallacies in misleading memes. Often the memes are factually wrong—usually in service of a particular political agenda—but other times the error is more difficult to recognize because it contains a self-evident fact or truth.

Warrants and Alternative Explanations

To help distinguish valid from invalid arguments, it’s helpful to look at memes as simple claims with (clear or hidden) premises and (valid or invalid) conclusions. You may remember from a class in logic, philosophy, or debate that in its simplest form a logical argument could be a syllogism such as “If A then B.”

The link between A and B is in what in logic is called a warrant. It’s a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement “I see the freeway is packed, so we’re probably going to miss our flight,” the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true—for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed—but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion.

Often the warrant is implied, such as “Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever.” The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it’s cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable.

A second important tool of critical thinking is seeking alternative explanations for proposed causes and effects. Often memes will pose a problem or question and then offer a simple (usually simplistic) explanation, ignoring other (often more likely) explanations.

‘Learn the Difference!’

I was reminded of this when I recently saw a meme that depicted a map of North and South America, captioned in Spanish, reading: “This is America.” On the other side of a vertical line were outlines of the United States (minus Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories) with the caption: “This is USA,” and below that: “LEARN THE DIFFERENCE.”

It was a curious meme and took me a few seconds to figure out what it was trying to communicate. It explicitly suggested that people didn’t know the difference between the two, which seemed unlikely. Surely anyone who’d been to elementary school knew that the U.S. was only one country among many on the continents of North and South America. The silhouetted borders of the U.S. are ubiquitous and easily recognized all over the world. It contained no link or reference to any poll or survey saying that there was significant confusion between the two. It’s possible, of course, that some people think that the U.S. covers two continents—after all, some people think that Earth is flat—but it seemed to be arguing against a mistake that few people (if any) genuinely made (this is a straw man fallacy, for those keeping track).  

So taking the meme at face value didn’t really make any sense. I suspected that the message was both different and implicit, suggesting something about American ignorance, arrogance, or nationalism. The meme had no author but may have been trying to remind Americans that there’s more to the Americas than the United States (which, again, is universally recognized), and by implication that the U.S. isn’t the most important country on both continents. With the caveat that importance is subjective and difficult to measure—though the U.S. plays a bigger role (economically, militarily, etc.) on the international stage than any other country in the Americas—I’d overall agree with the basic idea. Americans should pay more attention to issues and problems outside their borders.

American Arrogance—Or Linguistic Explanation?

But that, too, didn’t seem to quite capture what the meme was referring to; it specifically asks us to “Learn the Difference” between the Americas and the U.S. Since most people do know the difference (between the two continents and the country), it seemed to suggest that the issue was really one of labeling. Perhaps it was borne out of a pedantic irritation that most people refer to U.S. citizens as “Americans.” This is certainly true—but doesn’t logically imply that people don’t know the difference between the two.

There may be an alternative explanation: The issue isn’t one of nationalism or arrogance but instead simple linguistics. The United States of America is the only country name in the world with the word “America” in it. It’s common for countries to be known by their shorter, informal names, and citizens of those countries to be referred to by those shorter names. The full name of the country casually called Mexico is in fact “United Mexican States,” for example, and the name of the country colloquially referred to as Brazil is really “The Federative Republic of Brazil,” and so on. There’s nothing arrogant or nationalistic about shortening “the French Republic” to “France” and calling its citizens “French,” and there’s nothing wrong with anyone referring to citizens of the United States of America as “Americans.” Doing so doesn’t mean the speaker is too ignorant to know the difference between two continents and a country, or that the speaker arrogantly thinks that “America” speaks for, or represents, the entirety of North and South America.

What Does It Meme?

I don’t know what the people who created or endorsed the meme (by Liking it and Sharing it) thought that it meant, what specific message they assumed it was advocating. I suspect that most of them didn’t really give it much thought, and media literacy research bears this out. Most people don’t read past the headlines of news stories they see and share on social media. Much of what circulates on social media isn’t closely analyzed (or even read) by those sharing and commenting on them.

We do this all the time. We do it because we’re busy. We do it because we’re overloaded on information. We do it because our attention spans are short in this digital age.

Much of the time it’s not a problem; we circulate stuff we haven’t read and may not have understood even had we read it. But it does have pitfalls, including a sense of false consensus; we see memes that (apparently) have thousands or tens of thousands of Likes and Shares, and wrongly assume that such a metric reflects genuine, thoughtful endorsement (of whatever we assume it’s intended to mean).

In some cases skimming information—or assuming we know what it says merely by its headline or tone—can have dangerous consequences. To cite a recent example, it’s been reported that Russia had put out a bounty for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan. When president Trump was asked about it, he claimed that he was never told about it—despite the information appearing in at least one Presidential Daily Briefing in February 2020. It’s not clear whether Trump read the information provided to him, or just skimmed it. Of course the memes and information most people see on social media don’t contain information about compromises to national security and the deaths of American troops, but the premise is the same.

Memes, by their nature, must be simple and quickly understood (or “understood”), combining a few words with an image or two into some sort of social statement. Memes are so prevalent and popular in part because of their ambiguity; different people can look at the same meme and draw different—perhaps even opposite—conclusions about what it means, what message it’s sending. People should be aware that when a person Likes or Shares a meme they post, they may in fact completely disagree with them about what it means.

Memes aren’t inherently good or bad (though many, perhaps most, are wrong or misleading in some way), and they’re not going away any time soon. Social media makes it easy to share content (often implicitly endorsing it) while at the same time discouraging people from taking time to actually think about what that content means. Is it logical? Is it true? What does it mean? If you wouldn’t talk to a friend face-to-face and repeat something you heard from some anonymous person without being sure it was true (and that you even understood it), why would you do the same on social media?

There’s no easy solution, but critical thinking and media literacy are powerful ways to help minimize the spread of misinformation online.



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