Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: Conclusion & Referencesby@memeology
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Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: Conclusion & References

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In this study, we analyze the top-circulated Facebook memes relating to critical race theory (CRT) to investigate their visual and textual appeals.
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This paper is available on arxiv under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED license.


(1) Alyvia Walters, Rutgers University, USA;

(2) Tawfiq Ammaris, Rutgers University, USA;

(3) Kiran Garimella, Rutgers University, USA;

(4) Shagun Jhaver, Rutgers University, USA.


This study entices us to continue asking how we might confront mis-/disinformation in our current moment. It becomes especially urgent as we encounter the fact that much of the information circulating through highly transmissible media, such as memes, is not only incorrect but is also fungible: in the case of CRT-centered memes, CRT could “mean” almost anything race-related to forward each camp’s agenda, and seemingly very few care to engage with an institutional definition. When politicized definitions are a practice in power assertion, the discursive work these definitions do–“correct” or not–is more necessary than ever to understand. As Cassam (2021) warns us, it is important not to mistake a lack of engagement with “true” definitions as a disregard for the truth as a whole, and assuming that mis- /disinformation is merely bullshit is perhaps an unproductive lens through which to view knowledge production. We must take these definitions seriously, as they are, from a political epistemology stance, thoughtfully crafted messages that are “true” in some way to their consumers.

There are several fruitful routes that we can identify for further work around the production and consumption of these memes as they relate to knowledge-building practices. In the space of production, contacting those who created these media objects would potentially lend useful insight about how they, as creators, gained their own understanding of CRT, and why they chose to disseminate this information in these particular ways attached to these particular visual formats. The Media Research Center would be an interesting first place to start, as they crafted each of their anti-CRT memes in the same aesthetic format with the same rhetorical appeals to Black spokespeople. Additionally, study of those who consume these memes is warranted to uncover how users’ encounters with these media shape their understandings of CRT and their opinions on it.

Further, we argue that platforms, too, have some responsibility to contextualize memes such as these through content moderation practices. We acknowledge that this is more than a simple technical issue: filters for racist material, for example, would not flag memes as nuanced as these, and indeed, platforms would likely encounter bad publicity around censorship if any of the memes included in this study were removed. However, there are ways to approach this information landscape through socio-technical solutions, such as by providing the public, experts, and other cultural gatekeepers the ability to contextualize information on social networking sites (Morrow et al. 2022). By adding “notes,” or otherwise interacting with the information in such a way that its complex relationships to institutional fact are immediately evident to users who may encounter that information, platforms could greatly diminish the power of partisan information masquerading as fact.

Finally, educational curricula and the students who learn from them would deeply benefit from incorporating critical media consumption practices into their core goals and outcomes. It is no longer possible to separate learning from media consumption in the everyday lives of the vast majority of students in the U.S., and we all suffer when there is a lack of commitment to creating critical media consumers who are trained to think before believing–and even more importantly, re-circulating–a politicized meme. Training young people on how mis-/disinformation and hate speech are disguised as fact and/or humor in memes is an important step forward in strengthening our information landscape and democratic future. Teachers are extraordinarily overburdened already, but a curriculum that integrates media literacy as a guiding principle would partially shift the burden from teachers directly and instead task those who guide the direction of school districts nationwide with creating pathways to teach this skill in all subject areas.

There is no simple solution to curtailing the circulation of harmful visual media, as it is neither a purely tech issue nor purely a lack of education: this is a social issue which can only be resolved through the engagement of a wide variety of actors. It is incumbent upon all of us to take these seemingly insignificant memes seriously for their social impact and what they reveal about current ideological trends. It is crucial to better understand how bottom-up knowledge production on politicized topics, such as CRT, occurs on social media, particularly through compact, madeto-share media such as memes. In doing so, we can move beyond a deterministic conception of post-truth politics which generalizes disregard for truth, and instead interrogate the construction of politicized “truth” as a sustained process of thoughtful rhetorical decision-making with real-world effects.


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