Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: Knowledge Production in a Post-Truth Worldby@memeology

Online Knowledge Production in Polarized Political Memes: Knowledge Production in a Post-Truth World

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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.

Knowledge Production in a Post-Truth World

Memes are an excellent vehicle for making hot-button political issues digestible to the average person. However, almost none of the CRT memes we analyzed actually got its definition “right.” Instead, it appears that the most salient rhetorical tools across all 27 of these highly-circulated memes revolved around creating the most convincing definitions of both critical race theory, as that was the topic at hand, and antiracism, as convincing others that an opinion is not-racist is the only socially-palatable way to speak on race in the US in the 2020s. That said, what does this lack of attention to institutional definitions mean in a “post-truth” society, and what should we do about it?

Political epistemology allows us to theorize on the importance of these memes as sensemaking and sensegiving tools for the public, and allows us to question the importance of community-based political knowledge over “real” institutional knowledge. In the context of CRT memes, the institutional definition of critical race theory does, of course, matter in a general sense. The work flowing from this definition has produced massive change at institutional and individual levels, and scholars, writers, and activists use these ideas to dismantle oppressive systems globally (Delgado and Stefancic 2023). However, that definition is not the one doing political work within these memes, and we would be missing the point entirely if we critique them as simple misinformation or fake news. In a fact-checking sense, all of these memes, both anti- and pro-, are largely false, but it is not useful to write them off as such. This technically false information is filling an information void for people who have likely never before heard of critical race theory, and that means it is these definitions–not the institutional ones–that are doing political work. The discourse is not actually about CRT; CRT simply became a catch-all phrase to hold discourse about race. In reality, the discourse revealed in these memes is about how the US should handle race moving forward, and how we define what is racist and what is antiracist.

The rhetoric within this discussion presents another point of interest: despite research that suggests overt racism has become more acceptable in a post-Trump America, explicit appeals to racism were not present at all, even in antiCRT images. After the election of Donald Trump as the US President, several studies have indicated that explicit (Gantt Shafer 2017) or nearly-explicit racism (Schaffner et al. 2018) became a usable mechanism for Republicans in ways that it has not been since the 1950s and 60s (Mendelberg 2001). These studies argue that the president’s rhetoric ushered in a new era of acceptability of overt racism. However, in the case of the highly-circulated CRT memes we analyzed, this does not appear to be true. While we would argue that, based on Bonilla-Silva (1997)’s definition of racism, antiCRT memes are forwarding a racist agenda, none of those collected use overt racism in the rhetorical style of far-right groups. Instead, they trend toward the more traditionallypalatable implicit rhetorics that have been successful among conservative voters in the past (Mendelberg 2001). This is, perhaps, a surprising outcome of this analysis, and may indicate that there is still wider-spread conservative appeal toward implicit rather than explicit racism.

While these implicitly racist appeals follow a long tradition of political rhetoric, the context in which they operate has changed. Following the election of Donald Trump and the ushering in of the “post-truth” era, we argue that implicit racism, in particular, runs the risk of being classified simply as disinformation. It is disinformation, for example, to posit that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination,” as cluster 22 does, but it is also much more than that: it is a tapping in to white supremacist understandings of what antiracism is. This, according to Cassam (2021), is one of the largest risks we run by taking post-truth as a political epistemology. Rather than understanding these rhetorics as an epistemological formulation of conservative politics, post-truth as a lens for understanding our current political moment could misconstrue this type of rhetoric as simple disregard for truth rather than a calculated dog whistle.

This leads us to two main takeaways. First, institutional definitions matter, but they have little material meaning if the public is defining terms otherwise, especially through highly transmissible and easily digestible artifacts such as memes. Second, fact-checking as a practice perhaps misses the mark if it only seeks “truth” in a traditional sense, thereby framing false claims as dismissible, post-truth politics. While it is important to assert truth in a misinformation landscape, it is perhaps more important to understand what the actual issue at the heart of the political discourse is, what the stakes are, and what the use-value of the term being wielded is in order to disrupt oppressive practices and support emancipatory ones appropriately.