It takes a short scroll through a news feed on any social media platform to stumble upon a meme. Images from well-known movies with jokes written on them usually do not carry a malicious intent (unless bad humour can be considered a crime). However, Debunk EU analysis shows that memes became a vessel for disinformation on Covid-19, targeting vaccines and other measures to contain the virus, accusing the media of spreading false information, and supporting conspiracy theories.
Why might memes pose threat?
To put it simply, based on many studies, visual information is perceived way faster by human brain than textual. This is what makes images way more sharable - because who wants to read a long post on Facebook? Memes are even more effective in this regard because usually they are based on well known, recognisable pictures. With an addition of a sarcastic joke in bold letters, a meme can quickly turn from satire to an effective tool to spread misleading information.
Visualized content presents simplistic messages leaving out the facts and amplifying the emotional reaction (e. g. anger or fear) of the receiver, therefore, creates stronger influence and leaves a longer-lasting memory mark.
Moreover, memes are simple to adapt to the various audience due to ease of access to photo-editing tools. Popular memes tend to be translated into several languages or to spread similar messages presented with different visualizations making them more accessible and comprehensible for wider audiences.
Vaccines are dangerous…or even fatal
Covid-19 encouraged the anti-vaxx movement to operate even more actively while the extraordinary situation of the pandemic left a larger part of the society more exposed to false information. Memes targeting the Covid-19 vaccine, vaccination process and other measures to contain virus (e. g. masks and quarantine) have spread on the internet most widely, with a considerable growth in 4th quarter of 2020 caused by the beginning of the vaccination process.
Some of the memes can be considered humorous as they often refer to pop culture images, yet it does not mean they cannot be deceiving. Such memes tend to exaggerate side effects of vaccines, increase mistrust of their safeness spreading a popular message that pharmaceutical companies do not take any responsibility for their product. As a result, those images Images evoke negative emotions such as fear or anxiety and enhance mistrust in science and medicine.
Memes also tend to reiterate even more frightful message presenting vaccines as a measure to depopulate humankind. To strengthen the alleged fatal threat, intimidating pictures are used, i.e., images of war or historically known tragedies.
Anti-vaccine memes might have a huge negative contribution to people's will to take the jab; therefore, it is crucial to debunk misleading information.
Media exaggerates the threat of Covid-19
Systemic media became yet another target of misleading memes on Covid-19. Similar to the anti-vaccine narratives, negative information about mainstream media outlets has been circulating even before the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in the context of the pandemic those narratives have been amplified even more with news organisations accused of presenting false information, deceiving society, exaggerating the danger of the virus to serve the government, pharmaceutical companies, or powerful businesses which aim to profit from the pandemic.
Enhanced mistrust creates a favourable environment for non-systemic media outlets, various internet blogs, or social media pages to grow their popularity and share fabricated or manipulated information about the pandemic more widely. Consequently, lost trust in official information and underestimation of the threats burdens the measures taken to stop the virus.
Conspiracy theories in pictures
The worldwide pandemic stimulated the growth and diffusion of conspiracy theories. Bill Gates, George Soros, Henry Kissinger, and other influential persons are used as targets, presenting them as misanthropes who aim to control or depopulate humankind. Moreover, conspiracies concerning Covid-19 commonly seek to deny the origin of the virus i.e., claiming that it was created artificially.
You might read this and think – well I would never believe that Bill Gates wants to put a micro-chip into us all. So why such messages are so widespread? Conspiracy theories claim to be able to explain complex and sometimes disturbing events by allegedly detecting patterns and making causal inferences. They are psychologically attractive because usually conspiracies are more flattering than the truth and might turn into a coping mechanism, especially in such extreme and uncertain times as worldwide lockdown; this way, conspiracies find a way to spread even more quickly and widely during the pandemic.
Needless to say, conspiracy theories pose a great threat to the individuals believing in them and, by extension, to the wider society as well, causing polarisation, diminished mistrust in science and government institutions, enhanced anxiety.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, development of a Covid-19 vaccine has been regarded as a testimony to the effectiveness of a country’s health care system and its technological superiority, as well as a powerful political instrument. Expression of geopolitical tension and the competition between manufacturers of vaccines is also expressed in memes.
Many political scientists and officials in Europe and the U.S. expressed a negative response to the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and warned that Russia is ready to use the vaccine as a political tool to manipulate countries. Memes sarcastically picturing Russian president Vladimir Putin as a "saviour" voice dissatisfaction of the manipulative actions of Russia as well as a critique to the European countries which decided to buy the product.
On the contrary negative communication is conducted against Western producers of vaccines claiming that the West uses energy dependency to pressure countries not to buy Sputnik V.
For this analysis, DebunkEU.org looked through 119 misleading memes concerning Covid-19 in 26 Facebook groups or pages, posted throughout the period of March 17th, 2020 – March 15th, 2021.
Debunk EU analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:
DebunkEU analysis platform
CrowdTangle - Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram.
Truly Media - collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content.
TruthNest - Twitter data analysis platform.