A meme is a loaded gun, so how about meme control laws?

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In this Internet-driven information era, propaganda is free to pose as knowledge, opinion as fact, myth as reality. Memes drive this misinformation movement, so the onus is on each of us to use them responsibly and with probity.

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A few months ago, I received a WhatsApp forward which, paraphrased, read thus: a shabbily dressed couple went to see the President of Harvard University and, because of their attire, were snapped at and dismissed by the secretary. After a few hours, they were eventually given an audience with the president, and they told him of their son, a student at the university: the young man had enjoyed his time there but had prematurely passed away. The couple expressed a desire to erect a memorial — a building — for him on campus. They were scoffed at for this suggestion: “Do you know how much a building costs? We have seven-and-a-half million dollars in the physical buildings here.” The woman fell silent as she heard this, leaving the President pleased. Then, she turned to her husband and asked, “Is that all it costs to start a University? Then why don’t we start our own?”

The couple were revealed to be Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford who started a University that bears their name in California. The WhatsApp forward ended with a message about not judging someone based on their appearance or treating someone badly thinking they can do nothing for us. A nice little message, isn't it? How much nicer, and less ironic, it would have been, had a message on morality not been based on a false premise.

A quick check on Google revealed that the story is a popular myth that has been doing the rounds on the Internet. But a quick cross-check is a rarity when consuming succinctly served snapshots of information — their allure, after all, is their brevity. So why waste more time using the Internet to re-verify information we receive through the Internet?

 

Digital ADHD is the disease of the decade. And WhatsApp forwards — those that popularly propagate unattributed messages, memes, photo forwards and photoshopped screenshots camouflaged in innocuous content — have gained power and emerged as the tools trolls use to capitalise on this problem. Since they are easily consumed, rarely verified and widely shared, they have contributed towards rendering the difference between the truth and what sounds like the truth difficult to discern.

Memes as a form of content and WhatsApp messages as a medium have taken information to new people and spaces. An India Trends 2017 report by Kleiner Perkins states that India’s smartphone penetration grows even as global shipments slow: Indian smartphone shipment grew by over 5% in 2016 and by 15% in the first quarter of 2017.

 

As more and more people buy into the benefits of the smartphone, they also feed themselves into the statistics that make WhatsApp the most downloaded app. A 2015 report by Jana, a U.S.-based tech company, estimates that 96% of smartphones in India have the app.

Forwards that did the rounds in cyberspace a decade ago are now having their time in the sun, again, courtesy Whatsapp. The rise of the application has reiterated the relevance of content on the Internet. In this regard, memes truly are a testament to the triumph of minimalism: just an image and some text, and there’s one more link floating across the world’s web, fighting for our attention.

It might come as a surprise then that popular images of cats being cute, Batman slapping Robin and babies giving fist bumps are classified under a term first used by Richard Dawkins. The evolutionary biologist referred to it as a “noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”. Little did he know that the word would evolve so much so that in the information age, where information is intimidating, memes would be entertaining.

Memes, traditionally acknowledged for being frivolous and tickling the funny bone, have asserted their claim over the Internet. They are a vehicle of humour and satire, a popular genre in cyberspace. But at a time when the web is exploding and it is increasingly difficult to keep track of all that is unfolding in the world — leave alone the conflicting perspectives each media outlet offers on these events and issues — memes have emerged as an non-intimidating source of information and opinion. Little regard is given to the fact that memes are not vetted by a controlling authority when they are released into the digital world, and end up competing for attention alongside authentic — albeit sometimes complex and boring — information sources.

During demonetisation, the Internet was choked up with hordes of memes for and against the move, created and consumed by anyone with access to the Internet. Many tapped on popular sentiment and were lapped up for the same reason, even if they reeked of ignorance, misquoted and convoluted facts, or were tools of propaganda. Cases in point were the posts about GPS chips in the new notes to help detect black money. As an emotionally charged event unfolds in society, it is easy to confuse an unverified source of information as news or fact simply because it appeals to one's sensibilities or reinforces one's stand-point, and it becomes habitual to continue doing the same even after the event has passed on. With rising popularity of this form of content, many more meme creators are entering the fray. Earlier this year, The Hindu reported a rising need in the job market for meme engineers in Tamil Nadu. Political parties, social media firms and the entertainment industry pay people on a par with those in the IT sector to create engaging audio and video memes. The article stated that 7-10 memes are created every hour just in Chennai.

 

As we traverse through the information age, we find our timelines riddled with these idea capsules that use humour to their advantage. Memes need to be consumed with an ice-berg of salt, even as the world grows fondly accustomed to this new-age form of … art? entertainment? advertising? Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell.

While memes serve up an idea succinctly and WhatsApp allows said idea to reach a wide population, the content and the medium both turn into a double-edged sword when ignorance and vested interests are added on. Forwards which pose as news and opinions pretending to be facts are problematic because not everyone is a discerning consumer of information. After all, we've all seen the self-important forwards about UNESCO declaring ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the best anthem in the world and the ones which asked women to remove their profile pictures on WhatsApp because ISIS was stealing them and using them for terror activities.

At a time when news portals face fire for editorial mishaps and misreporting, we are on thin ice with widely shared misinformation for which there is no one to hold accountable. Admittedly, the fault lies with trolls who misuse and abuse the liberty afforded by the Internet. But for all that we consume and share, the onus falls on us, to do so responsibly.

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