Memes, the so-called “inside jokes” of the internet, are a ubiquitous facet of the online world. While often dismissed due to their humorous nature, they can also be tools to spread information or foster a sense of community. That is because memes can have an impact that goes beyond the online platforms on which they are posted. In fact, memes can add to public discourse on more spirited issues. They have been known to spread political messaging, alter the stock market, allow protest amidst censorship, and influence how we think about war. While memes are particularly popular among Gen Z, they are far from a new phenomenon or limited to a specific age group. Further, their excessive misuse can lend itself to more harmful ideas that are disguised as humor, leading to “memetic warfare.”
In this episode, guest host Mishaela Robison sat down with authors Dr. Joan Donovan and Emily Dreyfuss who released the book, Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America (Bloomsbury Press, 2022), to discuss the role that memes have had in shaping democracy and harmful ideologies. Dr. Donovan is the research director of Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center and the director of the Technology and Social Change (TaSc) Research Project. Emily Dreyfuss is a journalist who covers the impact of technology on society and leads the Shorenstein Center News Leaders Program.