Listen: Colin Klein in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Social media on the internet is something we may think we are familiar with, even savvy about. However, if you only go on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook with the occasional Snapchat or Tumblr post to prove you really are a teenager at heart – there is a lot you don’t know.
We probably all know there are some ‘nice neighbourhoods’ and other not so nice places on the internet. But just how do sites like 4chan influence public opinion and what can you do when the ‘howling void’ of the internet pops up as a meme on your Facebook feed? Are ‘majority’ opinions just people trying to guess what everyone else thinks? Open House looks at mastering the art of disagreeing agreeably.
Dr Colin Klein from the ANU School of Philosophy has a special interest in science and social media. He has spoken previously on ‘Open House’ about the transmission of online conspiracy. There is also some evidence about the type of people more or less likely to believe conspiracy theories. Recently on ‘Open House’ he explained how memes spread on the internet and what it takes for minority opinions to reach the ‘tipping point’ that makes them mainstream.
From LOL Cat to Pepe the Frog
So what actually is a meme (pronounced meem to rhyme with team)? A meme can be all sorts of things, from a picture with words to a video or a link to a website. The most common is the picture with words; like the many that feature cats – the LOL Cat.
According to Dr Klein, “By and large, when people talk about memes, they talk about pictures. They are bits of the internet that go viral, captioned pictures with (depending on your sense of humour) a humorous message.” he says.
Memes convey an opinion or an idea and many are funny or heartwarming. The cute cats and deliberate misspellings of LOL Cat memes have made them viral sensations that are constantly replicated and updated. However, there are many racist, misogynist and conspiracy theory based memes that are appalling.
Dr Klein cites the example of ‘Pepe the Frog’ a cartoon character hijacked to become shorthand for racism. ‘Pepe the Frog’ was a crudely drawn, sad looking frog. He has become an alt-right, racist meme much to the distress of his creator.” says Dr Klein
Ideas that spread
Surprisingly, the term meme comes to us not from the internet itself but from scientist Richard Dawkins who coined the term in his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Meme, says Dr Klein, became an internet term because “The idea was just as you might have genes which spread throughout a population in this Darwinian way, you might have memes which are ideas that spread around.”
That concept of ideas spreading was the subject of a study of 15,000 memes by a group of researchers from Cyprus University of Technology, University College London, University of Alabama at Birmingham and King’s College London. The researchers set out to make “the first attempt to provide a multi-platform measurement of the meme ecosystem, with a focus on fringe and potentially dangerous communities”.
Here are some of the latest memes (‘Permit Patty’ and BBQ Becky’) responding to incidents where white people have called the police on black people without real cause. ‘Open House’ have a report, ‘What We Don’t Understand About American Racism’ on that issue.
Their efforts reveal where hate speech begins and how it spreads to the rest of the web. They found that many memes start on the fringes of the Internet where there is little or no moderation and gradually move into more mainstream social media like Facebook and Twitter.
That migration of ideas can then mean the standards of what is acceptable to the mainstream changes. This idea of a ‘tipping point’ that allows minority views to become majority views was the subject sociologists explored in some research on what percentage of people are needed to push an idea into acceptance. It is also important the realise the impact confirmation bias can have
Challenging the norm
Open House asked Dr Klein, as a philosopher, what we learn about the real world and our responsibility to speak up for what we truly believe. His biggest concern is that the extremes that are promoted by internet fringe dwellers can start to cross into mainstream social media. The hate memes that do make that transition may not be as extreme, but they are constantly challenging what is considered the norm.
He also worries that some participants on sites like 4chan may not even particularly believe in a cause but have an immature belief that it is funny or ironic. He cited this example of a young man who was part of the extreme misogynist ‘incel’ internet subculture. The 19 year old, who thought the site was ‘ironic’, left the group after a van attack in Toronto killed 10 people, most of them women.
‘Howling void’ of the internet
Dr Klein says that most of the people who see memes have no idea where they come from and would be shocked if they did know.
“There is a community called 4chan I think people may be less familiar with. [It is] The kind of howling void of the internet. It is completely anonymous, mostly image based. They don’t moderate it particularly well. It is in some sense the purist free speech place on the internet with all the negatives that entails. A lot of these things get created in 4chan and then move over, particularly the more racist, more kind of hate speech ones. They then move over to YouTube, Reddit, and Tumblr and things like that. It’s interesting you can have these smaller more extreme communities that then cross over into more general communities that people see.” he explains
Minority becomes majority
“On Facebook if you post something extremely racist it gets moderated down and people report it but you can kind of push the boundaries there . There’s going to be thinks that are offensive but not enough to trigger filters, not enough to trigger moderation. Over time you are dragging discourse one direction or another. I should mention that although we are talking about the alt-right racist memes, you also get left wings versions of this.”
“Sociologists have often had this question. [What happens] If you get a very committed minority and a more indifferent majority. Something like norms around gay marriage, 20 years ago the idea that you would have gay marriage was an extreme position in many ways.”
Gauging what others think
On Open House the discussion between Dr Klein and Stephen O’Doherty came around to the suggestion expressed on the program by Senator Lucy Gichuhi. that it would be a good thing for the quality of public discourse if people would adopt the approach of disagreeing in an agreeable way.
Dr Klein says some of the issue is that people for various reasons don’t honestly say what they think about controversial issues. “A lot of what people are trying to do is to gauge what others think. Even just speaking up and saying you don’t agree can help. There are lots of things I think people thought we all agreed on. In fact, most people didn’t really agree, they just thought everyone else did.”
To listen to the podcast of this conversation click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.