The problem with memes

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No, Morgan Freeman is not dead. You may know this too if, like me, one of your Facebook friends reposted a picture of the actor with the words RIP. Like me, you may have instantly done a google news search only to find that the RIP Morgan Freeman meme is actually a hoax. For some reason, somebody somewhere thought this would be funny, to mislead people into thinking he was dead. Personally, I think it is sick and stupid, and also demonstrative of the problem of getting your news from Facebook.

There was another meme that I saw this week. It’s a picture of a monkey, with kind of a crazy expression, carrying a puppy. The caption on the picture says that the monkey is saving the puppy from an explosion in China. Very touching, except that it’s not true. I haven’t been able to figure out where the photo comes from originally, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence to support that that the monkey is saving the puppy at all. It could be part of some circus act for all we know.

That reminds me of the meme showing the picture of a female tiger at a California zoo, with a group of piglets drinking from her udder. The meme explains that the tiger lost her liter, and veterinarians recommended that piglets be used to soothe her depression. Oh! So sweet. Except, it’s not true.

The photograph was actually taken at the Siraracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand, famed for their cross-species acts and basically exploiting animals for visitors’ entertainment. These really aren’t isolated cases. Similar messages come through the social networking sphere every day, and the funny thing is some of them have been around so long they were once spread through email. Take, for instance, the quaint story of the taxi driver who is driving an elderly woman to a hospice, and takes a two hour detour showing her all her memories through downtown. The story was actally part of a book by Kent Nurburn, but has since been told over many times in the form of mass emails, and now Facebook memes, as well as on Democratic Underground just two days ago. Although originally set in Minneapolis, it has been transposed to take place in New York and other cities.

Nurburn writes in his blog about the spreading popularity of the story, and he doesn’t seem to mind that people have co-opted the story. I’m sure not all writers and/or artists would feel the same way. I know Ricardo Levins Morales has spoken numerous times about his posters, such as this one, being completely stolen and re-drawn, giving no credit to him as the original artist.

Besides obvious copyright issues, I think there’s a deeper problem with memes that tell little stories that aren’t actually factual. Sure, on the one hand, people can say they are just little snippets of entertainment, not meant to be considered “true.” But the reality is, more and more people get their “news” from Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites. As paywalls go up on places like the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, and the Star Tribune locally, it becomes all the more attractive to wait until your friends curate your news for you.

Getting your news this way offers no distinction between entertainment and facts. It’s gotten to the point where you have to do your own fact checking, as a consumer, over almost everything you read. There’s absolutely no accountability from the people who actually post these things, nor from the people who re-post them, nor from the social networking sites themselves. Just by hitting “share,” we become culpable in this circus of incorrect information. They really ought to have a “fact check” button, next to everything you read.