The Scourge of Internet Memes, and Believing Everything You See

Have we become a society of gullibility? Anyone who has a large enough network on social media has been able to see an increase in recent years of pictorial internet memes, such as in the image above. Typically, this is with the face of the individual who said it, along with a quote, often used to inspire, make a joke, or simply make a solid and concise argument. However, it seems that we are beginning to believe things a little too easily nowadays; and in a time of rampant “fake news,” this is becoming a problem.

Memetic and Frenetic

In the video below – from his show “Last Week Tonight” – demonstrates, comedian John Oliver asserts that many common (and often very well-put) quotations have been unwarrantedly attributed to the wrong individuals, including himself:

Oliver explains that quotations and memes (especially pictorial internet memes) have become easily believed/accepted as factual among an increasingly gullible general population. Even with young people who are more internet-savvy than their older and less initiated counterparts, what one may call “factual news literacy” – the ability to discern fact from fiction in news – is not guaranteed, despite people’s access to vast amounts information.

In fact, this was further exemplified in another of Oliver’s episodes which just aired. In the context of how much less Americans would receive in tax credits under President Trump’s health insurance plan (as opposed to under Obamacare), Oliver said:

That is over two-thirds less. And it’s not one of those “two-thirds decreases” that you barely notice, like when Robin and Barry of the Bee Gees died.

I’m kidding – Barry is fine. Robin and Maurice are dead.

…Or are they?

The point is, they are. Although, to be fair… I have no idea. You don’t either, and I don’t see either of us Googling it anytime soon.

It is this final sentence that exemplifies a major problem – an intellectual laziness that precludes us from investigating further. But is this the only problem? Unfortunately, no. As one study suggests, people’s propensity to so easily believe such memes on social media is also related to the general increasing distrust of mainstream media.

Collective Decreasing Skepticism

It probably doesn’t help us to maintain our healthy skepticism that several sites (e.g. the Onion) are actually dedicated to reporting fake news – sometimes for satirical or less sinister reasons, and other times to influence public opinion by intentionally misleading people. Regardless, research suggests that there is a link between low intelligence and believing falsehoods online (as well as even being inspired by so-called “inspirational quotes”). It would therefore behoove us to exercise our intellectual curiosity and try to make sure we can discern facts from fiction.

After all, I used to hear “don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet” all the time, but it seems that we (as Internet users) have lost some of our initial skepticism.

Last year, I wrote an article about the quote “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute” – a famous quote which is generally unwarrantedly attributed to P.T. Barnum (as the article explains). Indeed, everyone gets suckered into believing untrue things at some point, and we mustn’t delude ourselves into believing that we are infallible. Only fools believe in their own infallibility.

The Bottom Line

We must strive to satisfy our intellectual curiosity by actively verifying information we hear, especially when we repeat them ourselves. Yes, this is more work for us, but it is important when we are making factual arguments to know exactly where our information comes from. This helps establish a record, so that we know exactly what happened, in order to know how we can best act in the future.

As John Oliver said:

We study the past to understand the present, and we understand the present to guide the future.

…Or did he?

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