If a friend asked you to photocopy the photo of a man someone told her is a murderer and then distribute it among all your friends and acquaintances with the specific purpose of ruining that man’s reputation, you probably wouldn’t say yes, would you? Even if your friend offered to release you of most of the burden by paying for the photocopies and distributing them herself using your contact list, the fear of committing slander would prevent you from spreading what may not be but a malicious rumor. And yet, we spread unconfirmed claims among the members of our social network all the time, whenever we share a meme without confirming first whether the information it contains is correct: Roma stealing babies, corrupt politicians, presumed rapists and pedophiles of a certain ethnicity, selfish celebrities. We call attention on reprehensible attitudes basing our judgment not on concrete evidence and logical arguments, but in one evocative image and a few stirring words.

The present paper attempts to explain what makes us agree with the content of a meme and persuades us to share it in the absence of strong evidence to justify its claims.

An internet meme is an image, usually accompanied by text, that is copied and spread rapidly through the internet (Oxford Dictionary). Memes tend to be humorous. Some are innocuous like the “I has feet” lizard (Rahimi, Pinterest), but some are inflammatory, like this one from the British National Party (BNP) implying that the refugees taken by Germany are a threat to the UK (BNP Facebook post, 2015).

According to the Reasoned Action Theory (RAT), volitional behavior, or intention, is a function of four determinants: “one’s attitude toward the behavior in question, one’s injunctive norm, one’s descriptive norm, and perceived behavioral control” (O’Keefe, 2015; p. 99). Based on this model we can express a meme’s power to persuade viewers about the veracity of its content and worthiness to be shared as a function of the viewers’ ability to both understand its message and share it (the perceived behavioral control in the RAT model); the viewers’ attitude towards the subject portrayed within the message, and the viewers’ perceived norms, i.e. the public’s opinion.

Since the viewers’ ability to understand a meme and the perceived capability to share it are conditions sine qua non to change intention, we explain their effect first.

We have a natural need for cognition (O’Keefe, 2015). That’s why we spend hours at a time following the thoughts of strangers in Twitter and browsing our friends’ posts in Facebook. Yet “we have very little attentional capacity,” (Ware, 2010; Kindle Location 192) and tend to avoid high elaboration, in order to save time and energy (Ware, 2010), especially when the matter has little relevance to us, as the elaboration likelihood model predicts (O’Keefe, 2015). Now, because most memes consist of only one image and one or two lines of text, they require a minuscule effort to process. We may not be willing to invest our time reading or listening to arguments that attempt to convince us that Obama is a terrible president, especially when we think he’s not, but reading a meme with a similar argument not only is easy but almost unavoidable when it appears in our news feed. Reading a meme is a bottom-up process in the sense that we get tuned to interpret it (Ramsøy, 2014). Avoiding it requires a conscious effort. Its distinct image pops out “because of automatic mechanisms operating prior to the action of attention” (Ware, 2010; Kindle Locations 680-681) resulting from the parallel processing within the visual areas of the brain, leading us next to read the accompanying text, then to decide whether we agree or not with its message, and if we do, whether to share it or not. Because of the affordances of social media (see Ellison, Steinfeld, Lampe & Vitak, 2011), the perceived capability to share is almost a given: it takes one click[1].

Seeing a meme is also a top-down process, though, in the sense that we are drawn to read memes based on our previous experience with other memes: many are just fun to read and it is the promise to have a good laugh that makes us pay attention.

Simplicity is not enough, however, for a meme to successfully convey its message and persuade us to spread it. The concepts implied must be understood, and because memes are by definition, very brief, this understanding depends heavily on our semantic memory, our “general knowledge about the world, concepts, language, and so on” (Eysenck & Keane 2010; p. 255). A Scumbag Steve meme (See Samjowen, 2011) brings to mind a cascade of semantic concepts: millennials, men that wear jewelry, fur, and designer clothes; the naiveté implied by rosy cheeks and a slightly opened mouth, etc. Separate, all these concepts have different meanings. Brought together they imply arrogance, stupidity, self-centeredness, and conceit. Memes combine narratives and rhetoric: They use emotion and the cultural heritage of the audience as persuasive tools (Weida & Stolley, 2013). An evocative image has the power to transport us, if only for a fraction of a second, especially when we’re bored and looking to be entertained (Green & Brock, 2000) as it is often the case while using social media, and transportation can lead to a change of beliefs (Green & Brock. 2002).

Which bring us to the next determinant, attitude. Once the message is interpreted, viewers’ decide whether they agree with it. Memes do not contain strong arguments. The emotions aroused are the evidence that support their claims. While agreement with a meme’s message can be affected by transportation, mostly it depends on the viewer’s previous attitude towards the subject. According to the summative model of attitude, attitude is a function of the strength with which an individual holds a series of beliefs about a subject and his evaluation of these beliefs (O’Keefe, 2015). A meme that calls to punish presumed rapists and pedophiles, like this one (BNP Facebook post, 2014) is so blatantly racist that it may cause reasonable doubt about its veracity, but at first glance, due to transportation and in the absence of deep elaboration, the decision on whether to agree to it will depend on whether the viewer assigns a heavier weight to his rejection of rape or the need to be politically correct, since the ultimate message is one of discrimination.

Using a simpler example, a person with a positive attitude towards President Obama will most likely disagree with a meme that shows Robert Downey Jr. rolling his eyes and the accompanying text “my face, every time Obama starts talking” (Memegenerator.net) and probably will not share it, unless intended as a joke, or to raise awareness on the matter. Now, what if this same person, let’s call her Claudia, has a somewhat neutral attitude towards Obama but a positive attitude towards the actor, and the actor’s opinion weighs more in her decision than any beliefs she may hold about the President? Claudia may conclude that if Robert Downey Jr. feels that way about President Obama’s talking, Obama is probably a bore, and she may decide to share the meme. In this case, an injunctive norm, the belief that Robert Downey Jr. dislikes Obama, together with transportation, have a persuasive effect on Claudia’s decision. Granted, her belief is assumed as true due solely to heuristics: Claudia does not know the actor, but it’s in a meme, and in her experience, memes tend to contain the truth, so that must be the actor’s opinion.

How could she arrive at that conclusion? Facebook shows us first the posts from those who we explicitly mark as “show first,” and from those with whom we interact the most (Bereznak, 2014). Because we tend to connect in social media with those that are akin to us (Johnson, Zhang, Bichard, & Seltzer, 2011), the memes we get to see in our news feed come, most likely, from individuals that share our attitudes. The weight we assign to our closest friends’ opinions acts then as an injunctive norm, impelling us to agree with what they share. Likewise, the fact that a meme or a series of memes expressing similar concepts seem to be everywhere, acts as a descriptive norm. In other words, consensus has a weight in the decision whether to accept the content of a meme as true.

In conclusion, the decision whether to share or not a meme, relies on whether we agree with its content or, at least, find it relevant enough to be shared. To persuade a viewer of the veracity of their content and worthiness to be shared, memes rely on the viewers’ ability to understand their message, which is a function of the viewers’ semantic memory, previous attitudes, emotions aroused by inducing transportation, as well as other heuristics such as consensus and credibility, and internet and social media affordances, that make them incredibly easy to spread.



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[1] We assume here that spreadability results from a conscious decision to share content, yet social media users actually spread content every time they find it relevant enough to interact with it: posting a comment or liking a post, makes it spread through their social network.