Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Memes give us a false sense of consensus

From Tide pods to elections

Mike Mozart/Flickr

Mike Mozart/Flickr

By Edridge D'Souza, Columnist

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It’s probably one of the most bizarre recent trends to storm the internet: People are sharing memes about eating Tide detergent pods, and it’s having real-world consequences. The joke, which started as a clearly self-aware trend comparing the colorful chemical pods to the biblical forbidden fruit, spread on social media to the point of ubiquity. Soon, the original irony and self-awareness was lost on some people, and the “Tide Pod Challenge” turned into a trend that teenagers followed in earnest.

The situation escalated to the point that Tide had to issue statements warning people against consuming the pods, which contain concentrated detergent. The American Association of Poison Control Centers even issued a statement against the phenomenon, stating that the number of cases in Jan. 2018 has more than doubled from the first two weeks to the third week.

How did it get to this point? Of course, it spread because of the internet, but it’s worth examining exactly why the internet has facilitated such a spreading. While cases of laundry detergent poisoning predate the spread of the memes, the ubiquity of Tide pod memes on social media likely contributed to a false sense of security and consensus, thereby influencing teenagers and young adults to believe that these pods might be safer than they really are. Already, a Utah State University student has been hospitalized in an incident that may be related to eating laundry detergent pods.

There is a sense of reassurance in numbers, and when people feel like eating concentrated chemicals is just a thing that everyone else is doing, they may be more likely to do it themselves. After all, if everyone else seems to be doing it, it can’t be that bad, right?

As we’re finding out, just because others are doing something (or joking about doing something), it doesn’t actually make it safe to do. With any luck, public awareness of the dangers of eating laundry pods will increase, and these cases will fade back into obscurity.

However, we still need to care about this type of online influence. The scope of this extends far beyond Tide pods, and actually carries far-reaching implications for the future of independent democratic elections. As we’ve heard before, Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election consisted largely of using online “troll factories” to flood American social media with memes, disinformation and false consensus.

The effects of this disinformation have a profound effect on influencing public opinion. New evidence shows that Russian bots have been found spreading support for the Trump 2016 campaign, Brexit, Antifa and the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, while also stoking anger over the Black Lives Matter movement.

While these groups likely never outright sought to align themselves with Russian aims, the Kremlin has a vested interest in promoting ideas and policies that it believes will weaken Western influence while sowing seeds of domestic discord. Vladimir Putin doesn’t care whether America is overtaken by the far right or the far left, so long as there’s enough division to weaken the power of the U.S. and the European Union in the global sphere.

The troubling part is that none of these groups were likely aware that they were spreading foreign propaganda. More likely, their participants earnestly support the aims of these movements and believe themselves to be free of outside influence.

However, the propaganda machine operates with a sophisticated precision. A fake Twitter account posing as the Tennessee GOP has been found a source of Russian-controlled propaganda, with posts often retweeted even by staffers close to Trump himself. Conversely, an anti-Trump group that organized a 5,000-10,000 person protest following the election was also found to be operated by Russians. These accounts strategically seed ideas and then watch them self-propagate within their respective movements, as followers start legitimately believing that the increased online presence means an increased public consensus with their views. Foreign adversaries are capitalizing on the most divisive elements of American politics to cause tension and weaken our union. These people aren’t clueless; they use the vocabulary and mannerisms of genuine supporters of their respective movements, and they even fool insiders.

Is this to say that everyone associated with these far-right or far-left movements are Russian tools? Of course not. Nor is it to say that we must have some sort of neo-McCarthyist expulsion of anybody believed to harbor these ideas. However, we must become more aware of the fact that foreign governments pose as Americans online, posting memes and comments to promote a false perception of consensus to empower followers of hardline political movements.

This isn’t exclusive to Russia either: The Chinese government creates nearly half a billion fake social media posts a year in order to influence public opinion. Facebook and Twitter are already facing pressure to address the influence of foreign bots. Perhaps it is worth examining whether the spread of foreign propaganda poses a threat to national security. When fake online comments cause one side to believe that they have a “silent majority,” we need to find a way to preserve legitimate free speech on online platforms while also keeping out illegitimate state-sponsored propaganda.

From Tide pods to elections, online posts and memes can shape our perception of the public consensus. For our republic to remain independent, the free exchange of ideas must remain free from adversarial influence. Each of us scroll past hundreds of posts every day, and it’s highly likely that at least some of our opinions have been shaped by foreign campaigns. There might not yet be a clear solution to this problem, but until there is, we must think more critically about the information we consume.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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