Warning: This story is about extremist messages and contains some examples to illustrate the issue. Our inclusion of these images does not in any way amount to an endorsement of their content.
Memes can be funny, sarcastic and clever but not every meme is harmless. Organizations from clothing companies though white power groups use memes to market themselves, and not everyone who posts is aware of what they are posting.
There is a growing trend by organizations like Right Wing News, The Anti-Islam Alliance, JDL and Britain First—who have been accused of inciting hatred in the past–to use social media to market themselves.
Studies by academics like Imran Awan at Birmingham City University and Nieman Group have shown evidence that groups like these use memes and social media to disseminate their message and drive membership numbers.
They are not the only ones who take advantage of social media in this way. Extremist groups on both sides of the spectrum use social media to market themselves. It is easy to see, simply by looking at Twitter, that extremist groups like al-Qeada and ISIS also make use of these same techniques.
Groups like these do this by building memes that range from seemingly innocuous statements like the following:
To memes pushing political agendas, like this anti-Obama meme from Right Wing News:
To inciting hatred for specific groups, like this meme from Britain First, a well known UK based white power group.
The dangerous thing about people reposting the seemingly innocuous brand of memes featured above, is that people share them without having any idea where they come from. Not knowing where this material comes from, not only helps spread the message that these groups promote, but it can also can be dangerous to the social media user.
They circulate these memes within the sphere of social media and people who may not share the same views share these memes without knowing that they are sharing, what amounts to propaganda from an alleged hate group.
For example posting a meme like this one:
The above meme is a prime example, it showed up recently on a friend or this writers Facebook account. The meme above looks like an Ad for a popular dirt bike equipment company, in reality it belongs to another UK based white power group the National Action Front.
The person in question had no idea that they were posting an ad for a neo-nazi group. Posting something like this could get you into hot water with an employer or even prevent you from getting your dream job.
On the other end of the spectrum in some countries such as England viewing or posting social media from groups classified by government as a ‘known terror group’ can land you in prison or on a no-fly list.
Not knowing where your memes originate can be embarrassing or even damaging given the right circumstances. What might be more concerning is the general lack of engagement from the people posting this material. Our attempts to start a conversation online (via. Facebook and Twitter) about whether people try and vet what they post when it comes to memes fell flat after repeated attempts.
This raises larger questions about audience engagement and our own responsibility as media consumers. If you vet your posts or you have an opinion let us know in the comments below or use the form below.