Uncovering Bias in Internet Memes
Like the “real” world, there are definitely locales on the Internet where bias is rampant and obvious (hello, 4chan!) — but there are also places where it operates in a far more hidden fashion. Take the sphere of memes, for example: while there may not seem to be any overt bias in the line drawing of Neil deGrasse Tyson you printed up and taped to the staff fridge to passive-aggressively shame whoever keeps stealing your Greek yogurt, researchers are only just starting to study memes, to see what their use can show us about our hidden privilege and prejudice.
The Washington Post reports on an interesting study coming out of Tel Aviv University. Researcher Elad Segev and his team were not only interested in the meaning of the content of the memes, but also how they moved through Internet culture and evolved on the way.
“[They] analyze[d] what they call the 50 most popular English-language meme ‘families,’ which include the original meme (think: the very first illustration of David Silverman, captioned ‘are you serious?’) and its most widely circulated derivatives (all the ‘Seriously Guys’ that came after). […]
Once they’d analyzed some 1000+ memes that way, the researchers were able to calculate their most common features and map them according to similarities. […]
To wit: Of memes that show people, versus dinosaurs or cartoons or cats, men appear twice as often. And nearly 45 percent of all the people in memes are Caucasian; Hispanic subjects make up a fifth of one percent, by comparison.
‘These findings corroborate many of the observations made in [past] qualitative studies,’ the researchers sum up, ‘in which the memetic sphere was described as dominated by young, white men.’”
Lots of folks right now are receiving a wake-up call that the Internet is not the faceless, consequence-free place they thought it was. If the language of memes isn’t “safe” from bias, I hope we can all realize nothing is — and live better and more responsibly as a result.