Towards an understanding of social media literacy

Maddox, Jessica Hennenfent (Grady PhD student), 2017. “Towards an understanding of social media literacy: What memes can teach us about fake news.” Paper to be presented at the Theorizing the Web conference, Queens, New York, April 7-8, 2017.

Abstract: On October 31, 2016, a bit of copy/paste began spreading around Facebook, encouraging people to “check-in” to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Canon Ball, North Dakota, even if they weren’t physically at the site. The goal? Help confused police combatting protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Ultimately, the post was debunked as fake, and the millions who “checked-in” to Standing Rock did nothing but provide solidarity. But another unintended outcome of the post was that the protests at Standing Rock was that mainstream media outlets were finally paying attention and reporting on the #NoDAPL protests, and they based their reporting around this fake “meme.” But the mass check-in post was merely composed of text and not what one normally thinks of when they think of meme. I use this slippage in language and as the fake post’s origins that yielded “real” outcomes (in terms of increased traditional media attention) as a jumping off point in this talk. With this in mind, I turn to a recent event in the now popular “fake news” discussion: a protest by Donald Trump supporters against PepsiCo, since their CEO, Indra Nooyi, told Trump fans to “take their business elsewhere.” The problem, however, is that Nooyi never said that. Recent news articles explain how Nooyi’s initial words, that she didn’t like the language Trump used to describe women, evolved into full-fledged fake news. The #NoDAPL Facebook check-in example shows how fake news can become real, and the PepsiCo example demonstrates how real news can become false. This talk uses these examples to discuss how news spreads online, akin to how we share visual objects such as memes and selfies. By using a discussion of a more traditional meme, I analyze how non-visual objects, such as news and activist texts, are now moving online in similar, problematic ways. Memes, selfies, and image filters are meant to take a fixed concept and repurpose them in a new context. Content remains just enough the same to show that the item in question is part of the same trend, but different enough so that individuals can put their own unique spin on them. This is extremely problematic, however, when we consider this same process as now applying to news, activism, or more traditional forms of information. But in the cases of PepsiCo and the #NoDAPL Facebook check-in, an initial text was given its own spin as it spread, thus creating new and different texts at the outset. I argue that we can learn a lot about specifically social media literacy and even the hot-button buzzword, “fake news,” by looking at the way visual objects have typically moved online and their present influence on non-visual information.

Jessica Maddox