It is deeply troubling how quickly hatred, racism and prejudice can spread online. Many memes circulating on Facebook, LIHKG or Reddit, for example, dangerously promote racist or biased behaviour in Hong Kong, adding misinformation to a very complex political and social issue.
Authors and sharers of these memes appear not to care about the complexity of Hong Kong's situation. They only want to vilify the police, protesters, the government or China (take your pick). Of course, it is easy to vilify when you simplify groups of people or actions through memes.
Memes, most often designed to appeal to people's emotions, risk spreading misinformed hatred and racism. It is difficult for an informed argument to be expressed well through simple, visual memes. In fact, simplifying an opinion into memes embedded with emotive images and words does not say much at all.
Who likes to see images of scared children surrounded by agitated, angry police? Most people do not. But stop a moment. How do we know we are not simply reacting emotionally to an image?
It is a safe bet that memes of children being attacked by police will evoke strong emotions because this is far removed from most people's expectations of police officers. The problem with such memes is that they oversimplify.
Look at recent memes accusing the MTR Corporation of public misinformation over its vandalised stations, which people were quick to share to express their outrage, without thinking about how such memes are designed. As far as I can see, many of the videos prove nothing.
Social judgment theory suggests that people make judgments about the content of a message based on how similar or different it is to their values or beliefs. When a message is perceived as being against a person's values, they may subconsciously exaggerate the difference between the position of the message and their own.
This response happens when the message falls within an individual's latitude of rejection. The assimilation effect is just the opposite. When a message is received that falls within the individual's latitude of acceptance, the receiver subconsciously minimises the difference between the position of the message and his own.
It is understandable that people share memes to express their opinions on recent events in Hong Kong. It is a quick and simple way to express outrage at a perceived injustice. In fact, most memes circulating online are designed to align a message with the beliefs and values of a target audience.
This is no different from print advertising or television commercials. And that is the problem. A meme may align with a person's belief and values, but it can only do so by evoking emotion and reinforcing biased behaviour and opinions.
The spread of memes on social media needs to be analysed a lot more carefully. Perhaps, more importantly, more caution is needed before sharing them. There are many errors of judgment in the messages circulating online. Memes, for example, often promote biased behaviour.
Many of us are biased towards enhancing our sense of self by thinking that: first, we see the world more accurately than others; second, the groups we belong to are more desirable than groups we are not a part of, and; third, our "truths" about our social world tend to be correct.
There are a few reasons that memes reinforce biased behaviour. Meme authors and sharers often presume they see an event as it "truly" is and expect other rational people to share a similar view. Many people generally prefer others of their own in-group while exhibiting prejudice against out-groups.
This bias, common throughout the world, is occurring in overwhelming proportions in Hong Kong. Many memes on social media reinforce echo chambers and can stagnate freedom of speech. As long as memes promote in-groups and out-groups, we will never have peace. Additionally, many memes reinforce a behaviour where people focus only on information that confirms their beliefs.
We need to think more carefully before sharing memes to express our outrage. Calling out another person's bad behaviour feels good, and some cognitive studies suggest that our brains reward us when we do. When done in person, there may be physical consequences so we choose carefully how we express our anger.
We try and get our facts straight. However, expressing outrage is less costly on social media. People can be angry at someone they have never met. They can be angry at videos they see, regardless of whether it was taken out of context. And the physical costs of expressing that outrage is limited.
More importantly, we need to avoid memes that call others "Nazis", "Chinazi", or "cockroach". Name calling is wrong. Racism is wrong. Prejudiced behaviour is wrong. Using slurs flippantly creates divisiveness and is dangerous - because people may begin to use the terms to confirm fears and reinforce biases.
As a result, fears grow and people begin to act out of emotion, not logic. Memes that use these hateful words do not help the situation.
Please, let us start thinking more carefully before sharing memes. The purpose here is not to express an opinion about which side is right. The concern is how we are communicating our opinions online. Censorship is not the answer, responsible online communication is.
We need to be careful how we perceive and interpret memes and other forms of online discourse. Memes are often designed to evoke emotion, not share factual information or truth. I am tired of watching good people spread hate.
Sean McMinn is an associate professor of language education at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and teaches an undergraduate course on digital literacy
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