You see it drenched all over the social media accounts you’re endlessly scrolling through: pieces of news distilled down to a meme.
Humans evolve, and the way we learn develops, but we’re sitting at a pivotal point where the main source of news we’re consuming is simplified derivatives of a primary source. The information we’re consuming is filtered down to a 1080×1080 box of ill-designed statements that may or may not contain accurate data.
While scrolling through my Instagram during the deeply troubling Israel-Hamas war, I wondered why I saw the same graphics repeatedly. It wasn’t because they were the only ones out there; I’d often see new ones splashed between, but I realized that it was because these specific graphics were beautifully designed, legible, and quick to make a point.
Thanks to social media algorithms, I recognized we often see the same memes shared continually because of how we respond and interact with design, not necessarily the truths within. Therefore, the same messages were constantly circulating and forming the zeitgeist, thinning out a range of perspectives, voices, beliefs, and ideals, regardless of whether the information shared was factual.
Memes themselves carry an unspoken socio-political currency. Although they can be seen as an unconcerned approach to news, they often help surpass cultural and demographic barriers to become powerful tools for self-expression and connection. It allows for the efficient sharing of opinions and fewer barriers to understanding and communicating highly political and controversial topics.
Not only do memes create a lower barrier for entry into conversation, but they also can provide a valuable coping mechanism.
Further, memes and distilled graphics allow people to enter high-level conversations without academic formalities or the fear of being alienated. These shareable graphics undeniably cultivate conversations for those who otherwise might not know where to begin.
Not only do memes create a lower barrier for entry into conversation, but they also can provide a valuable coping mechanism. The American Psychological Association ran a study that focused on the effects of the consumption of memes and their coping efficacy. While the study focused on COVID-related memes, the study was able to prove the coping effectiveness of memes.
“This study provides initial evidence that memes may not be just frivolous fun; they are potentially helpful for coping with the stress of a global pandemic and connecting us psychologically while we remain physically apart,” the study concludes. “Memes could be used as very cheap, easily accessible potential interventions to support coping efforts.”
When these graphics or memes posted on social media platforms are shared continuously, they become further removed from the context, allowing viewers to summarize and embrace their own meanings.
Further, clarifying information in its simplest form creates more palatable reports. “Aesthetically appealing and easily digestible graphics or memes that confirm a viewer’s bias in an extremely clear way tend to spread faster than content that takes more time to understand,” says Raphael Farasat, CEO at Truffl and an award-winning brand strategist and creative director. “The spread of this over-simplified content can significantly influence public opinion by reaching a larger audience and making the content seem more credible or important. Their design can evoke stronger emotional responses and engagement, thereby influencing how people perceive and interpret the news.”
Yet, there is a dangerous side to memes as well. When these graphics or memes posted on social media platforms are shared continuously, they become further removed from the context, allowing viewers to summarize and embrace their own meanings.
Further, when the same messages are repeatedly shared, regardless of whether the information is true, it can cause unnecessary panic and false truths and change narratives entirely. “[The instant shareability] is a double-edged sword. The instant shareability ensures that information, opinions, and ideas circulate quickly, fostering a dynamic discourse,” says Farasat. “However, it also enables the rapid spread of misinformation, simplifications, and bias, which can skew public perception and understanding of events like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Designers play a role in determining what aspects of a news story get highlighted or overshadowed through their design choices.Raphael Farasat, CEO at Truffl and brand strategist and creative director
Because of the current shift in how humans receive their news, there’s new pressure on designers to create factually accurate content in a concise, well-designed fashion. “Ethically, designers should aim to promote a balanced and informed conversation, ensuring their designs don’t misinform or fuel polarization,” communicates Farasat. “They play a role in determining what aspects of a news story get highlighted or overshadowed through their design choices.”
Farasat continues, “This is no different than designing content for brands. Rather than attempting to market a product or service, designers are marketing ideas. In the same way a designer for a cigarette brand bears some responsibility for their ability to convince people to smoke, a designer of political content should have some responsibility for the effects of their content — whether it exacerbates division or influences people to cause harm in real life.”
Before the Hamas invasion and the following events, graphics and memes perpetually circulated misinformation or exaggerated information. For example, the Internet was suddenly barraged with memes about the Chinese ‘spy’ balloons flying over the US or the ever-cycling COVID-related misinformation via memes. While these memes provide simplified versions of the news, they also host mounds of misinformation and false claims.
There’s a new call to action for designers to consider their power when controversial topics arise, especially those as significant as the Israeli-Hamas war. Because of the shift in how people consume news, designers have a new responsibility in sharing information beautifully and accurately and creating well-informed, factual rhetoric around events. Because, at the end of the day, the well-designed memes and graphics circulate the Internet to form the zeitgeist.
Banner composite by author.