A Democrat in Michigan scrolled through a surge of nasty Facebook memes about Sen. Elizabeth Warren last week before fixing on one that captured his growing dislike of the candidate. It depicted her smiling face as a mask. Behind it was Hillary Clinton.
Matt Walters, 64, a retired factory worker and supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), shared the image onward to eight Facebook groups and tens of thousands of potential eyeballs with a few taps on his smartphone — using a popular new mass-posting technique that allows ordinary Americans to operate with rapid-fire speed reminiscent of Russian bots and trolls in 2016.
In that small way, Walters contributed to a massive wave of hostile memes about Sanders’s Democratic rivals that both reflects the rising divisiveness in the party’s nominating contest and, in the view of social media experts, exacerbates it.
“I’d call it a force multiplier,” Walters, a onetime union activist, said of Facebook.
The volume and viciousness of the memes — portraying Warren (D-Mass.) as a snake, a backstabber and a liar — reflect how Facebook identifies and rewards emotionally charged content to generate reactions from its billions of users. That serves the company’s ad-driven business model, which equates engagement with profit. But it also, in the view of experts who study Facebook’s effect on political speech, distorts democratic debate by confirming biases, sharpening divisions and elevating the glib visual logic of memes over reasoned discussion. [Continue reading…]