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When 17-year-old Luc Charlebois woke up on Jan. 3, he checked Twitter and saw that #WWIII was trending. The trending page was full of memes and jokes about getting drafted for what was being depicted as an imminent world war. Confused, he turned to Google.
“I just googled ‘World War 3,’” Charlebois, who lives in Albany, NY, said.
After clicking on a couple of articles, he found out that the hashtag was being used to express concern that the U.S. might be on the brink of war with Iran. The night before, President Donald Trump had ordered a drone strike that killed one of Iran’s top generals — Qassem Soleimani. The strike solicited almost instantaneous backlash from Tehran.
Throughout the rest of the day, Charlebois’ feed on TikTok, a Beijing-based social networking app for sharing short videos, was full of jokes about getting drafted and having to use skills found in the war-focused video game, Call of Duty, in real-life warfare.
Most young people believe keeping up on current news events is important, but they do not get their news through traditional outlets. This flattened media landscape has removed the barrier between news, socializing with friends and entertainment. News related memes seem to tick all those boxes.
According to Common Sense Media, 78 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 say it’s important for them to follow current events. About 70 percent of those polled also believe news reported by news organizations “generally gets the facts straight.”
However, teens are more likely to get their news from social media and YouTube than traditional news outlets, according to Common Sense Media. 54 percent of teens get news from social media, 50 percent get news from YouTube and fewer than half — 41 percent — get news from news organizations, at least a few times a week.
They are also as likely to get their news from influencers or celebrities they follow online, as they are from news organizations, even though teens trust influencers and celebrities dramatically less — only 38 percent say those people get the facts correct, according to that same Common Sense Media survey.
Misinformation remains ever-present online. The flood of memes about getting drafted for a war with Iran prompted multiple news outlets including the New York Times, to write posts explaining the unlikelihood of a draft happening.
Jamie Withorne, a research assistant at the Middlebury Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies, believes that memes can be an important player in young people’s news consumption. She says that they “provide a sense of comfort” in an era where these internet jokes are familiar, but escalating international tensions are not. For young people, memes can provide a way to deal with feelings about significant or negative events.
But, Withorne says memes and social media can dilute the gravity of the news, too, due to the medium and character limitations. “It’s a lack of a complete picture. These memes weren’t necessarily spreading misinformation; they were making humourous points of certain little tidbits of news that they’d gathered,” Withorne said. “I think that that’s dangerous — insofar that the memes only provide a glimpse of a very large picture and very large complex issue. There’s not going to be a meme that can encompass all the nuances of an international crisis.”
Although Charlebois was fairly confident he wouldn’t be drafted if a war broke out, many of his peers were not. Kaleb Velez, 18, who lives in Houston, TX and is a member of PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs, admitted that it can be hard to tell fact from fiction while online.
“I don’t always have Politifact on standby when I browse Reddit,” Velez joked, referring to having the fact-checking website run by seasoned journalists available while browsing the popular web forum and link-sharing site where anyone can post content that is ranked by other users.
Velez said he learned about the drone strike on the Iranian general through the /r/DankMemes page on Reddit. He came across a fake movie poster of Spiderman poorly photoshopped next to American soldiers and a helicopter. The image reads “Spider Man: Drafted to Iran.” Velez searched through the comments below the picture to see what was going on.
It’s not just teenagers. Users across social media are being inundated not only by their peers, but by politicians and political groups.
Trump regularly tweets out memes. Notably, Trump and Soleimani had seemingly taken jabs at each other through Twitter and Instagram memes back in 2018.
Facebook groups like The Comical Conservative and Occupy Democrats also use memes to charge up their millions of followers and get them to spread highly politicized news stories.
For teens like Charlebois and Velez who use Google search results for news, knowing which users and websites to trust has become essential. Velez admits that he often clicks on the first option that comes up on the Google results page, but says he prefers traditional media like PBS, CNN or Fox News.
Other teenagers look to traditional news sites’ products that are geared toward online audiences. Charlebois said CNN 10, an online news program that explains the day’s news in 10 minutes, is one of his go-to sources.
Omar Elbaba, 14, who lives in Vienna, VA and has extended family in the Middle East, says that memes can cheapen the very human cost that something like a war with Iran would cause, arguing they make light of a deeply serious situation. Elbaba learned about the Soleimani drone strike through reading verified twitter accounts posting on the World War 3 hashtag. Throughout the day, he saw joke after joke about it on Twitter and TikTok. He pointed to one post he saw on instagram which criticized world war memes. The post reads, “There is a side of the world that’s busy posting WW3 memes. There is a side holding their families a little closer than before.”
Charlebois agrees that there’s a line of decency that memes often cross. But as someone who doesn’t often talk about the news with his friends, funny memes are often the only way news stories come up.
Velez says that memes can be a way for people who don’t follow the news to hear about current events. He singled out “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself,” a meme that refers to the conspiracy theories surrounding the suicide of accused human trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The medical examiner who examined Epstein’s body after his death in a New York jail cell declared it a suicide. Still, Velez said the meme was the first time a lot of his colleagues had heard of Epstein, prompting them to learn more.
Withorne argues that while memes can’t provide all the necessary points to fully understand an issue or event, they may spark enough interest for someone to seek more well-rounded information for themselves.
“If your interest is piqued in something from a tidbit of information from a meme, I think that is inherently a good thing. If you pique your interest you’re going to want to learn more,” says Withorne. “[Memes] are a valuable tool not only for young people but also for national security practitioners. This could be an example of a new medium that they could use to help raise awareness about very complex and daunting issues.”
Velez argues that memes, with all the misinformation and callousness that comes with them, have become this generation’s entryway into news and politics. They provide an avenue for a generation who grew up online, to discover and laugh at news stories that can so easily become overwhelming.
Lizz Bolaji is a News Assistant for the PBS NewsHour
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