5 viral memes of recent years built on lies and fake news

memes graffiti rj flickr

Memes — the rulers of the internet, along with baby animal photos and cat videos.

Often a source of humour or political insight, memes are enjoyed by millions of internet users and often go viral due to sites like Facebook, Twitter and 9gag.

However, memes have also acted as a pervasive way to share myths – and many of us have been unpleasantly surprised by memes on friends’ social media feeds that we just know aren’t true.

Here are a few viral memes filled with lies that we’ve seen over the years…

Irish slavery meme

Every time I see this pop up on my feed I feel a strong desire to plant my head onto my desk in sheer frustration.

The article that made this claim has been shared on social media around 150 000 times, according to NewsTalk.

While the year that the meme was created is unknown, Know Your Meme shows that interest in it increased was the highest in 2016.

irish slavery myth meme

Image: @Limerick1914 via Medium

There are a few variations, but the common thread is the claim that Irish slaves existed and were treated worse than African slaves, with the memes often using a picture of a group of impoverished white people or children.

The images are already a red flag, considering that indentured servitude of the Irish was used in the early British settlements in America (you know, before photography existed…). The claims are derived from an article entitled “Irish: The Forgotten White Slaves”, according to Snopes.

The claim has been debunked by historians and academics, who outline the significant differences between the indentured servitude which the Irish suffered versus the chattel slavery system black slaves were subjected to.

The main differences being that indentured servitude is a temporary contract, willingly entered into or in the case of forced indentured servitude, a penal punishment which ended once the prisoner’s sentence was completed. A servant’s children would not be indentured servants, nor was the servant considered property.

Chattel slavery however was involuntary, lifelong and hereditary – meaning the children of slaves would be forced to be slaves too. The slaves were considered property of the owner, and like cattle slaves were even ‘bred’, which included coerced sexual relations as well as a the favouring of female slaves who produced large numbers of children.

A war veteran lost the ESPYs award to Caitlyn Jenner

Following the announcement that Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in 2015 for her public embracing of her transgender identity, the internet was ablaze with rage over the so-called runner-up to the award.

noah galloway jenner myth

Image: StupidBadMemes

The viral meme which spread as a result claimed that army veteran Noah Galloway was snubbed in favour of Jenner, despite having lost two limbs in the Iraq war.

ESPN released a statement shortly after to debunk the claim, pointing out that the award never named any ‘runner-ups’, but rather acts as a recognition of bravery by a sportsperson that transcends the world of sporting.

Huge increase in vaccines = huge increase in autism rates

A meme that went viral in 2016, and seems to have been created by NaturalNews.com, implies that an increase in vaccines given to babies in the US over time has led to an increase in autism rates.

The meme claims that in 1983, only 1 in 10 000 children had autism – a time at which 10 vaccines were apparently given to children. It claims that vaccines rose to 36 in 2008, with an autism rate of 1 in 150. It then claims that in 2013, 46 vaccines were part of the vaccine regimen for babies, with the autism rate rising to 1 in 88.

vaccine autism meme

Image: Politifact

Besides the conflation of correlation and causation appearing in the meme, the figures have also been debunked by health professionals.

According to Politifact, the CDC said that the number of recommended vaccines for babies is currently only 10. These vaccines are sometimes administered in multiple doses, however the meme greatly overstates the number of vaccines babies in the US receive.

There has however been an increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism though – but not due to vaccines, the CDC insists. Rather diagnosis criteria have widened over the years (meaning people who may not have been regarded autistic in the 1980s could be considered autistic today). There has also been increased attention in the medical community on autism, meaning doctors are more likely to spot it today than a few decades ago.

The supposed relationship between vaccines and autism has also been repeatedly debunked by scientists, with the original and only research which suggested a correlation having been formally retracted from the Lancet journal.

Donald Trump called Republicans dumb

While fake news helped spur conspiracies which helped put Donald Trump in power in the US, it’s not only his supporters who have resorted to spreading myths.

During the US presidential election campaign, and oft-seen meme was one attributing a quote calling Republicans dumb to Trump.

donald trump fake quote

Image: Snopes

The quote, which stated “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific”, was said to come from a 1998 People Magazine interview.

FactCheck.org debunked the claim is 2015, when it first started doing the rounds. Neither FactCheck’s nor People scouring through the magazine’s archives could find any such statement from Trump.

This didn’t stop the meme from spreading, but several outlets have identified it as fake.

Divide the lottery and everyone will be rich

This meme managed to get over 1.3-million shares on Facebook, but has also been mocked and debunked for its terrible math.

The post, shared by Livesosa, claims that if the Powerball US$1.3-billion was divided among the whole of America’s population of 300-million, each person would receive US$4.33-million.

lottery meme

Image: Livesosa via Facebook

The picture also triumphantly claims “Poverty Solved!”. However, if you take a moment to do the math, you’ll see that dividing US$1.3-billion by 300 million results in only US$4.33 for everyone. So rather than ‘poverty solved’, it’s more like ‘everyone gets a bagel’. The person who did the original calculation obviously added too many zeroes when converting 1.3-billion to numerals.

Regardless, the meme went viral – but on the bright side, many people in the comments have pointed out the bad maths.

Feature image: RJ via Flickr (CC 2.0, resized)



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