British Columbia

How memes could be the new political attack ads

Jaigris Hodson, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University in Victoria, says misleading political memes, and the speed at which they spread, are concerning. 

Concern over speed at which misleading memes of politicians can spread

Justin Trudeau at the G20 summit in Osaka on June 29. An edited video from the summit that appeared to show Trudeau being snubbed by the Brazilian president went viral online. (Issei Kato/REUTERS)

Over Canada Day weekend, a video of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the recent G20 summit went viral online. It showed him being snubbed when going for a handshake with Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro.

But the video was misleading. 

In a fuller video of the exchange, Bolsonaro quickly turns around to shake hands with Trudeau. But the shortened video swiftly turned into a meme and spread around the internet.

Jaigris Hodson, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University in Victoria, says such misleading political memes, and the speed at which they spread, are concerning. 

"If you see a video or something else online that you really feel strongly about, then you need to double, triple, quadruple check it because it's those things that we tend to share most easily without thinking," Hodson told Stephen Quinn, host of The Early Edition.

Attack-ad loophole 

In advance of the Canadian federal election, there are restrictions on advertising that puts limits on what political parties are allowed to do when campaigning, particularly when it comes to attacking opponents. 

But memes offer a loophole of sorts, as they are not considered ads, Hodson says. 

"These new technologies are allowing both political parties and their supporters to bypass, in some ways, the rules around advertisements, particularly if it's a supporter of the party and not the party itself," Hodson said. 

Politicians can simply share a meme that a supporter posts. There are no restrictions to what they can share.

"If Donald Trump is any indication in the U.S., meme campaigning can be quite effective. So I do think we need to be careful," Hodson said.

He says requesting restrictions on meme content is tricky.

"There's a free speech issue there, too, that I don't really think we want to cross the line of," he said.

Hodson also highlighted concern over the impact of manipulated photos of politicians, which are also circulating the web.

"I think it's really important that we begin to look for strategies to sort this misinformation from what's true," he said.

Journalists have a big role to play in exposing the truth, he added. 

"In this new media economy where attention is at a premium, the content that is most salacious is the thing that's going to be shared," he said. 

"Journalists could perform a sort of vetting function, taking the time to double-check, triple-check sources and giving the real story to Canadians."

Listen to the full interview here:

With files by The Early Edition

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