Martin Luther King didn’t say what you say he said: Meme activism and fake news
Updated: Jan 20
Yesterday was International Animal Rights Day, and I was scrolling through videos on my news feed. One of them started off with a very well-known activist who started off his video with a still image of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King.
"Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."
When you do a google search for it, you see animal advocates using it everywhere. But there’s just one problem with it. There’s literally zero evidence that Dr. King said any such words. And that's not the only one.
"One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them."
Bonus points if you've also seen the image accompanying the quote. And again. No credible evidence that King ever said this.
But maybe you say, “Big fat deal, Sebastian. It’s harmless. Nobody gets hurt. So why does this matter?” A few reasons, really.
Oprah Winfrey famously said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. Or maybe it was Cardi B. I don’t effin’ know. But here’s the thing. If we accept that it’s alright for any old person with a mobile phone to google someone’s image, falsely attribute some text to them, and create a meme with no consequences, we contribute to the disinformation economy.
And each time we allow people to circulate misinformation (even unintentionally), the truth meaningfully deteriorates. Before you know it, you’re a feckless single-process blonde pile of split ends sitting in front of a camera and telling the American public that nothing matters because we live in a post-truth world where everyone can just choose the facts that make them feel the happiest.
We may think that we’re connecting social groups by using brilliant quotes to illustrate how multiple injustices are connected. But when we make false assertions, even in good faith, we alienate people who will no longer be able to trust us or the content that we share.
Furthermore, hijacking political figures from other social movements with zero acknowledgement of the platforms that were at the center of their work reveals an arrogance and hubris that undermine the message we want to convey.
Memes as tools of manipulation
Memes are especially suitable vehicles for transferring a distorted view of reality. Successful memes are very simple. In the book Memes in Digital Culture, Limor Shifman asserts they convey “one uncomplicated idea or slogan.” They’re deliberately brief because there simply isn’t space enough to present detailed information. As such, important context can be meaningfully excluded. Simplified messages can be especially persuasive if viewers have little or no knowledge on the topic that is being addressed.
Under the best of circumstances, this simplicity creates something that is entertaining and reasonably free of negative consequence. But under the worst of circumstances, we promote the toxicity of internet discourse by cluttering it up with more fake news.
Take, for example, the classic "farmacy" meme. It never seems to die. It implies that eating a whole foods plant-based diet is a cure for disease or a replacement for pharmaceuticals. And while a whole foods plant-based diet is certainly more nutritious than many other diet, it's not health insurance. This harms people facing chronic or degenerative illnesses and marginalizes vegans with disabilities.
I’m not saying that you need to vet every meme you post on your social media profile with two scholarly sources and an exhaustive list of interviews. But at the very least, leave MLK out of it. Since memes trade in finding commonality, try creating your own from pop culture references that entertain and get across a positive message that won't involve doing a load of research to make sure the quote is true. I made this one from Mean Girls. Take it. It's on the house.
Did you like this piece? Learn more about meme activism by contacting me for a talk on Digital Media for Animal Rights. And please consider contributing to my Patreon. Your contribution helps keep black voices a part of the mainstream discussion on veganism and animal rights.