A new study has unearthed startling insights into the power of identity congruence and its impact on how people perceive the credibility of information presented through various mediums, such as contemporary internet memes, text-only posts, and text-with-explanation posts.
María D. Molina, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and lead author of the study, described the motivation behind the research. “During Covid, I started to notice how internet memes were becoming a major contributor to our conversations about the virus, with many of these memes not in accordance with current health guidance from the CDC. So, I started to question whether people really believed in these types of content or are these memes perceived as merely a form of humour?”
The study, conducted online with participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, explored three forms of information presentation: contemporary internet memes, text-only posts, and text-with-explanation posts. To understand the perceived credibility of the information presented, the researchers developed mock Twitter posts on crime and taxes, manipulated to align either congruently or incongruently with the participants’ identities.
According to the study’s findings, published in New Media & Society, identity-congruent posts, irrespective of their presentation form, were perceived as more credible. This seems to be due to the activation of self-identity and other-identity heuristics; if the content aligns with one’s identity or those within their network, it is automatically deemed credible. However, the impact of identity-congruent posts lessened when the information was presented as an internet meme, possibly due to the evocation of anger.
Molina highlighted the key findings and their implications. “One finding that I would like to highlight is that the key to the persuasive power of memes is their congruence with the identity of users. Our findings overwhelmingly suggest that when content is congruent with the user’s identity, content is perceived as more credible.”
These results have significant implications, particularly considering the vast amount of misleading information circulated during crisis times like the Covid pandemic. A popular internet meme from the “Hotline Bling” music video was manipulated to suggest that contracting Covid is safer than getting vaccinated, for instance.
The researchers noted that internet memes, while often considered harmless humor, can be highly influential. They emphasised the need for further exploration of their actual impact. Identity congruence plays a crucial role in determining a post’s credibility, with users assessing information based on preexisting attitudes for identity-protective reasons, not due to a lack of analytical thinking.
Molina elaborated on the future research plans: “In the future, we want to explore different types of internet memes. In this paper, we looked at image macros (images overlaid with text), and these internet memes were highly intertextual. We want to assess if other types of memes might have different effects.”
However, the study has its limitations. The researchers acknowledged the complexity of operationalising internet memes due to their intertextual nature. But their work offers a significant starting point in understanding how different modalities of information presentation influence public perceptions and how identity factors into information credibility.
In terms of real-world applications, Molina pointed out the challenges in detecting misinformation due to the multimodal and intertextual nature of contemporary Internet memes. She emphasized that while memes were perceived as less credible compared to text, they are far from harmless. She urged for increased efforts in identifying textual content, and for more awareness among users of the effects of identity heuristics, perhaps through just-in-time alerts about different cognitive biases that govern online decision-making.
The study’s findings underscore the importance of ongoing research into how misinformation is perceived and propagated. The authors concluded that the potential impacts are too significant to ignore in an era where anyone can create and share easily digestible and vibrant content across multiple platforms.