Memes have replaced the political cartoon

In the digital age, political satire is giving way to misinformation

Memes spread misinformation.
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The political cartoon has been a means of speaking truth to power since the 18th century, but now print media is in its death throes, and internet memes are spreading misinformation in place of satire.
 
James Gillray, a British caricaturist born in 1756, is credited as the father of the political cartoon. His most famous work, The Plum Pudding in Danger (1805), depicts British P.M. William Pitt and self-proclaimed Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, slicing into a plum pudding version of the globe.
 
Gillray makes Napoleon appear tiny in stature next to the imposing Pitt. Even though scholars say Napoleon was probably average height, Gillray’s caricature prevails in the modern imagination of Bonaparte as the little dictator. 
 
What’s more, the French despot looks silly in his cartoonish, oversized hat with giant plumes the colours of France’s flag. Gillray’s meaning is self-evident: Napoleon is an egotistical child, hungrily eyeing Europe like a gourmand eyeing plum pudding. 
 
This caricature of the French ruler stands in stark contrast to the propagandistic paintings of the time which glorified him. For example, the famous Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), gifted to Napoleon by the Spanish King, portrays him on horseback and is painted from a low angle so he appears large, powerful, dignified, and 
poised for victory. 
 
Thus, Gillray’s lampooning of Napoleon and his wars was the antidote to propaganda. His work set a benchmark for generations of satirical cartoonists to follow. In 1841, Punch Magazine was established in London, a publication of wit and satire picking up where Gillray left off. Punch actually coined the term “cartoon” to mean funny drawing. 
 
Over time, the political cartoon became a staple of newsprint, springing from the pages to sway public opinion. As satire, these cartoons are inherently biased in that they represent the artist’s view on current affairs.
 
Yet, such cartoons rely on their audience to have read the news of the day to understand the context. Therefore, an informed readership is free to make up its own mind on the satirist’s interpretation of events. 
 
Today, newspapers are in decline. Canadians and Americans are increasingly getting their news from online sources, including various social media platforms. 
 
When digital technology usurped print media, internet memes replaced political cartoons as well. Although, memes and cartoons both serve a similar function—to criticize or praise a leader and influence public opinion—they have some key differences.
 
Unlike cartoons, memes circulate rapidly to a large audience and, most of the time, the originator of the meme is unknown. As such, no one can be held accountable if the meme turns out to be promoting false information. This makes it easy for misinformation to spread quickly, and it’s a major problem for democracy when elections are decided on bad information.
 
In 2015 and 2016, Russian Troll Farms posing as Americans on social media disseminated fake political memes on people’s news feeds. This had the intended effect of deepening social unrest and mistrust of American government, leading the US to elect a political outsider like Donald Trump. Now, it’s happening again.
 
Memes use real or doctored images combined with text to present a fictitious reality to an uninformed public. They purposely misconstrue events or completely make them up. That’s not satire—it’s propaganda. 
 
For example, a misleading meme circulated on Twitter on Sept. 6, showing a sunken boat with a bright red TRUMP 2020 flag. While several boats did sink at a Trump parade on Lake Travis in Austin, Texas, the boat in this picture was not one of them. 
 
In some ways, this example shows the similarities between satirical cartoons and political memes. After all, the story of boaters who support Trump accidentally sinking their boats is hilarious. Since there wasn’t an ideal image to capture this story, someone added the Trump 2020 flag to a pre-existing image of a sunken boat, creating the perfect symbol for his sunken campaign. Here’s to hoping he goes down in the election this November.
 
Still, it’s disheartening that even a meme based on real events isn’t completely accurate. Perhaps the spread of misinformation is an unavoidable side effect of the internet. 
 
Today, it’s important to question what you see online as fake memes proliferate and real life begins to feel indistinguishable from satire. 
 

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