Online disinformation expert Joan Donovan on the power of memes

Person poses next to a separate photo of a book cover
Harvard scholar and online disinformation expert Joan Donovan says in her new book “Meme Wars” that memes are being used today to radicalize people and undermine democracy – which includes fueling the fire that led to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Photo (left) by Martha Stewart, book cover photo courtesy of Bloomsbury

Do you recognize a meme when you see one?

Online disinformation expert Joan Donovan defines memes as pithy words or images — like “Black Lives Matter” or “Build That Wall” — that contain a coded meaning. They often work as badges of identity, and they can be powerful shortcuts to provoking an emotional response in the viewer. And thanks to the internet, they’re more influential than ever.

Her new book, “Meme Wars,” details how memes and the online communities that produce them intensify the culture wars, erode trust in institutions, and even drive acts of violence, like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

On the anniversary of that attack, MPR News host Kerri Miller talks with Donovan about the history of memes in America, how various conspiracy theorists use them to advance their ideologies, and how the current power of memes threatens to undermine democracy.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.


To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above. 

Subscribe to the MPR News with Kerri Miller podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts or RSS.

Subscribe to the Thread newsletter for the latest book and author news and must-read recommendations.