Kahlert School of Computing Assistant Professor Marina Kogan has received a grant of US $99,562 through Foundational Integrity & Social Impact Research program of Meta to investigate emotionally-driven, meme-based campaigns for countering online propaganda.

Memes, which have risen in popularity over social media platforms, are images with humorous captions shared over social media. The prominent meme creator Saint Hoax calls them “editorial cartoons for the internet age” and notes that each individual meme often contains many layers of complex meaning. This meaning is derived from the social context just as much as the actual content itself. While the history of memes has been largely dominated by social commentary and humor, Dr. Kogan’s research aims to shine a light on their power in battling misinformation and propaganda. The research will focus on the practices and strategies of campaigns where social media users engaging in fact-checking abandon rational argumentation in favor of more visceral methods of communication such as memes. 

“There is enough evidence that in the face of intense state-sponsored campaigns, standard fact-based approaches to combating propaganda often fall short. This investigation is an exploration of more emotionally-driven, meme-based anti-propaganda campaigns that appear to be succeeding in online environments,” Kogan said. 

One such atypical, successful campaign arose in the context of state-sponsored Russian propaganda during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022. NAFO, a decentralized, grass-roots movement of Ukrainian and international social media users who focus on combating Russian propaganda, used comical, nonsensical memes to expose the absurdity of original posts containing propaganda. These meme-based campaigns have proven to be an effective tool on the information battleground.

Supported by the grant from Meta, Dr. Kogan plans to analyze the visual and discursive strategies used by the NAFO movement to combat Russian propaganda with meme-based approaches. In addition, she will estimate the success of the campaign by examining whether audience engagement and responses to propaganda posts that have been countered with the meme-based approaches differ from reactions to propaganda that is not countered in such a manner. Prof. Kogan believes that the methods developed in the course of this research can be applied to a broader range of emotion-driven movements, enabling her to explore creative strategies to counter the threat posed by various forms of misinformation and various degrees of authoritarianism.