Do Memes Change Minds?

While millions of people care about helping animals, many animal advocates may not think critically about how to maximize their impact. They may do what feels best for them, but that approach may be incongruous with effective advocacy. This article seeks to inspire animal advocates to consider how they can do the most good, even if it’s less exciting or elicits less of a response.

Does Your Language Help Animals?
A recent study confirmed that asking people to reduce their consumption of animals is much more likely to generate results than asking them to stop eating animals entirely. Further, it revealed that incremental change leads to more change. The study results also suggested that “animal advocates who wish to create the most diet change and thereby spare the most animals should focus on the suffering of farm animals (and possibly the environmental and health impacts of meat consumption). They should avoid focusing on the rights of animals, or how one needs to be vegan to have moral consistency.”

A recent study also confirms the argument that using terms such as “cut out” or “cut back on” meat and other animals products is more effective than telling people to “go vegan” or “go vegetarian,” two terms that the public may associate with negative connotations. Well-intentioned animal advocates often fail to appreciate this realization. Although it may feel better to tell people to stop eating animals immediately, a more measured approach may generate better results.

Are Memes an Effective Way to Achieve Results?
The use of memes is one of the most common forms of communication in online forums. Memes engage audiences in an age where people prefer visuals with compact messages. But how effective are memes at affecting change? What kind of memes impact change? How do we know if our memes are reaching their intended audience? How many memes is too many memes? Is a person who posts too many memes perceived as passionate or unbalanced by the intended audience? The target audience is not the choir praising the memes; it’s the people who see the memes but likely never comment on them. Memes may be fun but do they work?

As this article points out, memes can fall flat and “cause derision rather than audience loyalty.” Some memes may even have an adverse effect on their target audience. Many animal advocacy memes get a lot of action on social media but that doesn’t mean they help animals or reach their target audience. For example, a meme shows a photo of an animal shooting a hunter with a gun, a popular scenario with some animal advocates. But does this image do anything to inspire people to stop hunting or would a more tempered approach focused on alternatives to recreational hunting be more effective? The most effective advocates work strategically to save lives, not simply to feel good.

Effective or divisive?
Effective or divisive?

As you analyze your strategies, you may also grow as an advocate by answering these difficult questions:

1. If my beloved dog or cat was facing certain death on a factory farm and I was advocating to save him or her, would I advocate in the same way as I’m currently advocating to save farm animals?

2. How much of my online advocacy is aimed at getting attention versus generating results for animals?

2. Am I more concerned with “likes” or shares on a post or getting across a message in a way that benefits animals?

3. How much of my time do I spend preaching to the choir?

4. How do I use social media to reach my intended audience?

5. Am I sharing specific examples of ways to help animals on social media and engaging in those opportunities (i.e., organizing events, speaking at schools, or raising money to benefit top-rated animal charities)?

6. Am I considering how my intended audience receives my message or simply communicating my message in a way that makes me feel good?

In short, think outside of the box, think critically about your impact, and take action that you can reasonably conclude benefits animals based on available evidence or your best intuition. The animals–and the planet–are counting on you.


9 thoughts on “Do Memes Change Minds?

  1. Thanks for the words of wisdom. This is so sensible yet can sometimes be extremely hard to follow. What appeals to us doesn’t usually speak to the general population. I know I need to remind myself of this occasionally. Thanks again. ☺

    1. Thank you C.J. Advocacy is an inexact science but research in and out of the field on influencing people provides a good compass.

      You don’t have to be perfect to be better. Thank you for keeping an open mind.

  2. I think that the majority of humans don’t think, act, and react in the same way that those of us who are animal advocates do. If they did, the world would be full of vegans and animal rights advocates, and our society would already be predominantly vegan. Obviously it’s not, so if we want to reach other people and have a reasonable chance of convincing them to change, we need to be able to utilize methods of advocacy other than those that may have gotten us to change.
    We need to have a wide variety of advocacy methods and approaches in our toolbox. To best utilize them, we need to understand that when we’re able to connect with others in some way, pointing out similarities between us rather than differences, we will be most effective in getting other people to listen to our messages with fewer defenses, and with a more open mind.

  3. Thanks for another insightful piece, Andrew.

    I often feel many of my fellow advocates are mainly preaching to the choir with the majority of their posts, and I’m sure I am much of the time as well. I’ve found when I post vegan health articles/studies I get virtually no traction, although most non-vegans I know justify their diets quoting erroneous health information. (Paleo still gets lots of traction, though it’s largely been discredited by most mainstream sources.) It seems people will gravitate towards a health stat or idea based more on what they really want to be doing more than what is really true. And of course, with health, we don’t always know what is really true

    So I focus on my work rescuing farm animals, portraying these individuals as just that. Trying to put a face to it and personalize it. I’m not sure how much impact I’m having, but a former student of mine (I used to teach high school in LA) recently sent me a message saying that although she loves the taste of meat, she’s been eating less of it lately due directly to my posts of the animals.

    I also try to vary my posts, by putting some personal posts and pics and varying my topics so my non-vegan friends/followers don’t get sick of me “preaching” and unfollow me. Seems to be working at least in part. It’s a delicate balance, advocacy. Thanks for putting some statistics out there for us.

    1. Thank you for sharing your strategies Lori. It seems like you’re thinking critically about your advocacy and do not fear making adjustments — the sign of a thoughtful activist.

      Thank you for all you do!

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