Repository logo

The affect and effect of Internet memes: assessing perceptions and influence of online user-generated political discourse as media




Huntington, Heidi E., author
Martey, Rosa Mikeal, advisor
Anderson, Ashley A., committee member
Burgchardt, Carl R., committee member
Long, Marilee, committee member
McIvor, David W., committee member

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


In our modern media environment characterized by participatory media culture, political internet memes have become a tool for citizens seeking to participate actively and discursively in a digital public sphere. Although memes have been examined as visual rhetoric and discursive participation, such political memes' effects on viewers are unclear. This study responds to calls for research into effects of internet memes. Specifically, this work represents early, foundational research to quantitatively establish some media effects of internet memes as a form of political, user-generated media. This study focuses on memes' influence on affect, as well as perceptions of internet memes' persuasiveness to look for evidence of motivated reasoning in consuming political memes. To establish effects of viewing political memes, an online, post-test only, quasi-experimental design was employed to test the relationships between viewing political internet memes, affect, and perceived persuasiveness of memes. To better attribute results to specific genres (e.g. political vs. non-political) and attributes of memes (i.e., the role of images), the main study (N = 633) was comprised of five experimental conditions – to view either liberal political memes, conservative political memes, text-only versions of the liberal memes, text-only versions of the conservative memes, or non-political memes – with a sixth comparison group, who did not view any stimuli at all. Before running the main study, a pilot study (N = 133) was conducted to determine which memes to use as the stimuli in the main study, based on participants' ratings of the memes' political stances and similarity to their text-only versions. Results indicate that political internet memes produce different effects on viewers than non-political internet memes, and that political memes are subject to motivated reasoning in viewers' perceptions of memes' persuasiveness. Specifically, viewing political internet memes resulted in more feelings of aversion than did viewing non-political memes, and political internet memes were rated as less effective as messages and their arguments were scrutinized more than were non-political memes. However, non-political memes were significantly discounted as simple jokes more than were political memes. This suggests that participants understood political memes as attempts at conveying arguments beyond mere jokes, even if they were unconvinced regarding memes' effectiveness for doing so. Additionally, participants whose own political ideology matched that of the political memes they saw, as well as those who stated they agreed with the ideas presented by the memes, rated the memes as being more effective as messages and engaged in less argument scrutiny than did participants whose ideology differed from that of the memes, or than those who disagreed with the memes. This finding indicates that memes are subject to processes of motivated reasoning, specifically selective judgment and selective perception. Political memes' visuals, or lack thereof, did not play a significant role in these differences. Finding the memes to be funny, affinity for political humor, and participants' meme use moderated some of these outcomes. The results of this study suggest that political internet memes are a distinct internet meme genre, with characteristics operating in line with other humorous political media, and should be studied for effects separately or as distinguished from non-political memes. The results of this study also indicate that user-generated media like political internet memes are an important influence in today's media environment, and have implications for other forms of political outcomes, including concerns about opinion polarization, civic discourse, and the public sphere. The study presents one method for conducting quantitative research with internet memes, including generating a sample from existing internet memes, and for considering political memes' effects as media. Suggestions for future research building on this work are offered.


Rights Access



Associated Publications