Memes: Killers of ‘Fiction’ and ‘History’

The title of this post may be a little tongue-in-cheek.  But the truth is, memes can carry a fictional story to the point where people believe they are true.  The best example ever came over my Facebook wall not too long ago and I had to share it, if only to make a point I’ve been trying to make for ages.  This video was posted by a friend of mine:

The video is replicated by several users on Youtube, none make clear where these events are taking place.  Many believe this video is a clip of a real event.  And that, if anything, is a testament to the acting and believability of the comedy show Reno 911.  This DUI win is from an episode on that program.  It was written, produced, and directed for entertainment, it was manufactured to gain ratings, and never was it meant to be taken seriously (that is to say, it was not meant to be taken as a true, historical event).  But with the power of memes, this all changed.

In our age of digital technology, we  tend to believe we can spot a fake and are more critical of the things we watch, read, or hear.  It could, after all, be a fabrication by an amateur graphics artist, or a graphics animator, or something else.  But even with all of our cynicism and skepticism, many people fall for even the most obvious fictions.  A simple Google search would reveal that this video was taken from Reno 911.  But so many people believed the event had happened, they wrote Snopes.com about it, who then published this page showing its origins in 2005.  Yet the video is still reposted as a true event today.

This should cause every historian to pause; when examining the function of memes in our culture, in our modern day, we have to be cautious.  But in a world, such as the ancient world, where beliefs in fanciful things are normal, where skepticism wasn’t as common, and where fact-checking was all but irrelevant (or nonexistent), what might that say about the information we have?  What are the implications towards ancient literature, then?  This, of course, has implications on the historical Jesus.

If a figure hadn’t existed in antiquity, and the Gospels were written as fictitious edification or as theological narratives (like Tobit, 1 Enoch, or Judith for example), is it possible or even probable that a small sectarian group might have taken them to be fact?  And given the speed at which word spreads in antiquity, the amount of time it took to travel, the cross-cultural boundaries that these stories passed over or through to reach their destinations, what might that tell us about the function of ‘history’ in the past?  What might that tell us about the value of the New Testament as a historical collection of books about the early church?

Memes can effectively destroy both ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ at the same time by passing off fictional stories as history.  They do so in our own age as often as they did in antiquity; and examples can, of course, be given to no end.  We have plenty of examples, perhaps in the hundreds if not more, of this sort of thing happening all the time.  A story is completely fabricated, for whatever reason (motivation is secondary to this discussion), and in a few years time, it is believed or accepted–if not wholly as true, then partially.  And this is in antiquity, where information traveled at a much slower pace than at which it travels today.

Just some food for thought.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent post Tom. And the dangers you speak of are quite real, to both history and fiction. I wonder if having a disclaimer is even powerful enough to stop memes from emerging into a given cultural lexicon. Take the Da Vinci Code for example. Clearly it’s fiction. But many people talk about it as though it “could have” happened. Even coming out to debunk a meme can lend credibility to it for some.

  2. […] via Memes: Killers of ‘Fiction’ and ‘History’ « The Musings of Thomas Verenna. […]

  3. […] Memes: Killers of ‘Fiction’ and ‘History’ […]

  4. In fact I think that much of Snopes (the entire web site) underscores your wider point. I was going to mention one of my favorite examples of comedy taken to be real but then remembered in the next instant that that one was taken care of on Snopes as well: the ‘proof’ that Harry Potter causes Satanism — from an article in the Onion. Here’s the Snopes link:
    http://www.snopes.com/humor/iftrue/potter.asp

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