This follows on from the post I wrote last month: Contagions of Madness and Evil. It’s taken longer than expected, the research for this follow up piece has required to be far more extensive than I’d originally anticipated; maybe it was worth it..
Why is it that a bad idea often captures the public imagination so much effectively than a good one? Why does bad news spread faster than good news? Despite most people probably considering themselves to be rational and optimistic, the study of memetics is telling a different story. A story which explains why fads, cults, extremist ideologies, pop culture, fashion trends, conspiracy theories, religions, and genocide, can capture the imagination of a critical mass of society. Ideas that all too often come at the expense of common sense, and basic decency. Simply, memetics looks to tell the story of what promulgates the darker side of the human psyche.
It’s all about memes. And because it’s all about memes it’s very important to understand how I’m referring to the term’meme’. I’m not referring to it solely from the perspective of its modern internet usage of a picture with a trite comment attached, although that is a meme, it’s not helpful when trying to understand the idea of memes as a whole. How I’m defining meme does include those, and looks at why they have the power to infect the minds of so many people, so quickly. But the term “meme” was coined by celebrated British Biologist and celebrity atheist, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins first used
the term in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, in which he puts forward the idea that genes just use human beings, and all of nature itself, as a vehicle for replication, and that DNA only cares about the passing on of genetic information with no regard outside of this goal for the biological host. Because the gene is selfish, Dawkins re-brands it as a meme, the gene has one goal, survival, a goal best achieved by replication with a high degree of fidelity, but not perfect. A differences in the replication allow for potential improvements to be discovered.
In his 1982 book, The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins had refined the definition of meme:
Memes no longer pertain to a selfish gene but units of thought or ideas that persist within a culture, and just like the survival of a gene, a meme also depends largely on replication.
Conditions Necessary for Good Memes
When I say good memes I’m not saying good ideas, or knowledge that will generally benefit a society. A good meme, like a gene, is one that endures, replicates, and infects as many minds as possible, minds willing to incubate and circulate the meme. Memes that are successful at doing this tend will most often appeal to at least one of the four f’s. Memes that can make people angry, scared, help satisfy an appetite for food, and help satisfy an appetite for sex. The four f’s: fighting, fear, food, and f*&#ing, (I’ll leave that to your imagination). Nearly all today’s advertising and television programming appeals to at least one of the four f’s, they’re hard wired and have been the most important factors that have overseen the passing on of our genes, and when an idea appeals to one of the 4 f’s they unduly get our attention.
It helps to look an example of an ineffective meme. This can be observed simply in the children’s game, Chinese whispers. A group of young children sit in a circle and one child whispers a message to the child sitting beside them and the message is passed on until it gets to the initiator, who invariably laughs at the garbled information that has been returned. The meme failed to replicate with enough accuracy. But, this might well be because there weren’t dangerous consequences to getting the meme wrong. Of course this is only speculation, I haven’t tested it, but I’m confident that being in an environment surrounded by jelly and ice cream provides the appearance of a safe environment. In short none of the four f’s are being stimulated no fear, no threat of starvation, a disinclination for fighting, and let’s leave the last one alone. If the children were not fed for two days and were required to accurately pass a message that allowed them to be fed, with a drug fuelled Nicholas Cage as host of the party, I’m willing to bet different results could be achieved.
Inside The Echo Chamber – The Extremism of Memes and Extraordinary Popular Delusions
Radical groups and individuals spreading extreme memes on the internet are gaining credibility by meeting others with the same twisted opinions, and values. Historically such opinions have struggled to gain traction because they’ve failed to achieve the critical mass necessary to influence their environment. Historically this has been because extreme ideas are held by a minority and any like minded people have usually separated by geographical distance, that has prohibited the sharing of the idea . When it comes to communication, the internet is no respecter of spatial dimensions, it facilitates the bringing together of extreme ideologies, spreading ideas that commonly appeal to the credulous, vulnerable, often younger users. The internet then provides the means of reinforcing these ideas through chat rooms that house people that share an almost identical point of view This is the phenomena known as the echo chamber.
Echo chambers are to memes, what a Petri dish is to bacteria. Echo chambers are insular spaces on the internet where only people sharing the same, often extreme, ideas meet and agree with one another thus reinforcing their belief and credibility in what can be a morally bankrupt ideology. No conflicting opinions are allowed and people with such opinions are denied access to the platform. Echo chambers have been blamed as the birth place of fake news, and even starting genocide. Islam has been the focus of such allegations, but in truth the internet has acted as a catalyst for extreme ideas everywhere, until now they’ve been contained by the social norms expected with in each geographical location, however, the growth of the internet is likely to strain societal norms to a point where internet thoughts and behaviors, spill out into traditional, face to face, social interaction. The internet is spreading mind viruses, and very few people are aware of the impact this is having on societies.
Facebook: Friends, Likes, and Genocide
To date the most profound example of a meme being spread by the internet, most likely facilitated through echo chambers, and having tragic consequences occurred in Myanmar, with the genocide of the Rohingya.
Facebook’s reaction to this situation is an admission of how their social network contributed to enabling the genocide through the spread of anti Rohingya memes:
Shortly after this U.N. announcement, in an unconventionally prompt response, Facebook announced it took down a total of 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account, and 52 pages of Myanmar military officials with over 12 million followers. Specifically, Facebook banned 20 individuals and organizations from using the site, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the military’s Myawaddy television network. Facebook also removed 46 pages and 12 accounts for “engaging in coordinated and inauthentic behavior on Facebook,” which Facebook claims were used to spread hate speech and fuel the growing tension.
In my experience, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and 4chan aren’t the social networks they promote themselves to be. They’re platforms that enable people with extreme views to isolate themselves from alternative ideas. To be social is to be inclusive, echo chambers are the opposite of social and they are one of the most unfortunate outcomes of the internet. Echo chambers are being mistaken by the credulous as forums valid for debate and proving political opinions and ideologies, in fact most of the people in an echo chamber are unlikely to have any awareness to the fact, and how that invalidates all the discussions that take place in it.
Pre-Internet Memes – Religion and Nazis
The internet is the Petri dish of memes, but Memes rely on a very specific formula in order for them to be effective at appealing to a critical mass in a society.
Despite being one of history’s most notorious mass murdering megalomaniacs, Hitler was also one of history’s most charismatic orators. In a time when even radio was in its infancy, Hitler persuaded a nation to effectively declare war on the rest of the world. If there was ever a meme, it was Nazism. Hitler even identified this very fact when he said:
Despite Dawkins’ term not being introduced for another forty years, it’s clear that through the symbolism of a flaming spear lighting the audience, Hitler is undeniably talking about a meme. Releasing an idea into culture and watching it catch fire, replicate.
As devastatingly successful a meme that Nazism was, Internet memes differ in that they spread fast and mutate wildly, because of this it’s frightening to consider what Joseph Goebbels would have been able to do with the internet at his disposal.
Without a doubt, religions are mankind’s most prolific memes. They have duplicated through generations, and gone on to have huge impacts on society. The Nazis identified the young as being fundamental in creating momentum for the ideology, and as a result formed the highly effective Hitler Youth. In similar fashion, religions are foisted upon the young before they’ve had the chance to develop reason and objectivity. A child will imitate its parents before it will stop and ask itself, what they’re doing. It’s for this reason that the young are particularly vulnerable to memes. Minds that are yet to develop the filters of scepticism and doubt, and are told to believe in things without proof, through a mechanism called faith, become friendly environments to parasitic, self-replicating ideas or information.
So how serious is the spread of memes over the internet being taken?
That’s a question best left answered by the American military.
The meme is the secret code of human behavior, a Rosetta stone, finally giving us the key to understanding religion, politics, psychology, and cultural evolution. That key, though, also unlocks Pandora’s box, opening up such sophisticated new techniques for mass manipulation that we may soon look on today’s manipulative TV commercials, political speeches and televangelists as fond remembrances of the good old days. -Richard Brodie
in Memetic Warfare: The Future of War, First Lieutenant, Brian J. Hancock talks of how the internet was responsible for the spread of memes that encouraged the radicalisation of many Muslims to martyr themselves for the causes of Al Qaeda or Isis. Isis in particular had a very sophisticated internet presence that effectively communicated their bankrupt ideology to the minds of the vulnerable and credulous. The influence of these websites became clear and were later hacked to include pornographic images that should disgust your average over zealous Muslim, encouraging him to close the website .
Lietenant Hancock goes on to talk of how physical conflict with an insurgency might only kill the insurgent, which often strengthens the ideology/meme. Memetic warfare can be used to deprogram those at risk of becoming radicalised. Targeted memes can get our enemies to think more in line with how we might want them to think. Can’t see anything wrong with that, can you?
At Universities, Memetic Algorithms is a relatively new area of academic study looking at how information spreads across networks, simplified it’s an academic look at why things go “viral”. Unsurprisingly it receives a disproportionate amount of funding owing to the interest of marketing and advertising agencies.
The power of the internet to enable the freedom of expression to any user is what makes Memetics an area of study that is certain to receive inordinate amounts of funding over the next ten years. As the internet spreads to more users and becomes even faster, mankind’s ability to disseminate crackpot ideas that will find a receptive audience will increase at a near exponential rate.
And the greatest meme of them all, the internet itself. At the turn of the millennium, we worried about viruses and malware infecting our hardware, but despite the exponential growth of the internet computer viruses haven’t grown accordingly. Ten, twenty years ago, bored computer-scientists, mathematicians, even teenagers might find it fun programming viruses, or hacking into computers. Like a virus this malevolence has evolved in its complexity. These people aren’t entertained with the idea of messing around with someones hard drive, through the use of memes, today it’s possible to mess with how people think, influence what they believe, and effect the course of democracy itself. Through data harvested from social networks companies like Cambridge Analytica have attempted to hack minds.
And this isn’t science fiction fear mongering, it’s already happened. Cambridge Analytica, Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S Presidential Election, even Kenya claims to have had an election unfairly influenced by the internet. Nearly every democracy on Earth is influenced by a relatively small minority of swing voters. If you can identify those voters and subject them to a strategy of targeted memes, tied to the topics that interest them in the election, you control democracy. The internet gathers all the information and the algorithms search through all this data to identify swing voters, the chat-bots are coordinated to spam these voters with messages carefully by psychologists, to appeal to the appropriate memes. The ancient Greeks and their philosophy of democracy never stood a chance, how could they’ve ever seen this coming?
Some of the great thinkers of our age, with good reason, have taken the time to warn us of the potential dangers Artificial Intelligence poses humanity. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, both warned us of AI turning the tables on mankind, a society in which the people serve the machines. Memetics is the code that programs humans. The internet is the greatest recording of human behaviour ever collected. Need I say more? If you don’t see where this is going by now, for you it’s already too late.