Friday, November 25, 2016

Mind War: Part Nine -- Memetic Reverse-Engineering and Self-Innoculation

This post ties directly to the very first post in this series (side note, if you want to catch up on any of my series, the Index is the place to go). I ended that article with only a brief mention of memetic engineering -- the act of deliberately crafting memes and releasing them into a culture. Since then I've learned more and believe that in our current climate understanding how memes are crafted is of even greater importance than ever before.

I'm of the opinion that memes exist naturally as a function of society and communication. These natural memes are the common ideas, beliefs, and assumptions that a society has. A meme is transferable (can be shared with others), has a certain lifespan, and has some kind of effect on the thinking and/or behavior of the parties sharing the meme.

Memes can clump up into more complex forms. These are known as meme-complexes (or memeplexes among those who study this topic and who seem to really like catchy terminology). So how we act, what we think is right, and what we do not tolerate can become a unit -- a morality. If it then attaches to "what we believe" you have a religion. Note that these memes are value neutral. They can strengthen or weaken society or help or harm its members. And the clumping mechanism is also organic to the society. So ideas about children or marriage or death are shared individually and then connect to one another in the mind and begin to be shared together. 

But not all memes evolve naturally. Some are specifically engineered with a goal in mind and created for a target audience. Advertising/marketing and propaganda are the most common sources. In fact, these two enterprises have been tightly intertwined since WWII. The primary difference is that marketing has a financial goal while propaganda has a political one. Public service communications are a more benign source (I dare you do watch this wonderful little thing and not have it stuck in your brain forever). Originally, marketing and propaganda created memes by accident, as part of their larger work (mis)informing and persuading. But it was only a matter of time before memetics itself would be weaponized (oh please, don't act so surprised). 

So organizations of possibly questionable intent are creating memes and memeplexes with the goal of impacting the way that YOU think and act. In order to deal with these, you need to understand them. So lets do some reverse-memengineering (yes, I'm a memeticist! catchy terminology confers credibility).

Memetic Reverse-Engineering
The following is an amalgamation from these sources plus some of my own ideas:
Asher describes the parts of a meme as: anchor, carrier, payload. Hofstadter used the terms hook and bait. Tyler adds the concepts of threat and vacime (told you, catchy terminology). There are other, even more complex, classification systems as well (this is clearly a THING). My focus is on how you can pull the meme apart to find its component parts so I wanted to keep it simple and useful, rather than overly academic and I wanted to particularly highlight the overt message rather than the hidden one (which is a common feature of weaponized memes) which I call the package and the payload.
  • Bait / Anchor: This is what gets you onboard with the meme. It's the entrance point into your brain. This is often the most surface element of the meme (the image, headline, the catchphrase, the jingle). When you see a link to "25 celebrities who ruined their looks" or "this one strange trick can cure cancer" -- that's the bait (hence click bait).

    This is also what gets the meme to stick over time. It anchors the message into your thoughts and allows the meme to infect you long term so you can keep sharing it. Common anchors include common sense (everyone knows that), the ever-popular confirmation bias, logic/faulty logic (A seems like B and A is true, therefore B is true), and "lies, damned lies, and statistics." These baits and anchors can be accurate or inaccurate and are often specifically targeted to a certain demographic.

  • Hook / Carrier / Threat: This what keeps the meme moving. It's the incentive to share and mechanism for sharing. It can be overt (forward this 10 times and you will receive blessings) or subtle (check out this funny video so you will think I'm cool). It can be a carrot -- ostensibly helping others (this information could save your child's life) or making you feel good (virtue signaling). It can also be a stick (share now before it's too late). The Internet comes with built in carrier mechanisms (like, share, repost). Catchphrases or jingles -- which literally have a hook ("dumb ways to di-i-i...") also encourage sharing. 
For the love of God, shaaaaaareeeee meeeeee!
  • Package / Payload: This is the core of the meme -- the idea meant to change how you think and act or what you believe. The distinction of a package versus payload may be my contribution to memetic engineering (since I've not yet found another source that references this). While organic memes will often have a straightforward payload (we don't discuss controversial issues at a funeral because it's disrespectful both to the dead and their family), engineered memes will frequently have both an overt message (the package) and a hidden one (the payload). An obvious example of this is advertising. In the ad below, the package is "you want a new expensive car." However the payload, which is part of the globe's most widespread memeplex is "buying things will make you happy and fulfilled."
Huh huh, they said piece...

An Exercise in Memetic Reverse-Engineering (play along at home)

Exhibit A:

Bait / Anchor: Use of "crooked Hillary" catchphrase in an ironic way. Lies damned lies and statistics. Confirmation bias.

Hook / Carrier: Social media share fodder (like this, repost this, share this). Seem politically aware and informed (look at all those numbers).

Package / Payload:
Overt message -- Trump is bad, Hillary is good
Subtle message -- the most important thing is not getting caught

Exhibit B

Bait / Anchor: Eye-catching face. Everyone knows this. More confirmation bias.

Hook / Carrier: Social media share fodder (like this, repost this, share this). Seem rebellious and anti-establishment.

Package / Payload:
Overt message -- Hillary is bad, her supporters are bad
Subtle message -- Hillary supporters don't care about her baggage, maybe you (Trump supporters) shouldn't care about his -- AKA the all's fare in love and war rationale

Exhibit C

Bait / Anchor: Popular symbol (the safety pin, which ironically is only popular because of other memes). Declarative and easy to repeat catchphrase (two of them in fact).

Hook / Carrier: Social media share fodder (like this, repost this, share this). Virtue signaling (I'm so awesome).

Package / Payload:
Overt message -- I am not a racist
Subtle message -- Minorities need protection from the dominant culture. This protection is useless and shallow (what are you going to do, poke the alt-right with your pin?).

Exhibit D -- bonus round

The examples above are the simple image memes that run rampant on the Internet. This next one is much more complex and professional. I received the following in email (text in blue) and it's an excellent example of the nuanced, weaponized memeplex. See if you can reverse engineer the component parts:

Subject: The incredible law that can still stop Trump

Avaaz is an organization that helps make positive changes around the globe. Please help by  in signing this petition and sending it to your contacts.

Hillary won more votes than Trump, and still lost. But the genius popular vote plan could still stop Trump from becoming president -- but we have to act fast. Click to sign this urgent petition with just one click and share with everyone you know: 

Dear friends,

More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump! That’s right, Clinton won the popular vote, but the electoral college system will silence the people’s voice. But there’s an incredible Hail Mary plan that could still stop Trump -- if we act really fast! 

The Popular Vote Plan is genius. It’s legislation that would guarantee the candidate who receives the most popular votes is elected, and it only needs the support of enough states to equal 270 electoral votes to pass. 10 states are on board, and 4 have pending legislation, so it’s already 3/4 of the way there! 

The electoral college meets in a few weeks to decide our next president -- and if we can create enormous national pressure on the few holdout states to adopt the plan before it's too late, we can still stop Trump from becoming the next president. Let's make this massive! Click below to sign this urgent petition with just one click and share with everyone you know: 

Sign this urgent petition to stop Trump now

To state lawmakers in Oregon, Connecticut, New Mexico and across America:
As citizens deeply concerned that the presidential candidate with the support of the majority of American voters will not become president, we urge you to pass the National Popular Vote bill immediately before the electoral college meets on December 19. The voice of most Americans should not be silenced. It’s time to make sure that every vote, in every state, matters in every presidential election.
Sign this urgent petition with one click now 

The electoral college system is a disaster for our democracy. It forces presidential candidates to focus all their energy on a small fraction of their voters -- leading to crazy policies like the enormous agricultural subsidies designed to appease farmers in the electorally-important state of Iowa -- and it leaves 75% of voters without a voice in who runs our country. 

To officially get rid of the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment. But what’s so brilliant about the Popular Vote Plan is that it doesn’t need a change to the constitution, it just needs the consensus of enough states. Here’s how it would work: states pass legislation saying they will give all their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote, and, when there are enough states to represent 270 electoral votes, the legislation becomes binding. In 2004, Bush became president in the exact same way Trump is set to. Right after the election, there was huge outrage over the electoral college -- but then our attention moved on. This time, we must seize the moment and do everything we can to stop Trump from becoming president. 

Click to sign the urgent petition to stop Trump

Democracy is at the core of Avaazers' DNA. We come together around the idea that the world we want is a dream shared by most people everywhere -- not just the vision of the few. This is a chance to take a step towards that vision despite the darkness of the last few days, and to put our country on the path to a better future. 

With hope, 
Oliver, Nell, Allison, Andrew, Emma and the whole Avaaz team 

More information 

National Popular Vote 

Here's the best chance America has to revamp the Electoral College (Daily Dot) 

The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists (Time)

This is a masterpiece of memetic engineering and, while I know it's long, I think it's worth dissecting in full. Here are a couple of hints to help you on your way:

Bait / Anchor: Classic click bait subject line, use of terms like Genius, positive changes, etc. Facts, links, etc.

Hook / Carrier: This makes extensive use of both overt and covert appeals to share. I counted 19 overt appeals (many linked into strong action sentences). And how is sharing this supposed to make you feel? Intelligent, informed, sophisticated, activist?

Package / Payload:
Overt message -- The overt message is as obvious and in your face as any online sales letter. Defeat Trump, change the law.

Subtle message -- Here's where things get interesting. The more blunt the overt message, the more hidden the subtle one often is. Does it help to know that Avaaz was cofounded by (our friend Mr. Soros is a major funder) and Res Publica (John Podesta sits on its board)?

Is this about getting the candidate you want when you want it? Or is this about teaching the lesson that democracy -- itself a well-crafted meme with sacred status in our country -- is whatever you can twist the law to make it mean? Is it asking us to question our founding fathers (heresy akin to arguing abortion rights at a funeral) and for what end?

The Point to All of This

Historians may look back and call our current age the age of memes. Of course, the tools of sales and marketing (which work) have long been co-opted beyond their stated purpose by political and state actors. But at this point manipulation of information is at its height and it's becoming increasingly challenging to discern what's accurate, true, useful, or harmful. I believe that identifying truth may be out of our hands at this point (in war, truth is the first casualty), but if we can identify the seeds of manipulation we can avoid the worst weapons in the mind war.

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