Meme warfare: how the masses are influencing the masses

October 2022
 by Max Wrey

Meme warfare: how the masses are influencing the masses

October 2022
 By Max Wrey

British intellectual Richard Dawkins is widely hailed as the first person to attach meaning to memes, describing them as “units of cultural transmission” spread through the diffusion of ideas. But this was back in 1976, a lifetime before the current manifestation of this phenomenon. Nowadays, we don’t have to look far to find these pervasive and cultish images, slogans, and video clips: just look below a popular Twitter thread or dive into Reddit, and you will soon find one.

In today’s online world, memes have found their natural breeding ground. On the internet, they can spread almost instantaneously across large populations, developing new adaptations along the way from each of the subculture groups they take root in. Their ability to disperse and mutate in a decentralised manner mimics that of a virus: their mutations are difficult to predict and the exact science of determining where they will spread remains elusive. In this lies the key challenge – as with a virus, controlling or removing a meme is extremely difficult.

The impact of memes: more than harmless fun

Memes may seem innocuous and insignificant, and often these mildly entertaining graphics, accompanied by often seemingly out-of-context phrases, may not even register. Some cases might trigger a spark of curiosity – what is a sullen cartoon frog doing in US political discussions, and how has the smiley Shiba Inu dog, once elevated by Tesla’s chief, found its way into military fatigues in the context of the war in Ukraine? But our habitual tendency for the downward scroll usually relegates memes to the digital ether before our attention can be captured.  

However, the cumulative effect of memes is more significant. Although it is easy to understand the possible personal damage caused when an individual becomes the subject of a meme, cases of this are rare, and memes are often staged in the first place. Putin’s efforts to expunge a meme of himself as a drag-clad clown, or Xi’s famous ban on Winnie the Pooh might appear to be driven by feelings of digital victimisation, but they could also signify a recognition of the potential for this internet satire to undermine their institutional power.

Cumulatively, memes can distort information, erode our trust in institutions and individuals, fuel support for obscure political groups, and even change the outcome of a conflict through their ability to sow confusion. They are the perfect vehicle for helping the masses influence the masses.

The challenge of monitoring memes

Significant challenges exist when it comes to monitoring and tracking memes. Their decentralised nature makes them highly resistant to suppression, and computer software fails to accurately understand the human psychological responses that they elicit. The significant investment in AI by the likes of Silicon Valley venture capital Sequoia Capital will likely have an impact on the development of meme culture. But while computer-generated never-seen-before images, such as those developed by Open AI’s Dall-E, may bolster our repertoire of meme-ready material, they can also be used to proliferate narratives that reaffirm already held beliefs.

So how can we equip ourselves in the age of the meme? Gaining an understanding of memes and what they represent helps, and the site knowyourmeme.com provides a useful reference for some of the memes in circulation. Maintaining a guarded level of cynicism and dismissiveness may also be prudent. Or, as in the case of my uncle, who is planning for his funeral (when it comes) to be a much more flamboyant affair thanks to the ebullient Ghanaian pallbearers we came to know during the Covid pandemic, we could just take solace in the small cultural contributions that memes can make.

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