Image Macros. Doge memes. Deep fried memes. Loss. Copypastas. Even the rage comics of old. These are some of the things that come to mind when people hear the word “meme.” But what you probably don’t think of are words like espionage, propaganda, and psychological warfare.
No, no, we’re not here to tell you that all memes are actually tools of malicious governments and secretive political groups – but that doesn’t mean none of them are. We’re talking about weapons-grade memes here – and how sinister groups can use seemingly innocent internet jokes to achieve their own less-than-innocent goals.
What’s an internet meme?
An internet meme, in the most basic sense, is some kind of media that’s repeated, modified, and spread across the internet. It’s not unlike a virus in some ways – it’s highly infectious, resistant to traditional methods of information suppression due to its decentralized nature, and most dangerously of all, they’re prone to mutations.
The actual meaning of a meme can alter and become more pernicious over time, as it spreads through different users and forms new iterations with each repetition. The transformation of Pepe the Frog from an innocuous reaction to a racist mascot is a good example.
When you put it like this, it suddenly becomes extremely clear why the simple meme can be an incredibly attractive weapon of psychological warfare.
Are memes an overrated threat?
You might ask, “Isn’t this all an overblown threat?” After all, how could a meme ever really pose a threat to something as powerful as a national government? Perhaps it’d be best to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Both of these powerful world leaders earned some mockery on the world stage for banning certain memes – for Putin, it was memes depicting him as a so-called “gay clown”, and for Xi, it was a popular Chinese meme trend of comparing him to cartoon character Winnie The Pooh.
Of course, at face value, this seems like a silly exercise in ego.
Why go through all this trouble if you didn’t believe that memes could be a credible threat?
A meme, if weaponized correctly, can undermine a government, shift the tenor of an election, help in the formation of fringe political groups, and more. Memetic warfare is seen by NATO’s Stratcom COE Defense Strategic Communications journal as a form of “information operations” – a branch of warfare largely concerned with the collection of enemy information, and the dissemination of misinformation in a manner that can control the overall narrative of a conflict or sow confusion.
Experts credit memes as having an outsized influence in the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, and the rise of powerful right-wing movements across the Western World.
Memes have been compared by some experts to forms of guerrilla warfare, and the improvised explosive devices typically used by terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda operating in the Middle East.
This is because, like those tactics, memetic warfare often favors the little guy in an asymmetric combat scenario – meaning a conflict wherein one combatant is significantly larger or more conventionally powerful than the other. How?
Well, like everything with internet memes, it all comes down to public perception. The cornerstones of internet comedy are parody, satire, surrealism, and often straight-up mockery. It’s an inherently anti-establishment form of information dissemination.
For meme to go viral they have to be organic
For a meme to really catch on, and thus, work as an effective weapon, it needs to appear organic. Memes that seem “forced”, such as memes used by large corporate entities for advertising purposes – like some toe-curlingly cringeworthy old Wendy’s commercials – or by authority figures, like the NYPD’s “My NYPD hashtag”, will almost assuredly fall flat.
That’s why memes are perfect weapons for the underdog or the outsider, for better or worse. This counter-culture, anti-establishment sentiment can propel a rebellious meme into internet stardom.
Though it’s worth noting that a larger entity can still be a formidable force of memetic warfare, it’s just fighting a more uphill battle – unless they get their teenage nephew to do it for them. Unlike many forms of creativity, a key element of memes is anonymity and a lack of clear authorship.
Like the Guy Fawkes mask from the Alan Moore comic V for Vendetta – which is, in and of itself, a meme, thanks to the hacktivist group Anonymous – it allows its creator or creators to be both everyone and no one. As we mentioned earlier, a meme is inherently decentralized, rather than monopolized, like most other creative mediums.
Much like radicalized members of political insurgency groups in the real world, you never know where the memes are coming from, and that’s one of their greatest strengths. It makes them far, far harder to intercept than a traditional propaganda campaign.
A look at the history of memes
Before we proceed into the present and future of meme warfare, we need to take a trip into meme history. The term was first coined by popular evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame.
He first coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, deriving it from the ancient Greek word mimeme, which roughly translates into “something imitated”, and the English word gene.
According to Dawkins, memes are to culture what genetics are to living things – as natural selection culls all but the most evolved genes, culture is composed of the most evolved memes. Memes are essentially perfectly distilled units of culture.
To bring this back to our more militarized context: He who controls the strongest memes controls culture itself. While Dawkins probably wasn’t envisioning LOL cats and Baby Yoda when he first came up with this theory, the logic undeniably tracks.
The other prophet of the meme wars to come was actually a science fiction role playing game from 2002 called Transhuman Space. Set in the far-off world of 2100, the game predicts a grim future wherein “memetic warfare agents” are a common fixture of modern combat. This trend happened to come about around 85 years earlier than the game expected.
As some of the second wave of internet memes came into prominence in the early to mid-2000s, academic research into the concept of memetic warfare began to intensify. With the internet catching on like wildfire, a future full of weaponized memes felt less like a far-out science fiction fantasy and more like a looming reality.
In 2005, Michael Prosser, a member of the US Marine Corps, published a paper entitled “Memetics: A Growth Industry in US Military operations”, and even proposed the founding of a Meme Warfare Centre. A year later, Dr. Robert Finkelstein, the founder of Robotic Technology Incorporated, was paid to conduct a four-year study into military memetics by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA.
Examples of powerful memes
One of the first popular examples of a politically powerful meme in the US occurred during the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and the late John McCain. During an interview about foreign policy, McCain had made the bizarre gaffe of singing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” This was seized by grassroots meme-makers at the time, and used to make a fool of McCain, while elevating the prestige of Obama as a more mature and charismatic statesman.
It was on this public perception that Obama won that election, and the one following it, against Republican Mitt Romney.
However, such basic memetic warfare feels like child’s play compared to the methods practiced, refined, and utilized during the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
This contentious election arguably put memetic warfare on the map, with some commentators saying that President Trump was “memed into the white house.” This raises an interesting question: While most internet memes appear organic and spontaneous, how can a person or group intentionally create and coordinate the spread of memes to achieve their political goals? Is it even possible to do such a thing on purpose in the endlessly chaotic world of the internet?
The influence of memes in 2016 US elections
The simple answer is: Yes, but it’ll take a lot of hard work. The complicated answer is that doing so takes a huge group of like-minded individuals working domestically and internationally to pull it off.
There’s considerable evidence that the Russian government, who saw Donald Trump as a more favorable candidate for their global interests, put their finger on the American electoral scales through the use of political memes.
These were created and disseminated by bot farms – meaning organizations that run huge numbers of fake accounts on various social media platforms – like the so-called Internet Research Agency.
To the untrained eye, the legitimate accounts were indistinguishable from the bots. The result? A general sense of division and mistrust was spread among the online population. The effects of this campaign on the psyche of the internet have been massive – compared by some to a modern Red Scare.
These days, accusing others of secretly being a Russian bot is a common piece of online political rhetoric. And thanks to the use of memetic warfare, this effect was achieved with relative ease compared to a more traditional propaganda or psychological warfare operation.
But, as we said earlier, the international meme warfare was only a portion of the overall pro-Trump meme offensive. While the Russian bots undeniably helped redirect the conversation, the real memetic warfare innovation was born on 4chan’s /pol/ board and the subreddit r/The_Donald.
These were two domestic hubs of meme creation that acted as research and development laboratories – they would discuss, develop, and experiment with various memes and slogans which they would then disseminate across the internet.
Through their tactical employment of the right memes, they could AstroTurf Trump support across the web – meaning they could inflate the public perception of the grass-roots support for their positions.
They also took advantage of how memes interact with the online and traditional media ecosystems in order to spread their messages further. For example, one meme campaign conducted by these groups was known as the #DraftMyDaughter or #DraftMyWife campaign.
Reddit and 4chan users would take internet users’ private photos and manipulate them to look like official advertising from the Clinton Campaign – insinuating that Hillary Clinton planned to draft women into the military.
While this is an exaggeration, it wasn’t technically entirely wrong, as Clinton had spoken on behalf of a bill that did contain a similar provision earlier that year. This is when the dark genius of this particular meme offensive began to set in. The dissemination of anti-Clinton material in the guise of pro-Clinton images is, in itself, newsworthy. Outlets would cover this phenomenon and thus spread the memes further.
Even if articles were made to explicitly condemn such a practice, they would be forced into admitting the element of truth at the core of the meme – literally forcing their opponents to disseminate their talking points.
This phenomenon in turn would then be covered by larger outlets, and so the cycle continues, benefitting the meme makers throughout.
This variety of guerrilla amplification is known as “trading up the chain”, a term coined by the author, marketing guru, and former self-proclaimed “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday.
Continued growth of meme warfare
Post-2016, the profile of memetic warfare continued to grow across the globe. Memetic warfare was part of the India-Pakistan conflict, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and a method of raising the online clout of various alt-right figures in the US and Europe. One such figure is former Peter Thiel employee Jeff Giesea, a well-known alt-right organizer with ties to the Trump administration.
He was one of the authors of a 2015 NATO paper entitled “It’s Time To Embrace Memetic Warfare.” Time has only gone on to vindicate Giesea’s perspective here, as memetic warfare is on a trajectory to become as common a part of the war as the fifteen-round sidearm and the hand grenade.
Much like the nuclear arms race of the 20th century, the speed of memetic warfare’s advancement shows no signs of stopping. Social media has already become a new battleground in domestic and international information operations, and as more countries and insurgency groups get wise to this, it’s only going to get worse.
New memes are being born, rising up, and fading into obscurity every hour of every day – so there’s no way of telling who’s behind all of them. So, next time you’re browsing Reddit or Twitter or even Facebook, checking out all the latest memes, it’s perhaps worth asking yourself what exactly you’re looking at: A goofy internet joke or the world’s newest and most effective weapon of information warfare?
Featured Image: When you realize it’s Monday, by PantheraLeo1359531, licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons