How the information warfare destroys our freedom and democracy
Not so long ago, the US analyst Jeff Giesea demanded that the NATO should better prepare for a new, disruptive type of information space battle: memetic warfare. Sadly his wish remained a lonely cry into the darkness. It was 2015. Memetics was at that time used by the Islamic State in his invasion of the digital space.
It took less than five years, and the world was in its most serious information crisis since the invention of the printing press. Digital swarms of manipulated information have an incredible effect on triggering our destructive behavior. Right now, as I write these lines, millions of people around the world are rejecting vaccines under their influence and prolonging the duration of our current apocalypse. There is one super-adaptable virus at the visible end of this crisis. And at the other end of the rope, a hitherto unknown unit pulls psychological information similar to a virus or gene. It’s called a meme.
The offensive power of memes
The meme is buzzword of 2021! No one knows exactly what it is, but everyone can see what that thing on the net can do. Perhaps the most accurate definition comes from a study (February of this year, Schlaile, Veit, Boudry) prepared at the University of Sydney. It explains memes as interconnected units of cultural information structure containing instructions (I would rather say “nudges”). This information can be socially transmitted, recombined, and mutated.
Precisely because the authors looked at memes not through a purely cultural prism, (they used culturally-economic-informational perspective), they could reveal the meme’s quiet offensive power. The authors compared memes to genes, implying they should be viewed as guidance for further action. Memes are of particular importance for influencing the economic and cultural behavior of society, which is why they have not escaped the attention of fringe war strategists.
The aforementioned Jeff Giesea, otherwise the author of It’s time to embrace memetic warfare (2015), encouraged NATO states to take completely different approach to cyberspace defense than the outdated definition of strategic communication. He tried to explain that social media channels and their algorithms had taken over the information space, and that a whole new language and a new conceptual approach to the spread of so-called memetic attacks needed to be defined within this structure. Memetic warfare, he argued, is now too eccentric for classical defense structures. I’m afraid he was right.
And it is a symptomatic tragedy of our time that we are not able to recognize visionary talents timely. Our slow thinking and acting have led to their exploitation by the enemy. Jeff Giesea ended up as one of the strategists of memeboard groups in the Trump campaign team.
What is meme
Speaking of memes, the less knowledgeable folks maybe recall cartoons that have a funny or offensive touch , and their strong emotional charge combined with the contained tribal cultural trait (for example, “catchphrases” from movies) causes viral spread and a sense of satisfaction from belonging to a shared culture. But that’s just the more popular, fun form of meme. Its base unit can be much smaller and more inconspicuous.
Fragments of children’s songs and rhymings, proverbs, humane snippies of biblical statements (which nowadays make every pagan or esoteric fan feel like a defender of Christian culture), intercession articulating some strong aggressive emotion, memes inducing conditional programmable fear, memes of ridicule, photographs, emoticons, even a specific colour of the singers’ voice that seemed to indicate a well-known slightly squeaky sexual sigh, all of this can be a meme. The meme is that little ball of Goose grass that sticks to your pants. You bring it home, and you can’t get it out of your dog’s fur, your clothes, or hair for a long time. It’s going to crawl everywhere, and it’s like it’s coming from everywhere. This is how meme is replicating.
Jeff Giesea classified memes as predictive, defensive, and offensive in terms of military strategy. This division can no longer be sufficient for us today. We must already see the world of memetics as a complex organism.
The destruction potential
The more knowledgeable readers recall Richard Dawkins’ theory from his book Selfish Meme (1976). What Dawkins meant to say is that in addition to classic memes that replicate our culture, stick in children’s heads and program our social behavior, there are also absurd, parasitic memes that seem to have no interest in serving the human who created them.
So Dawkins began to talk about a “selfish meme” whose only interest is to replicate as much as possible and survive as long as possible. He suggested using meme’s eye view perspective for this type of information to better study these memes gone rogue. The meme thus seems to gain some kind of independence and it is therefore better understood in its destructive influence.
For me, Human is the only meme maker given what a meme is and what it serves. We simply can’t afford to observe everything from the position of a “third party.”
The fact that we do not understand why some memes behave so destructively, even with the potential to kill (induce wars or making us refuse vaccines), needs either a theologian or a specialist in artificial intelligence and mathematics. The memetic world follows the complexity of the human species as a whole and does not reflect the interests of individuals, the perspective of the bee swarm is more on place here.
It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the ”sovereign self” is such a memetically popular stuff. The liberal extremists and far-right cultures are programming Antivaxxers and supporters of low or no taxes with the sovereign self. The real task of this meme is to stop the cooperation and cohesion of human communities.
Among the admirers of sovereign citizens we find today’s some important Silicon Valley leaders, whose atypical culture is responsible for aggressive monetary algorithmizing of our information space. They love this approach. It separates us from the responsibility for our actions, for our surroundings, environments and proclaims Darwinian benefit as the only meaningful goal of life.
In the midst of a memetic war
Humanity is and remains the main memetic demiurge and must not renounce responsibility for the communication space. This would automatically renounce the possibility of defending against sophisticated memetic warfare and reject the complex memetic detection and defense systems. Meme is our product, so it´s our job to recognize, categorize and control it.
Why? Because memes had always been used for war. According to a University of Chicago study, majority of participants taking action in the capitol on January 6 this year, was under the influence of the so-called replacing meme. Europeans certainly don’t have to dig twice in memory of the last time they heard slogans like “Jews will not replace us! “
Americans heard this echo in the American far-right marches in Charlottesville. Yes, in that town where a young white terrorist drove his car into a crowd of people. Replacing meme is one of the oldest and deepest memes. Echo of fear of expulsion, replacement, is universal and deeply anchored in our old brain. It doesn’t have to be just Jews, but the irony is that, as a strong cultural rule, Jews mostly end up as next target.
By signaling the replacing meme, the troop triggers the collective behavior of territorial defense and aggression. It contains a strong “nudge” for action, and within the framework of the “higher morality” in territorial defense it contains the imaginary absolution to the use of violence. It is remarkable how this Neolithic feature began to wear a Christian robe, now blinking seductively at the American evangelicals .
In Europe, we know well the meme “Those up there are just taking advantage of us”, which was so masterfully instrumental for all dictators to climb up on the backs of the frustrated, from where they will kick downwards. Today, it is being used by psychological operations aimed at mass rejection of vaccines.
Fueled in part by political-financial circles (Russia, China, oligarchs) as well as by a billion-dollar market for vitamin and herbal supplements, this anti-vaccination movement has the potential to destruct not only people’s lives, but also state budgets, sTATE bonds and currencies. Social networks provide memetic parasites with everything they need to reproduce, and buyers of these parasitic meme campaigns pay a lot and protect social media owners and investors from complicity. In doing so, they use another effective meme, the content of which is continuously abused: Freedom of expression.
Memes that have the potential to kill and subvert the cohesion of society are considered war memes. Their basic feature is that they contain instant absolution to break the taboo. They push people to feel authorized to break norms by inducing ghosts of the past. Not just “replacing memes,” but millions of others can do that. Make America Great Again — this is a highly prolific and toxic meme.
Even Russia has its cultural memes, old and new. “Behind us is Moscow” is a meme justifying absolutely anything. An adored meme in the post-soviet space is the word sovereignity, because it means rejection of cohesion and cooperation. The meme of sovereignty is a dignified hack of the original meaning of the word selfishness and follows the concept of “sovereign self”. It looks noble. Again — instant absolution included.
Not so long ago, the term “memetic stock” appeared, i.e. the value of the share completely independent of the performance of the company (both in the case Robinhood and the value of Bitcoin, for example). The value here is created by a psychological nudge distributed at scale in an information environment, not by the real position of a currency or company. We can perhaps rightly argue that the old consensus on the value of economic entities was also psychologically motivated, and frantic stock market purchases, including panic, mirrored the human psyche. But the thing is that slowly emerging systems are gradually finding and anchoring value regulators, i.e. rules that benefit everyone. Disruptive systems don’t look to the benefit of the majority. They simply enter and break everything.
This new type of economic behavior, based on a mass, tribal , emotional shortcut, is something new that can transform traditional markets from a rational balance (yes, of course, not always moral) to mass insanity like the fan frenzy at Wembley.
No civilization without reading?
We are a civilization of supreme literacy. Oh wait… We were. Gutenberg would be surprised how, since his invention, we went through a huge arc of communication from the first Bibles and the first disagreement with the interpretation that eventually resulted in bloody religious wars. At the top of this arc is the dominant state of our Western civilization — the United States of America. If you forget the Soviet propaganda (all Americans are fat, stupid, and insanely aggressive) and European resistance to shallow forms of modern American culture, you will see what this state was built on.
It was created as a refuge for the poor and persecuted , but for ambitious ones. At a time when reading was still a kind of privileged skill in Europe, all the poor, smart-headed people were fleeing to America. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his work Democracy in America (1835), newcomers were socially accepted in material need, but it was completely unacceptable to be illiterate. America was founded as a pioneer of literary democracy. And it is remarkable, therefore, that literary civilization has been hit hardest by the digital memetic warfare right in America.
New visual media, photography, film, television, and then fully visualized social networks revolutionized communication as Johannes Gutenberg once did. Our head seems to have returned to the pre-Gutenberg centuries, when images and sounds dominated our brain for thousands of years. It is on this diet that the largest and strongest parts of our brain and communication apparatus have evolved. It’s starting to dry up again. Unfortunately, the superstructure that ensured our civilization’s scientific dominance — the ability of logic, reasoning, mathematical thinking, a sense of proof weight, the recognition of fallacies, false and manipulative figures in speech, but also simple education — began to leave with it.
It is this disappearing “simple education”, capable of comparing past apocalypses with the present, that is why we have not noticed the sneaky danger of creeping digital fascism before. We’re drowning in memetic attacks by professional marketers who didn’t say no to the devil. They have complex digital analytical tools that tell them who we are and what we’re afraid of. It’s us who leave data behind on the network and we are perfectly fine with to reveal every single secret of ours. From this data, a strategy is created, the aim of which is the method of all dictators: Scare and save!
And we have still no idea. We are just lamenting helplessly how bad and stupid our neighbors are. No idea that the level of information and cooperation can be deliberately infected and destroyed. Moreover, we can’t imagine the role of artificial intelligence in the analysis and distribution, compared to which we play only the second violin in the orchestra.
Mobilize intellectual capacities !
It is no coincidence that the effectiveness of cultural trends in relation to memetics was examined by the leading American propagandist Steve Bannon during his time at Cambridge Analytica. (I wrote a political thriller about Bannon, Feeding the Demons, released in 2020). Those who deliberately injected wartime memetics into our communications space, using the blessings of new specially modified algorithms, are the architects of this innovative war. They have everything you need for mass brainwashing. Money, communication structure, incredibly sophisticated know-how and a very very dark intention.
Before we start repeating the lament about stupid civilization and neighbors, we’d better mobilize our best intellectual capabilities to defend it. We are losing because our democratic institutions were not prepared for private information warfare and a perception on demand. But it’s within our power to defend ourselves. We need the best minds, we need an unorthodox, sometimes untested approach. We need, as in a state of war, a special regime to defend our institutions from the controlled “destruction of reality.” And we need it fast. Our institutions (Giesea was right about that) are as slow as the great Persian ships in the battle of Salamis.
Alexandra Alvaro is a columnist and author of books on the information warfare Industry of Lies (2017) and Feeding the Demons (2020), devoted to communication, media theory and propaganda research. She lives in Vancouver, BC.