“Meme warfare, that is the seeding and strategic manipulation of viral digital content to influence thought and behaviour, has become a legitimate tool for achieving both domestic and foreign policy objectives.”
Jim Morrison once said, ‘Whoever controls the media, controls the mind’. Today, the media that moves our minds and markets is increasingly digital, and contagious.
Viral memes, in particular, are emerging as a new source of both wealth and power.
The rapid rise of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), and their values, have cemented the financial power of the meme economy. The rights to ‘Nyan Cat’, a famous early-internet meme, for example, recently sold for 300 Ether (or the equivalent, at the time, of around $590 000).
However, the political power of memes is even greater than their financial influence. From the days of Edward Bernays and his book Propaganda, governments have understood how public opinion can be managed through control of the medium and the message to achieve political ends. Today’s governments have simply extended that logic into our medium de jour: memes.
On the foreign policy front, since the Cold War, both the US and the former USSR are no strangers to using the dark art of maskirovska, or military deception, to sow mis- and disinformation in each other’s territories. In this light, meme warfare can simply be seen as a new tactic in an old strategy to demoralise or deceive one’s ideological enemies in order to gain geopolitical advantage. Russia’s Internet Research Agency, for example, was accused of using ‘troll farms’ and ‘sock puppet accounts’ to spread pro-Trump and anti-Clinton content across various internet platforms and forums in an attempt to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 US election.
Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party is known to have officially endorsed several groups of pro-party, anti-West ‘meme warriors’, including the so-called diba (’fangirls’) who create and distribute cute pro-CCP viral content across the web. According to a Harvard paper, the Chinese government itself has around two million social media content creators on its payroll, collectively producing more than 448 million social media posts a year.
Meanwhile, the 77th Brigade is an official branch of the British military established in 2015 with the explicit mission to provide support to other government departments in the aim to achieve stability overseas, lead on special influence methods, and build military capacity in all stages of conflict.
Part of taking that ‘lead on special influence methods’ is engaging in information warfare on foreign and domestic fronts. To do this, the army offers a special course in what it calls Defence Media Operations to train recruits, many of whom were enlisted from civilian backgrounds in marketing, graphic design, social media, behavioural economics, and data analytics. Soldiers in the 77th Brigade use their skills in understanding audiences, and how to manipulate them, to change views and behaviour according to the aims of Her Majesty’s government. Missions may include creating video and graphic content to change public sentiment around a controversial military operation, or participating in web forums in order to ‘neutralise’ the damage caused by antagonistic sock puppet accounts spreading misinformation.
Of course as with any warfare, defence is as important as offence.
Which is why, in the days of deep fakes, it should come as no surprise that the New York Times has recommended that the Biden administration consider appointing a ‘Reality Czar’ to protect the American public from the threat of being manipulated by meme terrorist attacks. While this sort of ‘ministry of truth’ scheme is unlikely to be compatible with democracy, it is clear we need to find some way to vaccinate ourselves and our societies against contagious pathological memes.