Memes Are For Tricksters: The Biology of Disinformation

by R.U. Sirius

An interview with Douglas Rushkoff, David Pescovitz & Jake Dunagan

Back in 1990, when MONDO 2000 magazine promised Screaming Memes on its cover, it was more or less a secret argot winking at our technohip Mondoid readers. I mean, sure there was that Dawkins book in which he invented the concept, but it seemed to be a bunch of playful, subversive freaks who were using them to blow open some heads (and maybe sell a few magazines). 

We’ve come a long way baby. Now, the world appears to be defined by memetic warfare and the damage done is real world crisis and horror.

A recent paper by Douglas Rushkoff, David Pescovitz and Jake Dunagan written for the Institute for the Future titled The Biology of Disinformation: memes, media viruses and cultural inoculation describes the contemporary condition and suggests ways to combat this bad operation mindfuck.  

Read The Biology of Disinformation

David Pescovitz and Jake Dunagan are both research directors at Institute for the Future and Rushkoff is a research fellow.  MONDOids are, of course, familiar with Pescovitz as one of the founding members of Boing Boing and Rushkoff as the author of many books including the highly relevant Media Virus, from 1994.

We chatted using Slack…

thanks to Satori D for his assistance and participation

R.U. Sirius: In a sense, you’re offering a different model than the one most of us usually think in, as regards memetics. Instead of fighting bad memes with good, or their memes with ours, are you suggesting that we look at memes themselves as viruses attacking us? Is that right?

Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, that’s the simplest way of looking at it. That’s why I called memes in media “media viruses.” Even if they end up forcing important ideas into the cultural conversation, and even if they ultimately lead to good things, they do infect us from the outside. They attack our weak code, and continue to replicate until we repair it, or until we come to recognize the “shell” of the virus itself.

I think what makes our analysis unique, compared with a lot of what’s out there, is that we’re not proposing yet another technosolutionist fix. Mark Zuckerberg wants to fight fake news with artificial intelligence. Great. He’s already over his head in a media environment he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know why his platform has led to so many unintended effects. So what’s his solution? Build yet another technology he understands even less to solve the problem with yet another black box.

Even those with the best intentions see all this as a technological problem, when it’s really more a cultural or biological one. The difference in our approach is that we still have faith in the human organism and human society to rise to the occasion and increase their resiliency. So we’re writing for people, not tech companies.

David Pescovitz 

David Pescovitz: I’m also interested in how our networked media environment has evolved to allow this nastiness to occur and, in fact, reward it. During the early days of Twitter and Facebook it was exciting that people were using the platforms to share ideas and “find the others.” But I was also annoyed and later alarmed by the rise in narcissism, emphasis on “personal brands,” and mob mentality. Maybe those people were always like that and social media just amplified those traits. Either way, to me it quickly felt like antisocial media.

Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that the only real way to fix our social media experiences is by fixing ourselves. This is true when it comes to how we interact with other people online but also our own vulnerability to propaganda, disinformation, and coercion. Of course reconnecting with our own humanity is much harder than just giving in to the algorithmically addictive dopamine rush of another retweet or “like.”

Jake Dunagan: There was an old Zuck who swallowed a virus, I don’t know why he swallowed the virus. He swallowed AI to fight the virus…

I was struck by the psychologist Dannagal Young’s point that we quoted in the article: “blaming readers for spreading fake news from a cognitive perspective …somewhat equivalent to blaming a baby for soiling itself. They can’t help it. ”


Jake Dunagan

This is what Doug is calling our weak code, our vulnerabilities we’ve inherited from evolution and extended by culture. Humor, satire, memes, are exploiting our cognitive weaknesses, and lowering our defenses. I’ve always loved the Mad Magazine, SNL, and Yes Men ways of showing us how the messages we’re hearing are full of shit.

Pescovitz: Good reminder about humor, Jake. Black humor is certainly a powerful way to help people understand and deconstruct the narratives that bombard us. As the great philosopher Homer J. Simpson once said, “Its funny ‘cause it’s true.” If we don’t laugh, we’ll keep crying.

RUS: Ok so let me throw a few firecrackers at the party. Memes seem to me an imprecise, somewhat metaphoric “science” — sort of small encapsulated ideas. So what is the boundary between “memes are attacking us” and “ideas are attacking us” or is there one and to what degree? And where does that leave discourse…. and thinking.

Relatedly… one problem I can see is that a sort of mainstream cultural and political consensus is likely to be the paradigm we defend against memetic infection. So in a good defense, you could lose out on important and necessary infections for change. I mean, we arrive as citizens of a place and time already pre-infected by some simple assumptions.

Dunagan: This story was a bit overdramatically reported, but the “China bans puns” policy  is a signal of the attempt to control the subversive aspects of language, play, satire, etc. These kinds of responses are doomed to failure, IMO.

Trump’s performance uses some of the tools of satire (that is why many of his supporters say he “tells the truth” even when he is being utterly ridiculous). But many of his supporters don’t seem to have a capacity for media critique and astuteness, even as the winks and nods are exchanged. Do you think a Yes Men fan would go to a pizza parlor to uncover a child molestation ring?

On the precision of memes, I think it is ultimately a fools errand to try and get precision. Units of packaged culture that make a difference to culture? (I’m paraphrasing Bateson’s definition of information here).

Pescovitz: Well, we wouldn’t want to be so blunt as to block our exposure to new ideas, including ideas we may not agree with. But we do need to build our resistance to manipulation by “hidden persuaders.” Of course, that term dates back to the 1950s but social media has made it far easier and basically free for anyone to surreptitiously inject coercive messages into culture.

RUS: Sneaky Memes!

Rushkoff: People will always be infected by bad ideas. I think the main difference between weaponized media and regular media is that weaponized media is weaponized. Take NLP. NLP practitioners learn how to inflect their voices or breathe in unison with their target to take advantage of known human proclivities for rapport. They do it with purpose, to imitate what happens when someone is establishing rapport in real life. But they’re doing it manipulatively.

Likewise, you can have an idea like, “let’s look for water over there!” Or “let’s use sticks in this way to make a fire.” If the stick rubbing is successful, it’s an idea that will catch on. That’s still a meme.

The only difference between “memes” and “ideas”, for me, is that memes are ideas that are nested in viral shells. I stopped using the term meme in 1995 after Leary said it’s not worth using if it takes more energy to explain than it saves.

For Dawkins, the meme was a way of showing that ideas want to replicate in the way that genes do. I don’t think he meant that there was a difference. Rather, it was a way of saying, “look: ideas compete for dominance in the way that genes do.” I didn’t think that was so very true, myself, since you don’t spread most ideas through sexual reproduction. It’s more of a viral contagion — which is where the whole media virus thing came from.

Memes also have more of a connotation of code. They’re a better frame for considering the programmatic nature of ideas in a digital world. You don’t generally tell people a good idea because you are trying to program their beliefs and behaviors. But people who use memes are generally thinking of people that way. As objects.

RUS: I’d like to know a bit about the evolution each of you has passed through in your relationship to the meme of memes. When did you come upon the idea, how did you think about it, how did it change over the years?

Pescovitz: I first read about memes in Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene (1976). But Doug’s book Media Virus (1994) really brought the concept to life for me because he used memes as a way to connect the dots between my personal interests at the time: culture jamming, cyberculture, DIY media, Timothy Leary, McLuhan, psychedelia, guerrilla art, postmodernism, media spectacles, etc. The Web was only a year old and our biggest concern with memes was that big advertisers would use them to manipulate us into buying crap we didn’t need or want. In fact, I used a TV ad to explain the concept of memes to people! Once you’re infected with a meme, you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, just like the old Jhirmack shampoo ad which itself is a long-living meme.

Simultaneously, we were optimistic that memes could become a powerful new tool to spread ideas that would spark positive social change. Those were different times. The biggest battleground in meme warfare back then was television. As Rushkoff used to say, “It’s not called ‘programming’ for nothing.” These days, we program algorithms and they, in turn, program us.

Rushkoff: For me, I only discovered memes after I had spent a bunch of time working on the idea of media viruses. The media virus was based more on the computer virus than the meme. I was interested in how the advent of peer-to-peer media like faxes and email might transmit thoughts and ideas sideways among a population, rather than just from the top down.

I was interested in the “blonde jokes” that people would send on their fax machines to one another; the map points to parties that rave kids would hand out on a street corner. And then I got interested in the ideas that could spread through this “datasphere” that hadn’t been able to penetrate the mainstream before. Things like smart drugs, rtmark, and real computer viruses.

So I sold the proposal for Media Virus before ever reading any Dawkins. Then, when I read his stuff, I figured the meme worked well in my metaphor, as well. Only instead of sexual reproduction as the model for how memetic material spreads, I used the viral model… which seemed much closer to what was happening than genetics.

Of course, it was marketers who took to the book more than cultural instigators, and so ‘viral marketing’ was born. I guess I’m talking here more about my relationship to media viruses than memes. The only time I was really brought back into thinking about memes themselves, instead of about cultural immunity and viruses, was when the folks at Darwin in Hungary invited me to work with them. They had been inspired by Media Virus years ago, and came up with a mathematical way of codifying memetic neighborhoods. It’s a pretty advanced technique where they do the sort of factor analysis that marketers usually do on populations, except they do them on memes. What is the neighborhood that’s most friendly to the meme of a product, or category, or candidate? What is the current memetic map in America to, say, electric cars, big oil, or Hillary? I actually did a meme map for Hillary Clinton, but they never took it to her. The most successful positioning I could develop for her — given her own deficiencies and the antagonistic memes around her — was “mother hawk.” But once I did that, it because clear that she couldn’t have Michelle Obama stumping for her. Michelle was perceived as a better mother than Hillary, so looking at Michelle only devalued Hillary’s female dimension, pushing her further toward the “bitch” side of that axis. They should have used Chelsea more, and Michelle much less. That’s the place where I ended up with memes: you can use them to understand how various things will be received. Which are the friendly memes around the meme we want to promote, and which are the hostile ones?

Dunagan: I have a very similar trajectory as David. Dawkins and Rushkoff gave it more direct explanatory framing, but it was a concept embedded in Leary, RAW, Burroughs, Alfred Jarry, McLuhan, Adbusters, and others who were acutely aware of how reality tunnels are created and subverted. I’ve had a long fascination with hoaxes, from Orson Welles to Aqua Teen Hunger Force in Boston, and wrote my MA thesis on Fake Documentaries. The use of genre conventions to generate truthiness, and how easily people can believe something ridiculous if it comes packaged in a known/conventional wrapper is remarkable to me. I’ve used these techniques to elicit emotional responses and deeper connection to possible scenarios in my experiential futures work. This is with the goal of expanding horizons and making us better futures thinkers. But seeing these techniques “weaponized” to manipulate public opinion toward anti-democratic values, and generally sow chaos in the public sphere, has been a sad and disturbing thing to watch. I keep coming back to our guiding premise, forget the virus (to a degree), focus instead on the host.

RUS: The great Aqua Teen Hunger Force Panic of 2007. So, in some sense, discourse is for intellectuals and memes are for tricksters.

If Clinton had been elected instead of Trump, would we still be talking about defending ourselves against bad memes to the degree that we are? And I don’t just mean us; I mean the intelligible world, including the mainstream political establishment. Maybe the Trumpian mess has teased out an illness that needed to be confronted …

Rushkoff: Right. The whole RussiaGate insanity is our cultural immune response to this. Interestingly, it’s only the people who are upset about the memes (Trump) who are talking about examining and regulating the shells (Facebook).

This is where viral analysis is useful (if I may say so, myself). It helps us distinguish between the medium and the message. The Russian attacks worked because we are all suspicious of traditional institutions. Viral attacks are really good for attacking traditional institutions, and a lot less useful for maintaining them. The institution is like the body. Not many viruses come and support your body’s integrity; they infect!

So the content of the Russian memes — whether it was making progressives angry about Democratic Party corruption, or making Trump supporters suspicious about Clinton — provoked our weak cultural code. That’s only getting weaker in the Trump era.

But, in this case, we may be learning to recognize the unique shells around fake news posts. Or, at least some of us are. I think those of us who are upset by Trump are becoming keenly aware of fake news because they don’t like it. Supporters of Trump are becoming even more aware of the institutional bias of traditional news corporations, and so they’re becoming even more vulnerable to these attacks.

But everyone is raw, impulsive, untempered by normal human mechanisms for moderation. So, in answer to your question: the illness is apparent, but our awareness of the disease seems largely to be exacerbating its effects. Real resilience will require people to learn to connect with one another socially, in real life — experiences of mutual aid — so they can have some experiences that contradict the artificial messaging.

Pescovitz: Had Hillary Clinton won, it would still be urgent for us to try to understand and deconstruct disinformation, computational propaganda, and other forms of media manipulation. The memes would have been different but the culture in which they thrive did not develop over a single election cycle.

Rushkoff: It would be actually urgent, for sure. But I wonder if people would be as worried about it. I mean, would the whole Russia/collusion/interference thing be going on? Would Facebook have had to defend itself at a Senate hearing?

I called social media a “public health crisis” in an OpEd a couple of years ago. I compared the companies’ denials of addiction and social harm with the way the tobacco industry claimed nicotine was not addictive — as late as the 1980’s, I think. It may have taken the actual election of Trump to prove to people how serious this stuff is. It’s just so hard to parse it from the genuine neoliberal globalist crap that drives so much of Trumpism as well.

Dunagan: I could see it going two ways if Hillary had won. One scenario would be people ultimately laugh off the fake news and manipulation as only effecting rubes — nothing for anyone but the wonks to worry about. The other would be full-scale criminal investigation of the purveyors of fake news, and the platforms that colluded with those purveyors. Tough new legislation that kills net neutrality would be implemented so that internet traffic could be more readily regulated — for the sake of democracy, people! Trump TV would immediately be under scrutiny and investigation as well, with 1st amendment hawks screaming that Hillary is trying to destroy free speech. Zuckerberg would work closely with the Clinton administration to craft new regulations to weed out disinformation, earning a role as a de facto digital security czar, and strengthening his political foundations for a possible 2024 run.

Rushkoff: And would that be better or worse than what’s happening now? I am not asking facetiously. There’s pros and cons.

Pescovitz: Very interesting. We also shouldn’t forget that there is plenty of disinformation flowing that is not as directly related to politics (although leveraged and fueled by politicians) such as pseudoscience around climate, health, and even the shape of the Earth!

Rushkoff: I love those flat earth people.

Doug Rushkoff

Dunagan: i really don’t know if, on this issue alone, that we would be better off with Hillary in office. I think the ethics and values in play would be way less clear for most folks.

Rushkoff: Right. At least in one respect, Trump is like a healing crisis. The problem is how much collateral damage there is. It’s not simply a memetic crisis.

RUS: Somewhere in the Bio of Disinfo piece is some data about official government sponsored projects around memes. At what point, as far as you know, did the US federal government get involved with memetics and do you have any thoughts about the implications of that?

Rushkoff: Gingrich’s people came to me as early as 1996, looking to know how to use viral media. I don’t know if they knew quite what memes were, but they were familiar with the book. Formally, memetics… I think it was 2011 at the Social Media for Defense Summit. This was the key paper

I had started pushing really hard on this a few years before 9-11. I was trying to get government/military to understand the nature of nonlinear, discontinuous, networked warfare. I wrote some articles for John Negroponte’s (yes, Nicholas’s brother’s) “open intelligence” platform about how it all worked, but it wasn’t until 9-11 that they started to think about it.

RUS: Well, Newt was always close to Jerry Pournelle so he was aware of these things. To what extent do you think our government uses memetic warfare and do they use it in a way that builds fictional narratives and that harms the US public? (And I don’t particularly mean the current administration in which everything is fictive. They’re more or less outliers.)

Dunagan: The CIA support of abstract expressionism was an early example, but again, we start to blur the lines of propaganda, culture, ideas, and memes. Ceci n’est pas une meme. 

Pescovitz: And regarding your previous question about the military and memes, DARPA and other agencies have been pursuing this research for decades and have made no secret about it. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone given that memes are really just the continued evolution (ahem) of propaganda and PSYOPs. But yes, in 2011 DARPA announced its Social Media in Strategic Communication program to fund research on the “formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes)” through social media. And while that effort led to a lot of headlines, it really wasn’t a new area for the military. For example, it was preceded in 2006 by DARPA’s sponsorship of “Military Memetics” research from Robert Finklestein and his team at Robotic Technology Inc. One of Finklestein’s proposed applications of memetics, as explained during a presentation at a Social Media for Defense Summit (!), is to use memes to “exploit the psychological vulnerabilities of hostile forces to create fear, confusion, and paralysis, thus undermining their morale and fighting spirit.”

Thing is, even after a dozen years of DARPA publicly funding research projects that try to determine what words, images, colors etc. make the most effective memes, or how network analysis may reveal the most effective insertion points, I’m still not convinced that they’ve figured much out that they could actually apply. I’m not suggesting this stuff doesn’t work at all, but just that focusing on content and transmission without looking at reception — the culture itself … will probably result in a pretty dull knife. It may be able to cut you but you wouldn’t use it for surgery.

RUS: Memetics are such a slippery subject. When Mondo was injecting its “media viruses” into the 90s culture and when Doug wrote the book on it, it was largely an area of intuition and play, lacking precision. I think it’s still by its nature imprecise, but like propaganda more generally there are ways to make it an effective tool… to weaponize it. What’s the secret, if there is one? Is it just that more eventually becomes different? So you put a lot of crappy come-ons on Facebook that appear laughable to most people but because you put enough of them there, it hits lots of targets?

Rushkoff: Okay, well, let’s talk about this the way one only can in a Mondo publication. The original viruses were being produced as a form of magick. Whether we’re looking at the Detournement of the Situationists (a precursor to those fake, satirical ads in Mad magazine or Adbusters) or the first rave flyers designed by Jody Radzik for ToonTown in the 90’s, memetics was understood more as a form of cultural alchemy. There was design, but there was also a sense of divine inspiration, evolutionary progress, and spiritual development. People were designing viruses the way that Sasha Shulgin would design a new psychedelic: yes, there was hacking involved, but it wasn’t manipulative hacking so much as hacking someone open so they could experience their true, happy, liberated selves.

The creation of the virus — like the creation of Sasha’s 2CB or a new bit of computer code was conducted almost in the fashion of a shamanic visionquest, or the creation and activation of a sigil. A sigil is a great metaphor for the media virus — there’s the original word (the memes) and then the symbol it turns into (the shell).

So the viruses were both propaganda and probe. A way of finding the others. Like a pre-arranged hand signal — except it was pre-arranged in another dimension. Those who recognized the call, followed the map point.

You could look at Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson’s continual morphing and memetics (Prince changed his name to a meme) as the crossover from art and counterculture to applied memetics. They’re both true art, and intentional, commercial, promotion. And some were even co-opted, like Madonna’s Vogue.

Memes may have started out as magical sigils by those who couldn’t afford traditional mass media channels, but it eventually became the currency of ad agencies, public relations firms, and others who simply intended to manipulate people by any means necessary.

The problem is, if the virus doesn’t liberate some repressed agenda, then it’s not going to work. So how do you make “voter suppression” go viral? You spread it as racism, which has very high potential energy because racism is still largely repressed, institutional, and unconscious. A lot of people were really horrified we had a black president, or fear Mexican immigration will violate their claim to nativism. So you spread memes about voter fraud, population shifts, and so on.

My point is that more nefarious virologists — the high-paid specialists of Hill & Knowlton and Russia and Cambridge Analytica — are grafting memes into carrier viruses. They are creating the voltage necessary for the virus to spread by resorting to stimulation, inflammation, and dangerous provocation. Jody made rave go viral by tapping into people’s recognition of patterns — like a fractal — where have I seen that before…? Madonna made her Sex book go viral by showing vagina. True on some level, but more provocative than revealing. And Cambridge makes Trump go viral by tapping the most fearful, racist urges in a population still recovering from Reconstruction, much less an Obama presidency.

Pescovitz: I think Doug makes a good point. What is the mindset from which the memes are generated? In that sense, the process is the product. Or at least influences it tremendously.




RUS: Final question. So the solution oriented aspect of this discussion seems to be that we make the host — humans — more resilient in the face of sneaky memes. To put a cynical spin on it, I thought of the idea that we can’t have peace until individuals become peaceful. That’s kind of too long a haul.

Various people — from Bucky Fuller to Marxists to transhumanist sorts — have hoped for material solutions. Make life rewarding enough and people will stop having wars. Which is dubious but perhaps less dubious than expecting everyone to be cool, individually.

So what am I asking? I’m not sure. But is there an idea for shoring up lots of people’s individual resilience en masse or a cultural mutation that might do that? Any suggestions?

Rushkoff: Well, people get resilient like roaches do, if you give them enough time. The crack-and-crevice sprays just stop working on them. And I think the particular memetic weapons being used against us now — fake news, tweetbots and the like — will look as silly as a Nigerian bank phishing email looks to us today. Most of us, anyway. (Maybe the success of Google’s spam filters has been to render us less resistant to the ones that will someday get through…)

But yeah, the bigger point — what you’d call the peaceful society — is that if people become more engaged with each other in organic, analog ways, the less that either digital or ideological methodologies will work on them. Aboriginal peoples mostly fought back against colonialism. The Native Americans thought we had a spiritual disease called wettiko. Under the control of derivatives of the same ideologies as the colonialists, members of our digital society are particularly vulnerable to viral attack – both to the digital shells, and to the memes within them.

Ideological countermeasures will not suffice. They just continue the arms race. The only option is to restore social and biological coherence.

Pescovitz: I tend to be pessimistic in the short-term but quite optimistic about the long-term. I think we’ll be ok, of course barring any unpredictable doomsday event that destroys humanity in an instant. If you’re a futurist, it’s hard not to be cautiously optimistic. As IFTF’s executive director Marina Gorbis says, thinking about the future is an inherently hopeful act. Forecasting the future means you expect there to be one. The next step from there is recognizing that we do have at least some agency in how the future plays out. So while I don’t think that there’s any technology on the horizon that will wipe out disinformation and inoculate us against media manipulation, I do expect that some kind of cultural shift, augmented with technology, will push us through the bad trips of today. What’s on the other side? I don’t know but I’m pretty sure it’s up to all of us. 

Dunagan: I just completed a workshop with 30 US Mayors in Boston as part of their Annual Meeting. I am generally pessimistic about the United States as a viable political entity (I think we are in a generational death spiral, tbh), but I am highly optimistic about leadership at the city level. I’ve now worked with mayors of both parties, big cities and small, and the vision, creativity, and practicality of Mayors is remarkable and inspiring. The challenge ahead, IMO, is how to craft policy that binds togethers cities and city leaders in a coherent and productive way. How does a group of cities deal with climate, immigration, disinformation? We don’t have as many reference points for these kinds of political alignments in recent history, but that is where I’m looking for governance innovation and…hope.

Read The Biology of Disinformation



5 thoughts on “Memes Are For Tricksters: The Biology of Disinformation”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *