Memes have been a growing part of the international culture since around 2004, but it wasn’t until Keith Henson produced Evolution Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War in 2006 that we saw a more refined definition of the purpose of memes:

“replicating information patterns: ways to do things, learned elements of culture, beliefs or ideas.” 

When it comes to influencing the way that people think and the ideologies that they adopt, memetic warfare is the path-of-least-resistance. A meme is crafted to appeal to our ability to digest a message through data visualization. Our brains are designed to process images faster than written text, and in our immediate gratification society, this is a powerful tool. Research by 3M validated this with their report stating that visual are processed 60,000 times faster than text.

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that as we have seen an uptick in internet and social media access and reliance, those that want the ability to change political opinions have turned to memes. While the average individual may not have placed a lot of importance on memes, memetic warfare has been a focus of concern by many of the international security professionals. The ability to reshape opinions towards a particular view through memes was part of a serious study by NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. Jeff Giesea, journaling in NATO’s Stratcom COE Defense Strategic Communications lists meme warfare as:

“competition over narrative, ideas, and social control in a social-media battlefield. One might think of it as a subset of ‘information operations’ tailored to social media. Information operations involve the collection and dissemination of information to establish a competitive advantage over an opponent”.

Manipulation through visual as well as words has been a mainstay of marketing for many years. However, there is a significant difference between trying to encourage someone to buy a particular product versus misinformation and brainwashing tactics to effect an election. We like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, and it’s this very naïve attitude that was the gateway for successful meme warfare.

The concept of what has happened in the battle of the memes was outlined in a Vice Motherboard article:

“Memetics, the study of meme theory and application, is a kind of grab bag of concepts and disciplines. It’s part biology and neuroscience, part evolutionary psychology, part old fashioned propaganda, and part marketing campaign driven by the same thinking that goes into figuring out what makes a banner ad clickable. Though memetics currently exists somewhere between science, science fiction, and social science, some enthusiasts present it as a kind of hidden code that can be used to reprogram not only individual behaviors but entire societies.”

Americans made it Easy for Russian Election-Influencing

While meme warfare has received a lot of attention as part of the Russian approach to influencing elections, it appears that the Russians have been involved in these attempts since the early 1990s. From this time until 2014, their focus was mostly on post-Soviet countries. One might call this a kind of “beta test” for bigger fish. Surprisingly, a majority of their approaches resulted in failure; but then, that’s what beta tests are all about: tweaking to adjust to what does work.

Once the Russians discovered a better formula, they expanded their propaganda efforts to the U.S., Germany, France, Britain, and others. They used a combination of meme warfare and disinformation campaigns as well as investing and funding far-right parties. They took full advantage of the trusting attitude that Americans and others seemed to have in social media, and for the 2016 Presidential campaign, Russians created fake Facebook accounts to launch their meme warfare attacks. They used this platform to reach as many as 126 million Americans, spreading emails that had been leaked and WikiLeaks fake documents.

It appears that the lack of security in many countries allowed an open door for Russians to launch cyberattacks on state voter registration systems, as well as phishing attacks against parties and campaigns. Using a blend of all of these approaches, Russia seemed to have found the winning formula. The social media giant, Facebook, admitted that they knew about the Russian influence using meme warfare, but they accepted the payment (in Rubles) anyway. However, let us not place all of the blame on FB, each and every avenue of social media was exploited, from Instagram through to Twitter.

Russia saw the weak spot that has occurred in the free adoption of our technologies and social media and took full advantage. They created entire centers with the sole purpose of acting as meme generators; accelerating those that racked up the most positive responses and adding to these on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Meme Warfare Strategy

For many that were paying attention during the early months of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, they would have observed almost the same meme messages being sent to the extreme right as the extreme left. The Russians had a perfect opportunity to sew dissension: two candidates that many seemed to hold in disdain, and the undercurrent of discontent that some had for the previous administration. It was the perfect formula: a qualified woman and an unqualified man that was shocking the system.

However, just creating memes wasn’t good enough, the Russians had to also invest in organizations that put a face of both the conservative and liberal views. Each of the groups looked and acted like the political side that they represented, and they shared the single goal of spreading misinformation that would appeal to each side. At the center of the brainstorming is the International Research Agency, a Russian propaganda wing whose sole purpose is to spread lies to such an extent, that people cannot separate or understand the truth.

A majority of this information didn’t seep into general public knowledge until the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report that was written by the cybersecurity firm, New Knowledge. The additional report supply by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and Graphik, delved into the IRA’s strategies to create a rift between Americans, institute voter suppression, and elevate the then-candidate, Donald Trump.

The New Knowledge report indicates that the IRA made use of meme warfare and social media to create well-planned propaganda assaults in a deeply sophisticated way. They were very fluent in American trolling culture and were taking full advantage of it. We can add one additional piece to this strange puzzle in the fact that the corporate representatives of the social media technology companies testified before Congress with misleading statements and outright lies on their belief that the Russians were using their platforms to influence election results.

The IRA invested in a front organization called “Born Liberal” to spread misinformation, as well as DoNotShoot.us and Blacktivist.info aimed at black communities to encourage distrust in democratic institutions, enhance focus on police brutality, and to dissuade Black Americans to vote for Hillary Clinton. These are just a few of the dozens of domains that were registered by the Russians.

The key element in the strategy is that these players knew their audience. They deployed a character known as “Pepe” in memes that appealed to right-leaning millennials, created online help and religious organizations to recruit volunteers to their cause, and had an ultimate goal of pitting American against American. The Russians not only knew their target audience, but they also honed the messages based on the positive feedback, and combined that with personal data that they collected to refine the attacks.

The Battle Rages On

One would assume that with all of the information finally being revealed on the meme warfare that the Russians would take a different approach. This assumption is not necessarily the case. Various social media channels continue to report that the popularity of some of the memes, the false organizations, and the bad messages that they are sending still have interest from the American public.

The continued condition of acceptance is a red flag among those that have been studying the problem. DARPA and the Defense Department have been researching meme warfare for a number of years and list them “as a powerful tool of cultural influence, capable of reinforcing or even changing values and behavior.”

The problem with memes is that they are created as a piece of art and therefore any text message isn’t scanned or evaluated on its own. They are digital artifacts that are made up by trolls whose whole position is to create distrust for an opponent. In the case of the Presidential election of 2016, the Russians wanted to prop up Trump and create a trove of misinformation that people bought into.

The authors of the report list that “over the past five years, disinformation has evolved from a nuisance into high-stakes information war.” Instead of fighting this battle against meme warfare, Americans are fighting each other about exactly what to do to overcome it.

The report additionally states: “We have conversations about whether or not bots have the right to free speech, we respect the privacy of fake people, and we hold congressional hearings to debate whether YouTube personalities have been unfairly downranked. It is precisely our commitment to democratic principles that puts us at an asymmetric disadvantage against an adversary who enthusiastically engages in censorship, manipulation, and suppression internally.”

The answer to this conundrum is two-fold: an ability to gather statistics and data regarding the memes and the effect that the memes have on influencing public opinion. Addressing the problem requires enhanced technologies that can not only scan memes to translate the information but also to compare the information and fact check for truth.