The Power and Danger of the Meme of Suppressed Truth

This post is by Continuations by Albert Wenger from Continuations by Albert Wenger

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At dinner last night a friend in his mid 50s asked, quite genuinely: so what exactly is a meme? Our teenage son laughed about this apparent ignorance but the confusion is well founded given that many people today use the word to mean a short lived fad on the internet, as compared to the original usage as a unit of meaning that is culturally transmitted and self-replicating (hence the coinage which is based on “gene”). The two usages are obviously related and yet also different. In particular, the former connotes something frivolous and harmlessness, whereas the latter appears more like an academic concept. Much of the failure to reach audiences by mainstream politicians arises from underestimating just how powerful memes are and how effective they are used to spread ideas.

A wider discussion and understanding of memes and their power in the age of the internet is absolutely crucial we want to make progress. Right now, for example, there is a debate online about whether or not to link to the manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist. On the one side are arguments that giving it any media distribution will just help to spread the hateful ideas in it further. On the other side one of the key ideas behind many dangerous memes at the moment is that there is a secret truth that’s suppressed by media. So it would appear that we are caught between a rock and a hard place on how to approach this. This is in fact part of the nature of memes, they are antifragile. They benefit from (nearly) all counter strategies and the more those counter strategies are deployed, the stronger the meme gets.

So what is to be done? I believe we need a two pronged counter. The first prong is to publish and refute in the same go. That is always provide context, always point out what’s wrong, always surround by a message of humanism and anti-violence. Never give the impression that this is secret knowledge that is being suppressed. The appearance of suppression has been one of the key drivers in the success of these memes at convincing people that they have merit. 

The second prong is to spread positive memes. There is a future in which we transcend many of the current evils and we need to create memes pointing to that future. I plan to write more about this in the coming weeks.