Did you ever get a song stuck in your head? It’s no coincidence we call a song ‘catchy’, and say it’s ‘going viral’. In ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976) Dawkins compared the spread of a meme to the spread of a virus, referring to certain ideas as ‘viruses of the mind’. Stephenson wrote about memetic warfare in Snow Crash (1992), which featured a literal mind virus – a drug, religion and computer virus all in one – ”What’s the difference?” asks a main character. Information that spreads survives, regardless of value or morality. Even pre-internet, memes often outlive genes: Socrates has little genetic code left in his descendants, but his ideas have lasted millennia.
Despite advancements in technology, our brains still run on hardware developed 10,000+ years ago – and it’s susceptible to mind-viruses. Facts spread slower than misinformation on social media, and people often believe even after debunking. Conspiracy theories infect people’s brains, socially isolating them from mainstream thought. However on the other side of the coin, some conspiracy theories do turn out to be true, and mainstream thought is used to censor inconvenient truths. Who fact checks the fact checkers? Any human system is bound to be susceptible to bias and corruption, or simply incompetence. There reason misinformation is so difficult to eradicate is that both ‘sides’ of an issue believe the other side is spreading fake news (and both are right!). People look far less critically at their own group’s proselytization. If you dig deep enough you realize that almost nobody truly fact-checks their own beliefs, and if they genuinely attempt to, they realize just how elusive the truth is.
Opportunities to consume a lot of calories, enjoy a lot of mates, and defeat a lot of enemies were rare for our pre-historic ancestors, so our modern society satisfies these needs with super stimuli in the form of Fast Food, Porn, and Video Games. Marketers hitchhike on popular memes as a vehicle for inserting their own messages in the consumers’ brains, in order to get them to buy more products. There’s great power in being the first result when someone searches on Google, but the brain is the first search engine they use. If your brand is the first thing they think of, they’ll buy from you before (potentially superior) competitors have a chance to compete. Less benign is the use of memetics to hijack people into doing things that go against their own interests. For example terrorist groups weaponizing memes to recruit and radicalize followers. In extreme cases these mind viruses can turn people into suicide bombers, something genetics alone cannot explain.
Like any virus, the antidote may be a vaccine – a study found we can immunize people to misinformation, by providing them with a weakened version of an argument, with facts refuting it. Studies have shown people “are better able to believe in a claim once thought to be false, as opposed to unbelieving something once believed to be true”. Forewarned is forearmed. In Snow Crash’s backstory the solution to virulent memes was causing humanity to speak different languages (the Babel myth), so as to inhibit the spread of bad memes across cultures. Bob Marley believed “you could cure racism and hate... literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people's lives”. Fatah found something similar when it disbanded its much feared Black September terror cell: by marrying them off to beautiful women and paying them a bonus for each child they reared. There’s anecdotal evidence that certain good habits – meditation, exercise, skepticism – can prevent ‘bad’ memes from taking root. Whatever your position in the meme wars, being a passive observer is no longer a viable option. Even to maintain neutrality requires constant vigilance, checking your sources, and educating yourself on common vectors of attack.
Asymmetry in Belief Revision
Forewarned is forearmed
How To Inoculate Yourself Against A Weird Mind Virus
I Am Legend (2007) Will Smith: Robert Neville
Inoculating Against Fake News About COVID-19
Richard Dawkins on the internet's hijacking of the word 'meme’
Snow Crash – Virus, Drug, or Religion?
Someone said that the first search engine is people minds.
Terrorism Is Not About Terror
The rise of meme-hijacking: How it can help you achieve brand exposure
The Selfish Gene
Vaccinating against viruses of the mind
When Conspiracy Theories are Real