Monday, August 3, 2015

Cecil the lion: understanding the secret of a supermeme (and its relevance to climate change communication)

A "meme" is a unit of knowledge in the communication space. Memes tend to go viral and diffuse rapidly; some diffuse so fast that they can rightly be defined as "supermemes". Above, you can see the result of a Google Trends search where the meme "Cecil the Lion" shows an incredibly rapid growth, overtaking the number of searches of a well known political term, such as "Hillary." And it keeps growing! It is a true "supermeme".  

Communication, nowadays, is mostly based on the ability to make certain concepts "go viral", that is able to diffuse by themselves over the Web, generating "memes," entities able to self- reproduce in the communication space. So, for years, scientists and policy makers have tried to create memes telling people about the danger of climate change. On the whole, it has been an abject failure, despite heroic efforts. The idea that climate change is real, it is human made, and it is dangerous just doesn't seem to stick in most people's mind. In other words, it doesn't generate memes.

So, what causes a concept to go viral? We can learn something on this point by studying a recent meme, the one relative to the killing of Cecil the Lion. Using Google Trends to measure the number of the relative Internet searches, we see that this meme grew so rapidly that it can rightly be defined as a "supermeme," comparable in intensity to searches relative to political and sporting events, that usually dominate the search space.

"Cecil the lion" is having so much success because it has the three basic characteristics that make a meme a supermeme. These are  1) Be simple, 2) Have a villain, 3) Be reassuring. Let's verify:

1. It is a simple story (man kills lion)
2. It has a villain (evil hunter)
3. It is reassuring (it is not us who are destroying wildlife, it is evil hunters)

These are very general features of all effective memes, in particular of political ones. Think of Saddam Hussein as another example: 1) Simple story (he is building weapons of mass destruction, 2) a villain (he hates our freedom) and 3) Reassuring (we bomb him and everything will be fine). Maybe it is possible to create supermemes with different characteristics, but it is surely very, very difficult.

From these considerations, we can probably understand why it is so difficult to create effective climate memes that carry the right message: climate science is not simple, the villain is us, and the story is disquieting, rather than reassuring. On the contrary, creating "evil" climate memes is so easy! The concepts that climate change is does not exist, it is not our fault, it is not dangerous, seem to be an everlasting spring of memes. For instance, the "climategate" story turned out to be a very successful meme because it has the three characteristics:

1. It is a simple story (scientists are conspiring against the public)
2. It has a villain (evil scientists)
3. It is reassuring (climate change is a hoax, hence not our fault).

We can compare the results of "climategate" with the most successful good climate meme that I could find; the Pope's encyclical on climate. Unfortuately, the Pope's text doesn't have the three "magic" characteristics and note how small its impact has been in comparison with that of climategate.

So, it is a steep barrier that we face in creating good climate memes. Not impossible, surely: we might consider the story of Cecil the Lion as an example of a positive meme about the need of conserving the ecosystem. At least, it shows that there are plenty of people, out there, who care about this issue. But it is also true that the meme rapidly degenerated into a witch hunt. In part, the killer of the lion deserved nothing less, but the three magic characteristics always involve something "evil", the hunt against the villain, which is not what we want to do with the climate issue.

It looks like we are doomed, aren't we? Maybe, but there is also hope. First of all, Google Trends gives us some data on the impact of a meme, but not the whole story. It tells us how many people actively search for a concept, not how many of them are exposed to that concept.

So, if you use Google Trend to get data on the concept of the "97% consensus" on climate, you find that the number of searches has been too small to generate a curve. Similarly, "climate consensus" doesn't generate a significant memetic behavior. Apparently, people are not actively searching for an estimate of the number of scientists who are convinced that anthropogenic climate change is real. However, if you search Google for ("97% consensus" climate), you get more than 350,000 results. That compares not so badly with "climategate", producing 570,000 results. Then, if you look for "Pope climate change," you have 25 million pages and "climategate" fades away in the distance.

From this, I think we can say that there are good climate memes having a significant impact on the debate. The "97% consensus" is one. It doesn't diffuse as fast as evil climate memes, but if you note how rabidly it has been attacked and denied, it is certainly very effective. Even better has been the impact of the Pope's encyclical; also strongly attacked by climate deniers.

So, I think that we can learn a few things from this analysis. One is that a lot of disinformation about climate change comes in the form of memes and it will continue to come in this form as long as there will be money to be made with fossil fuels. We need to learn how to recognize these evil memes in order to fight them. We should remember that one of the reasons why they are so effective is that most people don't normally understand that they being manipulated (as Baudelaire said, "the devil's best trick is to convince people that he doesn't exist."). But, if the inner mechanisms of climate disinformation memes are exposed, then they become much less effective.
We can also learn that we can fight effectively in this asymmetric communication war, even without supermemes and evil tricks. Clearly,  promoting action against climate change can't be done using the same methods used to sell a brand of cereal. We need to learn more about how to carry the message to opinion leaders and decision makers. We are learning how to do that, for instance by diffusing the concept of consensus and on the basis of the natural tendency of people to care for others (that's the core of the Pope's encyclical ).

In the end, it is a war that we can win and that we are going to win (with or without memes) as the evidence of climate change mounts and becomes impossible to ignore. It is comfortable to fight on the side of truth!


  1. Interesting post. This reminds me of a recent online course on Framing (through edX) where one of the first frames you learn about is the Victim/Villain/Hero frame. For instance, in the case of ClimateGate, the public is cast as the victim of an elaborate hoax (funded by public money, no less); the climate scientists are cast as the villains, and the fossil fuel industry is the hero who has exposed this dastardly deed.

    The trick is to re-frame the issue: the public is the victim, current and future; the fossil fuel industry is the villain, and climate scientists / activists are the heroes for sounding the alarm despite threats to person and sanity. This is the frame cast by the divestment movement, which has the added bonus of casting the ordinary person as the hero: you too can divest from fossil fuels in your personal 401(k) retirement account.

    1. It also has the advantage of being true.

  2. A meme which has three premises:
    - The culprit of climate change is the BAU imposed by the ruling Plutocracy.
    - By BAU plutocracy appropriates all the world's wealth dispossessing the rest of the population.
    - We are innocent because they do not have the necessary power to change things.
    Another slightly different:
    - The culprit of climate change is the BAU imposed by the ruling Plutocracy.
    - By BAU plutocracy appropriates all the world's wealth dispossessing the rest of the population.
    - We are not aware of the climate change because the plutocracy owns and controls the mass media communication

  3. It took me a very long time and lots of research to come to grips with climate change as the science models were inadequate for quite some time. As presidential elections are heating up in the USA the meme has become a theme with all sorts of proposed fixes except any preparation to relocate and enable life support ability for vast numbers of people potentially affected by such change.

    1. The models (simulations) are still inadequate - earlier work almost certainly under rated the impacts of what we are seeing now, let alone threats anticipated later this century. Hansen's latest plausibly suggests a perhaps 10 feet (3m) rise over a few decades likely, roughly, at an informed guess during this century, plus higher intensity storms. And who knows what is going to happen to California if drought extends? Could be baked in the cake as they say.

      Florida is still profitable and expanding of course and Florida is trivial compared with many places.

      And this:

  4. Though I really think that memes play an important role in understanding societies dynamics, in the case of climate change the concept falls short. Michael Manns "hockey stick" was a direct assault on the basic principles of capitalism. It showed that the ideology of infinite growth is failing. The spin doctors of the ideologues, like Mike Morano, quickly realized that and attacked Mann and climate science on all fronts, faking a "scientific discourse" in the public perception.

    As Naomi Klein points out rigorously, climate change can only be stopped, by bringing down capitalism and the neoliberal hegemony. The problem of the climate debate ist that one side (the "deniers") accepts the truth about this discourse, while the other side (science) does not. Science is as much in denal about the politics of climate change as the deniers are about the science of climate change.

    Science has to accept the fact that there is no politically neutral position in the climate debate. Only by understanding that fighting climate change IS in essence an anticapitalistic endevour, just as the othe side has right from the start, will we succeed in saving mankind from a climate catastrophy.

    This is just as true for the peak oil problem. The prospect of any possible end to growth is not acceptable to a system that needs growth to facilitate the accumulation of wealth for the rich.

    Science has to finaly come out of its denial and take a stand against growth capitalism, engage in the political fight and name it as the real culprit.

    Global capitalism, as Yale Professor Imanuel Wallerstein, founder of worls system theory (that s often refered o on this site) points out, is in its final crisis. The possible postcapitalist systems are today fighting a war that will possibly go on for decedas.

    On the one hand there is the old neoliberal ideology, transforming into a autoritarian rule of the moneyed elite by puppet technocrats in the institutions of power, that transforms democrcy to a theater for the masses while transforming nations to produce interests for their debts and give up any other social enterprise (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal etc.).

    On the other hand there are the alternative social movements that fight these money interests in a system where those interests hve all the power allready. It might be of ultimate consequence where in this fight the scientific community takes its stand.

    The question of climate change (and peak oil) must therefore be visibly linked to the question of system change by the scientific community.

    this is no meme war, this is nothing less than a revolution.

  5. The problem is that the messaging is targeting a concept, rather than behavior. Change the behavior, and the overall situation will improve.

    One of the old words that, for some reason, fell by the wayside, is "pollution." Nobody uses "pollution" anymore. Why? IMO it is incredibly effective--it has an incredibly negative tone, and it denigrates the behavior of the polluter. Nobody wants to be a polluter. Cut your greenhouse gas emissions? Curb fossil fuel use? Forget it. STOP POLLUTING.

    1. Sorry for the double post, but, marketing-wise, the other thing effective messaging could do is tie the behavior in (as in the case of Cecil) to an animal, preferably narrowing its focus. People don't care about what they do to other people--especially "people" as a group, rather than individuals. But animals, preferably the cuddly kind?

      Still, I'm skeptical, give how much $$$ is tied in to resource extraction and thus the efforts that can be leveraged on behalf of those who would benefit, that any level of messaging could be effective.

    2. About cuddly animals, the Polar Bear was a good meme; at least judging from the amount of reaction it got from deniers. Not exactly a cuddly animal in real life, but in TV it might look like one. Toyota made a great Ad for the Leaf featuring a reasonably cuddly polar bear.

  6. A simple way to frame climate:
    1-story: corporations kill us all to make money
    2- villain: evil corporation
    3- resolution: destroy the evil corporate economy, make sure all collaborate in living with less
    and we'll be fine

    Simple. A tad revolutionary and Mao tse tung-style (or stalin's).
    Not going to be a popular message with western elites



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)