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!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)