Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Making of Greta Thunberg: Memetic Weapons for the Meme War

If I say that this young lady, Greta Thunberg, is a meme I mean no disrespect for her -- we all are memes! Actually, I think she is a great girl. But the story of how this particular meme was pushed up into becoming an important feature of the planetary memesphere is teaching us so much of how our world works. And how fundamental is memetics as a science. Truly, read on. You'll learn of things you wouldn't have suspected existed!!

Ladies and Gentlemen, first of all, let me introduce to you the study on memetics performed by myself and these two wonderful coworkers of mine, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. Everyone loves their own brainchild and I do love mine (ours): so, allow me to say that this work may be the first (at least one of the first, I believe) that uses system dynamics for the quantitative study memetics (many have made qualitative connections). Maybe it will open up a whole new field of study, but let me tell you this story.

So, what is a meme? A meme is a meme is a meme (as Gertrud Stein never said): a wonderful concept! Think of the blind crocodiles in sewers of New York, that was a pre-internet meme. Or, for a more recent one, "Obama was not born in the US." A meme is not just an idea, but an idea that reproduces itself -- analogous to the gene in biology. It was invented by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and he probably didn't suspect what can of memes he was opening.

Later on, Daniel Dennett said, "a human being is an ape infested with memes." Now, pause a moment to think of this sentence: isn't it wonderful? One of those sentences you look at, you pause for a moment to think about, and then -- poof! -- your view of the world is changed. The beauty of the universe is that you can keep learning new things and, boy, there are so many!

The point of memes is that they can "go viral" in the memesphere -- the Web -- you know this already. But what makes memes go viral? Well, there comes the fascinating thing we discovered in our paper: in biology, there is only one way to go viral: by infection. In memetics, there are two ways. One is the properly viral mode, that is, with the virus jumping from a host to another. The other is the "fallout" mode - it is like when an atomic weapon kills people by radiations -- everyone is affected at the same time. Here is the description we give in our paper

In the present study, for the first time, we discuss and compare the birth of a meme and its dynamic propagation both on the internet and in mass media environments. To grasp this fundamental difference in the meme’s origin, we built simple and intuitive models, with the system dynamic (SD) methods. SD models are particularly useful in representing the structure of complex systems, especially the non-linear systems, in which the properties-of-the-whole system are different from the properties that characterize the system’s constituent elements so that the behaviour of the whole cannot be explained in terms of a combination of the behaviour of the single parts. The result of our study reveals that the origin of a meme can be due to two different activities: internet propagation or media bombardment.
 ... memes have characteristics that genes do not have. In particular, memes can be “planted” in the mediasphere using a top-down mechanism based on scattershot diffusion on the part of the mass media. This behaviour can be seen as parallel to that of the radioactive cloud generated by a nuclear incident. The distinction between these two mechanisms can be useful to understand whether a specific meme is the result of a “natural” interest of the public that derives from its special virtues or has been diffused as a top-down operation designed to influence the public or the consumers of a specific product.

And here we are: looking directly into the belly of the great beast that is the memesphere -- the great cauldron of human thought as it boils, it quivers, it festers in the giant ecosystem we call the World Wide Web. And we can see the birth of the little beasts we call memes. Some grow by infecting one node after the other, some by being pushed from above: by that giant beast infecting the memesphere, what we call the "media" or the "mainstream media" (MSM). And what the MSM want to grow, grows.

Let me show first at a meme that grew virally: "Gangnam Style" (you remember the Korean song, popular a few years ago). Here it is, fitted with the system dynamics model

But you don't need a quantitative model to note how the viral propagation mode shows a typical exponential growth mode at the beginning: here is the same meme, Gangnam, on a different scale. It has an induction time -- it is clear. It grew by infecting one node after another, just like biological viruses do with cells.

That's not the case for a fallout mode meme. It has no induction time: it is born instantly, pushed by the MSM. Here is an example, Bataclan, the terror attacks in Paris, in 2015.

You see? No induction time. It grows from zero to the maximum in no time.

But we were speaking about Greta Thunberg, right? What kind of meme is she? Well, let's look for her memetic essence on Google Trends, and there you go:

You see how quick is the growth of the meme? It is a fallout mode, not a grassroots mode. Not so sharp as for Bataclan others but, clearly, there was some force pushing her on the Web.

But this was obvious from the beginning. We know exactly where the Greta Thunberg meme comes from: it is a creation of a Swedish company called "We Don't Have Time." The story is told by Cory Morningstar, and also by Nicolas Casaux, I haven't checked all the details, but these descriptions make sense to me, especially in view of the curve from Google trends. In short, Greta Thunberg is a memetic weapon.

That doesn't mean we should share Cory Morningstar's criticism. After all, the relation of Greta Thunberg and the company called "We Don't Have Time" is open for everybody to see -- it is no secret. Besides, the enemies of humankind are using the same memetic weapons, but in secrecy. Look at this

Yes, Climategate, the famous "scandal" that purportedly proved that all the world's scientists had formed a conspiracy to invent a non-existing danger for their personal advantage. Look at how fast the curve grows: there is almost no induction time. Not a grassroots emergence, someone has been pushing this meme. The MSMs were immediately involved to diffuse something that, in itself, was just boring: who would have cared about the personal messages that some scientists had exchanged? But who was that "someone" pushing? We don't know -- and probably we never will. The dark side of the memesphere fights against humankind and they use memetic weapons.

So, folks, this is a memetic war that we are fighting. We are fighting for our survival and we need weapons: no war in history was ever won using just moral superiority. If Greta Thunberg is a memetic weapon, then she is a good meme, created for a good purpose. And let's go on and fight.

h/t Philippe Gauthier and Nicolas Casaux


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)