Manufacturing consent begins by weaponizing the meme and utilizing the censorship algorithms of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. A fully weaponized meme is culturally transformative, and it is many things simultaneously. It’s a combination of smoke and mirrors, illusions, and lies hidden between facts. The meme is the doctored photo of the crystallization of sweat on the protester’s brow at a riot that never happened. It’s that idea begging to be expressed in any other mechanism but words. It’s the full arsenal of loaded weapons in the anarchist’s revolution. It’s about tapping into the emotional component of an idea that can spark a revolt. It’s about using language, images, and colors to alter the natural state of one’s psychology. After a meme proves to be successful, it then comes down to weaponizing all digital vectors for its distribution, mutation, and replication into the neural pathways of the targeted digital tribes so it becomes part of their culture. Meme warfare succeeds when ineffective memes fail as quickly as possible so that one successful meme can be developed, digitally rooted, and organically spread virally; this cycle is repetitive and continuous for the life of the campaign.

First and foremost, the most profound weapon a nation or special interest group can possess is “control” over information. This contributes to control over the narrative, and the meme is the embryo of the narrative. A meme is a unit of information used to convey part or the entirety of an idea, behavior, practice, style, or feeling between individuals who share a level of understanding based on culture, religion, or ideology. [3]. As a unit, the meme is a piece of thought conveyed between two entities, regardless of whether the thought contains others inside it or is itself a layer in a more robust meme. A meme is a unit of information, but it is not necessarily atomic or quantized. Some ideas can be dissected into smaller units, while others cannot. In some cases, it is situational. As Susan Blackmore explains, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are an extremely recognizable audio meme, and other notes may not be as recognizable, yet the symphony itself is still a meme [4]. A linguistic meme could range from a single syllable to an entire speech in which that unit occurred, provided that some hosts retain an association of analogous understanding. If you recall the Gettysburg address whenever the phrase “fourscore” is communicated, then you possess that memetic association. Similar associations apply to slang (i.e., “lol”), words, symbols, sounds, and images.

Meme transmission is based on the conveyance of one or more ideas to the senses of a target host via photons, sound waves, tactile interaction, or other senses [4]. Memes can be transmitted via symbols, writing, images, sounds, actions, or any other mechanism through which information can be transferred intentionally or unintentionally between parties. Memes are often considered analogs to genes because memes self-replicate, respond to selective pressure, and mutate [4]. They evolve in culture and across user platforms according to natural selection. Memorable, ubiquitous, relevant, and pervasive memes outlive those that fail to resonate with their target audience. Successful memes spread virally among users and communities. As the adoptive audience widens, the meme begins its “reproductive process,” in which it mutates, experiences variation, faces competition, and inherits the dominant traits of other successful units. The adoptive audience or hosts become infected with the underlying idea or message of the meme. They propagate it to new users or audiences. Meme propagation, replication, mutation, and survivability are proportional to their pervasiveness, invasiveness, and resonation in the memory of their hosts. Derivative or boring units will go extinct, while successful memes will replicate and mutate, regardless of the will of the host and regardless of whether they prove detrimental to the welfare of the host [4].

Memetics is the study of the conceptualization and transmission of memes according to an evolutionary model [4]. Richard Dawkins, the originator of the term “meme,” postulated that for memes to evolve, they had to be subject to new conditions, have the capacity to replicate in part or whole, and express differential “fitness,” in which differing memes excel or fail under differing conditions. Over time, memes evolve and compound into collectives referred to as memeplexes, such as cultural or political doctrines or systems [4]. Memeplexes consist of memes and meme groups, but operate and evolve as a single unit. Memes within the memeplex “piggyback” on the success of the memeplex [4].

Critics challenge whether memes can be studied academically or empirically based on the relative immeasurability of how well a discrete unit conveys an idea to an individual host or how much influence the originator has over the mutation and transmission of the meme [4]. For memetic weaponization in influence operations, these critics’ concerns are not applicable. As with other forms of social engineering, with even a modest victim pool, a success of even a fraction of a percent can be enough to enable the adversary to further their campaign. Consider, if a threat actor’s lure is seen by 100,000 social media users, but only 500 of those users respond, then the campaign may still be successful if they inspire the host to any action. If 500 users share a provocative meme, then each may indoctrinate others, invoke community divisions, replicate the meme on other platforms, or mutate the meme to increase its virility. Even with a generous failure rate (i.e., the meme expires or has no effect), the exponential spread ensures that memes that do not fail immediately may continue to replicate and mutate for a considerable time with no additional input of resources from the adversary. In effect, every meme has the chance to become a self-replicating, self-mutating, and automatically adjusting virus in the minds of a psychographically or demographically targeted population.


The creation, distribution, and perpetuation of memes consume very few adversarial resources. With minimal additional effort, a threat actor can retail or deploy a novel or mutated meme to replace an ineffective one, or it can inject the meme into a different environment to determine whether it will spread to a new community. The memetic lifecycle is governed by retention and transmission. The more confrontational or memorable a unit, the greater the likelihood it will embed in the host and propagate. Every like, share, description, confrontation, or derivative inspired by a meme perpetuates its life. Once the idea has taken hold, it is difficult to displace unless a competing meme is more persuasive and more influential. Even then, an idea is difficult to eliminate once the seed has been planted. After information is learned, even seemingly trivial data, the brain forms distinct neural pathways, and every time the host requests information on a topic, their neurons attempt to follow those pathways so long as they remain even partially active. Even if they learn the information differently or learn new data that alters their perception or analysis of the information, their mind will occasionally provide them with the memetic information. Those notions may modify behaviors, inform opinion, or otherwise influence individuals in unpredictable and undesired ways. In a broad sense, exemplary successful memes are the reason many retain a periodic fear of the dark even in adulthood, why countless individuals share the same clichéd cultural nightmare of “going to school in their underwear,” and why numerous conspiracy theories and urban legends survive despite overwhelming refuting evidence. Resilient neural pathways that remain active even after retraining and additional learning are dominant factors in why some people continuously make the same mistake; why students have difficulty learning and retaining material that was not effectively communicated initially; and why most adults can remember the layout of their childhood home, even though they may not have been there for decades.

Memes are often compared to genes; however, the former displays both Darwinian and Lamarckian traits. Darwinian replication can be approximated as “copying according to a specific set of instructions,” while Lamarckian replication is “copying the product.” Memes inherit from previous successful iterations and replicate as an inference, rather than an exact copy. As a result, simple skills such as writing or homebuilding can iteratively develop based on past successes or failures. Viewers can learn by example, rather than accurate or precise understanding [4].

Memes replicate vertically from parent to child and horizontally between hosts. Replication can occur through transmission or imitation. Furthermore, memes, as units of information, can be communicated directly or indirectly, as well as retained intentionally or unintentionally. Even behavioral memes, such as waving, or empathetic memes, such as feelings or moods, may seamlessly transfer between hosts. Some have likened memes to “thought contagions” [4]. Academics have noted several patterns of meme transmission. Ideas that directly or indirectly perpetuate the meme or facilitate the transmission of derivatives are replicated more than adverse ones (i.e., an idea is more difficult to cull than to spread). Separation effects, such as “ideological bubbles” or cultural separation barriers, are prime examples. Memes may also horizontally spread via proselytism – an attempt at indoctrination or conversion – as is often the case with religious, political, or ideological indoctrination. Primal humanity retains a sense of tribalism and vindication via aggression; consequently, memes may transmit because they encourage or enable attacks on ideological adversaries or their underlying beliefs. Some memes survive simply because they are memorable or interesting. These cogent units are transmitted, often without imitation or mutation, and may not self-replicate according to memetic theory. Finally, many memes spread through hosts’ desire for them to be true, factual, or known. The perpetuation of these “motivational” units is contingent on the self-interests of their adopters. Though “motivational” memes do not self-propagate, they are transmitted, and in some cases, their memetic impact may be the most significant as hosts replicate, mutate, or invent other memes to support or defend the “motivational” meme [4].

Critics often contend that memes lack quantization, or the absolute guarantee to convey the intended information, and have the same distinct impact on multiple hosts regardless of environmental context. Academic debates on the validity of the study of memetics as science are outside the scope of this work. Whether memetics is a proto-science or a pseudoscience does not matter when analyzing strategic threat actor campaigns, because both the actor and the analyst are operating from the same frame of reference; a meme is a unit of information that, on its own or in combination with other memes, has the potential to influence the thoughts or actions of a specific or general target when transmitted, replicated, or mutated. For the purposes of adversarial influence operations, these inconsistencies in the nature of memes may be more of a boon to adversarial influence operations than a disadvantage. Memes do not have to be “culturgens” [4]. Threat actors do not intend to convey cultural information accurately or precisely. They operate to sow the seeds of division and fan the flames of chaos. Memes that are divulged from the parent to incite community divisions or misinform the populace are deemed successful by strategic influence architects. The excessive instabilities in memetic reception and perpetuation only intensify the potential harm an attacker can inflict with a meme. Propagandists from Russia, China, and other nations typically pander memes to both sides or multiple factions of sensitive conflicts in an attempt to breed discord, capitalize from chaos, derail productive discussion, distract impending investigations, dwindle valuable resources, or polarize susceptible populations. When Russian operatives weaponized memes on social media to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, they did not have to control whether their anti-Clinton ad enraged a liberal or whether their pro-Trump ad disenfranchised a Republican, because those seemingly adverse outcomes were still desirable. Any outcome other than inaction or ignorance is favorable to an adversarial influence campaign, because once enough users are affected even minutely, the actor can adjust or tailor the meme to be more influential on the target population. Using victim response demographic and psychographic metadata (such as that collected and sold by social media platforms), the attacker can create or adjust memes capable of conveying specific ideas consistently, eliciting precise responses, or mutating along certain trajectories. As adversaries collect more audience response metadata from their bots, ads, or social media capitalists turned propagandists, they gain more control over the variables governing meme transmission, retention, longevity, and influence.

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