Well fuck me…
I just finished reading a study on ‘the Utility of Memes for U.S. Government Influence Campaigns’, released by the CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization.
This was probably one of the most interesting article I’ve read in months.
You would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of news about Russian information operations, and recent PSYOPS initiatives à la Cambridge Analytica; but,
Could sharing funny memes actually be used as a form of information warfare?
The CNA suggests they could!
Read the full CNA article at this link here, or you can download a PDF version here.
I’ve summarised the articles key points here:
How Could Memes Be Used In Information Operations?
People like pictures. Images offer some advantages over text, making visual memes well-suited for influence campaigns.
- Images are liked and shared three times more frequently than other types of online content;
- Images increase the likelihood someone will follow instructions (people perform over 300% better with accompanying images);
- Images significantly improve information retention.
Inoculate, infect, and treat.
CNA identified three ways memes may be situated intentionally within information and influence campaigns:
- to inoculate,
- to infect, and
- to treat.
Inoculate: To use a meme in an effort to protect against a threat or anticipated attack.
- Example – the CNA report used a case study from Japan showing how ‘Japan is fighting ISIS with Super-Kawaii Tweets’. While the Japanese campaign provoked controversy, it was effective in undermining ISIS’s image.
Infect: To use a meme to spread a specific message—that aligns with broader mission objectives.
- Example – Russian interference in U.S. presidential election.
- Example – ISIS sympathizers launched Twitter Account to portray a ‘softer’ side to ISIS
Treat. To use a meme to treat an already circulating message.
- Example – In 2015, the U.S. Embassy in Russia responded to a Russian disinformation campaign by promoting fake news about U.S. Ambassador John Tefft.
- The U.S. embassy effectively treated the Russian attempt to infect—by turning Tefft’s image into a meme and created their own photoshopped images to mock the fake story.
- Utility. Memes have utility in information and influence campaigns to counter state actors such as Russia and non-state actors such as the Islamic State.
- Shared Language. Memes constitute a “shared cultural language.”
- Emotionally evocative. Research shows emotional cues are preferentially processed in the brain. –Which might explain why we scan internet articles and stop at the pictures.
Issues / Disadvantages:
- Change behaviour. Changing attitude does not necessarily change behaviour.
- Hard to measure. It’s hard to measure the effectiveness and success of memes for off-screen behaviour.
- Meh Factor. They need to be relevant to the audience – and ‘stick’
Conclusion. Memes have significant potential for enhancing influence campaigns but additional research is needed to understand how to employ them effectively.
- Here’s the link to the full article, or you can download a PDF version here.
- Link to the CNA homepage (they wrote the study)
- AnalystAF – Intelligence Analyst Memes – for LOLs
- PSYOPS – Related Article
Have you got experience working in PSYOPS? Are you part of the information operation community? If so, tell us – Do you think Memes have potential in Information Warfare? And more specifically, how could they be measured (i.e. shares, comments)?
Let us know.