Why the US Government Spent Millions Trying to Weaponize Memes

Military Memetics and the strange story of the SMISC

July 14th, 2011. The US Department of Defense put out a press release that went widely unnoticed, buried in a poorly formatted government website. DARPA was forming a new initiative: SMISC, Social Media in Strategic Communications.

At the time, it must have seemed a bit laughable — Instagram had just five million users. The idea of social media “influencers” was nascent. Your parents weren’t on Facebook yet.

And memes still looked like this:

It’s odd, isn’t it? Bad Luck Brian seems like quaint vestigial humor from a different internet. A more structured place, where memes had strict formats enforced by communities like Reddit, imgur, and 4chan.

It was into this primordial memetic environment that the SMISC laid out its four objectives:

“ 1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation. 
2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities. 
3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns. 
4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.”

It’s the fourth point that’s a bit suspicious and and smells like propaganda. I’m not making assumptions here; it’s a stated goal. Hold on, because this is where things get a little weird.

Dr. Robert Finkelstein worked on the Military Memetics program, the predecessor of the SMISC. He gave a presentation at the Social Media for Defense Summit a few years back. It’s 155 slides on memes and military applications therein. Putting aside the fact that he calls memes “e-memes” (what a nerd), there are some insidiously transparent goals of the program. For instance, memes will “exploit the psychological vulnerabilities of hostile forces to create fear, confusion, and paralysis, thus undermining their morale and fighting spirit”.

As a matter of fact, Dr. Robert Finkelstein proposed creating an entity called the Meme Control Center as “a framework for meme-war”. This entity would both analyze enemy memes for information and produce friendly memes for offensive purposes.

Whether the Meme Control Center was ever actualized or not is classified information. We’ll never know what happened unless there is some sort of leak (and as of now only the CIA’s very lame internal memes have been leaked).

But simply the fact that this idea was seriously considered at the highest levels of the Department of Defense is remarkable. It speaks volumes about the world we live in and the immense power something as simple as memes can have, whether wielded by 14-year-olds or the CIA.

Keep in mind, it is officially illegal for the US to deploy propaganda on domestic audiences because of the Smith-Mundt Act. However, that hasn’t stopped folks like Dr. Robert Finkelstein from positing that “a post-communism narrative is needed for the global struggle against asymmetric adversaries”.

It also hasn’t stopped the SMISC from partnering with major social media corporations like Facebook to collect user data. And given what we know from the Snowden NSA leaks, one can’t help but be a tad concerned about the ethical quandaries that arise from such research. Especially when a stated purpose of the military memetics program is “Countering terrorists and insurgents before and after they become terrorists and insurgents: influencing beliefs in a scientific way”.

Here’s a list of some of the studies that have been conducted. As odd as it may seem, military researchers take this dead seriously and the program has a massive budget.

- Visual Thinking Algorithms for Visualization of Social Media Memes, Topics, and Communities
-Clustering Memes in Social Media
-From Task to Visualization: Application of a Design Methodology to Meme Visualization
-Two-stage Classification for Tracking Memes in Microblogs
-Competing Memes Propagation on Networks: A Network Science Perspective

But the millions of dollars poured into Military Memetics and the SMISC beg one very, very simple question:

How good can the US government possibly be at making memes?

I’ll come clean about something here: I look at a lot of memes. I consume them voraciously. And I’ve noticed something over the last few years.

In 2011, memes were largely structured with extremely specific rules, like Bad Luck Brian. Posting communities enforced norms and violating a meme format would result in a virtual tar-and-feathering.

However, since that time period, memes have spread across platforms and communities like wildfire (you even see memes on LinkedIn today). Formats loosened and rules became more subjective. Gradually memes were not just canonical images of Philosoraptor and Bachelor Frog, but rather any image overlaid with text. Then they became multimedia — Vine gave birth to audio-visual memes like “My name is Jeff”. Hell, Twitter made memes out of grammar itself- typing without capitalization, purposeful misspellings, and lack of punctuation. Bone apple tea.

Meta-memetics is the modern mode of humor we live in. Memes are often only funny in relation to one’s knowledge of other memes. Formats are invented, played out, and then ironically and humorously inversed, appropriated, or exaggerated. Sometimes in the course of a few days. Bad Luck Brian lasted years. Salt Bae is more transient. Meme trends change so rapidly there’s even a “all of [month] in one meme” meme.

Taken to the extreme, memes evolve into some crazy Edward Albee/Salvador Dali absurd/surreal anti-humor. Do yourself a favor and spend a little time of the Facebook page “Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes”. It is a true subversion of memes: all content submitted must original. And it must be useless. They are anti-memes. An example:

This sort of anti-meme culture is very closely tied to mental health meme culture, a genre growing extraordinarily fast, cracking self-aware jokes on nihilism, substance abuse, and mental illness to destigmatize and build community.

A close friend asked her 15 year old brother what high-schoolers thought was cool these days. He replied, “Wanting to die.” If you think this is concerning, you clearly haven’t been looking at the same memes as me.

The 2011 style of memes? Well, they’re now disparagingly referred to as “normie” memes.

As Monet was replaced by a signed toilet, so have anti-memes risen. “Ceci n’est pas une meme”.

So in this ambiguous, rapidly changing landscape, can the government ever hope to achieve any degree of “virality”? Or is it as hopeless as algorithms producing the next Guernica?

It’s a question that’s more pressing now then ever, especially coming off of the most memed American election in history, with 4chan, Russian trolls, and Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash occupying hundreds of millions of eyeballs.

But it’s a question I can’t answer. By the very nature of the tactic, we can’t see its effect. Russia hired 1,000 trolls. But when you click on, scroll through or get emailed a meme, you can never know who made it.

That’s the sublime aspect of memes — no owners, no creators.

Just messengers.

That’s beautiful, and that’s terrifying.