The One Defense Against Weaponized Memes

How to strengthen our cultural immune response in the trigger wars

Douglas Rushkoff
Mar 4 · 3 min read
Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images

The technologies through which memes are being transmitted change so rapidly that it is impossible to recognize their new forms — their shells — in advance. We must instead build our collective immune system by strengthening our organic coherence — our resistance to the socially destructive memes within them.

This is particularly difficult when the enemies of Team Human are busy escalating memetic warfare with artificial intelligence. Each of their algorithms is designed to engage with us individually, disconnect us from one another, neutralize our defense mechanisms, and program our behavior as if we were computers. Television advertisers may have normalized the idea that consumers can be experimented on like lab rats, but social media weaponizes these techniques.

At least television happened in public. The enormity of the audience was the source of its power, but also its regulating force. TV stations censored ads they found offensive for fear of losing viewers. In contrast, social media messages may cost pennies or nothing at all, are seen only by the individuals who have been targeted, and are placed by bots with no qualms about their origins or content.

Moreover, when media is programmed to atomize us and the messaging is engineered to provoke our most competitive, reptilian sensibilities, it’s much harder to muster a collective defense. We lose our ability to distinguish the real from the unreal, the actual from the imagined, or the threat from the conspiracy.

The powers working to disrupt the democratic process through memetic warfare understand this well. Contrary to popular accounts, they invest in propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum. The particular memes they propagate through social media are less important than the immune reactions they hope to provoke.

Memetic warfare, regardless of the content, discourages cooperation, consensus, or empathy. The reptile brain it triggers doesn’t engage in those prosocial behaviors. Instead, in an environment of hostile memes and isolated by social media, human beings become more entrenched in their positions and driven by fear for their personal survival. Worst of all, since these platforms appear so interactive and democratic, we experience this degradation of our social processes as a form of personal empowerment. To be truly social starts to feel like a restraint—like the yoke of political correctness, or a compromising tolerance of those whose very existence weakens our stock.

This may not have been the intent of social media or any of the communications technologies that came before it—all the way back to language. The internet doesn’t have to be used against a person’s critical faculties any more than we have to use language to lie or written symbols to inventory slaves. But each extension of our social reality into a new medium requires that we make a conscious effort to bring our humanity along with us.

We must protect our social human organism from the very things we have created.

This is section 24 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here and the following section here.

From ‘Team Human’ by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of…

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

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