In order to appreciate the notion of an unethical Internet meme, it is necessary to first understand the origin of the meme concept. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his seminal 1976 work The Selfish Gene. Dawkins is a formidable scholar in the fields of ethology and, in particular, evolutionary biology (Hooper, 2006). He describes a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (Dawkins, 2006, p. 192) and postulates an analogue between memes and genes when stating that “anything that spreads by imitation, as genes spread by bodily reproduction or by viral infection, is a meme ” (Dawkins, 2000, p. 304). Other scholars have broached the topic of replicating units of culture. In 1998’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Edward O. Wilson cast aside his co-developed culturgen construct in favor of meme and proposed that “the unit of culture-now called meme-be the same as the node of semantic memory and its correlates in brain activity” (p. 148). Setting aside the ongoing debate about meme as a genetic analogy and meme as a neuroscience construct, it is reasonable to view a meme as a basic unit of culture, encapsulating ideas, symbols and practices; transmissible from one mind to another through mechanisms facilitating imitation, such as writing, speech, gestures, and rituals. Examples of memes include “good ideas, good tunes, good poems, as well as drivelling mantras” (Dawkins, 2000, p. 304). Interestingly, the concept of a meme is, by definition, a meme.
With this established, an Internet meme is simply “an idea, image, catchphrase or video that goes viral, mutating via amateur remixes into unexpected forms” (Gross, 2010). The MacMillan Dictionary describes it as “some kind of idea or piece of information that spreads very rapidly across a large number of Internet users” (Maxwell, 2010). Examples of Internet memes abound: viral YouTube videos, email hoaxes forwarded via email from person to person, fake eBay “for sale” listings, and an otherwise varied collection of unbounded inanity.
When Good Fun Goes Bad
Concerns arise when memes are used unethically: In one instance, what began in the real world when “a young woman’s small dog pooped on a train” (Solove, 2007, p. 1) quickly moved to cyberspace when pictures of her and the incident made their way to a blog and, ultimately, resulted in her dropping out of university due to invasion of privacy and the ensuing public shaming and embarrassment (Solove, 2007).
While the story of Dog Poop Girl highlights the very tangible impact an Internet meme can have on an individual, other Internet memes cast an even wider and potentially more harmful shadow. Case in point, the “You Gonna Get Raped” (known by the acronym YGGR) meme is a particularly salient illustration of the very real impact one ill-advised meme can have on an individual and a larger group of people. YGGR is a catchphrase and image macro used to convey creepiness or intimidation, albeit in a playful manner (Know Your Meme, 2009). The imagery associated with this meme features an African-American male, believed to be William Todd, who at the time of agreeing to have his picture taken for America’s Refuse: Homeless in the Heartland, was a chronically unemployed, homeless drug addict. One particularly unsettling image from the photo shoot made its way to the comedy website Something Awful with the aforementioned tagline (Know Your Meme, 2009). The results were catastrophic for Todd; he was purportedly fired from his job as a supervisor at a newspaper after the meme infected his employer’s environment (LiveJournal, 2006). In addition to the impact on Todd, it negatively impacted society by reinforcing stereotypes associated with African-American men, particularly those that are homeless. A check of Google Insights For Search with the terms “yggr” and “you gonna get raped” shows the lifespan of this particular meme: It has been spreading since early 2004 with 2011 projections equal to or exceeding those realized in 2004. The veracity of the story underpinning this particular meme is of little consequence; clearly it is a powerful replicator that possesses longevity.
The Internet as Fertile Ground for Memes
This, of course, begs the question: What makes for a successful Internet meme? As with a garden-variety meme, it’s a function of the interplay of three variables: (a) copying-fidelity: the closer the copy is to the original, the more that remains of the original meme; (b) fecundity: the faster the rate of replication, the more the meme will spread; and (c) longevity: the longer a copy persists, the more copies can be made of it (Dawkins, 2006). In the case of the Internet we have an environment that maximizes the creation of high-fidelity copies at a very high rate. Ubiquitous technologies such as email; Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds; and instant messaging services, such as Twitter, facilitate fast and exact meme replication on a massive scale. In the case of the third variable, longevity, the Internet provides long-term persistence potential through search engine retrieval of memes stored in web pages and a host of other web-based technologies.
Delving deeper, beyond the meme-friendly attributes of the Internet as medium, is there something innate in the Internet and how humans experience it that makes it fertile ground for memes of an unethical nature? (Examples of unethical memes could include those that promote intolerance, constitute hate speech, promote criminal activity, and engage in deception in order to obfuscate truth.) The answer is clearly yes and the reasons, I propose, are rooted in (a) well-established cognitive biases; (b) tendency of the Internet to promote deindividuation; and (c) information overload associated with the Internet’s volume of information. Let’s explore the relationships between these.
The availability heuristic involves basing the estimated probability of an event on the ease with which relevant instances come to mind (Weiten, 2004, p. 325). Perusal of YouTube for a “9/11 conspiracy theory proof” yields slightly more than 1600 hits, while fewer than 1300 hits emerge when looking for “9/11 conspiracy theory debunked”. Without critically appraising the arguments for and against, the number of videos supporting the conspiracy theory may tend to exaggerate one’s view of the improbable.
Stereotypes are widely held beliefs that people have certain characteristics because of their membership in a particular group (Weiten, 2004, p. 649). The YGGR meme described earlier is a powerful representation of racial and class stereotyping that gains significant traction if one rejects the subject as a member of “an ingroup-a group that one belongs to and identifies with” (Weiten, 2004, p. 651).
The just-world phenomenon is the tendency to believe the world is just and that people therefore get what they deserve and deserve what they get (Myers & Spencer, 2006, p. 428). Real-life examples of people who got what they deserved through Internet shaming abound. Solove’s account of The Star Wars Kid serves as a prime example (2007). The incessant harassment-driven by a rampant Internet meme-and resulting trauma, necessitating psychiatric care, highlight how “observing a person being victimized is enough to make the victim seem less worthy” (Myers & Spencer, 2006, p. 428).
The aforementioned cognitive biases are heightened by the anonymous, pseudonymous and, ultimately, deindividuating nature of the Internet that makes “one less self-conscious and more responsive to cues present in the situation” (Myers & Spencer, 2006, p. 254). In turn, these powerful forces are exacerbated by what Alvin Toffler calls information overload: interference with our ability to think rationally due to cognitive overstimulation stemming from novel or fast and irregularly changing situations (1984).
Is it possible to counter the innate nature of the Internet as a breeding ground for unethical memes? The answer is yes and the following are likely contributors:
Critical thinking skills. Development of critical thinking skills through education promotes rational thought and is a powerful tool in countering the effects of unethical memes. Additionally, it enables development of higher-order moral reasoning as defined by Kohlberg’s postconventional stage (Wilkins & Christians, 2009).
Public discourse and education. Open discussion on the topic educates people on the finer points of the problem and serves to prepare them for future exposure. As the saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed.”
Reduced anonymity. It begins by enhancing the Internet’s human element; that is, the layer of the Internet that focuses on human beings. This is gaining traction through development of a Social Semantic Web which, among other things, challenges anonymity through access to “personal and professional information about people” (Breslin, Passant & Decker, 2009, p. 279). As a possible harbinger of anonymity’s status, media monolith Thomson Reuters recently banned anonymous comments on its website, citing concerns over “repetition, taste, or legal risk” (Wright, 2010).
Counter-memes. A counter-meme involves the generation of a meme aimed at neutralizing another meme. They are reactionary in nature and akin to fighting fire with fire. They appear to have at least some impact as portrayed in Mike Godwin’s amusing account of the development of Godwin’s Law (2004). Godwin’s Law asserts that “[a]s an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one” (2004). Godwin noted a reduction in the number of references to fascism and Nazi-like ideas on the message boards he frequented after releasing his counter-meme.
The Expectation of Maturation
The Internet is changing rapidly as a mass media tool and with that process comes the expectation of maturation-maturation of the underlying technologies and, most importantly, the laws and ethical frameworks that seek to constrain it.
The challenge is to find an equilibrium between the freedom of speech rightfully afforded media on the Internet while nurturing growth of an environment that values honesty and ethical behavior.
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