Does Social Media Accelerate the Spread of Dangerous Ideas?

Is the social web becoming a dangerous platform for contagious, destructive ideas? As social media usage grows and becomes a hive mind of collective consciousness, it enables a number of positive things to happen, but it also presents a grave danger in the form of dangerous memes.

Dan Dennet gave a great TED talk that I’ve mentioned before where he explores dangerous memes. He defines these as parasitic ideas that subordinate genetic interests, in that they can flourish and spread even when they cause harm to the people who contract them. Examples of these are “ideas to die for” like communism, capitalism, religion, fascism and contagious suicide.

Memes are ideas that act as viruses and spread from person to person. In biological infection extreme dense populations often form worst breeding grounds. Many of history’s deadliest outbreaks started in the extremely dense populations of Asia. Cholera started in Bengal and spread across India in the early eighteen hundreds. The black death is widely believed to have begun in central Asia and the third bubonic plague pandemic began in the Yunnan province of China in 1855

If memes are idea viruses, population density can be compared to technologies that bring minds closer together. Social media not only does this, but it also increases the reach available to a single infected person and the frequency of contact that other minds have with new ideas.

The old, industrial media regime had several buffering factors that hindered the spread of contagious ideas. The gatekeepers of broadcast media companies often did extensive fact checking on new stories. The speed and frequency of idea transmission under the old media was also much less than that presented by social media.

We’ve already begun to see the beginnings of dangerous meme outbreaks in social media. Many are relatively benign like the celebrity death hoaxes of stars like Tila Tequila, Britney Spears and Zach Braff. We’ve all seen examples of incorrect “facts” spreading across Twitter at lightening speed through ReTweets and stock prices have felt the pain of a rumor posted to a social site.

More sinister variations on this theme have also begun to emerge including a suspected “web-based Suicide Cults” in England and Japan, a “flash mob riot” in Philadelphia, online gang recruitment, and racist and neo-Nazi social networking. The giant Unification Church “cult” also has strong presences on Facebook and Youtube.

These phenomenon are likely only the tip of the iceberg. How long will it be before a dangerous cult, racist faction or mass-panic inducing hoax emerges that has been specifically designed for social media contagiousness?

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The Science of ReTweets Report

After putting together the most recent version of my “Science of ReTweets” presentation and putting it up on Slideshare, I got a lot of great feedback, including that it’s a little hard to understand without my explanations along with each slide.

So I pulled all the data together (including some I’ve never published on this blog) with the basic transcript of the talk I give for each slide into one 22 page PDF. That report has already been featured on Fast Company and if you want to get a copy of it, all you have to do is subscribe to my blog, either by RSS or email:

Once you’ve subscribed, you’ll see a link at the end of each post (including this one) that you can click to download the report.

And if you liked this, don’t forget to buy my book.

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The Evolution of Viral Marketing and Social Media

Change is at the very core of evolution and without it, all creatures would look alike and behave the same way.
-Martin Dansky

Communication has always been a social phenomenon, stretching back through time since before written language. But the rise of the internet has created new forms of media for memes to travel through, accelerating their spread and changing the selection pressures applied upon them. Each type of contagious media has its own criteria for success that are largely determined by the evolutionary pressures applied on it.

The first memes probably spread through humanity not as written, or likely even spoken word. Early humans were subject to the most brutal evolutionary meme pressures in that the information they learned was often a matter of life and death. One person could learn the location of a good hunting spot, or which berries were poisonous and the rest of their group would learn from them. Thus, mankind evolved to be especially adept at imitating the actions of others. If someone else was doing something, it was often a good idea to copy them, rather than try new and potentially dangerous new things.

The Homeric poems were authored hundreds of years before they were ever written down. Something about those poems, and the rest of the oral tradition kept them alive and traveling from person to person by literal “word of mouth” only. For instance, referential elements are rare in pure-oral cultures and stories are very often shaped as a David-and-Goliath-style narrative. This type of evolutionary environment demands that these poems were easy to remember and had built-in redundancy to protect vital plot elements from the contortions of purely oral transmission.

Written language allows those individuals and organizations with the tools and infrastructure for distribution to broadcast ideas to masses of people, but average people seldom had access to the same mechanisms. The only source of “authoritative” information was from the mainstream media. This means that even after written language was developed, peer-to-peer (truly social communication) occurred almost exclusively by speech.

Oral memes have propagated in a variety of forms including rumors, gossip, urban legends, slang, and proverbs. While these were sometimes also published in printed media, before the web they existed almost entirely in an oral context. These memes were still operated in a landscape where memory and retention are the most scarce resources, so those that grew and spread were very good at being remembered. Because authoritative content came only from top-down structures at this point, there were often “information gaps”, things the masses didn’t know about but wanted to. These vacuums were often quickly filled with legends, rumors and myth.

Chain letters are one form of contagious, pre-web, written, peer-to-peer media. But the postal service is a slow and limiting broadcast machine. We did not see the real power and reach chain letters were capable of until email came along. Recording a meme outside of the brain by writing it removes the selection pressure for easy to remember memes, so some of the mnemonics common in oral communication took a backseat to other features. Instead, there is a higher level of commitment and engagement (and postage investment) required before an individual will resend a letter, so the most valuable evolutionary trait for chain letters is their ability to motivate readers. Motivations come in the form of dire warnings of bad things that will happen to the reader if they “break the chain” and promises of great fortune if they continue it. In successful chain letters most of these claims are designed to be unverifiable, so they’re impossible to disprove.

The advent of the web gave average individuals the tools to quickly and easily send memes to not only those people they know personally, but also to re-broadcast them in one-to-many ways. this change allowed peer-to-peer communications take a written evolutionary path. The web allows users to spread exact duplicates of memes. Users can cut-and-paste the URL of a story and pass it on, in its original form to as many people as they like. This radically changes the selection pressures on memes by removing the need for the meme to be extremely efficient in lodging itself in its host’s memory.

The high copying-fidelity of the web makes it easier for more (even complex and referential) memes to proliferate and and the increased reach it gives the average person provides for a larger set of possible hosts. This means that the sheer number of memes (or attempted memes) has grown astronomically and their spread has accelerated, creating a new selection pressure for successful memes– they now have to cut through the clutter. Successful web memes are the ones that are most effective at quickly engaging user’s attentions and exploiting the huge reach bestowed upon users by the internet.

Email chain letters evolved from their written counterparts and exploited a powerful feature of the new medium: the forward button. When emails are forwarded, not only does the sender send an exact copy to some or all of his contacts (nearly eliminating the memory requirements found in oral memes) but the software usually attaches a list of other people who have resent or received the letter. These headers become a powerful form of social proof and are perhaps to blame for many email chain letters’ infectiousness because they play on human’s innate drive to imitate.

Instant messaging is another new media that has changed the face of social communications by allowing for two-way, real-time, written dialog. A more informal and personal method than email, memes that succeed through IM are often those that remind one person of another and will start or continue a conversation between the two people.

Social news sites have grown as a memetic watering hole for highly-influential savvy web users. Sites like Digg and Reddit are regular must-reads for an unprecedented collection of highly contagious individuals. Voting and commenting is often publicly visible on these sites which stimulates the need for an overwhelming amount of social proof before a meme “breaks through”. Social voting sites are the media that has best evolved to leverage the imitative nature of social interaction.

Blogging has its own set of more subtle social proof indicators. Readers take into account everything from the design and grammar of a site to the number of comments on each post and the number of subscribers to the blog’s feed into account when deciding if it is “authoritative” enough to spread.

Microblogging is one of the newest forms of contagious media and we don’t yet totally understand the selection pressures present for memes on sites like Twitter. The low-level of engagement required for a user to spread an idea combined with the high-speed of new content updates means that those memes which ask most directly and strongly for users to spread them tend to do very well without much motivation required.

Clearly, this is a pretty general survey of the evolution of viral marketing and social media, so I’m asking you guys to let me know what you think some of the selection pressures present in new media forms are.

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Multivariate Transmission Rates Part 2

Yesterday I posted on the first of two variables in my proposed multivariate transmission rate formula, expression rate (how many people a seed exposes to a meme) and assimilation rate (how many people exposed to that meme turn into seeds themselves). Today I want to look at two more aspects: multiple exposure assimilation and assimilation threshold.

Multiple exposures to certain memes may increase that meme’s assimilation rate. Just hearing an idea from one friend may not catch your attention or allow the meme to be retained in your memory, but when you hear it from two or more friends that could change.

People are exposed to countless new and competing memes everyday and we clearly don’t assimilate all of them. As the number of competing (exclusive) memes increases, the number of exposures needed to achieve assimilation increases as well.

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How to Make and Spread Rumors

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In 1940, the British military formed an organization as a part of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, called the “Underground Propaganda Committee” or UPC whose mission was to create and disseminate rumors as defensive weapons against the expected Nazi invasion of the the English mainland. They code-named the rumor weapons “sibs,” short for siblare, latin word “to hiss.” During the war they developed the craft and science of designing rumors and developed international networks of agents to spread the sibs. ( has a great history of the UPC.)

During World War II the Americans, under the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which eventually became the CIA, began cultivating their own rumor-weapon technologies with the help of the UPC and scientist Robert Knapp, who also wrote about rumors in an academic context. Knapp’s work was adapted by the OSS in 1943 to create a sort of manual for rumor engineers during the war. This document was de-classified in 2004.

Criteria for a Successful Rumor

  • » The successful rumor is easy to remember.
  • » The successful rumor follows a stereotyped plot.
  • » The successful rumor is a function of the momentary interests and circumstances of the group.
  • » The successful rumor exploits the emotions and sentiments of the group.

The manual says rumors are made memorable by being simple, making concrete references, using stereotypical phrases and utilizing humor, many of the same characteristics possessed by the Homeric poems and the rest of the oral tradition.

A stereotyped plot, according to the manual is “the oldest story in the newest clothes.” Old structure, typically derived from local myths, stories or legends, filled in with new content makes the best rumors.

Academic work on rumors suggests that they are “collective sense making,” they are a society’s attempt to understand something that is happening where official or formal information is scarce or non-existent. The OSS paper says that good rumors are “provoked by” and provide interpretation or elaboration on a current event, filling a “knowledge gap.” If the locals heard a big boom earlier in the day, a rumor could easily be constructed to explain it if the authorities did not.

If a group is known to have a pre-disposition to mistrusting a certain other group, like Diggers disliking Microsoft, rumors about the evils of Microsoft are easy to spread. The manual says that successful rumors justify or articulate an emotion (such as hatred, fear or desire) widely held by the target population.

Targeting Rumors
The OSS/Knapp report sketches those people or “targets” that make good vectors for rumor spreading and what sorts of rumors will spread most virally amongst them.

1. Those people who are most eager for information about events which affect them are the best targets for rumors supplying such information.

2. People with fears, hopes and hostilities stemming from their involvement in the war are most affected by rumors that feed on those feelings.

The report also detailed certain kinds of information that should be gathered prior to designing a rumor for a specific group, including:

  • » What kinds of information the group is eager for.
  • » What information the group already has and what it lacks.
  • » The current fears, hopes and hostilities the group already has.
  • » The customary and traditional ways the group deals with those fears, hopes and hostilities.

Obviously, the information about the knowledge and emotions of the group should be gather in respect to what the rumor will be about. To use the Digger example again, if you wish to start a rumor about Microsoft, you should find out what Diggers want to know about Microsoft, what they already know and what they don’t know, how they feel about the group, and the traditional ways they express themselves about Microsoft.

Spreading Rumors

The British UPC developed specially designed networks around the world through which they could seed rumors for maximum effectiveness. Each individual rumor was not seeded into every active network, as that would have appeared too obvious; rather, the networks were chosen for their appropriateness to the specific sib.


SOE’s whispering network in Turkey was a typical example of how the machinery for spreading rumours worked. A Chief Whisperer was appointed who then recruited ten Sub-whisperers, each of whom was chosen because they had specially good contact with certain classes of people from politicians and Army officers to waiters and barbers, for example. Each Sub-whisperer was conscious of the fact that he, or she, was working for SOE, but although they knew the Chief Whisperer, they did not know the identities of any of the other Sub-whisperers. Each Sub-whisperer then recruited ten to twenty unconscious agents to whom they passed on rumours.

The OSS manual also gave a little detail into how rumors should be spread:

  • » Design different rumors that reveal the same “information.”
  • » Plant such rumors in different suitable places.
  • » Design them so as to appear as of independent origin.

The OSS and the UPC both used a tactic where several rumors were constructed and seeded in such a way that they appeared to come from different sources and took different “routes” to expose the same information to the targets. This way when a person heard more than one source tell complimentary rumors, they were more likely to believe them.

Have you ever tried to start a rumor? I’d love to hear some stories.

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Why People Forward Chain Letters

Chris Garrett asked a question on twitter this morning:

Anyone know why people forward chain letters?

And since I’ve been doing some research on exactly that question recently, I thought I’d write a post detailing some of what I’ve found.

Probably the most important point is the idea that viral email chain letters are “virtual urban legends” and as such many of the motivations that cause people to spread urban legends are the same that make people forward those emails.

Many urban legends function as warnings, if you break with social rules and roles you will be punished. Go to lover’s lane with your boyfriend and a crazy serial killer will come and kill you or him (or both of you). Disregard your parents’ dislike of unhealthy fast food and you may end up eating a rat.

As I mentioned briefly in a post last week humans evolved with strong rewards to develop imitation and social learning skills. Evolutionarily, people have a motivation to be susceptible to social warnings and pass them on to their family and community.

In 1998 Edmund Chattoe published a paper for IRISS titled “Virtual Urban Legends: Investigating the Ecology of the World Wide Web” in it he studies traditional chain letters and virus warnings, and in it he cites an earlier paper by Woolgar and Russell (called “The Social Basis of Computer Viruses” I can’t find it on the web) when he says

users are rather inclined to believe in computer viruses as just ‘punishment’ for electronic promiscuity

Here the urban legend similarity is clear, if you disregard careful computer-based chastity and network with unsavory types (like downloading pirated music or programs) you’ll be punished with a computer virus.

Before email existed, chain letters propagated via snail mail and while they were still very virulent then, with the advent of the internet several factors changed which accelerated their spread. Obviously the speed of transmission and the ease at which someone can create and pass on a viral email is a lot greater than for traditional paper mail, and the anonymity of email reduces the risk to those who craft and continue the chains online.

Two of the key criterias of a successful meme are copying fidelity and fecundity, that is the less a message changes each time it is transmitted the greater the chance it has to retain the effective parts and continue spreading, and the more people it can be transmitted to the more successful it will be. Viral emails are copied verbatim and all the sender has to do is click “forward” and it an exact copy is sent to all of their friends.

In the paper mail chain letter world, most people had become immune to the over-the-top promises and demands so their effectiveness started to drop. With the ease of spread and the high copying fielding available to mental email viruses, they’ve been able to evolve into more subtle and unfalsifiable variations. The chances of a person passing the email on is great online, so the messages themselves need to require less instructions about their own replication, making them less obvious and more trustworthy. Chattoe says:

More generally, chain letters have increasingly stressed intangibles like ‘good luck’ rather than more concrete rewards. They thus render themselves immune from obvious falsification and tap into a human tendency to ‘superstition’, spotting patterns where none exist. If I fail to pass on a chain letter and shortly afterwards something bad happens, I may connect the two events and be more susceptible in future.

And while many (if not most) of these emails are debunked on sites like snopes, preliminary data from my survey shows that those who typically forward chain letters are typically less savvy users and may not know about snopes.

Perhaps the most subtle and powerful viral element of chain letters in email is the social proof that comes with many of them. Every time someone forwards one to his or her address book, another list of recipients and senders is attached to it, creating essentially a list of people who implicitly give authority to the message. If one person sends an email to another, the source may or may not be cited, and the sender’s reputation is the only real social authority the email carries, with a huge list of hundreds of others attached it, with popular viral emails, it suddenly appears that the message is common knowledge and the receiver is perhaps the only person left on the internet who wasn’t warned of the danger.

The social proof factor goes back to information cascades and the understanding that humans base many of their decisions on the choices of others, it just makes good evolutionary and survival sense to do so. Even if you may think an email is a hoax, who are you to think that you know better than hundreds of your peers? And on the off-chance the email was true, and you didn’t pass it on you didn’t do your best to protect and enrich your friends and family.

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Introduction to Memetics: What is a Meme?

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Enki, Keeper of Me

In ancient Sumerian mythology the god Enlil organized a list of divine laws or Me which eventually found their way into human hands. The Me were a set of rules and regulations detailing every part of the Sumerian culture. The author of the poem “Inanna and Enki” broke his entire civilization down to one hundred instructions, covering ideas like politics, religion, social instruments, arts and crafts, music, intellectual, emotional and social behavior patterns. Not all of the Me were beneficial to the people they ruled, since the Sumerians had good and bad gods and they had good and bad commands. In the poem the Me were described as having physical forms that were stolen from the god Enki by his granddaughter Inanna and brought to man.

In the book Snow Crash Neal Stephenson popularize the story of Sumerian Mes by describing a malicious industrialist with a world-domination plan involving Nam-Shubs, ancient mind viruses that caused their victims to experience glossolalia or speaking in toungues.

Tibetan mysticism contains an idea called a Tulpa, which is the physical manifestation of a thought, idea or prayer. Whereas a Me is a blueprint for constructing something, that “thing” that is created may be called a Tulpa.

Richard Dawkins defined “meme” as a “unit of cultural inheritance“. These are ideas that spread from person to person, ideas like jokes, fashion trends, urban legends, folk sayings and gossip. When the first person discovered how to make fire the idea spread from person to person until the entirety of human civilization was “infected” with the meme and knew how to make fire. Dawkins based the word meme on the Greek word “mimeme” but its similarity to Sumerian Me is unmistakeable.

Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene coined the term “meme” and sparked modern interest in an evolutionary reincarnation of a concept similar to the Sumerian Me, the field of memetics. Meme theory is perhaps best explored in the book Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, in it she asserts that memes replicate and spread by way of imitation, but she made an important distinction between replication where the final product or behavior is imitated, and where the instructions are copied. To use the Sumerian example, if you have a Me that tells you how to weave a basket, in the later it is the Me itself, that is replicated and spreads between people, not the Tulpa basket, and in the former you see the basket and you decide to make your own just like it. Dawkins and Blackmore both postulate that humans are the only animal that learns by imitation and that this is the primary mechanism by which memes spread, explaining why humans seem to be the only animal vulnerable to mind viruses. Later research has cast this theory in a dubious light, as other animals including birds and primates also learn by imitation and may also be memetic vectors.

In the marketing world we speak of ideas “going viral” and our key metaphor for memes are viruses, infecting a host and then being transmitted to others. From this concept research (pdf) has been done into the reproduction rates of various memes, that is the average number of new people infected by each person who “catches” the virus. If a Meme has a reproduction rate under one, the growth of the virus will eventually stop, if it is over or equal to one it will continue to spread indefinitely (or at least until some outside factor reduces it’s reproduction rate).

A key point with memes (and indeed biological viruses) is that they are “motivated” like genes are. Those memes that survive and grow do not do so because of the value they provide to their hosts, but because they are good at replicating and spreading. This is the “selfish meme” concept, just like the Sumerians had good and bad Me, we have good and bad memes. History is replete with examples of bad ideas, detrimental to those who internalized them, that spread like wildfire, so when we are looking to judge an idea’s potential virality we should largely ignore the value the idea bestows upon its host organisms.

Earworm Discussion

I asked the question “What is your worst/best earworm?” on twitter and got some great responses, check out my favorites to see.

To be successful a meme must posses two traits, longevity and fecundity. Longevity is the ability of the meme to force it’s host brain to retain it for a period of time, ideas that are easily forgotten do not spread very far. Earworms are simple musical tunes that get stuck in your head because they become trapped in your phonological loop, an auditory memory bank. Fecundity is the ability of a meme to reproduce, there must be some element of the idea that commands it’s host to express it in a contagious fashion. When you start humming that song you have stuck in your head the earworm is being given a chance to lodge itself in the mind of everyone within earshot. I’ve written before, in more depth, about the criteria needed for memetic success, and about the way memes force retention in the human brain.

Online memes come in many forms, from viral videos like the Starwars kid and email chain letters to entire content “genres” like lolcats. Rickrolling is an example of a meme that is not only a piece of content, but a behavioral pattern, here the idea is not just to spread the video, but to trick people into watching it when they thought they were clicking on a relevant link. The instructions replicate, not just the final product. Typically online, we see mostly memes where the Me is copied, you see a page and you send the link to your friends, but in cases like Lolcats and Rickrolling, is often the other type of “Tulpa” replication, where you see the behavior and imitate that.

In the blogosphere the definition of “meme” has taken on a sort of sub-meaning, where it is a list of questions that one blogger answers and then asks other’s to answer in posts as well. Often each blogger will “tag” more people to participate and the meme will spread from blog to blog. The viral roots of this meaning are clear to see.

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