How to Stop the Spread of Rumors

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Barack Obama’s campaign, even from its earliest days, has been the target of a large number of negative rumors, many of them traveling in email chain letters, forwarded from person to person. They recently launched a new microsite called “Fight the Smears” designed to counteract them. The Washington Post published an article about a researcher studying the origins of the email forwards who found that the emails were the result of a totally organic collaborative effort, where most of the participants were unaware of the identities of the others. Stopping these rumors at the source is not an option.

I don’t want to get into the politics behind the rumors, or even their truth (or lack of), what I wish to do however, is analyze the science of stopping or neutralizing rumors from a memetic perspective and see what can be learned and even applied. I’ve written about how to spread rumors, so I decided to write about how to stop rumors. I was motivated by this post from that cited my post about email chain letters.

Humans, especially modern humans are exposed to countless memes everyday since birth. Many of the ideas we come in contact with are incorrect, counter-productive or potentially even dangerous, so how does the human brain protect itself from toxic memes and how can memetic immunity be used to help counter-act the spread of negative rumors?

In 1997 Liane Gabora wrote a paper called “A Day in the Life of a Meme“, in which she mentioned that infants develop mental barriers to potentially disruptive memes, as well as memes that may be “embarrassing or disturbing or threatening to the self-image.” And Susan Blackmore said in a lecture: “Memetic immunity comes from education, reading, sharing ideas with others and above all from free speech the freedom to learn about all sorts of ideas, compare them as you will and choose for yourself which to believe.” Clearly people have a set of innate memetic immunities, and yet many adults become “infected” with the aforementioned incorrect, counter-productive and dangerous memes.

The most common way societies try to suppress certain ideas is through censorship. In memetic terms this can be understood as an attempt to eliminate the vectors by which a meme can spread, trying to prevent it from being published in news papers, or mentioned on television or radio. With the advent of the internet the actual act of eradicating broadcast outlets for a message has become basically impossible, and when dealing with particularly virulent memes, they would have spread, person-to-person, without major media anyways. The memetic lexicon also mentions that by reducing potential vectors, and thereby increasing the evolutionary pressures on memes, censorship “may actually help to promote the meme’s most virulent strain, while killing off milder forms.”

The memetic lexicon refers to something called a “Vaccime” that is an idea virus that confers immunity to other ideas on those who “catch” it. If a person has been exposed to the “round world” vaccime they will not believe or spread on the “flat world” meme. Vaccimes are typically found in memeplexes, those large collections of ideas like Conservatism, Orthodoxy, and Science, and “protect against rival memes.” The lexicon lists several examples:

  • Conservatism: automatically resist all new memes.
  • Orthodoxy: automatically reject all new memes.
  • Radicalism: embrace one new scheme, reject all others.
  • Nihilism: reject all schemes, new and old.
  • New Age: accept all esthetically-appealing memes, new and old, regardless of empirical (or even internal) consistency; reject others.

Snopes is a very well known collection of vaccimes against urban legends that spread via email chain letters, a quick search on the site turns up confirmations or debunking of the most common memes. Many memes, particularly chain letters, have developed traits (like unverifiable details and intangible rewards or punishments) which make them harder to disprove and thereby immunize against in this fashion.

Obama’s Fight the Smears website is an example of a collection of
vaccimes designed to neutralize rumors circulating about the candidate. Similar to Snopes, it is a clearinghouse of the various negative memes currently spreading and information debunking them. It also urges users to send the campaign copies of things like email chain letters that contain instances of existing or new rumors so that the campaign can debunk them before they gain much steam.

Another method of “defeating” memes is mentioned by Kas Graham (referring to Umberto Eco): “subverting of memes by mutating them. Taking a prevalent meme, for instance the Gap logo, and associating it with something bad like Hitler.” Activist publications and organizations like AdBusters use this technique extensively and it can be compared to the manufacture of biological vaccines where a harmful strain of a virus is weakened and used to create immunity. I have not seen the Obama campaign utilizing this tactic in its campaign against rumors.

Unlike most biological vaccines, many memetic immunizations induce a state of contact immunity. According to Wikipedia, contact immunity is define as “the property of some vaccines wherein contact of unimmunized individuals with a vaccinated individual can confer immunity.” Often times when an individual who has been immunized to a particular email chain letter receives a copy of it. he or she will reply with a message debunking the meme (sometimes simply a link to a site like Snopes). Giving users easy access to immunizing information and the tools to share it widely can turn a newly immunized individual into a walking-vaccime, and the Fight the Smears site does just that.

The goal of any immunization (biological or memetic) campaign is not to ensure that every individual in the population has become immunized, rather to achieve a state of herd immunity.

From Wikipedia:

Herd immunity (or community immunity) describes a type of immunity that occurs when the vaccination of a portion of the population (or herd) provides protection to unvaccinated individuals. Herd immunity theory proposes that, in diseases passed from person-to-person, it is more difficult to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of a population are immune. The more immune individuals present in a population, the lower the likelihood that a susceptible person will come into contact with an infected individual.

When the number of immunized individuals in the population exceeds the critical immunization threshold the population is considered to have herd immunity and the disease or meme will die out. The threshold is calculated with a formula that takes into account the pathogen’s reproduction rate, that is the mean number of other individuals one infected person will infect. In the formula shown, qc is the critical threshold while Ris th reproduction rate. Given enough research and study it may be able to determine the memetic immunization threshold for memes like negative Obama rumors, if the reproduction rate of the rumors could be determined, a goal could be established for number of individuals who are exposed to the vaccimes on Obama’s Fight the Smears site.

When discussing memetic immunization, herd immunity becomes an important concept because of contact immunity. Rather than merely reduce the chances a person will come in contact with another person who has been “infected” by a particular meme, it also increases the chances of a person coming in contact with an immunized person, thereby becoming immunized themselves. Additionally, herd immunity causes the probability that a broadcast of a meme (like an email chain letter) will be interrupted and counter-acted by a immunized individual, neutralizing many of the meme’s vectors for growth.

Much like seeding is an important concept in meme spreading, it is equally important in the control of memes. In an article titled “Memetic Warfare“, Dan Noe describes a clever way to identify and immunize individuals who are at high risk of being exposed to the target meme:

A possible way of keeping the number of competitors small is to lay traps for those who fit the psychological profile of a potential competitor. For example, seminars could be advertised that would appeal to people like them. Then, when they arrive, carefully present the material in such a way as to discourage them from continuing (or beginning) in their meming.

The Obama campaign seems to have taken this advice (if unconsciously) by specifically targeting the faith community on the Fight the Smears page with a call to action for supporters to send letters to the Evangelical community:

Take a few minutes to write a positive and respectful note asking members of the evangelical community to discourage the use of personal attacks and prejudice to divide Americans.

The faith community in general and the traditionally conservative Evangelicals in particular have been a rich source of hosts for anti-Obama memes and targeting them with contact immunized supporters seems a good way to begin to stem the tide.

The science of memetics provides a wealth of information that can be used by political campaigns (and other entities) to fight negative rumors and the Obama campaign, while perhaps not using this body of data overtly, has taken a large step forward towards a memetic immunization strategy with the new micro-site.

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