Small Wars Journal

Applications of the Memetic Perspective in Inform and Influence Operations

Tue, 08/13/2013 - 6:44am

Applications of the Memetic Perspective in Inform and Influence Operations

Erick Waage

The purpose of this article is to create awareness of the memetic perspective and postulate its potential applications in Inform and Influence Activities (IIA).  The concept of memetics parallels that of Biological Evolution (BE) in process, however, where BE passes genes, the memetic process passes packets of information or culture called memes.  Most BE practitioners assert that if you have the rudiments of genetic variation, selection, and heredity then one must have evolution.[i]  One can apply this same evolutionary algorithm and other BE characteristics to the transmission of memes.[ii]  Memetic Theory can potentially provide mathematical modeling tools and concepts to assist Information Operations (IO) officers when conducting IIA.  To better understand the potential applications of Memetic Theory, one must first understand its history and characteristics.

First conceptualized in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, zoologist Richard Dawkins theorized that, much like the transmission of genetic information from parent to child or from a virus to its host, thoughts, ideas, and culture are replicated and transmitted from one mind to another using a process similar to that of BE.  He named the unit of transmitted information “meme”.[iii]

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. ... Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.[iv]

Memetics, therefore, is the proposed science that studies the replication, evolution, and diffusion of memes into a population, with replication being the key element to the concept.

Following Dawkins’ model, a replicator, either a gene or a meme, is a “system that is able to make copies of itself, typically with the help of some other system”.[v] So, a meme, or unit of information, acts as a replicator when it is communicated or imitated from one mind, or host, to another.  Further, in accordance with Dawkins, effective replicators should possess three characteristics: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity.  Longevity is valuable in that the longer a replicator remains active, the more imitations or copies can be made of it.  Next, a replicator’s fecundity is important as a faster rate of copying translates into a more extensive dispersion.  Lastly, copy-fidelity means the more exact an imitation is to its replicator, the more likely the imitation will remain accurate after several iterations of copying.[vi]  With the latter three characteristics in mind, one must now look to the stages of the replication loop to gain further insight into Memetic Theory.

Building on Dawkins’ work, Francis Heylighen and Klaas Chielens conjectured on the dynamics of meme replication and spread stating that to replicate successfully a meme must pass through four subsequent gates in its life-cycle, which consist of: assimilation, retention, expression, and transmission.  The first stage, assimilation, begins with the “infection” of the carrier or host of the meme, and is followed by the second stage, retention, in which the host maintains possession of the meme.  The third stage, expression, is the shaping and selecting of the meme from the host’s memory into a comprehensible unit of information, i.e. language, writing, painting, ect.  The final stage is the transmission or communication of the meme, via a chosen conduit, from the host to one or more individuals.[vii]  With this general conceptual understanding of Memetic Theory and the memetic life-cycle or replication loop one can, using computational models, predict memetic patterns such as, but not limited, to memetic fitness.  According to Heylighen and Chielens, fitness is the “overall success rate of a replicator, as determined by its degree of adaptation to its environment, and the three requirements of longevity, fecundity and copying-fidelity”.[viii]  Using a meme as the replicator, below one can express memetic fitness, F, as a function applying the memetic life-cycle with assimilation A, retention R, expression E, and transmission T.

F(m) = A(m).R(m).E(m).T(m)  

A, being the number of memes assimilated by a host, is greater than or equal to one. R, equaling the proportion of memes retained to memory by a host, is less than or equal to one.  E representing the number of times a meme is expressed to a host and, lastly, T equating to the number of potential new hosts the meme is expressed to.[ix]   A, R, E, and T cannot individually equal zero, otherwise the product and the meme’s fitness will be zero.  IO officers can potentially apply such mathematical models, and certainly the memetic perspective, to IIA in a multitude of ways. 

Memetic fitness is paramount when synchronizing our themes, messages, and talking points.  Most IIA professionals no doubt prefer the information they transmit to their target audiences to possess longevity, fecundity, and copy-fidelity.  For example, the memetic fitness function, F(m), can potentially provide IO officers one of many potential mathematical modeling tools to weigh and value the memes they desire to leverage against the audience, adversary, or enemy decision-maker they wish to inform or influence.  However, the IO officer would have to assess and identify the values of A, R, E, and T.  Determining the meme’s fitness would provide the IO officer with some measure of prediction for the overall success rate of the meme prior to transmission.  To assist in the meme or message design process, he or she would then be able to compare the effectiveness of different memes and mediums against each other given his or her unique information environment. Besides the modeling applications identified by this example, the concepts presented in Memetic Theory can assist in constructing IIA in the cognitive dimension.

Though Memetic Theory has a place at the Strategic and Operational levels of war, tactically, to assist in conceptual framing, IO officers can apply the principles of Memetic Theory when crafting themes, messages, and talking points in IIA.  For example, concerning measures of performance (MOP), one might determine that a target failed to retain the meme because the handbill or medium for transmitting the message did not thoroughly express the meme.  Alternatively, concerning measures of effectiveness (MOE) an IO officer might determine that the copy-fidelity of a meme delivered by his or her commander to the local clergy at a senior leader engagement was poorly translated culturally, resulting in the clergyman issuing an inaccurate meme to his congregation and community.[x]  Analysis of MOPs and MOEs are just two examples of the many potential applications gained from the memetic perspective when conceptually framing IIA.  Despite the above examples of memetic applications to IIA, there still remains much to be done in the field of Memetic Theory.  

Some argue that there is little empirical data to support Memetic Theory, and that without such data memetics is rather a method of thinking than a formal scientific field of study.  This viewpoint is somewhat justified, however, this multifaceted and ever evolving field continues to tread forward in its development.  Although there have been several empirical studies of meme propagation conducted, there is still little consensus on the memetic selection criteria or holistic collection of characteristics that makes memes successful.  A commonly agreed upon set of criteria would enable researchers and scientists to weigh and measure various memes and create a scientific method for predicting future memetic behavior.[xi]  So, researchers continue to develop and socialize ontologically-based criteria which they could potentially use in further analysis of memetics.  Further, reassuringly, no studies have yet to falsify Memetic Theory.[xii]  Many organizations, such as the Global Brain Institute, which is a composite of influential futurists, cognitive scientists, Artificial Intelligence genii, and graph computing professionals, continue to put forth the intellectual horsepower required to expand the field into a formal science.  Regardless of current empirical support, Memetic Theory offers a non-traditional cognitive framing tool that IO officers can use to better understand and conduct IIA.

As the Army pivots towards operational design as an approach to solving complex problem sets on present and future battlefields, it remains in our best interest to keep abreast of emerging thought; especially thought that is wedded to technologies and ways of thinking that are evolving at an accelerated pace.[xiii]  IO officers can leverage and apply the mathematical models and the cognitive structure of Memetic Theory to assist in framing their information environment, their information-related problems, and ways and means of solving their information-related problems.  Though not the quintessential "Silver Bullet" of Information-related problems, interested military leaders should self-educate themselves on Memetic Theory and, pending their desired effects, mathematically and conceptually design advantageous and friendly memes while deconstructing detrimental or adversarial memes in accordance with IIA.              

End Notes

[i] Susan Blackmore, Susan Blackmore: Memes and “Temes”, 2008, TED Talks.

[ii] Daniel Dennett, Is Evolution an Algorithmic Process, 1998, Washington State University, Danze Lecture Series.

[iii] Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Meme.” (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1976), 192.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Francis Heylighen and Klaas Chielens, “Cultural Evolution and Memetics.” Encyclopedia of Complexity and System Science (2008): 5.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid. 10-11.

[viii] Ibid. 2.

[ix] Ibid. 12.

[x] Department of the Army, JP 3-13, Inform and Influence Activities.  (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, January 2013), 7-2 to 7-4.

[xi] Heylighen, “Cultural Evolution and Memetics,”4, 22.

[xii] Ibid. 21.

[xiii] Department of the Army, ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, May 2012), 4-1 to 4-3.


About the Author(s)

Captain Erick Waage is cyber officer and member of the Army’s Cyber Institute at West Point. He has served multiple deployments overseas in cyber-related positions supporting both conventional and special operations forces. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, Army Cyber Command, the Department of the Army, U.S. Cyber Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


People interpret information according to their own existing base of knowledge, assumption, prejudice, etc. They also think about information: they process it, dissect it, discuss it with their peers. Any distributor of information who treats their audience as a passive sponge that simply absorbs whatever packets of information the operator chooses to dispense is laying the groundwork for failure.

Those who would use information to attain ends need to start with a really thorough understanding of traditional and current culture and of the information and assumption environment that they are trying to influence. They need to start by respecting the audience and treating them as equals, as thinking people, not passive recipients of processed information. If you don't know the language, you're stuffed from the start. In the absence of these prerequisites, no amount of meme theory, game theory, or data processing power will provide anything more than a basis for the elaborate analysis of inevitable failure. Looking for a theory or practice that will substitute for location-specific ground knowledge is as futile as an endeavor can be. There isn't one.

A few suggestions:

1,2, & 3: Be honest. If you lie, distort or manipulate, you will be caught and you will never be trusted again.

4: Showing is way better than telling.

5: Accept that people don't trust or believe you. Trust has to be earned, and it will take time. If you try to trick your way into it you will step on your equipment and fail.

6: Accept that your audience is playing the same information games on you that you are on them.

7: Your audience may seem unsophisticated to you, but they aren't stupid. Treat them as equals. Remember that they know things you don't.

8: Anyone who parrots your meme back at you is almost certainly working you.

9: Anyone who claims to trust you from the start is definitely working you.

Et cetera, ad infinitum, and probably ad nauseam...

You seem to have a misunderstanding of what memetics is and how it works. It is very similar to genetics; and as such is primarily retrospective. It seeks to explain the current traits of our species after several million years, in the case of physical (biological) evolution, and several tens of thousands of years in the case of memetic evolution (post invention of complex language).

Trying to proactively use memetics to induce a near-term change in social behavior is a bit like trying to use artificial selection to grow a third eyeball. It won't work unless it serves to enhance the long-term survive and thrive imperative.

In any event, the correct tool for analysis and prediction is not straight mathematics, but computer based game theory modeling.