How viral social media memes trigger real-world violence
What responsibility should government authorities and Big Tech take in policing the spread of sedition-oriented content?
- It can be hard to believe that comical images online are enough to rile people up enough that they'll actually attack.
- Originating in the darker corners of the internet, Bugaloo is now prominent on mainstream online platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
- The Network Contagion Research Institute's recent series of Contagion and Ideology Reports uses machine learning to examine how memes spread.
There has been talk lately about fringe hate groups using memes to incite real world violence, but many prefer to casually dismiss this narrative as hysteria. It can be hard to believe that comical images online are enough to rile people up enough that they'll actually attack, and for most of us, this is thankfully true.
If you spend your time scrolling through pumpkin spice recipes and cat videos, you're probably not the target of a systematic hate campaign. But that doesn't mean these campaigns don't exist. Not every Facebook user is susceptible to radicalization, but memetic warfare is increasingly being recognized as an important element of counter-governmental sedition and racist propaganda.
Studies have long shown that exposure to hate makes it easier for people to hate – and to act on their hate. If there is an organized effort by hate groups to manipulate people with memes, then these visuals can actually be influencing people to perpetrate violent attacks.
What kind of memes were used on the Facebook Event listing that the Kenosha Guard used to mobilize Kyle Rittenhouse?
Many netizens appreciate the dangers and want social media platforms to do much more to curb the spread of hate across their networks. From Snapchat to Gab, TikTok to WhatsApp, memes are fueling hatred and inciting violence, and more Americans are asking what responsibility these companies should take in policing the spread of harmful content.
What’s in a meme?
The Network Contagion Research Institute's recent series of Contagion and Ideology Reports leverages machine learning to examine how memes spread. The idea is to unearth a better understanding of the role memes play in encouraging real-world violence.
So what exactly is a meme, and how did it become a tool for weaponizing the web? Originally coined by Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene," the term is defined there as "a unit of cultural transmission" that spreads like a virus from host to host and conveys an idea which changes the host's worldview.
Dawkins echoes "Naked Lunch" author William Burroughs's concept of written language as a virus that infects the reader and consequently builds realities that are brought to fruition through the act of speech. In this sense, a meme is an idea that spreads by iterative, collaborative imitation from person to person within a culture and carries symbolic meaning.
The militant alt-right's use of internet memes follows this pattern. They are carefully designed on underground social media using codes, before attaining approval by like-minded users that disseminate these messages on mainstream platforms like Twitter or Facebook.
Sometimes these messages are lifted from innocuous sources and altered to convey hate. Take for example Pepe the Frog. Initially created by cartoonist Matt Furie as a mascot for slackers, Pepe was appropriated and altered by racists and homophobes until the Anti-Defamation League branded the frog as a hate symbol in 2016. This, of course, hasn't stopped public figures from sharing variations of Pepe's likeness in subversive social posts.
The dissemination of hateful memes is often coordinated by an underground movement, so even its uptake by mainstream internet users and media outlets is claimed as a victory by a subculture that prides itself on its trolling.
Slenderman and the Boogaloo Bois
Indeed, these types of memes have a tricky way of moving from the shadows of the internet to the mainstream, picking up supporters along the way – including those who are willing to commit horrific crimes.
This phenomenon extends well beyond politics. Take, for example, the Slenderman. Created as a shadowy figure for online horror stories, Slenderman achieved mainstream popularity and a cult-like following. When two girls tried to stab their friend to death to prove that Slenderman was real in 2014, the power of the meme to prompt violence became a national conversation.
Slenderman creator Victor Surge told Know Your Meme that he never thought the character would spread beyond the fringe Something Awful forums. "An urban legend requires an audience ignorant of the origin of the legend. It needs unverifiable third and forth [sic] hand (or more) accounts to perpetuate the myth," he explained. "On the Internet, anyone is privy to its origins as evidenced by the very public Somethingawful thread. But what is funny is that despite this, it still spread. Internet memes are finicky things and by making something at the right place and time it can swell into an 'Internet Urban Legend.'"
While Slenderman is obviously a fiction, political memes walk many of the same fine lines – and have galvanized similarly obsessed followers to commit attacks in the real world.
Take, for example, the Boogaloo movement. This extremist militia has strong online roots and uses memes to incite violent insurrection and terror against the government and law enforcement. Originating in the darker corners of the internet, Bugaloo is now prominent on mainstream online platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Boogaloo followers share how to build explosives and 3D-printed firearms, spread encrypted messages and distribute violent propaganda.
Boogaloo's intentions seem to be twofold: recruit new followers and communicate tactical information to incumbent members. While finding more people to adopt their ideology is one thing, there is a strong possibility that Boogaloo memes and messaging can be used to trigger sleeper cells to violent action.
Boogaloo isn't alone. The use of memes by groups like the Proud Boys, which operate on an ideology consisting of both symbolic and physical violence, is spreading across America – especially since the start of the pandemic.
Understanding digital indoctrination
The Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) uses advanced data analysis to expose hate on social media. The institute's scientists work with experts at the ADL's Center on Extremism (COE) to track hateful propaganda online and offer strategies to combat this phenomenon. By better understanding how memes spread hateful propaganda, the NCRI is helping law enforcement, social media companies and citizens get better at preventing online chatter about violence from becoming real action.
Founded by Princeton's Dr. Joel Finkelstein, the NCRI is finding that the spread of hate online can be examined using epidemiological models of how viruses spread, only applied to language and ideas, much as Burroughs imagined decades ago.
Now that the internet has obviated the need for people to meet in person or communicate directly, recruiting and deploying members of violent groups is easier than ever before.
Before social media, as Finkelstein reminds us, organizing underground hate groups was harder. "You would have to have an interpersonal organization to train and cultivate those people," he said. "With the advance of the internet, those people can find each other; what it lacks in depth it makes up in reach. The entire phenomenon can happen by itself without a trace of anyone being groomed."
Can anything be done?
Memes generate hysteria in part by being outrageous enough for people to share – even the mainstream media. This is a concrete strategy called amplification. The extreme alt-right manages to reach mainstream audiences with racialist and supremacist memes, even as these messages are being denounced.
Content spreads virally whether those spreading it support the embedded ideology or not, making it difficult to intervene and prevent meme-incited violence.
Some people may unwittingly amplify messaging designed to spread violence, mistaking memes like ACAB (all cops are bastards) for harmless if somewhat dark humor.
So what can be done about the meme wars, and what onus is on law enforcement and Big Tech?
Finkelstein recommends a three-pronged approach to combating the violent outcome of subversive memes.
- Push for more stringent boundaries defining civility online using technology.
- Educate courts, lawmakers and civil institutions about how extreme online communities operate and create better industry standards to regulate these groups.
- Bring the federal government, including the FBI and Homeland Security, up to speed on the new reality so they can intervene as necessary.
But not everyone thinks Big Tech or the law have much ground to stand on in combating viral hate. Tech companies haven't gone the mile in truly enforcing stricter standards for online content, but some companies are closing down accounts associated with extremist leaders' websites and their movements.
But this is largely tilting at windmills. The proliferation of memes online spreading ideology virally might be too big to combat without dramatically limiting freedom of speech online. Facebook and YouTube have banned thousands of profiles, but there's no way of knowing how many remain – or are being added every day. This leaves the danger of meme radicalization and weaponization lurking beneath the surface even as we head into elections.
What we stand to lose
Boogaloo and other seditious groups have been empowered by recent crises, including the pandemic and the anti-racist protests sweeping the country. Greater numbers of these community members are showing up at anti-quarantine protests and are disrupting other gatherings, and the press they're getting – this article included – is only bringing more attention to their violent messages.
Extremist memes continue to circulate, as America heads to the polls amidst a global pandemic and widespread civil unrest. It stands to reason that more blood will be spilled. Getting a handle on Twitter handles that spread hate and shutting down groups whose sole purpose is sowing the seeds of brutality is vital – the only question that remains is how.
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While legalization has benefits, a new study suggests it may have one big drawback.
- A new study finds that rates of marijuana use and addiction have gone up in states that have recently legalized the drug.
- The problem was most severe for those over age of 26, with cases of addiction rising by a third.
- The findings complicate the debate around legalization.
Cannabis Use Disorder, is that when you get so high you can’t figure out how to smoke anymore?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="hfrVfwoH" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e62d9cb9c0a2361f81e9b5278706614"> <div id="botr_hfrVfwoH_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/hfrVfwoH-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/hfrVfwoH-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/hfrVfwoH-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538131/" target="_blank">Cannabis use disorder</a>, also known as CUD or cannabis/marijuana addiction, is a psychological disorder described in DSM 5 as "the continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment." This includes people being unable to cut down on their usage despite wanting to, those who often use it despite finding it severely impairs their ability to function, or those who are putting themselves in danger to secure access to the drug.</p><p>While an understanding that marijuana can be addictive has existed for some time, and the image of the pothead who smokes so much they can hardly function is prevalent in our society, the effects of legalization on addiction rates have somehow gone understudied until now. Importantly, previous studies had failed to consider usage rates amongst populations over the age of 25.</p><p>In the new study, published in <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2755276?utm_campaign=articlePDF%26utm_medium%3darticlePDFlink%26utm_source%3darticlePDF%26utm_content%3djamapsychiatry.2019.3254" target="_blank">JAMA Psychiatry</a>, focused on self-reported data on monthly drug use in four states where marijuana is now legal, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, from both before and after the drug was legalized in each state and compared it to others which have not yet legalized.</p><p>The data gave insights into the drug use habits of the respondents and specifically gave information about if they had smoked at all in the last month, the frequency of their drug use, and if they had ever had issues with how much they were using drugs.The researchers ultimately considered the responses of 505,796 individuals.</p><p>The increase in cannabis usage they found was <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/cannabis-use-disorder-rising-us-states-where-weed-legal-1471170" target="_blank">considerable</a>. The number of respondents over the age of 26 who claimed to have used the drug in the last month went up by 23% compared with their counterparts in states that have yet to legalize. Abuse of the drug by this group rose by 37%. </p><p>Teen usage rose by 25%, and addiction rates rose as well. This increase was small, though, and the authors have suggested it may be due to an unknown factor. The rate of usage or abuse for respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 did not increase at all. </p><p>After breaking the results down by demographics, the primary finding held; adults over the age of 26 are using marijuana more often when it is legalized, and they are starting to use it too much.</p>
The grain of salt<p>As in any study where findings are self-reported, the exact numbers you see here should be taken with a grain of salt. They could be slightly higher or lower. As this study relies on people self-reporting their usage of a drug that is still illegal in many places, it is very possible that the apparent spike in addiction rates is caused by more accurate reporting, as people who live in an area where pot is still illegal may be less likely to report smoking it every day.</p><p>And it should be repeated a thousand times over that correlation and causation are not the same thing. There could be some unknown factor causing these increases in each case. </p><p>Despite these qualifications, the study is still useful in giving us a general sense of what may happen in states that have yet to legalize. </p>
What does this mean for society and drug users?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="BdVRmwgX" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="d5c2f9e3739c26170f98b48bf07a3444"> <div id="botr_BdVRmwgX_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/BdVRmwgX-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/BdVRmwgX-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/BdVRmwgX-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>While claims of "reefer madness" are greatly exaggerated, marijuana has several well established and thoroughly studied side <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long-term_effects_of_cannabis#Mental_health" target="_blank">effects</a>. While occasional use isn't terribly harmful, addiction can be. Lead author Magdalena Cerdá of New York University explains in the study that heavy marijuana use is associated with "psychological and physical health concerns, lower educational attainment, decline in social class, unemployment, and motor vehicle crashes."</p><p>A substantial increase in the number of people who are addicted to the stuff will incur costs to society down the line. <strong></strong></p><p>Of course, a 37% increase in problematic usage means that the percentage of adults smoking too much went from .9% to 1.23% of the population responding to the survey. This makes it far less prevalent than issues with alcohol, which affected around 6% of all Americans in <a href="https://www.verywellmind.com/prevalence-of-alcoholism-in-the-united-states-67876" target="_blank">2018</a>. </p><p>Recently, Big Think's <a href="https://bigthink.com/u/philip-perry" target="_self">Philip Perry</a> wrote a piece about how <a href="https://bigthink.com/want-to-protect-the-health-of-35-million-americans-legalize-cannabis" target="_self">legalization could improve the health of millions</a> by allowing the government to regulate the purity of commercially sold marijuana. This remains true. However, it must be weighed against the findings of this study, which suggests that at least some of these health gains will be wiped out by increased addiction rates.</p>
What does this mean for legalization efforts?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="bnPA9J9g" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="429e1d17ba031b02d4e79b4f02f54ab5"> <div id="botr_bnPA9J9g_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/bnPA9J9g-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/bnPA9J9g-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/bnPA9J9g-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The legalization steamroller will undoubtedly keep rolling along. While health concerns are one factor in the debate over marijuana, it is only one of many. In Illinois, where I live, weed will become legal on January 1<sup>st</sup> of 2020. The legalization campaign and <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-met-illinois-recreational-marijuana-legislation-20190531-story.html" target="_blank">legislation</a> were more concerned with issues of social justice, the failures of prohibition, and finding a new source of tax revenue (<a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-illinois-tickets-collection-agencies-20190703-20190711-gyf77w52mbcdxkaxpleeay277a-story.html" target="_blank">since we're half broke</a>) than with matters of potential addiction.</p><p>As Vox <a href="https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/11/13/20962924/marijuana-legalization-use-addiction-study" target="_blank">reports</a>, the authors of the study aren't suggesting that legalization shouldn't take place; that is another, broader debate. They merely wish to present the fact that legalization has a particular side effect that we should be aware of.</p><p>While this study is unlikely to change anybody's stance on if weed should be legalized or not, it does show us a critical element to be considered when discussing drug policy. No drug is perfectly safe, and we have reason to believe that legalizing marijuana will mean that more people will have a hard time with it. Let's hope that legalization proponents keep that in mind as they rack up their victories. </p>
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Maybe you should enjoy this article with a cup of coffee or tea.<p> The <a href="https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001252?T=AU" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> involved 4,923 type 2 diabetics living in Japan. The average participant was 66 years old. All of the participants were taken from the rolls of the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry, a study geared at learning about the effects of new treatments and lifestyle changes on the health of diabetics. <br> <br> The participants filled out questionnaires concerning their health, diet, habits, and other factors. Among the questions were two focused on determining how much green tea or coffee, if any, the participants consumed over the course of a week. The health of the participants was recorded for five years. During this time, 309 of the test subjects died from a variety of causes. <br> <br> Subjects who drank more than one cup of tea or coffee per day demonstrated lower odds of dying than those who had none. Those who consumed the most tea and coffee, more than four and two cups a day, respectively, enjoyed the most significant reductions in their risk of death. This level of consumption was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201020190129.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p><p>Most interestingly, the effects of drinking tea and coffee appear to combine to reduce risk even further. Those who reported drinking two or three cups of tea a day and two or more cups of coffee were 51 percent less likely to die during the study, while those who drank a whopping four or more cups of tea and two or more cups of coffee had a 63 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-coffee-and-green-tea-might-reduce-death-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p>
So, should I start swimming in a vat of coffee and green tea?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LY0E-JQxeoY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Not quite. </p><p> The primary takeaway from this study is that Japanese adults with type 2 diabetes who drink a lot of green tea and/or coffee die less often than similar people who do not. If this effect is caused by something in the drink, lifestyle choices people who drink that much tea all make, or something else remains unknown. The finding must be considered an association at this point. <br> <br> The eye-popping reductions in mortality rates are compared to the risk of death of others in the study. The people who died reported drinking less tea and coffee than those who lived. Unless you have several demographic and conditional similarities to the subjects of this study, you probably won't suddenly be at a two-thirds lower risk of death than your peers because you drink green tea. </p><p> Like all studies that depend on self-reporting, it is also possible that people misstated how much they consumed any one item. The study also did not look into other factors like socioeconomic status or education level, also known to impact death rates and potentially linked to coffee and tea consumption. </p><p> However, it is yet another study in the pile that suggests that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coffee</a> and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">green tea</a> are good for you. That much is increasingly <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreed</a><a href="https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/health-benefits-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> upon</a>. This study also suggests the benefits are additive, which is a new development.</p><p><br> So, while it isn't time to start the IV drip of green tea, a cup or two probably won't <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20201022/coffee-green-tea-might-extend-life-for-folks-with-type-2-diabetes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hurt</a>. </p>
But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.