The Media Virus, My Problem Child

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern on 1 September 2018

When I published my book Media Virus in 1994, the most common question I got from readers was whether this new phenomenon of media viruses—through which ideas could circumvent any top-down control and spread purely based on social contagion—was “a good thing or a bad thing.” I tried not to sound too enthusiastic at the time lest I betray my countercultural roots, but deep down I thought that viral media was going to change things for the better: the informational tyranny of William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch would be broken by new armies of media activists armed with photocopiers, fax machines, video cameras, cable TV, personal computers, and email messages. I saw ideas spreading as never before. They were moving laterally between people, and mutating along the way as if in a game of telephone. When one caught on, it spread like wildfire, kudzu vines… or a virus.

To me, a media virus was a sort of truth serum. It would only activate people and spread through society if it was triggering and releasing some repressed cultural agenda. Even if a viral infection made us sick, eventually it would force us to address the issues we were ignoring and begin the conversations we needed to have.

A black man getting beaten by white cops in Los Angeles happens to be captured on videotape, and the footage makes it to the cable news before morning. Smaller and tabloid media outlets do not hesitate to broadcast it and, once they do, everyone else must as well. The original “media virus” is launched and is so contagious that it leads eventually to full-scale uprising in a dozen American cities.

The inability of mainstream media’s gatekeepers to control our conversation about racial injustice, inner-city police brutality, and a biased justice system was worthy of our attention. The handful of corporate conglomerates that owned almost all of the media were no longer in control of what we saw.

At the time, I was pretty sanguine about the shift from traditional media, such as newspapers and television, to interactive media like faxes, camcorders, and the internet. It felt like no one recognized the profound changes underway. My very first book on the emerging digital landscape, Cyberia, had been canceled because the publisher thought the internet would be “over” by 1992, when the book was scheduled for release. It seemed as if the traditional gatekeepers of media were not simply ignorant of the tidal shift underway, but actively trying to prevent it.

As many of us hoped and dreamed, interactive media wreaked havoc on those attempting to package our truth from above. It undermined the credibility of traditional news media outlets and the corporations behind them. Cable channels such as CNN were willing to put a microphone in front of dictators who were effectively censored by the broadcast network news. Public access channels created forums for taboo issues from AIDS to Iran-Contra. Scandals from Camillagate (a leaked sexy phone call between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles) to Gennifer Flowers (one of then-candidate Bill Clinton’s first revealed mistresses) only made their way to the mainstream because they were first spread by the growing power of viral and bottom-feeder outlets. Even one-way TV like Jerry Springer, COPS, and MTV’s Real World allowed for more spontaneous, uncensored content to rise from the fertile cesspools of our cultural subconscious. The traditional news media—as well as the political and corporate institutions it supported—were under threat.

But interactive media did all this bottom-up destruction without ever coalescing into something new. It was great at eroding our trust in institutions but didn’t do much to engender trust between us people. We were left with a media environment where sensationalist images, facts, rumors, and ideas compete against one another for attention, agitating everyone into a state of confusion and rage, but bringing us no closer to anything resembling truth. I borrowed from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and labeled this new sort of contagious idea a “meme.” This was way before those funny captioned pictures people now spread on social media. Memes are really just ideas, understood from the perspective of their virality, or ability to get replicated. A meme is to an idea as a gene is to a trait, or code is to an application.

Media viruses were supposed to be anathema to traditional propaganda. Instead, in this era of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and cyberwarfare, they’re used and recognized more and more as the latest weapons in the traditional propagandist’s arsenal. A tool for countercultural expression has become the leading form of psyops.

This isn’t what I was thinking. The media virus is my problem child—a powerful way of spreading necessary ideas but also, simultaneously, an evasion of our higher faculties, leading us to act out automatically, impulsively, and destructively. In other words, it’s not the particular idea or meme that is so destructive—it’s the viral methodology itself. The counterculture used humor, irony, or just the novelty of new media technologies to get attention for its ideas and to promote their replication. That’s how phenomena such as smart drugs, flash mobs, chaos magic, and even Occupy were disseminated. The government and corporate propagandists behind today’s viral warfare, on the other hand, are targeting psychological triggers, deeply embedded fears, racist bigotry, and other repressed anxiety to get attention and traction. Showing immigrant children behind bars in Texas holding centers may appear like bad PR, but it makes sense when it’s understood as an intentionally viral reframing of refugees as animals or criminals. This is what we’ve been subjected to since at least the 2016 election—and the collateral damage is enormous. Media viruses themselves went viral, attacking not only our society’s corrupt institutions but also our social bonds, our sense of common purpose, our trust in one another, and the very mechanisms we need to resist their influence.

So, whether or not memes are weaponized—no matter the intentions of their engineers—they still contribute to an overall environment of competitive propaganda and kneejerk reactions that discourages the listening, analysis, and consideration required for productive dialogue. Even viruses as legitimately formulated as #blacklivesmatter or #metoo can’t solve the problems they mean to address—not alone, anyway. They can raise awareness and, at best, provoke a conversation that needs to take place. But they can do this only if they haven’t created too much damage in their own right for that more thoughtful and sympathetic exchange of ideas to take place.

I feel bad about this, I truly do. But I also feel that if people had listened to what I was trying to say about viral media back in the early ’90s—that it’s not just a new form of content but a new way of stimulating a cultural reaction—we’d be in a much better position now to mitigate their effects on us. Most people are still looking at fixing the problem of viral media by regulating industry, writing new algorithms, or changing technology in some way, as if this were an engineering fix. That’s mistaken. The only real cure for viral attack is to bolster our own immune response.

The way we choose to use media always comes down to the way we choose to use people.

Since at least Biblical times, media was understood as a form of crowd control. The notable exception was during the Enlightenment, when widespread literacy was accepted as necessary to a functioning democracy. If people were going to be allowed to vote, they’d have to be rendered informed and intelligent enough to do so.

But by the twentieth century, this progressive understanding of media literacy had been subsumed by more pressing agendas. Woodrow Wilson had run for president on a peace platform, but after he took office he decided that the United States had no choice but to enter World War I. So he hired Walter Lippmann, the father of public relations—yes, the actual guy who came up with the term “public relations”—to manufacture public consent for the war.

There was a lot of consternation about treating the masses as something to be engineered. Lippmann wrote a book called Public Opinion, in which he argued that people were really just too uninformed and uneducated to make the best decisions for themselves. Not even politicians could be trusted with complicated policy. Instead, a “council of experts” should be employed to figure things out and explain the necessary actions to elected officials who, in turn, would hire public relations specialists to convince the public of the chosen action.

Lippmann didn’t mean this cynically. He saw himself as a progressive, using experts and government and PR men to get the common folk to express their better natures—with a little help from manipulative media. His predecessor, legendary spin doctor Edward Bernays, took this logic a bit further: people are just too stupid to know what’s good for them. The future belongs to those who can control the behavior of the masses. Not only that, but this was in itself a noble pursuit, because people can’t be trusted to act in their own self-interest anyway. Bernays and other advocates of appropriately applied propaganda used the Nazis as a case study of what happens without drastic measures to control the collective psyche of one’s population. (Though most of us would argue it’s proof of the opposite.)

Government and corporate elites feared that, unchecked, American laborers and traumatized WWII veterans could easily become the irrational mob described in Gustave Le Bon’s famous 1895 book The Crowd. Controlling their behavior through media seemed humane compared with overt repression. Besides, media could also stoke the consumer behavior required to support American industry, create jobs, and keep the economy growing. Whether it’s government pushing a policy or advertisers pushing a product, our top-down media from radio and TV to magazines and movies has been used to pump us with ideas and aspirations to make us act in certain ways.

At first glance, the horizontal landscape of interactive and social media seemed to promise more lateral communication between peers and less propaganda from above. This is what we were all celebrating in those early, heady days of the internet. The elites who owned traditional media outlets would no longer be able to serve as gatekeepers for what the masses read and watched. Anyone with a camcorder or email account would be able to get a message out. And if it was compelling enough, it would be replicated and spread to millions—without the willing cooperation of traditional media organizations.

The term “media virus” meant to convey this new way ideas could spread in a world with more interactive communications. It was like a computer virus, except instead of infecting computer networks it infected human networks. The earliest examples included people like O. J. Simpson, Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Woody Allen; ideas like smart drugs, slackers, or fractals; and things like Pogs, Beanie Babies, or emoticons. They all had spreadability and mutability. While they were not occurring on strictly interactive platforms, they reflected the morphing, lateral, peer-to-peer, bottom-up qualities of the emerging internet culture. Michael Jackson’s video for “Black or White” showed people morphing (a new computer effect at the time) into other people of different races and genders. Madonna co-opted the gestural language of an underground gay culture for her “Vogue” video and disseminated it through the mainstream via MTV. The infamous slow-motion police chase of O. J. Simpson’s white Bronco, as well as cable TV’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of his trial, initiated the always-on quality of today’s twenty-four-hour news cycle. This was the new cultural soup in which viruses would compete for attention and dominance. When our culture became immune to one version of Madonna or Michael Jackson, a new one would spawn. But—as the advertisers who quickly jumped on the idea of viral media didn’t realize—it goes much deeper than this.

For a real, biological virus to infect us, it must have a novel, never-before-seen protein shell that lets it travel through our bloodstream unrecognized. (If our body identifies the virus, it sends antibodies to attack it.) The undetected virus then latches onto a cell in the host organism and injects its genetic code inside. The code is, basically, genetic material that wants to get reproduced. So it works its way to the cell’s nucleus and seeks to interpolate itself into the cell’s DNA. It looks for weak spots, then nests there. The next time the cell reproduces, it replicates the virus’s code along with its own.

Then the person carrying the virus begins spreading it to others. If the next person’s immune system doesn’t recognize the protein shell, then they get infected, too. The virus continues to replicate and spread until, at last, our bodies learn to reject its code. From then on, our bodies will recognize and attack this protein shell—even if it comes back months or years later. Immunity.

A media virus works the same way. It has a novel, unrecognizable shell—but that shell is made of media, not protein. The virus must be packaged sensationally, as part of a unique, rule-breaking use of media that we can’t help but spread. A camcorder tape captures police brutality. A former football star gets caught in a slow-motion chase with police on live national TV. A voice mail message reveals an actor’s abusive relationship or an affair between royals. A TV star posts social media updates on his mental breakdown. An underwear commercial veers too close to child pornography. A rock album is rumored to contain hidden Satanic messages. A political candidate’s wireless microphone records him making sexist remarks about a female colleague. A woman livestreams her husband dying of gunshot wounds. A congressman transmits smartphone pictures of his genitals to a minor. A Shakespeare play is reinterpreted as a presidential assassination. A president threatens a nuclear attack in a public, 140-character message typed with his thumbs.

In each case, the story’s initial proliferation has more to do with the medium than with the message. The viral shell is not just a media phenomenon, but a way of grabbing attention and paralyzing a person’s critical faculties. What the…? Did a white man just morph into a black woman? Is that a tweet of a congressman’s erect penis? Is that really the Prince of England’s answering machine message? What is that—police bodycam footage? That moment of confusion creates the time and space for infection. This “confusion technique” was first described by psychologist Milton Erickson as the primary tool for hypnotic induction. A popular version, called handshake induction, involves a hypnotist interrupting a known behavior or sequence—like shaking someone’s hand or tying a shoe—and inserting something new. The break in continuity, the departure from the known and practiced script, creates a vulnerability.

Once it has been launched, once that confusion creates a pause, the virus replicates only if its code can successfully challenge our own. That’s why the ideas inside the virus—the memes—do matter. They must interpolate into our own confused cultural code, exploiting the issues we haven’t adequately addressed as a society, such as racial tension, gender roles, economic inequality, nationalism, or sexual norms. A fatal car crash on the side of the highway attracts our attention because of the spectacle, but worms its way into our psyche because of our own conflicted relationship with operating such dangerous machinery ourselves, or because of the way it disrupts our ongoing, active denial of our own mortality.

Likewise, a contagious media virus attracts mass attention for its spectacular upending of TV or the internet, but then penetrates the cultural psyche by challenging collectively unresolved or repressed anxieties. Surveillance video of a police van running over a black suspect recalls America’s shamefully unacknowledged history of slavery and ongoing racism. The social media feed of a neo-Nazi bot in Norway stimulates simmering resentment of the European Union’s dissolution of national identities. Sexual harassment via social media by a sitting president provokes the animus of a population still resentful of women in the workplace.

When I first used the expression “media virus,” I thought I was describing a new sort of total transparency; media would finally tell the stories that our controllers didn’t want us to hear. If a cultural issue is truly repressed or unresolved, a media virus invoking that issue can nest and replicate.

The perplexing thing—the part I didn’t fully understand until now—is that it doesn’t matter what side of an issue people are on for them to be infected by the meme and provoked to replicate it. “Look what this person said!” is reason enough to spread it. In the contentious social media surrounding elections, the most racist and sexist memes are reposted less by their advocates than by their outraged opponents. That’s because memes do not compete for dominance by appealing to our intellect, our compassion, or anything to do with our humanity. The media space is too crowded for thoughtful, time-consuming appeals. When operating on platforms oversaturated with ads, memes, messages, spam, and more, memes need to provoke an immediate and visceral response to get noticed. “The Clintons are running an occult child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria.” In a race to the bottom of the brain stem, viruses compete to trigger our most automatic impulses.

Well-meaning and pro-social counterculture groups from the Situationists to Adbusters and Greenpeace have attempted to spread their messages through the equivalents of viral media. They cut and paste text and images to subvert the original meanings of advertisements, or the intentions of corporate logos. It is a form of media aikido, leveraging the tremendous weight and power of an institution against itself with a single clever twist. With the advent of a new, highly interactive media landscape, internet viruses seemed like a great way to get people talking about the unresolved issues that needed to be discussed in the light of day. After all, this logic goes, if the meme provokes a response, then it’s something that has to be brought up to the surface.

But we can’t engineer a society through memetics the way a biologist might hope to engineer an organism through genetics. It’s ineffective in the long run, and—beyond that—unethical. It bypasses our higher faculties, our reasoning, and our collective authority.

The danger with viruses is that they succeed by bypassing the neocortex—the thinking part of our brain—and go straight to the more primal reptile beneath. The meme for scientifically proven climate change, for example, doesn’t provoke the same intensity of cultural response as the meme for “elite conspiracy!”

Logic and truth have nothing to do with it. Memes work by provoking fight-or-flight reactions. And those sorts of responses are highly individualistic. They’re not pro-social; they’re antisocial. They’re not pro-cultural; at their best they are countercultural. They can galvanize a particular group of people, especially one that feels under assault. If the group is genuinely vulnerable—such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, or #ArabSpring—then this solidarity, though usually emotional and oppositional, is still beneficial to the group’s identity and cohesion. But the very same memetic provocations work, perhaps even better, to galvanize groups on false pretenses. As long as the deep fear, rage, or panic is activated, it doesn’t have to be based in reality. Indeed, fact-based rhetoric only gets in the way of the hyperbolic claims, emotional hot buttons, and mythic claims that rile people up: blood and soil, black men will hurt you, foreigners are dangerous, Lock Her Up. The less encumbered by facts or sense, the more directly a meme can focus on psychological triggers from sexism to xenophobia.

So, for example, a viral assault is not likely to persuade a bankrupted town of unemployed coal workers to adopt strategies of mutual aid. It could, on the other hand, help push the disenfranchised toward more paranoid styles of self-preservation. With notable exceptions—such as the Twitter messages of support during the failed Iranian protests, or those between Ariana Grande fans after her concert was bombed in Manchester—memetic campaigns do not usually speak to the part of the brain that understands the benefits of tolerance, social connection, or appreciation of difference. They’re speaking to the reptile that only understands predator-or-prey, fight-or-flight, and killor-be-killed. Even these positive exceptions were in response to something as shocking and horrible as any meme.

The bottom-up viral techniques of guerrilla media activists are now in the hands of the world’s wealthiest top-down corporations, politicians, propagandists, and everything in between. To them, viral media is no longer about breaking through propaganda and unearthing the truth about social inequality or environmental threats. It’s simply about generating a response by any means necessary, even if that response is automatic, unthinking, and brutish. Like a military using chemical weapons that spread to its own troops, we are using a weapon that we do not understand, and at our own collective peril.

We have to remember that the concept of memetics was first popularized not by a cultural anthropologist, poet, or media theorist but by a particularly materialist evolutionary biologist in the 1970s. A strident atheist, Dawkins meant to show how human culture evolves by the same set of rules as any other biological system: competition, mutation, and more competition. Nothing special going on here.

It turns out there is something special going on here, and that there are a few things missing from this explanation. A meme is a great corollary to a gene, for sure, but neither genes nor memes determine everything about an organism or a culture.

DNA is not a static blueprint but acts differently in different situations. It matters which genes we have, but it matters even more how those genes express themselves. That’s entirely dependent on the environment, or the protein soup in which those genes are swimming. It’s why a locust can be like a tame grasshopper or, in the right conditions, transform into a gregarious, swarming creature. That’s not a sudden mutation within a single lifetime; it is a shift in gene expression that changes the whole organism.

Genes are not solo actors with entirely predetermined code. They are not selfishly seeking their own replication at all costs. Newer science shows they are almost social in nature, adapting and expressing themselves differently in different environments. Organisms get information from the environment and from one another for how to change. The conditions, the culture, and its connectivity matter as much as the initial code.

Similarly, if we truly want to understand cultural contagion, we must place equal importance on the viral shell around memes and on the ideological soup in which those memes attempt to spread. Early memeticists saw memes as competing against one another, but that’s not quite right. Memes are all attempting to self-replicate by exploiting inconsistencies or weaknesses in our cultural code. They are not attacking one another; they are attacking us humans.

Advertising agencies loved that earlier explanation, because it meant all they had to do was work on crafting the most contagious meme for it to “go viral.” But that’s not how it actually works, and why most of those campaigns failed miserably. A famous 2005 web video ad of Paris Hilton washing a car in a bathing suit may have reached a wide audience, but it did little long-term good for the brand of hamburgers it was supposed to be spreading. Neither did dozens of copies of dancing babies, cute cats, rapping cereal characters, or opportunities to vote for the color of future soft drinks—all meant to go viral. They are cute enough to look at or even pass on to a friend, but they don’t have any embedded content—nothing to challenge our existing cultural code. Cats are cute. Teenage boys like to look at girls in bikinis. There’s nothing under the surface to be unleashed by any of this. On the other hand, the Calvin Klein underwear ads made to look like child-porn film shoots (which were subsequently pulled) succeeded in generating millions of dollars’ worth of secondary media, and in reestablishing the brand’s rebellious image. (As I later learned, the creatives responsible for those ads had based them on the principles of my book. #mixedfeelings) The point is, a meme can go viral only if it is unleashing or leveraging a repressed cultural agenda or taboo. The potential has to be there already.

The Trump viral shell was his reality-show persona and its unique migration to real-world politics. But the memes within the Trump virus replicated—at least in part—because there was already a widespread, though still partially pent-up, white nationalist rage in America.

Human societies must come to recognize the importance of developing a healthy cultural immune response to an onslaught of hostile memes. The technologies through which they are being transmitted are changing so rapidly that it would be impossible to recognize their new forms—their shells—in advance. We must instead build our collective immune system by strengthening our organic coherence—our resistance to socially destructive memes.

This is particularly difficult when the enemies of democracy and their unwitting allies (the communications directors of political campaigns) are busy upscaling memetic warfare with each of social media’s latest tricks, from data mining to predictive algorithms. In addition to artificially amplifying the “scale” of memes that may not have gained any organic traction on their own, these algorithms and bots are designed to engage with us individually, disconnect us from one another, neutralize our defense mechanisms, and program our behaviors as if we were computers. Television advertisers may have normalized the idea that consumers can be experimented on like lab rats, but social media takes it to an entirely new level.

At least advertising through TV happens in public. TV ads are expensive, proving that there is a big company behind the product willing to invest in its success, and TV stations censor ads they find offensive. Social media manipulates us individually, one smartphone at a time. Posts may cost pennies or nothing at all, and they’re sold and placed by bots with no regard for their content. When media is programmed to atomize us, and the messaging is engineered to provoke our most competitive, reptilian sensibilities, it’s much harder to muster a collective defense.

The powers working to disrupt democratic process through memetic warfare understand this well. Contrary to popular accounts, they invest in propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum. The particular memes they propagate through social media are less important than the reactions they hope to provoke. The Russians sent messages to Bernie Sanders supporters meant to stoke their outrage at the Democratic party’s favoritism toward Hillary and discourage them from voting in the general election. After school shootings, Russian and other bots begin pumping out extremist messages on both sides of the gun debate. Fake news spread about the Parkland shooter’s supposed terrorist ties, as well as falsified links to the anti-fascist group Antifa. They’re intended not to promote meaningful debate, but to exploit an opportunity to incite fear, disable rational thinking, and provoke ideological clashes. The shootings are an opportunity to undermine civil discourse and social cohesion.

Memetic warfare, regardless of the content, discourages cooperation, consensus, or empathy. The reptile brain it triggers doesn’t engage in those pro-social behaviors. Instead, in an environment of hostile memes and isolated by social media, human beings become more entrenched in their positions and driven by a fear for their personal survival. Worst of all, since these platforms appear so interactive and democratic, we experience this degradation of our social processes as a form of personal empowerment. For some, to step out of the corner and be truly social starts to feel like a restraint—as if yoked by political correctness, or forced into showing compromising tolerance of those whose very existence “weakens our stock.” Progressives, likewise, find solace in their own online echo chambers, and use the worst examples of far-right troll behavior to justify their intolerance of anyone who identifies with red-state values. Anyone who uses the hashtag is one of us; those who don’t, well, they’re the enemy.

Traditional media, like television, urged us to see the world as one big blue marble. Ronald Reagan could go on television, stand in front of the Berlin Wall, and demand that Mr. Gorbachev “tear down this wall!” In the divisive world of memetic digital media, Donald Trump can tweet his demand that we build a wall to protect us from Mexico. Virality encourages less connection, intimacy, and cross-contamination. Progressives are sensitized, through memetics, to every misunderstanding of their racial, gender, or cultural identity. Trumpists, meanwhile, are pushed toward a counterphobic urge to call all Muslims terrorists or all Mexicans gang members. Memetics helps them see institutions from the FBI to government itself as a vast conspiracy against their leader.

This may not have been the intent of social media, or any of the communications technologies that came before it. The internet doesn’t have to be used against a person’s critical faculties any more than language has to be used to lie or numbers to tally enslaved people. But each extension of our social reality into a new medium requires that we make a conscious effort to bring our humanity along with us.

A few years ago I had dinner with a former U.S. secretary of state. We were debating America’s ability to conduct itself democratically. Were Lippmann and Bernays right? Could the masses simply not be trusted? This was long before the era of Trump, mind you. But Fox News was already in full swing, and the antics of public relations engineers had reached new heights.

We were talking about the first Gulf War, and how a PR firm called Hill & Knowlton had not only made up a story about Iraqi soldiers pulling premature babies from their incubators and leaving them to die, but also gotten a diplomat’s daughter to testify before Congress, pretending that she had witnessed the atrocities. The video of her tearful testimony about the babies being left “to die on the cold floor” of the hospital went viral, and America went to war. So much for my theory of media viruses having a positive effect on public debate.

The old statesman finally turned to me and grinned. “So, Rushkoff, do you now accept the fact—beyond any shadow of a doubt—that democracy has been proven a failed experiment?” I was shocked that he even remembered my name. Something about his power and reputation silenced me, and the conversation went on to something else.

But, no, I’m not ready to concede that democracy was a failed experiment, or that human beings have been proven incapable of governing themselves. We may not be doing so well at the moment, but we mustn’t surrender to the notion that we or our political adversaries are constitutionally incapable of engaging in meaningful dialogue or making informed decisions in our mutual best interest—especially when that argument is being made by the very people who have taken it upon themselves to manipulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions by any means necessary.

After all, political campaigns have always relied on values, visions, narratives, and ideologies to win votes. Whether virtuous or cynical, this effort comes down to propaganda: the leverage of social and psychological biases to promote a particular point of view. Any technique, from a Hearst banner headline to a Cambridge Analytica–engineered virus, seeks to reach down into our brain stem and trigger us to behave in reactionary, robotic ways. And the collateral damage of these assaults is the same. Memetics is just the latest tool for engineering the same old compliance.

We have three main choices for fighting back.

The first is to attack bad memes with good ones. Tit for tat. While such an approach may be appropriate in a crisis, the problem is that it increases the amount of weaponized memetics in play at any particular time. The enemy memes may be weakened, but so, too, is the community of humans under attack.

The second choice is to try to insulate people from dangerous viruses—the same way a person might wear a surgical mask in an airport. In the media landscape, that means adding new filters, algorithms, and digital countermeasures to the latest and greatest innovations of the social-media companies and the market research firms paying them for their data. So if we know that Russian propagandists are paying Facebook to deliver provocative false stories to our news feeds, we install a filter that weeds out unsourced stories, or an algorithm that uses machine learning to identify common word choices in fake-news posts.

But an arms race of this sort just pits one side’s black-box technologies against another’s. It’s more like today’s stock market: a war between computer engineers. May the best algorithm win. The battle for our hearts and minds ends up occurring on a level far removed from that of civic discourse. Ideas and candidates don’t win on their merits, but on their digital gamesmanship. That may be some nerd’s idea of a win-win—kind of like Bitcoin—but it’s not democracy.

A less dramatic but ultimately more powerful approach is to strengthen the cultural immune response of the society under attack. This could mean educating people about the facts around a particular issue, or bringing very controversial but memetically potent issues into the light of day. Schools can teach classes from the Courageous Conversations curriculum. Towns can use consensus-building tools like the Loomio platform to discuss and address issues that get needlessly polarized in social-media channels. Politicians can choose to articulate the real anxieties fueling the racist or xenophobic stances of their adversaries, rather than pretending such feelings simply don’t exist. A society having an open, honest conversation about race, guilt, and fear of change is less vulnerable to a memetic attack invoking white supremacy than a society still afraid to have that painful conversation.

Bringing repressed issues up and out into the light of day reduces the potential difference—the voltage—between the expressed and unexpressed cultural agendas of that moment. The hostile memes will either not be able to locate confused code in which to nest, or, if they do, fail to produce a rapid acceleration of reproduction.

The downside to such strategies, of course, is the question of whose curriculum is used to educate the public about a particular issue. Town halls and other public forums are great for airing grievances, but at some point the conversation will have to turn to real history, real facts, or real science. Whose real is accepted? We end up back in the highly criticized situation envisioned by the father of public relations, Walter Lippmann: his council of experts informing government officials of the appropriate action, and an army of public relations specialists engineering public consent.

In the currently militarized sociopolitical environment, any efforts at education would be interpreted as partisan at best, and elitist and untrustworthy at worst. But this doesn’t mean we should give up. It just means we may have to pull our attention from memes themselves, and examine instead the conditions in which they either grow or peter out.

The longest-term strategy to defend against memetic attack, and ultimately the most effective one, is to strengthen the social and cultural resiliency of the population under attack—whether it’s an underserved rural white community susceptible to neo-Nazi memes or an African American community whose vulnerability to anti-police memes has been primed by years of stop-and-frisk abuse. Human beings have evolved complex and adaptive strategies for social cohesion. Our neurology is primed to establish rapport with other humans, to utilize reciprocal altruism, and to work toward common goals. Such social relationships require real-world, organic calibration to take effect. They can be amplified by social media, but they must be anchored in the natural world lest they become too brittle, abstract, or mutable, and easily co-opted by someone with very different goals and values.

The establishment of rapport, for example, depends on eye contact, synchronized respiration, and recognition of subtle changes in vocal timbre. In virtual spaces, these mechanisms cease to function. In fact, when human beings fail to establish “social resonance” through digital media, they tend to blame not the low fidelity of the medium, but the trustworthiness of the other party. Hear that: the inability to establish organic social bonds through digital media increases our suspicion of one another, not of the medium through which we are failing to connect.

This creates the perfect preconditions for memetic attack. The people, newscasters, friends, and experts we encounter through digital media are not trusted. Their faces don’t register as faces, so we reject their honesty. The faceless bots, algorithms, images, and ideas to which we are exposed, on the other hand, are accepted at face value because they don’t trigger that same cognitive dissonance. There’s no face not to trust—just the fake facts and sensationalist vitriol, feeding straight down into the brain stem.

The only surefire safeguard against this state of vulnerability is to reaffirm the live, local, social, organic relationships between the people in the target population. This means challenging the value of time spent socializing on digital platforms, and giving people enough minutes of non-digitized social experiences each day to anchor live human-to-human connection as the primary form of social engagement.

People with some live experience of local politics, mutual aid, and environmental maintenance will be more resistant to the memetic constructions of the synthetic ideological landscape. They will be more likely to blame low fidelity on technology than on one another, and less likely to accept the false, antisocial premises of angry, sensationalist memes. Of course, local social cohesion doesn’t always translate to tolerance of others. Loyalty to one’s “hometown” already suggests favoritism to one’s neighbors and a bit of suspicion about anyone from somewhere else. But if we’re going to see pro-social attitudes and behaviors ever get to “scale,” they must be intentionally and formally embedded in our platforms and the standards we establish for ourselves when using them. In order to do this, we absolutely must reacquaint ourselves with what it feels like to establish rapport, reach consensus with the opposition, and trust that what looks like hate is likely coming from a place of fear.

The less alienated the members of a population are from one another, the harder it is to turn them against one another. We start to trust our senses again, as well as our relationships, our critical faculties, and the notion of truth itself.