Media Viruses - The Second Pandemic part 1

The biological coronavirus also spreads as a media virus which mutates violently and is difficult to control politically

This article was written in March 2020 when the first lockdown in Austria was imposed. It originally appeared in „Addendum“ (issue 12) in German. It has been slightly modified during translation and adapted for a Non-Austrian audience but remains otherwise unaltered. Because it is quite lengthy I have split the text in two parts. Part 1 explains the concept of memes as media viruses; part 2 focuses on the responsibility that comes with political communication in times of a pandemic.


Part 1 - Memes

At the turn of the year (AN 2019/2020) not only did the novel coronavirus begin to spread, it also gave birth to a meme, an idea, a carrier of information that would spread by communication across the world faster than the disease and its pathogen itself. Since the appearance of SARS-CoV-2 the reporting of the proliferation of the pandemic and known facts is accompanied by a debate about the veracity of these facts, the adequacy of NPI (non-pharmaceutical intervention) and the political dosage of information to the population. This discourse reflects the level of upheaval worldwide and the spread of corona as a media virus.

Levels of impact

The coronavirus not only has the potential to cause damage to health and thus to produce consequential social and economic damage, the memes produced by the virus are also destructive if restrictions on everyday life are politically enforced or if they are suitable for voluntary appropriation to generate far-reaching changes in behavior in society.

One can therefore differentiate between two separate effects of the virus, which are causally related to but work their way independently of each other. First: on a biological or pathological level with its direct and indirect consequences. Second: communication about the virus, the disease and its aftermath.

Thinking radically the separation of these levels reveals what this can mean for the non-medical effects of the pandemic: regardless of whether the information about the virus and the disease is correct or not (or even invented), the resulting memes could by themselves provoke similar individual and social changes in behavior. And that is exactly what we are currently (AN speaking from the perspective of March 2020) experiencing. In order to correctly assess the consequences and to be able to counter them, it is not enough politically to strive for control over the virus and the disease, but also to maintain or regain the semantic hold or meme dominance in communication.

Memes, Internet memes and media viruses

Memetics describes the spread of an idea through cultural, linguistic and media interaction, i. e. communication, similar to the spread of a virus through infection. The term meme is widely known in the form of the popular Internet meme. Along with the growth of a networked digital society pictures with humorous short texts have been posted, shared and forwarded as Internet memes, especially in social networks, and thus spread virally.

The concept of memetics was invented long before social media in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Some time later, but long before social media was flooded with memes, Douglas Rushkoff –relatively unimpressed by the emerging World Wide Web – applied this concept to popular cultural units of meaning (AN you may call them ideas or memes), which he labelled media viruses. In his 1994 book "Media Virus" he roughly classified them as "trickle down" and "trickle up". In the first variant, ideas seep from mass media into collective consciousness. These include harmless subversions or references to current events packaged in cartoons such as Beavis and Butt-HeadThe Simpsons or Ren & Stimpy, but on the other hand another powerful tool of public debate: framing which serves as a predefined interpretation or social construction that can be used for political campaigning or even to operate world politics and wage golf wars (AN I’m using Rushkoff’s examples here).

The virus designed in this way - regardless of it being fictional or factual - was then spread (trickle-down) in thechannels and formats of the mass media and was able to develop its effect in hearts and minds. Until the arrival of social networking the fabrication of trickle-up memes upstream towards the public - with or without using mass media - was a complex affair. In his book Rushkoff reports on templates for leaflets and posters that were faxed, reproduced and distributed by hand around the world. It was the 1990s and media viruses still primarily needed traditional carrier media as hosts.

It was only when the marginal costs of technical accessibility had dropped dramatically with the first websites and blogs and then finally went to zero with Facebook and Twitter that a meme could be launched with potential success by everyone so that it could spread virally trickle-up.

Contagion and mutation

The analogy between genetic and memetic information is more than just a linguistic gimmick. Both spread in the population by copying their core content further and further and can also mutate in the process. The sameapplies to biological and media viruses. Even considering the consequences of viral spread, there are parallels: Biological viruses can make you sick and phenotypically lead to behavioral restrictions in individuals or groups, which become apparent as an indirect consequence of the disease. The same thing happens with memes: Communication about the body of knowledge of the pandemic and, above all, the measures taken also has consequences. First of all, for the phemotype (analogous to the phenotype for genes, but with m for memes) of the change in behavior and its mere character as a consequence of a meme, it is irrelevant whether it is individually adapted, voluntary self-restraint or whether it follows laws and by-laws. And this is where things get interesting.

The main difference between memes and genes is that the former mutate immediately and form memeplexes, i.e. collections of content of consciousness and meaning. In the case of the coronavirus, these are individual parameters such as the degree of infection, effectiveness of protective measures, share prices, curfews, etc.

For example, some claimed that the disease is less fatal than the flu because there are fewer deaths; others circulate recommendations that one should eat less chocolate or drink alcohol because that would weaken the immune system; others are calling for prison sentences for misinformation to curb the spread of toxic memes. In such a case, a memeplex aggregates statements about reality that correspond sometimes more, sometimes less or even not at all with the truth. They can be derived according to scientific standards or simply be fictitious. The memeplex doesn’t care.

These memeplexes compete with one another for interpretational sovereignty in public. When assessing the danger of the new type of coronavirus as a whole, this competition becomes completely clear: While some believe that you don't have to do anything, others push for strict isolation measures (AN March 2020). The bizarre thing about these extreme alternatives is that it is practically irrelevant whose assumptions are correct, because ultimately only the overall result counts: How many infected, sick or dead are being counted? What consequential damage due to recession, restrictions on fundamental rights, etc. are we dealing with?

Now you might settle on the point of view that the number of the deaths is the only relevant measure: We have to save as many lives as possible. But some may not look at it that way, "A million victims are naturally worse than 1,000, but are 2,000 perhaps justifiable, if instead of 25 percent there are only 8 percent unemployed afterwards?" This is not an attempt (AN certainly not mine) to weigh life against employment, but another example of competing memeplexes. By the way such trade-offs are far less cynical than they sound, because healthcare systems and policies require similar considerations constantly.

Political rule of interpretation

Like it or not, containing a pandemic is a collective exercise. Political precautions have already been taken in the past decades. There are public health laws that provide for far-reaching restrictions on basic personal rights and corporate freedoms, so that collective exercise can also be collectivistically supported in execution. That in itself harbors a great risk, because these opportunities for intervention could be so tempting for those in power that some of them may want to be retained when the pandemic subsides.

This preventive pessimistic view of the human nature of rulers makes the next point even more difficult, because an expansion of the powers to enforce the communication accompanying a pandemic harbors an even greater temptation. But just as hygiene, physical distancing, general minimization of personal contacts is a collective exercise, an orderly communication of these measures is also an aspect that requires certain legal emphasis. The intervention in the applied media policy may still be considered excessive in the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is easy to think of worse disasters. When that happens the lack of a dominant, truthful narrative that opens the space for speculative claims at the same time becomes a real danger. If mass panic or ignorance caused intentionally or negligently lead to more sick people or deaths than the virus itself - this also applies to comparable catastrophes - then the media virus is more harmful than the biological virus.

Continue to read part 2: How media viruses can be dealt with (coming soon)