Has the US administration made a mistake in its handling of the killing of Osama Bin Laden by not have a fully thought-through memes strategy?
By this I mean, is it making decisions and taking actions without due consideration of the potential subsequent word of mouth, the memes that are likely to occur as a result?
As nature abhors a vacuum, so the supplying of minimum details, few facts or film footage is creating an information vacuum – the best breeding ground for speculation, rumour and ultimately conspiracy theories.
A conspiracy theory is the most powerful meme going. (I call them ‘Captain Scarlet memes’ as they are indestructible: when someone who believes in a conspiracy meme is given contradictory information, their response is to say: “They are bound to say that!” – and the underlying conspiracy viewpoint actually consolidates and hardens when fed with fresh counter information.)
The US government is now creating new problems for itself: conspiracy theories on whether Bin Laden is dead, how he met his death, whether there was any disrespect shown to his faith, was the body buried at sea, will now abound.
By closing the door on information it does not contain the meme genie.
Concerns about creating a shrine for Bin Laden are not thought through; if anyone wants a shrine for him, they will create their own.
The policy makers have not into account what is called ‘truthiness’ – that people will construct their own reality, their own facts to suit their worldview.
Perhaps the US should have taken a leaf out of the Soviet authorities, who, when faced with a similar dilemma, on what to do at the site of Hitler’s bunker where he met his death, built an inconspicuous children’s playground on it.
There is also a lot of misinformation about the word ‘meme’ on the social media.
The news announcement about Bin Laden being killed is information. Because people are twittering about him, that does not make it a meme.
A meme is a vehicle for carrying a message.
A good example of a meme to emerge during the news is how the photo of Obama and his advisers in ‘The Situation Room’ has itself quickly become an iconic meme: the photo seems to symbolise ‘The US Government in Action in the killing of Bin Laden’.
Containing this underlying message, the photo meme has been adapted by others with another agenda, to either trivialise the solemnity of the shot, or undermine the Obama brand, or even send a statement about the frivolousness of Western Society.
By using the photo to underlay their message they are piggy-backing on its recognition, association and potency to create their own distorted meaning.
Anyone faced with a crisis situation needs to take into account the reality of memes and word of mouth communications, and potential scenarios arising from their actions during the crisis.
Decision-makers need to:
- Identify how their message is likely to be hi-jacked, distorted or abused by those with other agendas, and the potential memes that will be created as a result.
- Avoid creating information vacuums to limit the fertile field for conspiracy theories.
- Create their own iconic soundbite messages and images, to provide what I call ‘Blocking Memes’.
- Monitor and respond to any subsequent memes as they emerge. And don’t counter these in information terms, but rather create counter-memes which are stronger, more virulent to obscure and starve any rival meme.
You heard it from here, the US administration does not seem to have an effective meme strategy. Pass it on.