April 17, 2018  |  Updated April 25, 2019

Exploring the Utility of Memes for US Government Influence Campaigns

By Kate Hammerberg

The term meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins to explore the ways in which ideas spread between people. With the introduction of the internet, the term has evolved to refer to culturally resonant material—a funny picture, an amusing video, a rallying hashtag—spread online, primarily via social media. This CNA self-initiated exploratory study examines memes and the role that memetic engagement can play in US government (USG) influence campaigns. We define meme as “a culturally
resonant item easily shared or spread online,” and develop an epidemiological model of inoculate / infect / treat to classify and analyze ways in which memes have been effectively used in the online information environment. Further, drawing from our discussions with subject matter experts, we make preliminary observations and identify areas for future research on the ways that memes and memetic engagement may be used as part of USG influence campaigns.