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The Meme Leak Theory

China is banning memes. America is developing immunity.

Dror Poleg
4 min read
The Meme Leak Theory

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On to this week's piece.

China is banning memes. America is developing immunity.

I have a theory. It's unsubstantiated, but it's worth exploring. The gist is that social unrest increases in line with the velocity of memes. Put differently: the faster that memes can emerge and spread, the bigger the threat to democracy and social order. This seems like bad news for America and its culture of open debate. But it might ultimately cause more damage to China.

Last week, we discussed how the internet enables large groups to coordinate their actions and influence markets. Coordinated crowds can exploit a market's specific weaknesses. They can force much larger players to behave in ways that do not make economic sense. And they can confound regulators by blurring the boundaries between participation and manipulation.

Once some people participate in coordinated efforts to manipulate markets, anyone who doesn't do so is at a disadvantage. As a result, a growing share of market activity becomes subject to coordinated manipulation by various groups.

But when multiple "crowds" try to sway more people to join them, what determines which groups ultimately succeed? The quality of their memes. Memes inspire and attract people and move them to act β€” to imitate other people's behaviors.

The whole market becomes a battle between memes, vying to reach the lowest common denominator. One driver of this dynamic is the creators of the memes, who are trying to move the broadest possible audience. But another driver is the memes themselves: Memes, like genes, are "selfish" β€” their sole goal is to replicate.

This dynamic is not limited to financial markets. Money is just a proxy for power. And every battle between people is ultimately a battle over whose behaviors and ideology will dominate all others.

In an environment in which new memes constantly emerge and go viral, this battle never ends. Some groups and ideas can gain a temporary advantage, but a new meme quickly emerges and sways people in a different direction. The only constant is the whole system's drift away from a stable, objective consensus towards chaotic, subjective disagreement about anything and everything. Sounds familiar?

China understands this. TikTok is the most powerful meme-spreading machine ever invented. It was made in China, but it is not available in China. Domestic users are only allowed to download a tamer, heavily-censored version of the app called DouYin.

Future historians will be astounded that the U.S. allowed TikTok to become so dominant. The app had nearly 80 million users in the U.S. in 2021. Most objections to TikTok's U.S. operations focus on privacy and reciprocity. As the arguments go, an app that is ultimately controlled by the Communist Party of China should not be installed on the phones of millions of U.S. citizens and collect data on their habits and location. And a Chinese social media company should not be allowed to operate in the U.S. while American companies such as Facebook and Twitter are completely blocked in China.

But TikTok poses a more significant risk, which has nothing to do with its Communist DNA. TikTok's most significant threat to American democracy is the speed at which it spreads memes β€” the efficiency with which it zones in on behaviors and ideas that people are most likely to share. The threat is not the content of the memes but the speed at which they emerge.

Many online apps are good at getting people to share stuff, but TikTok is a whole new medium. Long ago, Marshall McLuhan explained that "the 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs." He famously said "the medium is the message" as well as the "massage," alluding to "the general roughing up that any new society gets from a medium."

Is this bad news for America?

I'm not sure. China treats memes like the plague. It tries to slow their spread and kill them at the source by only allowing the right behaviors and ideas to appear on social media. China doesn't just ban political content and reports about unrest in Tibet or Xinjiang; it also cracks down on content that displays "unproductive" things like tattoos, LGBTQ people, and hip hop. We can call this the "Zero Meme" approach.

The U.S. has the opposite approach. Every idea gets its moment in the sun; every idiot (or lunatic) gets his fifteen minutes of fame. At one point or another, every member of the population gets infected with "unproductive" ideas or behaviors.

Could this unstoppable spread lead to herd immunity? Quite possibly. America's greatest strength is its ability to take subversive ideas and turn them into multibillion-dollar industries. In America, LGBTQ is a marketing segment, Black Lives Matter is a corporate slogan, and Climate Change is an investment strategy.

And what about China? Trying to avoid memes completely might weaken the country's immune system. One day, an "unproductive" meme from America might find its way in and wreak havoc.

Earlier this week, evidence of what this might look like appeared in a news item from America's neighbor to the north. Tamara Lich, one of the organizers of the "Freedom Convoy" that protested Canada's vaccine mandate, was arrested and charged with offenses that can send her to a decade in jail.

Testifying at his wife's bail hearing, Dwayne Lich said "I thought it was a peaceful protest, and based on my first amendment, I thought that was part of our rights."

Perplexed, the judge responded: "What do you mean, first amendment? What's that?," hinting that the U.S. constitution does not apply to Canada.

But what if it does? The First Amendment is one of America's finest and most resilient memes. If it can spread to Canada, maybe it will one day make it to China.

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