Tracking Hate in Near Real-Time

Memes can be fun, witty, stupid, or offensive, but they are also used by right-wing and other hate groups to spread propaganda, and their use has increased. A report was released last week on the danger to our country from this “memetic warfare.”

“Cyber Swarming, Memetic Warfare and Viral Insurgency: How Domestic Militants Organize on Memes to Incite Violent Insurrection and Terror Against Government and Law Enforcement,” is from Rutgers’ Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience and is “powered by” the Network Contagion Research Institute.

NCRI is a nonprofit of scientists and engineers that acts as “a neutral and independent third party whose mission it is to track, expose, and combat misinformation, deception, manipulation, and hate across social media channels.” It recently developed the ability (a “massive data ingestion and machine learning/semantic analytic platform”) to watch the spread of a particular meme, the “boogaloo,” across social media, as it exploded over the last three to four months.

“The boogaloo catchphrase…is based on the 1984 movie sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which critics panned as a shockingly unoriginal, near-mirror copy of the original film. As adopted by meme culture, the term is often used by libertarians, gun enthusiasts, and anarchists to describe an uprising against the government or left-wing political opponents that is a near-mirror copy, or sequel to, the American Civil War.”

The boogaloo meme is actually a variety of memes that advocate extreme violence against the government and law enforcement, and push for civil- and race-war with “inside jokes and plausible deniability.” These include a graphic with the words, “The 2A is for shooting cops,” and a photo of men in special warfare gear, shining laser sights in a dark forest, and the words, “Boojahideen playing seek and boog with the Virginia National Guard.” (Boojahideen is from Mujahideen, Islamic guerrilla fighters.)

Other memes share ingredients for napalm, CS gas, and thermite grenades, and “printable blueprints for a Glock 17, an AKM assault rifle, and a printable AR-15 fully automatic modification.”

Social media sites of this stripe have tens of thousands of followers.

The authors of the NCRI study, Alex Goldenberg and Joel Finkelstein, analyzed 100 million social media comments, to begin tracking and indexing viral security threats as they “metastasize…across Facebook, Instagram and the chans.” A goal was to document how apocalyptic militia groups “strategize [and] share instructions….”

“Far from a marginal influence, our research exposes platforms and conspiracies that exert a powerful influence on public opinion, with users who aim to demoralize and destabilize public trust. Of note, the individuals and groups that leverage meme culture in their violence have been keenly selective to target vulnerable religious and ethnic segments of the American population,” they say.

What they found were two massive, recent spikes in this sort of shared information. The first was at the end of November, during the “Whiskey Warrior” standoff with police; the second was within 24 hours of the House of Representative’s impeachment of Donald Trump.

Of special concern are memes that might target the veteran and active-military communities, since “the meme’s emphasis on military language and culture poses a specific risk to military communities due to the similar thematic structure, fraternal organization, and reward incentives.” (The veterans’ online community is already rife with anger and inflammatory comments.)

While the memes are often passed off as jokes, they may “set the stage for massive real-world violence and sensitize enthusiasts to mobilize in mass for confrontations or charged political events.”

The report says that once the “DNA of the most dangerous and threatening memetic ideologies” is indexed, a “civil messaging/information vaccine approach against weaponized information” can be developed. This can be deployed in “’red zones’ of hateful-memetic contagion…where polarized communities reside, both on social media and/or in the real world.” (Along with law enforcement and even troops, if need be, one assumes, though this is not mentioned in the report.)

“The very tools which map the epidemic can repeatedly assess the success of civil campaigns and calibrate counter messages adaptively,” the report says.

This is a powerful technology, and like any other technology, it could be used for good or bad. One can imagine its use for the control of political messaging, perhaps during elections, but then I am probably not the first to think of it.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.