Approaching conspiracy only as a system of connections means falling into the trap of conspiratorial thought, reproducing a monomaniacal gigantism (It’s all connected! And it’s huge!) even when the goal is to debunk. Conspiratorial thought is most recognizable as a system, but its operation and circulation prove far broader (and far messier) when it escapes the boundaries of the systemic. These boundaries are entirely notional, and result from choosing the full-fledged conspiracy theory as the primary object of study. Returning to the level of the conspiratorial utterance, we exchange the macro view of the system with the micro perspective of the meme.
The “Meme” Meme
After more than a decade of social media, nearly everyone knows what a meme is. Or, more to the point, nearly everyone thinks they know what a meme is, but are technically wrong. But the beauty of the error is that, in misunderstanding memes, they create new evidence in support of meme theory.
Coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), the word “meme” is meant to cover any unit of information that can be transmitted from person to person (or mind to mind), regardless of the means of transmission. Dawkins invents meme theory in the service of a much grander goal. Just as Saussure laid the foundations for modern linguistic as essentially the first test case for a then-nonexistent field he called semiotics, Dawkins saw memetics (meme theory) as a way to argue for the larger idea of “universal Darwinism”: in any system involving information to be replicated, vehicles for their replication, scarce resources, and the possibility of error, the result will be evolution. In biological terms, he is of course talking about genes (the information) and biological organisms (the replicators), with evolution resulting from the occasionally imperfect copying of genes from one generation to another (occasionally giving rise to a mutation that will prove useful and be passed on).
In applying Darwinian principles to information and culture, Dawkins is much more modest than most of his predecessors: the only biological drive he posits is the impulse to copy (an impulse we see in basic child development). What actually gets copied (information/culture) is independent of physical biology.
So a meme is simply any unit of information: the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bartleby the Scrivener’s famous expression of disinterest, or even an obscure sentence written down once three hundred years ago in a book that no one has ever read. Like genes, memes have a reproductive strategy: catchiness. Catchiness is what ensures the survival and transmission of Beethoven’s Fifth, while its lack is what ensures that my hypothetical three-hundred year old sentences will never have any offspring (that is, copies of itself written or spoken by others).
Information evolves precisely because transmission is riddled with errors (such as mishearing or typos). Bartleby’s catchphrase, “I would prefer not to” is commonly misremembered as “I would prefer not” (a new meme resulting from the old). Elton John never sang “Hold me closer, Tony Danza,” nor did Pat Benatar invite listeners to “hit me with your pet shark,” but such perceptual errors have doubtless produced new texts and new meanings (not to mention t-shirts).
In common parlance, memes are now simply images, videos, and catchphrases spread throughout the Internet, with the assumption that memes are only a small subset of the information in our cultural ecosystem. The frequent application of the qualifier “viral” reinforces the sense that memes are somehow hostile, foreign, and invasive—in other words, a paranoid notion of the meme. The viral metaphor plays into fears of persuasion and mind control (as in Richard Brodie's Virus of the Mind) on the basis of a false dichotomy between self and non-self: “viral” memes invade a mind that is otherwise presumed to be integral and impregnable. But meme theory as originally construed posits a much more radical notion of subjectivity: all information (including thoughts) is composed of memes, and even the most banal exchange of information is an exchange of memes. If we recall the observation that surprise parties are technically conspiracies, then “Happy Birthday to You” is just as “viral” as a commercial for the U.S. Army.
A Conspiracy of Memes?
It is worth dwelling on the construction of the “viral” before turning to the role of memes in conspiracy because the viral metaphor, with its implications of malignancy and even agency, threatens to subsume memetics to a fundamentally conspiratorial worldview. My intent, however, is precisely the opposite: rather than allow a discussion of memes to facilitate paranoia, I want to use memetics in order to posit the circulation of elements of conspiracy theory in the absence of any real agency at all.
The memes of conspiracy are the familiar tropes, images, and phrases that, overt the lifespan of a given theory, reach beyond the initiated, becoming part of the larger discourse. While their dissemination might be the result of agitation by conspiracy partisans, if anything, their spread is facilitated much more effectively by satirists and debunkers. Consider, for example, the following list:
one world government
men in black
new world order
The Bilderberg Group
The Trilateral Commission
At least some of these phrases will be familiar to most readers, including those who are not steeped in conspiratorial lore. Clearly, each phrase can theoretically be used in an entirely neutral context, but they are so thoroughly entangled in a conspiratorial semantic web that their very invocation serves as shorthand for a larger narrative. Whether that narrative is taken seriously or not is, in this instance, unimportant: it is the constituent memes of conspiracy, rather than the theory itself, that most easily reaches the largest number of people.
Conspiratorial memes can be an unintentional trap for the speaker who invokes them naively. On September 11 (!), 1990, President George H.W. Bush delivered a speech to congress laying out his vision of the world in the aftermath of the Cold War, with “the very real prospect of a new world order.” A charitable, and plausible, reading of Bush’s phrasing would be that the president had no idea that he was employing a phrase that had been circulating in extreme right-wing groups for over a decade; a conspiracist might see the speech as the moment when Bush finally tipped his hand.