COVID-19 as a Memetic Disease–An Epidemic of Panic
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 11 May 2020
Learning from Terrorism, Communism, Fascism and Evil as Pandemics of the Past
There is clearly no denying that COVID-19 is a disease which is causing worldwide fatalities. Less evident, and seldom explored as such, is the extent to which it is a memetic disease — and the nature of the fatalities with which that is associated. So framed, it is also useful to derive insights from pandemics of the past from a memetic perspective.
The focus on COVID-19 as a memetic disease is justified by the considerable confusion with which it has been associated and continues to engender. Without referring to its memetic consequences as such, this can be inferred from the assertion of the Secretary-General of the United Nations (Hatred going viral in ‘dangerous epidemic of misinformation’ during COVID-19 pandemics, UN News, 14 April 2020; Global report: virus has unleashed a ‘tsunami of hate’ across world, says UN chief, The Guardian, 8 May 2020).
The question here is whether any such “epidemic of misinformation” could be understood to have been associated with the focus on terrorism, radicalism, communism, fascism, evil, and the like. The exploration could of course be extended to other preoccupations which have aroused widespread concern. More delicate is the question regarding the extent to which concern at the excesses of religion, of science, of technology, of ideology, or of any discipline, merit recognition as symptomatic of a memetic disease. Common to the reaction to their perception as a threat is the cultivation of a culture of fear — only too evident in the case of COVID-19.
The memetic focus merits consideration in the light of the recognized transition from wartime propaganda to information warfare — and more recently to memetic warfare (Tom Ascott, How memes are becoming the new frontier of information warfare, The Strategist: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 19 February 2020; It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare, Defence Strategic Communications of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, 2015; Missiles, Missives, Missions and Memetic Warfare: navigation of strategic interfaces in multidimensional knowledge space. 2001).
Reference to memetic follows from the argument of Richard Dawkins (1976) extending the understanding of gene (and genetics) to meme (and memetics, by implication). The role of genetic engineering in biological warfare is well-recognized, and it has been alleged that COVID-19 is one consequence (Jan van Aken, et al, Genetic engineering and biological weapons, European Molecular Biology Organization Reports, 4, 2003, June). The possibility of memetic engineering has also been recognized, notably as exemplified in debate on the techniques employed in connection with the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
The argument is especially justified given the manner in which the response to COVID-19 has been widely framed by the world’s leaders as a war — and the need therefore to place countries on a wartime footing, evoking the emergency provisions with which that is associated. As with the global war on terrorism, other social crises have been similarly framed (Review of the Range of Virtual Wars: strategic comparison with the global war against terrorism, 2005).
Rather than continuing to cultivate the possibility that COVID-19 was engineered as a biological weapon, there is therefore a case for exploring whether it has been engineered and employed as a memetic weapon — of which the narrative regarding its biological weaponisation is ironically an example.
As is occasionally repeated, truth is the first fatality of warfare (Gary G. Kohls. The First Casualty of War is the Truth, Global Research, 9 May 2014; Jackson Diehl, Truth is the first casualty in war, including this one, Anchorage Daily News, 12 April 2020). How truth is itself to be understood in memetic terms is a matter for the future (Jay Owens, The Age of Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture, Medium, 12 April 2018).
Tags: COVID-19, Coronavirus, Pandemic
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