Memes and truthiness

A major Indiana University research project on how memes spread on social media has thrown unexpected light on what the US satirist, Stephen Colbert, calls ‘truthiness’ – a term defined as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

The university researchers called the project ‘Truthy’ and, demonstrating the validity of both the research and Colbert’s insight, they have been besieged by conservative critics who claim the National Science Foundation funded project is designed to track hate speech, monitor political debate and build up data bases which will infringe free speech. The opposition has been led by the usual suspects including Fox News, Forbes and the Republican chair of the House of Representatives Science Committee, Lamar Smith, a well-known climate denialist who like Maurice Newman believes the world is cooling. Smith is also a Christian Scientist although, it appears he may not, unlike some of the other Republican Science members of his committee, believe that evolution is an idea which comes from the ‘pit of hell’. He is, however, seeking to have the committee direct what the independent, peer-reviewed, National Science Foundation is allowed to fund – a similar move to that of Australia’s Christopher Pyne who wants to personally approve university research grants. More details of the reactions to the research can be found in a Physics Today article, Media furore confronts NSF-funded study of social media dynamics, forwarded to the blog by a friend, John Spitzer.

Nevertheless, if the Indiana research is upsetting for climate denialists, Fox News and opponents of evolutionary science it is very interesting for the communications industry. Details about it can be found at . The researchers say: “The focus of this research project is understanding how information propagates through complex socio-technical information networks. Leveraging large-scale public data from online social networking platforms, we are able to analyze and model the spread of information, from political discourse to market trends, from news to social movements, and from trending topics to scientific results, in unprecedented detail. We study how popular sentiment, user influence, attention, social network structure, and other factors affect the manner in which information is disseminated. Additionally, an important goal of the Truthy project is to better understand how social media can be abused.”

“We study: how individuals’ limited attention span affects what information we propagate and what social connections we make, and how the structure of social networks can help predict which memes are likely to become viral; modeling … to better understand how information spreads, why some memes go viral… the role of sentiment on the diffusion process, the mutual interaction between traffic on the network; and, the ….. differences in meme diffusion patterns between different domains, such as news and scientific results, and the correlations between certain online behaviors and offline events.”

Understanding memes is a challenge for communicators. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins who said: “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in a broad sense, can be called imitation.” We see the empirical evidence for their existence all the time in catchphrases, proverbs and, more perniciously, urban myths and zombie lies such as the claim that Australia’s debt is out of control despite us having one of the healthiest government debt situations in the world. Indeed, a recent Ipsos Index of Ignorance survey of 14 countries put Australia pretty much in the middle and shows the majority of Australians are seriously wrong in their beliefs about subjects such as the number of people aged over 65, the rate of teenage births, the number of Muslims in the country and whether the murder rate is rising or falling. In each case estimates are much higher than reality. Particular Australian groups, environmentalists for instance, are also not immune from truthies as exemplified by their stubborn refusal to admit that the study they cite all the time about the health risk of GM crops has been disproven and now retracted.

Of course thoughts about memes predate Dawkins even if they were not formulated into a theory. But they underpin ideas such as: H.L. Mencken’s comment about national ideas “To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true”; and, the historian Graham Robb’s remark, in The Discovery of France, that: “It seems to be a law of social history that the greater the number of people with a particular experience, the less evidence remains of that experience.” Conversely, as Ernest Renan remarked: “The essence of a nation is that people who may have many things in common but have also forgotten much together” although, as many Australians know from the history of our treatment of indigenous Australians, the forgetting was fostered by some convenient memes.

Meanwhile, speaking of memes, Richard Dawkins will be coming to Australia for a series of talks and interviews around the first part of his autobiography An Appetite for Wonder. He will be in Melbourne on 29 November, Brisbane December 1 and Sydney on December 4. More details at

…and also meanwhile communicators should perhaps also remember the advice of George Bernard Shaw – if you want to tell people the truth you better make them laugh…otherwise they’ll kill you.