In 1999, media activist Kalle Lasn published the groundbreaking book Culture Jam.  Lasn’s overall focus is overcoming the stranglehold that the corporate marketing culture has over our society – but his theories on "meme warfare" in particular are very relevant to the current health care debate.

As Jason noted yesterday, the following meme gained surprising strength on Facebook and Twitter:

No one should die because they cannot afford healthcare, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

It’s rapid spread and the fact that it was posted by many people who do not normally make political statements is a testament to the veracity of Lasn’s theory.

A meme (rhymes with dream) is a unit of information (a catchphrase, a concept, a tune, a belief) that leaps from brain to brain to brain. Memes compete with one another for replication, and are passed down through a population much the same way genes pass through a species. Potent memes can change minds, alter behavior, catalyze collective mindshifts, and transform cultures. Which is why meme warfare has become the geopolitical battle of our information age. Whoever has the memes has the power.

Lasn points to the successful campaign to change public attitudes about smoking as an example of how a single meme can overcome even the most entrenched political and economic powers. 

Here was a multibillion-dollar industry butting heads with the fledgling anti-tobacco lobby. In 1969, the anti-tobacco crusaders, through persistent effort and relentless pressure, managed to secure airtime for their anti-smoking ads, which ran against the cigarette ads that were then still legal on TV…

Yul Brynner, disintegrating from lung cancer, came on TV just months from death, looked the world squarely in the eye and said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t smoke.’ That meme forged the link between cigarettes and death. Smoking was uncooled, and no amount of PR money could buy the cool back.

Lasn’s meme warfare theory is intended for long-term campaigns such as this that take years or even decades to transform the culture. With the health care debate, however, we don’t have that kind of time. We’re down to weeks, perhaps a month or two at best. The anti-reform movement struck the first blow in this accelerated meme war with its delusions about death panels and forced abortions. But the other side seems to be catching up, as yesterday’s Facebook/Twittrer meme indicates.

With a greater presence on social media and the amazing online community built by Obama’s presidential campaign, the pro-reform side should have a leg up in this battle. What are some ways we can develop effective memes and then circulate them out in the public? Facebook and Twitter is a start, but there is so much more we can do.

Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – And Why We Must.  New York, HarperCollins, 1999. (pp. 123-125)

Jim Moss

Jim Moss