In 1487, the Hammer of Witches was released, a book that taught common people to identify sorcerers, use torture to obtain confessions, and prepare rituals to kill heretics at the stake. The murderous work was an editorial success and influential in the early days of the press. While typography established itself as an instrument to combat illiteracy, that book spread misinformation, hatred and fear. His messages became scattered memes in addition to typography.
Meme is a term created by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe ideas that spread by repetition. The meme is effective if it is spread indefinitely and easily remembered, resisting almost immutably for generations. This meaning is more comprehensive than our intuition gives these pieces of information, massively present in social media.
The digital space provides yet another avenue for the dissemination of memes. Typed codes shared over and over again create and consolidate habits, language and sense of group; the necessary bases for the elaboration of conspiracy theories. These can crystallize online violence to actual, offline aggression. The time of the COVID-19 pandemic, brings its examples. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has linked the pandemic to migration, former Italian Minister Matteo Salvini has blamed refugees for infections in Italy, Muslims have been blamed for spreading the virus in India, Africans in China have been discriminated against. In these corners of the world, physical violence against vulnerable people occurred. Memes travel and are passively accepted, obliterating intelligence and critical thinking.
Abstract threats, such as the destruction of “culture” and the “loss of local identity” by immigrant habits, spread more than the news of concrete dangers.
Pieces of distorted information travel faster than complete studies of nagging problems. Assumptions, inferences strengthen the emotional foundations that ignite prejudice and racism. In addition, they convey anguish, horror and fear, therefore, incite the logic of self-defense. Memes bias subjective concepts of tradition and national strength, value the supposed honor of an ancestry that time has perverted, and now weakened, is at the mercy of the ragged. Only those who know about the threat can be trusted, dissenters will be accused of tolerating and collaborating with the affront. These will inevitably be considered part of the problem. In this way, the concepts formed are self-referential, immune to contradictions.
The certainty of being coerced causes a feeling that drastic action must be taken. An attack then becomes the fulfillment of a group’s repressed will, violence is understood as necessary, and no longer reprehensible. Memes corrupt cognition, reasoning begins to dehumanize the other, morals are deconstructed and empathy is lacking.
Contagion is a feature of many social and political phenomena, including conflict, protest, terrorism and crime. Violence takes over areas that are sometimes well-circumscribed, but it can break boundaries and spread geographically. This dynamic depends on daily social interactions and the structures of human networks. Memes are fluid enough to find the pores of these connections.
Sometimes it is easy to know which side is right, where there is decency and reason, the field furthest from the engines of gratuitous violence. However, even in places full of good intentions, there is still room for memes to make someone accept what is offered to them, and believe only in the vicinity of their creeds. In this place full of virtues, pride will be a flower adorning hollow heads. This text is also full of memes, a showcase of unoriginal messages displayed here, which show how easy it is to think for another.
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- Di Salvatore J. Does criminal violence spread? Contagion and counter-contagion mechanisms of piracy. Political Geography 2018 Sep 1;66:14–33.