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Beware Behavioral Memes

On Twitter and Facebook and throughout the Internet there are folks that want to spread memes for business and governmental purposes. But the memes aren’t just things like, “Vlad can has borschtburger.” They are also behavioral or attitudinal memes.

Behavioral memes aren’t funny little pictures with captions. They are how people respond. For example, in political discussions I often see people saying that a scandal won’t matter, that the bad leaders can get away with anything. I’m not claiming that attitude is intentionally used to subvert discussion, but it is an attitudinal meme.

Behavioral memes spread ideas about how we communicate online. They say, “This is all hopeless,” even if they agree that we need good governance and that democracy is worth far more than the trouble it causes. Cynicism against any possible solution is the general shape of these behavioral memes.

Or they might say, “Seeing a bully get her comeuppance is enjoyable.” Or that punching down is edgy.

It’s not just about the online spread of falsified reporting. It’s equally about the spread of how we act and respond online. Whether it’s creating cynicism where solutions existed or driving people away from participating in productive discussions or distracting them into debating Bill Clinton in the 1990s instead of the matters of the day, there are ways aplenty of harming online discourse.

The Internet can grow and change, and if people are not behaving productively where you are, you can either find somewhere else, or create a new space of your own. Spread out. As in actual warzones, it’s difficult to target people the farther apart they are. Every new platform that artificial participants have to add to their influence operations costs them more time and money.

If you see the same kinds of replies, whatever the news, consider the attitude and question if it’s a useful one. It doesn’t matter if they are APs or not. The productivity of behavioral memes is independent of who is spreading them, just as with caption memes.

SHA Hate

A look at how shorthand abstractions contribute to stereotypes and cultural divides.

SHAs are Shorthand abstractions. SHA itself is one. So is the name of a sport or a field of study. They are simple ways to talk about complex things. The idea was proposed by psychologist James R. Flynn in a book examining the nature of intelligence (see Wikipedia: What is Intelligence?: “Shorthand Abstractions: SHA”). It’s worth pointing out that while a SHA is a meme, not all memes are SHAs.

But onto the matter at hand. SHA hate. Not hatred of the ideas of SHAs, and not really hate in the ultimate sense of the word (hate also being a SHA for negative attitude towards things), but people who are prejudiced in conversation and comments by the use of certain SHAs.

The most common one in debates between free-software advocates and others used to be some variation of Microsoft with a dollar sign. This would regularly provoke kvetching about its infantility and so forth. And sometimes it was (is) misused. The problem, as usual, is that someone would use such a SHA in context, and others would miss the subtle context, then adopting the SHA as a general epithet.

In the ecig fora I’ve seen some minor murmurings against the use of the Big SHAs. The two most common to that community are Big Tobacco (BT) and Big Pharma (BP), due to both having histories with tobacco and disinformation and lobbying and massive coffers with which to undertake said disinformation and lobbying.

So the question comes, when used correctly (i.e., in context) should these sorts of SHAs prejudice us? Even if we deny that they are accurate, and argue that point, is the SHA not still useful? I think so.

I’ve seen a similar utility in SHA usage by the people who disagree with climate science. A segment of that group will, with great ease and zeal, claim that any given study has been thoroughly debunked. And they will do so using the claim as the SHA, which means that they can then pack into that one SHA any and every study that claims something similar.

For example, several studies of scientific consensus in climate science have been conducted, but disagreers lump them all under the SHA of 97% and believe they are all false due to a few potential mistakes in voluminous reviews. This is similar to the case made for voter identity card laws. That even if the Margin of Error were high, the results would not differ dramatically.

SHAs also serve as gatekeepers to community (intentionally or not). Learning the SHAs of a trade or group tends to be one way of settling into the group. Neophytes to ecigs have to learn about all sorts of -mizers and might hear about TH (throat-hit) and THR (tobacco-harm reduction) and so-on.

But those same SHAs can mark speech such that others do not understand the context or reason for the SHA. And if they have encountered others that misuse a SHA, it may trigger a stereotype. For that reason, it may be useful to avoid SHAs except when they can be used with mutual agreement.