News Release

April 25, 2018

For Immediate Release
Contact: Fiona Gettinger, Communications Associate, 703-824-2388

U.S. Government Can Use Memes for Influence Campaigns, Finds CNA

ARLINGTON, Va. — The speed at which information spreads today presents challenges to the United States, as state and non-state adversaries use this capability to spread disinformation. As the U.S. government looks for ways to fight adversarial disinformation and radicalization campaigns, it is overlooking a potentially valuable tool: memes. This is the conclusion of a new CNA report, “Exploring the Utility of Memes for U.S. Government Influence Campaigns,” which examines the potential use of memes as a tool for online influence. “The study gives practitioners of influence a useful framework for thinking about how and when to engage audiences using memes,” says Kate Hammerberg, an associate research analyst and an author of the report.

The report defines memes as “a culturally resonant item easily shared or spread online.” The authors use the metaphor of a biological virus and identified three ways memes can be used within influence campaigns:

  • Inoculate: Using memes to stop or limit the damage from adversary messaging
  • Infect: Using a meme to spread or articulate a specific message
  • Treat: Using a meme to counter an existing message by mocking or disproving it

The research team studied relevant literature in psychology, behavioral sciences, philosophy, and marketing. The research consistently shows that images have some distinct advantages over text. The report states, “These advantages —particularly those with respect to brevity and stickiness — make visual memes especially well-suited for influence campaigns.” The report argues that memetic images can communicate complex ideas more quickly, and that they can be more easily recalled than text. Additionally, market research shows that failing to engage in this arena cedes this form of communication to actors like Russia and the Islamic State, which is taking advantage of it.

The authors also spoke with experts from government, academia, and the private sector — and even a professional internet troll. These discussions suggest that memes will be most effective when integrated into a broader influence campaign with clear goals. Some campaigns will benefit from well-targeted, culturally specific memes, while others can be effective across cultural and linguistic barriers. “Visual memes and memetic engagement are tools with great potential for the US government as it looks to counter the information activities of state and non-state actors and more proactively engage audiences online,” says Hammerberg.

CNA is a nonprofit research and analysis organization dedicated to the safety and security of the nation. It operates the Center for Naval Analyses — the only Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) serving the Department of the Navy — as well as the Institute for Public Research. CNA is dedicated to developing actionable solutions to complex problems of national importance. With nearly 700 scientists, analysts and professional staff, CNA takes a real-world approach to gathering data. Its one-of-a-kind field program places analysts on carriers and military bases, in squad rooms and crisis centers, working side-by-side with operators and decision-makers around the world. CNA supports naval operations, fleet readiness and great power competition. Its non-defense research portfolio includes criminal justice, homeland security and data management.

Note to writers and editors: CNA is not an acronym and is correctly referenced as "CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA."


Elizabeth Cutler
Communications Program Manager

Liza Cordeiro
Senior Advisor Marketing