Callum Harvey is an independent cyber policy researcher based in Canberra, Australia. He has previously worked as a researcher with the Harris Cyber Policy Initiative at the University of Chicago, and as a cybersecurity consultant at CyberCX.
Callum’s main research interests include the role of memes in information warfare, the role and state-like nature of actors in international cyber policymaking, and the digital economy. His research has been published in the journals Policy & Internet, and on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s outlet The Strategist. Callum holds an Honours degree in Communication and Media, and undergraduate degrees in international relations and digital media, from the University of Wollongong, Australia.
Jack Goldsmith is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University’s School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), Editor-in-Chief at Young Australians in International Affairs (YAIA), and Teaching Assistant at Flinders University. At RegNet, Jack works within the Justice and Technoscience Lab to explore the sociotechnical impacts of emerging technologies. His research interests lie at the intersection of technology, society and strategy, and include cyber security, digital anthropology, information warfare and international security.
At YAIA, Jack is the principal editor responsible for helping publish articles on international affairs from students and young professionals across Australia. At Flinders, Jack provides teaching assistance for topics covering international security, technology governance, and foreign policy. Prior to his current roles, Jack worked at the Jeff Bleich Centre, where he researched the social and strategic impacts of big data and machine learning. Jack holds a Master of Laws and Bachelor of International Studies (Honours).
Building a meme war machine: A comparative analysis of memetic insurgencies in cyberspace
Memes, defined as the smallest possible sharable unit of culture (Blackmore 2000), fundamentally underpin modern information warfare. Despite rich scholarly exploration of information warfare (Golovchenko et al. 2018; Hou et al. 2023; Giles 2016; Prier 2020; Rid 2020; Sohl 2022) and the increasing operationalization of memes in contemporary information operations, memetic warfare remains largely understudied. This paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by scrutinizing two case studies of memetic insurgencies, comparing their design processes to glean insights about the structuring role of memes in contemporary information warfare. This comparison reveals the unique value of memetic, ironic, and participatory qualities in information warfare. This paper utilizes an extended case methodology (Lai & Roccu 2019) to derive specific insights from both cases to argue the effectiveness of memes in designing and deploying information warfare campaigns.
The first insurgency examined is the #DraftOurDaughters movement on 4chan's /pol/ board prior to the 2016 US election. The platform, fundamentally memetic in nature (Hine et al. 2016; Ludemann 2018; Nagle 2017; Nissenbaum & Shifman 2017), was the central driving agent from which 4chan users worked to associate the campaign of Hillary Clinton with a bogus framing of the Draft America’s Daughters Act. Exploiting campaign design elements, users rapidly disseminated memetic objects that falsely suggested Clinton sought to draft women into a war with Russia.
The second insurgency, the North Atlantic Fellas Organization (NAFO), has and continues to serve as a key vector for countering Russian disinformation during the invasion of Ukraine. NAFO's mission evolved from an initial fundraising effort for Ukraine to counter-disinformation and undertake open-source intelligence (NAFO 2022). Organizing around the symbol of the "Fella," a compressed image of a shiba inu dog, NAFO piggybacks on existing memes to facilitate participation and coordinate public responses across platforms like Twitter, Telegram, and Discord.
This article argues for the necessity of understanding and utilizing memes in information warfare analysis. It contends that contemporary information warfare is inherently memetic, distributed, and fosters user participation. NAFO showcases memes' value in broader conflicts, emphasizing the need for participatory memetic insurgencies, enabling user engagement, and suggesting states adopt similar strategies. Additionally, the article contributes an early academic analysis of NAFO's impact on shaping public perceptions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.