TRUTH IS A VIRUS: Meme Warfare and the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)
[first published in: Cultural Resistance, Ed. Steven Duncombe, Verso, April 2002]
“Truth is a Virus.” When I first saw this phrase, defiantly spray-painted on the walls of a suburban high-school, it thrilled me. So what if it was only a fantasy image in a Hollywood movie (Pump up the Volume, the Christian Slater film about a pirate radio station)? It was infectious. As a political activist, it made immediate, intuitive sense; it became my mantra. I want to infect the body politic. I want to unleash a viral epidemic of truth. Eventually this desire, taking shape in fits and starts, became my calling, guiding my strange “career” in culture jamming and guerrilla media provocations. I soon came to see, however, that lies are also viruses. Lies and myth and kitsch and advertising jingles and corporate logos and mood rings and the idea that free trade is free—all of these are viruses. I came to think of the matrix of hearts and minds and media as a vast theater of viral warfare. In his book Media Virus!, Douglas Rushkoff describes it like this:
“Media viruses spread through the datasphere the same way biological ones spread through the body or a community. But instead of traveling along an organic circulatory system, a media virus travels through the networks of the mediascape. The ‘protein shell’ of a media virus might be an event, invention, technology, system of thought, musical riff, visual image, scientific theory, sex scandal, clothing style, or even a pop hero—as long as it can catch our attention. Any one of these media virus shells will search out the receptive nooks and crannies in popular culture and stick on anywhere it is noticed. Once attached, the virus injects its more hidden agendas into the datastream in the form of ideological code—not genes but a conceptual equivalent we now call ‘memes.’ Like real genetic material, these memes infiltrate the way we do business, educate ourselves, interact with one another—even the way we perceive ‘reality.'” 
Rushkoff’s exploration of “memes” fascinated me. But rather than viruses of clothing styles and pop heroes, I was interested in viruses of political ideas and action. For several years, as “Minister of Culture” for the social justice group United for a Fair Economy, I experimented with various media viruses, taking on issues of taxation, sweatshops, wage inequality, and corporate welfare. In the Spring of 2000 we developed a very virulent strain: Billionaires for Bush (or Gore).
The Billionaires campaign was devised to educate the public about the twin evils of campaign finance corruption and economic inequality. With the pay gap between CEOs and workers at 475 to 1, both Democrats and Republicans renting themselves out to big money donors, and 97% of incumbents running for re-election being returned to Congress, these problems had reached crisis proportions by the 2000 presidential election. Our idea was to create a humorous, ironic media campaign that would spread like a virus via grassroots activists and the mainstream media.
In early May, in New York City I pulled together a team of talented volunteer designers, media producers, and veteran street theater activists. With support from UFE in Boston, and in close collaboration with Jenny Levison, we began to put the pieces of the campaign in place. We created a stylish logo by splicing together a donkey and elephant, and a “candidate” by digitally morphing photos of presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore into a single eerie image. Riffing off of slogans like “Free the Forbes 400” “Corporations are people too” “We’re paying for America’s free elections so you don’t have to” and “We don’t care who you vote for, we’ve already bought them” we created bumper stickers, buttons, a series of posters, and a kick-ass website that eventually won more than a few awards (www.billionairesforbushorgore.org). We also created a set of more content-rich materials, including a political platform, a full campaign speech, a candidate product comparison chart, as well as a campaign-contribution-return-on-your-investment-analysis. We even made mock radio ads, pressed them onto CD and sent 100 out to stations across the country. The satire was compact, funny and politically on target. The look was slick and the message was unified across a whole range of media. It was quite a package. And we launched it all with a “Million Billionaire March” at the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
We designed the campaign to be participatory: a simple concept that was easy to execute yet allowed for rich elaboration. Through the website, activists could download all the materials they needed to do actions in their own communities. By June, wildcat chapters were springing up. In Denver a Billionaires squad barged into the Green Party convention and tried to buy off Ralph Nader, much to the delight of delegates and the media.
By the time we arrived in Philadelphia for the Republican convention in late July, we were already a minor sensation. Advance articles in Time magazine and major dailies, radio coverage, and internet buzz had put us on the map. Our website was getting 100,000 hits a day (20,000 unique page views). Everybody was asking for our buttons and stickers and posters. Nearly a hundred Billionaires in full dress joined us in the streets, chanting, singing, burning money, smoking cigars. We also staged a “Vigil for Corporate Welfare” and auctioned off merchandising rights to the Liberty Bell (would it become the Taco Bell Liberty Bell or the Ma Bell Liberty Bell…?) The media were all over us. FOX, MSNBC, CBS, CNN, BBC, radio, print, corporate, independent—it was a feeding-frenzy. An informal poll of photo-journalists voted us “favorite protest.” We were certainly one of the more focused and cohesive. The Democratic convention in Los Angeles was more of the same. Folks there formed a very strong chapter, which included a marching band and a choir. My Billionaire character, Phil T. Rich, and Jenny’s, Millie O’Naire, became hits on the radio interview circuit and web site traffic shot up to 200,000 hits per day.
As the campaign picked up, a hub-node structure arose. UFE became the organizational hub of an ad hoc network of Do-It-Yourself movement grouplets. In the weeks after the conventions, we’d get email and calls every day from people across the country, raving about the project and eager to start local Billionaires chapters. “Cheney is flying into town next week.” A young student in Ashland, OR told me in a typical call. “I’ve gotten a bunch of folks together and we’re going to meet him at the airport. The local thrift store has already donated ten tuxedos.” This student had first seen the Billionaires on a late-night mainstream news program. He then went to the “Be a Billionaire” section of our website, downloaded the slogans, posters, and sample press releases. The group chose satirical names for themselves, called to give us a heads-up, and went into action. While other participants first heard about the campaign through activist email networks or via word of mouth, penetration of corporate mass media was key to the Billionaires’ success.
It took ingenious “viral design” to get our message through the corporate media’s editorial filters and out into the datasphere at large. We built our virus by embedding a threatening idea inside a non-threatening form. The “protein shell” of our virus: “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore).” Our meme, or hidden ideological code: Big Money owns both candidates/parties; both candidates/parties are roughly the same. Elegantly encapsulating the core ideas of the campaign into a funny five-word concept made for a sleek and potent virus. This concision also served as an “inoculation” against distortion. Even the most fragmented and de-contextualized mention in the media tended to carry our name, and thus our message. If they also got our tag line, “Because Inequality is not Growing Fast Enough,” then the message deepened. If they picked up modular parts of our shtick, then it deepened further. When they invited us on the air for lengthy radio interviews, we could eventually drop character and proceed with a straight up critique. The campaign had layers of code—concentric rings of more and more elaborate messaging. Each component was modular, compact, and self-contained. It could survive in a hostile, unpredictable media environment and like a fractal, still represent the campaign as a whole.
The Billionaires used irony’s double edge—it’s capacity to simultaneously pose both a straight literal meaning and a subversive implied meaning—to neatly flip between the virus’ outer shell and its inner code. In this way we could reach our two disparate audiences—corporate media and grass-roots activists—at the same time. Activists immediately picked up on the various layers of irony. While the mainstream media could be seduced to “play along” with the literal, tongue-in-cheek meaning, letting the public decode the implied and subversive meanings for themselves.
Some of the most powerful media viruses—virtual reality, smart drugs, compassionate conservatism—are actually oxymorons. Activist viruses are no exception. Groups working to rein in excessive government subsidies, hand-outs, and tax-breaks to corporations hit on the phrase “corporate welfare.” By meshing two seemingly incompatible notions into a new concept, such a phrase demands thought: “Huh, corporations get welfare?” It creates its own unique conceptual slot in the minds of people who hear it. The phrase demands conscious attention, providing an opportunity for the virus to attach itself and inject its meme-code into the public mind.  The Billionaires virus made a similar demand: “Huh, billionaires are protesting? Huh, Bush *or* Gore?”
To be successful, a media virus need not be ironic or oxymoronic. It must, however, be mobile, easily replicable, and well suited to the particular vectors of the media ecosystem that it has to travel. The Billionaires virus was virulent partly because it was a carrier on the mega-virus of the Presidential campaign itself. It was designed to appeal to the media: it was timely, visual, funny, and accessible. It was familiar yet different: a new and provocative way to say what everybody already secretly thought. The virus attached easily to a range of physical and semantic “carriers”—logo, posters, slogans, fake radio ads, street actions, email, buzz, laughter, media story, etc.—and we introduced it into the media stream in a manner calculated to maximize its propagation. Content and humor were tightly meshed. Not only did the humor help carry the content (in the way that laughter makes it easier to bear the truth), but if the media wanted the humor (and they did), they had to take the content too. The materials were catchy and accessible and the action model was easy to DIY. Thus the meme “spread, replicated, and mutated.”
Mutation was an issue, however. We, the virus designers, wanted participants to take the core idea and make it their own—to “run with it”—but we also wanted to control the degree and kinds of mutation. There was a deliberate effort to keep the core ideological code stable, while allowing wildcat chapters and interested DIYers to adapt the various code-carriers (as well as outer layers of code) to fit their own circumstances and creative inclinations.
“The task of an organizer,” a movement veteran once told me, “is to set up structures so people can participate.” In this sense, a meme might serve as a “virtual structure.” In the Billionaires campaign, both virtual and real structures worked together to shape and steer the campaign. The hub was a meme arsenal, here we designed the core ideas and launched the call to action. Once things got rolling, several mechanisms helped us steer the campaign. One was the website. Another was the Million Billionaire March, which modeled the kinds of actions people could do in their home cities. Finally, it was the shtick and the materials themselves. Jokes were funny, content was thoroughly researched, graphic production values were high. People liked the package and were naturally drawn to stay on message.
With a strong central concept and tight message discipline across all the materials, the mutations that developed in the field generally tended to be extensions of, rather than departures from the basic framework. Most of the mutations were “tweaks,” where people elaborated the main campaign by devising their own slogans, parody songs, or actions. Others were “clones.” Here people came up with their own sister campaigns, such as Billionaires for Closed Debates which took on the monopolizing of the Presidential debates by the two major parties, and Billionaires for More Media Mergers which protested growing media concentration at the National Association of Broadcasters in San Francisco that fall. In most of these cases, even when the wildcat DIY actions got scrappy and somewhat tangential, the core idea came through, and the whole campaign was of a piece.
Of course, I’m not the only activist waging viral warfare. In recent years new kinds of cultural resistance and social movement formations have appeared that understand—if not consciously, then at least intuitively—that their terrain of struggle is a “viral space.”  These formations – Woman’s Action Coalition, Reclaim the Streets, Lesbian Avengers, Earth Liberation Front, Radical Cheerleaders, and Critical Mass, to name several—are often composed of loosely structured networks, don’t have a single central organization with files, offices, members, et al., and often coalesce for a certain purpose or action and then dissolve. They are united less by strict ideology or affiliation and more by a loose set of ideas and a certain way or style of enacting these ideas. The cultural practices of these micro-movements spread virally, often via the internet, but also via other media—both grassroots and corporate.
The Critical Mass bicycle rides are a good example. The format is simple, fun, and easy to replicate. On the last Friday of every month, bicycle activists and enthusiasts gather for a mass unpermitted ride through the city. With a combination of moxie and sheer numbers they take the streets. The rides are celebratory, self-organizing, and open to all. The ideological code—”bikes are traffic, deal with it”—is perfectly embodied by the action. Dubbed “organized coincidences,” these rides arose in San Francisco in the late 1980’s and quickly spread across the globe.
Viruses happen. Viruses are also made to happen. Some radical viruses (cultural formations such as Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass) evolve more or less organically out of communities of resistance, while others (media campaigns such as the Billionaires) are more consciously designed and injected into the mediastream. In both cases there’s an ideological code as well as a viral shell. In pop culture, we’ve seen how a viral shell can be made of almost anything—from an advertising jingle to a new technology. For activist viruses, the viral shell is often a model of participatory action. For RTS the ideological code was a utopian demand to resist capital and liberate public space; the action model was a militant street carnival. It was the RTS action model that drove its viral explosion. People across the world grabbed onto the carnival, replicated it, and mutated it in their own way. As with Critical Mass, the RTS ideological code was elegantly embedded in the action itself. By doing the action, participants live the code themselves as well as deploy the code for others to reckon with. In the Billionaires campaign, the action model, though an important component, did not drive the campaign; it was more the sly and funny propaganda packaging of the ideological code.
Rushkoff speaks of a “viral syringe,” an initial event that injects the virus into the datastream. For the Billionaires this was primarily accomplished through the Million Billionaire March. For the movement against sweatshops, it was the Kathie Lee Gifford scandal—the revelation that a popular female celebrity was having her personal line of designer clothing produced by young immigrant women working under sweatshop conditions. By craftily orchestrating the exposé and then riding the resulting scandal for all it was worth, activists mainlined sweatshops into the American psyche. However it is launched, a truly successful virus must eventually take on a life of its own, demonstrating self-sustaining and self-evolving properties. Either it must infect the code of mainstream discourse and permanently change the habits of mainstream institutions as the Kathie Lee sweatshop scandal did or it must create alternative ongoing institutions that carry and reproduce the living meme. In this sense RTS and Critical Mass are more successful memes than the Billionaires. The Billionaire campaign was time-delimited by the Presidential campaign. RTS and Critical Mass were more universal and more fostering of community—a community that has sustained and spread the meme.
Because they coalesce around an idea and/or a mode of action, rather than an organization, movements based on memes tend to be “cheap, fast, and out of control” (to borrow a phrase often used to describe the life-like behaviors of complex systems and dense information networks).  Cheap and fast are generally good qualities for a grass-roots movement. Out of control is a mixed blessing: on the one hand, they tend to spread quickly; on the other hand, they sometimes die just as quickly. This was the case for the Women’s Action Coalition, the dynamic feminist direct action group. At its height in ’93 WAC had 300 women coming to weekly meetings (in New York alone), a furious barrage of actions and press coverage, and copy-cat chapters around the world, but by ’95 it had folded. Meme-based movements may generate passionate community and a white-hot intensity of action, but unless there’s an ongoing mass ritual such as monthly Critical Mass rides or unless they develop some kind of organizational infrastructure they tend not to last.
Sometimes a meme-based movement hits upon just the right form of “non-organization” to keep itself going. This seems to be the case with the mysterious and controversial Earth Liberation Front. The ELF is an underground movement of autonomous groups who carry out economic sabotage to protect the environment. They have been linked to various acts of property destruction around the US, including $12 million in arson damage to a ski resort in Vail, Colorado that was threatening endangered lynx habitat. A bookstore owner in Oregon (who is unconnected to any of the clandestine actions) acts as the legal spokesperson for the group. Seen through a viral lens, ELF might not be an organization at all, but more aptly described as “a meme with a press office.” The various cells are turned on by the same idea, copy-cat each other’s actions, and simply use the same name when they send in their communiqués. This form of meme-based “non-organization” seems to work for ELF: they are able to maintain security, encourage many separate independent actions, and still generate an influential media profile.
While ELF and other political activists have adapted viral structures to grow their resistance movements, media activists have pioneered a new form of hand to hand viral combat: culture jamming. Like the pranksters who creatively deface billboards, culture jammers hack into the genetic code of a corporate media virus and turn it against itself. One Uniroyal Tires ad showed a Latin American peasant under the slogan “He Knows Three English Words: Boy George, Uniroyal.” With a ladder and deft use of spray paint, billboard bandits changed the three words to read “Yankee Go Home,” and in so doing not only revealed the original corporate strategy but repurposed it to subversive ends.
Advertising imagery is the ultimate stealth virus. It has long been post- or pre-rational, operating by subconscious association, by veiled promise and threat, by mobilizing our longings and our dreamworld. Rational critique can’t find a handle by which to challenge such a worldview. Adbusters magazine, the Vancouver-based anti-commercial glossy well known for its sly reworkings of corporate logos and ad campaigns, understands that culture jamming can stick where rational discourse slides off. In one of their classic “subvertisements” Adbusters took a Kool cigarettes logo, kept the exact color and typeface but changed the “K” to “F” and then placed it above a glossy shot of a young man half coyly, half cluelessly smoking a cigarette. Such a pastiched image operates much like a “meme vaccine,” interrupting our consumer trance and redirecting our attention. Culture jamming fights virus with virus. Over the last decade it has itself become a virulent mem, spreading far and wide and encompassing a myriad of new sub-cultural forms. 
If culture jamming works as a “meme vaccine,” the website www.posternation.org, begun by Wesleyan art students in the mid 90’s and later handed over to United for a Fair Economy, was designed as a “viral engine.” The principle, “Nationwide Saturation Postering,” is deceptively simple. On selected action days (Tax Day, July 4, etc.) decentralized guerrilla street-postering teams simultaneously put up a similar set of posters all across the country. The website displays the posters in easy-to-download-and-print PDF format, and facilitates the setting up of teams. A core set of themed posters are provided (the first theme was “Tax the Rich,” later themes included the Billionaires) and new posters can be added by participants so long as they fit the current theme. Not only does the message spread virally, but the project does as well: every poster includes the posternation logo and website address and thus becomes a viral advertisement for the site and campaign as a whole. Once launched and nurtured past a certain point, the project becomes largely self-organizing and almost infinitely scalable. New structures such as posternation.org, that take advantage of the internet and new viral styles of communication, should be a spur to activists to re-imagine what is possible.
All viruses are not created equal. Some spread faster, some last longer, some mutate into more and less resistant strains, some lie dormant for years and then explode, some get injected into the media body in massive $40 million Madison Avenue dosages, some travel its hidden pathways. Some happily co-exist, some compete, while some are carriers on others. The dense complexity of networks within the infosphere cause it to operate much like an ecosystem: a huge self-organizing interpenetrating organism, a system so large and complex that it is, in a sense, wild and “out of control,” or at least can’t be programmed or controlled from any one point or by any one entity. Viewing the overall media body as an ecology can help activists switch focus from the hard boundaries of commercial vs. non-commercial, mainstream vs. sidestream, and top-down vs. bottom-up to a more fluid and nuanced model. 
Up to this point, I have emphasized the importance of memes, and suggested ways to integrate an operational understanding of memes into our strategies of movement building. But a movement must also exist physically and institutionally, not just virtually. It is not an either/or thing. It is a false dichotomy to associate new/good with an ephemeral meme-based community of resistance and old/bad with a lumbering industrial-era beast of meetings and membership and ideology. There is a spectrum. Within any broad social movement—feminism, for example—there are groups that are more meme-based, such as the Women’s Action Coalition and more institutionally-based such as the National Organization of Women, with its mass membership, multi-million dollar budget, and focus on policy and lobbying. Successful, long-term social movements will always include both types. These opposed tendencies are an expression of the eternal dialectic between movement building and organization building. Similar tensions existed between the go-with-the-meme-of-the-moment attitude of the loosely-affiliated Billionaires grass-roots base and United for a Fair Economy’s mission which required building organizational muscle and clout in order to pursue a broad social justice agenda over the long haul. But while there was tension, there was also a great deal of synchronicity. UFE provided a campaign framework, funding, infrastructure, research capacity, media contacts, and mainstream legitimacy. The grassroots injected energy, street smarts, and creative elaboration of the core ideas. The Billionaires campaign suggests a model for how hub and node can work together to invite open-ended DIY participation into creative actions and yet maintain artistic cohesion and a focused message.
Social movements cannot live by meme alone. Yet memes are clearly powerful—both analytically and operationally. A vital movement requires a hot and happening meme. The Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, sit-down strikes in the 30’s, campus building take-overs in the 60’s—arguably, these were all memes—no more or less, maybe, than the militant street carnival of the past decade. What is different in each case is the shape and flow of the specific media pathways these memes must travel and the culture with which they must connect. The contemporary movements profiled here and the techniques they have pioneered will hopefully be of service to those of us who believe that truth is a virus and whose aim is to subvert the corporate meme-machine with a sly guerrilla war of signs.
(3) Is anything really new here? The terms meme and media virus might be new, but the phenomena they describe-fads and social movement explosions-have been with us for a long time. Originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in his late-eighties book The Selfish Gene, memes have become a hot concept among cognitive scientists, media theorists, digital hipsters, and cultural activists. Wired magazine has a regular “meme watch” section, which tracks the spread of new concepts and trends. In the best-selling Consciousness Explained, philosopher Daniel Dennet goes so far as to argue that human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes. Even the concept of a meme is a meme-and you, oh reader, have been infected. Given the hype and indiscriminate use, I sometimes wonder if memes are just fancy new metaphorical dressing for age old happenings. Then again, what is good social theory if not a robust and serviceable metaphor?
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991).