Regardless of your view on the Harambe incident at Cincinnati zoo, you cannot ignore how big the resulting memes became. According to the Washington Post, they originated from Instagram and spread across social media, especially on Twitter where they had a big presence. They came in all shapes and sizes and were quite creative. What was interesting was just how long the memes lasted, especially in the mainstream. So what made them so special?
1. Social Proof
There was some celebrity ‘endorsement’, an example being cult figure Danny Trejo being featured on a Vine which boosted visibility of what was going on.
The effect can be explained by social proof, a form of social influence stating that we determine what’s right by finding out what others think is right . By extension, a person learns what is okay behaviour based on if others perform it and helps cull any feelings of uncertainty of appropriateness.
Sherif’s (1935) well known study showed how people end up forming homogenised beliefs . Here, participants were led to a pitch black room with a small dot of light on the far wall. They were told to make 100 judgements on how far the dot moved in inches. The perceptual illusion of the auto kinetic effect was at play, in that people would assume the dot was moving even if it did not. Therefore ‘seeing’ any movement of the dot was down to psychological factors. They did this task again but in the presence of other people (2-3). It was found that as the level of uncertainty in the task went up, so did the rate at which participants’ answers converged with the confederates’. The graph shows that responses converged from participants over time from the individual answers till the 3rd group trial, to fit the ones of the group.
Participants used the answers of other people as a value heuristic to make an accurate decision when faced with uncertainty of how far the dot moved. This can be applied to the meme situation, seeing the celebrity as a figure who is seen as trusted and relatable as well as 1000’s of others contributing to a new phenomenon must mean it’s an acceptable thing to participate in. Given the lack of information about the meme itself, led to people relying on what others are doing, especially those are seen as credible e.g. celebrities.
2. Social Identity Theory
So, it’s okay to respond in such a way? Obviously, some churned the memes out just because they were funny. For others, they were used to incite discussions on social justice which led to the rise of groups mocking people who were showing their outrage with the events.
This means that there were segmented groups with common motivations and goals, as a result, one’s sense of self can be based on group membership. This is a core feature of social identity theory, which states our behaviour can be determined by the group we belong to. Because of this people could be easily persuaded to change their behaviour if they are being persuaded by people of the same group . This group has its own norms and attitudes which a person then abides to as that's their ‘ingroup’ (e.g. those trolling), whereas everyone else is in the ‘outgroup’ (e.g. those who showed anger about Harambe’s death).
We often use our group identity, specifically the status of the group, to boost our self-esteem. Cialdini (1976) studied this with fans from prestigious football universities. He observed how many students wore school representative apparel on the Monday after a football game. It was found that if the university team won the game, students were more likely to wear the apparel after. Winning the game was seen as enough ‘persuasion’ to change behaviour, therefore membership to the group affected people’s actions. The victory gave them a sense of ‘positive distinctiveness’ for the group which led to increased self-esteem and strengthening of group identity .
So, on one side there were people who related the Harambe incident to social issues and were upset with the consequences of the incident, they were labelled as those with ‘leftist’ views. Then there were those who shared the feeling of annoyance towards the ‘leftists’’ response, thus this shared belief created a feeling of a group, they were labelled as those with conservative views. Seeing just how big the phenomenon was reinforced group identity for those with ‘conservative’ views due to it showing the ‘successes’ of their behaviours. In turn, because this was a group norm and one with ‘positive’ effects, it encouraged more people to act in this way, expressing disagreement through being satirical and using humour in the memes.
Given how big and loud the meme was, some grew pretty tired of it, namely Cincinnati Zoo. They made the mistake of asking people to stop with the memes and let them mourn in peace.
The problem here was that the phenomenon was quite big by then, with a huge following and it had evolved into something that was just funny to be a part of and reproduce. Plus, telling people that they can’t do something, sometimes can spur them to go further and continue what they were doing in retaliation to the sentiment. That’s what happened here, it went as far as Thane Maynard, the director of Cincinnati zoo having his Twitter hacked and further memes tailored to mock the request to stop.
Changes to the description of Thane’s twitter account after being hacked
Saying that the jokes must stop was a threat to the group’s freedom to do whatever they want. Restricting access to information and censoring what they were doing made the act seem more favourable than before. As a result, people showed their distaste for the request through spreading the memes further. According to the scarcity principle, it placed value on said act because of the possibility of the chance of engaging in it being limited and increases susceptibility to believe and identify with the message of censored material.
This was shown in Worchel, Arnold and Baker’s (1975) study who tested attitudes towards co-ed dormitories at the University of North California. Finding out that a speech opposing co-ed dorms would be banned, students became more opposed to the idea of them. Without even hearing the speech, the students were persuaded to be opposed just because of the ban . Thus censorship in itself, regardless of the reason it’s being used can lead to problems.
4. The Bandwagon Effect
The abundance of the memes and the number of people that got involved is not down to complete coincidence. We like to do what others are doing even if sometimes, our beliefs don’t agree with what’s happening. How many times have you participated in a trend or tried a product because everyone’s talking about it despite finding the idea of it abysmal? This is known as the bandwagon effect where the chance of you adopting the same behaviour increases with the number of people already engaging with it .
This is quite common in politics. A study of students at the University of Kentucky tested this, the students were split into 9 different groups but all were asked questions about the same election scenarios. 70% also received information about the expected winner. Those who do not usually vote based on endorsements (independants) were still strongly influenced to lean towards the person expected to win, for both the democrat and republican candidate . Other people’s expectations influenced the participant’s final decision, with participants going along with what others said, regardless of their own beliefs.
Article headline on the effects of the memes
Media outlets were constantly covering the effects of engaging with the Harambe trend on social media, which gave the event visibility and showed just how many people were enjoying it. Reading about it and seeing it, led to many contributing because so many other people were doing it and having fun, so why not? As a result, more people took part and so did not feel like they were missing out on anything which also fulfills our need to belong. It’s a form of social proof, as people were looking at what others were doing to decide what they should do.
And guess what? The joke is still running…
 Cialdini, B. R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (3rd Ed.) New York: HarperCollins Publishers
 Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27, 1-60.
 Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In E. G. Austin & S. Worschel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp.33-47). Monterey, CA: Brooks / Cole.
 Worchel, S., & Arnold, S., & Baker, M. (1975). The Effects of Censorship on Attitude Change: The Influence of Censor and Communication Characteristics. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 5, 227–239.
 Nadeau, R., Cloutier, E., & Guay, J. H. (1993). New evidence about the existence of a bandwagon effect in the opinion formation process. International Political Science Review, 14, 203-213.
 Goidel, R. K., & Shields, T. G. (1994). The Vanishing Marginals, the Bandwagon, and the Mass Media. The Journal of Politics, 56, 802–810.