The Cultural Rebound Effect of a Meme: How Tunisian Politics Got 'Harlem Shaken'

On February 23, 2013 in the capital of Tunisia, a group of high-school students shot a Harlem Shake video. These kids picked up the viral wave that hit the Internet in February 2013. About 9 months earlier, DJ Baauer released the song that has since become the soundtrack of thousands of other short videos on which people, following an established pattern, dance like crazy to his music. As accurately put by Gilad Lotan, VP of Research and Development at SocialFlow, in the opening of his excellent data-driven analysis of the phenomenon: "If you still have not heard of the Harlem Shake you must be living in a cave".

Fortunately, the Tunisian kids do not live in a cave. But, at first blush, there is no reason why we should focus on their version rather than the thousands of others. Maybe it is that those who participated in its making were suspended and threatened to be expelled from school. But a quick research reveals that such repressive measures following the posting of a new Harlem Shake video were not a first. A similar incident happened at the beginning of February 2013 in the US - a couple of weeks before the Tunisian events - where 13 high school students end up being suspended because their video was judged as undisciplined conduct. More recently, on March 2, 2013, a group of Australian miners got fired after they staged their own version of the infamous dance. And other cases might surface in the coming weeks.

Yet what makes the Tunisian case unique so far, is the amount of aggressive reactions that occurred at the level of the country. First, local conservative bloggers, parents and politicians denounced the video. They coined it a misconduct and a mirror effect of a blatant relaxed standard in today's Tunisian educational system. What started as an apparent collective joyful moment and a "cooling-off" expression, according to many individual reports, not only hit the Internet but also impacted the social and political lives of Tunisia.

Active opponents and proponents of the ruling Islamic party "Ennahda" extensively took advantage of the incident to fan the flames of the already growing politicization in the country. The Tunisian Minister of Education requested an investigation on the incident and did not rule out the decision to expel the kids. He argued that this group of minor pupils had crossed moral boundaries by wearing indecent disguises, not respecting some Islamic symbols and dancing in sexually inappropriate ways. Conversely, secular and lefty activists claimed the teenagers' right to freedom of expression as long as it did not harm the democracy.

The Tunisian Harlem Shake incident comes on the verge of an unprecedented political crisis in this country. In a couple of weeks, Tunisian people witnessed the assassination of a prominent opposition leader, the unsuccessful attempt in reshuffling the cabinet and the resignation of the PM.

The cruel assassination of Chokri Belaïd on February 6, 2013 shocked the country regardless of people's political affiliation. The collective trauma witnessed nationwide drew the attention of many observers and politicians worldwide to the wrong path that the Tunisian democratic transition may take if things cannot be contained on time. More than a million people attended his funeral - a record in the political history of Tunisia and a sign of a rebound from group identity segregation, political greed and religious commercialization. This collective feeling gathered the Tunisians around a new perspective toward positive change and a new hope for success. The aftermath of Belaïd's assassination changed the Tunisian collective mindset. They became ready to embark on any ship sailing to a peaceful shore. Few days later, the Harlem Shake wave hit Tunisia and became an unexpected medium of political expression.

Upon the Minister of Education's announcement to back up the punishment of kids, dozens of new Harlem Shake videos were posted online in solidarity with this group of young people. They involved folks from different social classes, ages and political colors. A group of Tunisian cyber-activists hacked the Ministry of Education website by putting a troll face to stand up for their fellow countryman students. This led to a strong resistance from the Islamists since, in some versions of the video, young people appeared in underwear and other simulated sexual behaviors. The radical movement began to mobilize in the streets and use social media extensively against any attempt to stage a Harlem Shake. But in reality, by strongly trying to muffle the phenomenon, they were fueling the rebound and the people resistance to their ideas.

Maybe the people opposing the Harlem Shake would have been well advised to read a psychology textbook and hire advisers specialized in behavioral sciences. Their efforts did not stop videos to be posted but enticed more people into doing so. In the late 1980s, Daniel Wegner and his colleagues studied Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous "don't think of a white bear" challenge to his brother -popularized by George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant book. Through a series of experimental conditions, they scientifically evidenced that the more we are forbidden to think about something, the stronger the rebound effect puts back this "cursed thought" in our minds. Some might consider this obvious, but, once again, people forgot to deal with the obvious. Moreover, the rebound was shown to be associated with increases in negative affects, anxiety, and distress that cause a distortion of perception and a decrease of mental control of thoughts. Accordingly, it is not excluded that the shocking event of Belaïd's assassination put the country in a distressful state of mind. Many Tunisians were therefore likely to increase their propensity to exhibiting lack of controllability over many thoughts closely linked to negative tokens within their political semantic field.

In other words, just imagine what an enforced "don't do a Harlem Shake video" command has done to the mind of people in Tunisia. We hypothesize that upon the posting of the video, the rebound effect played simultaneously at two levels. First, as an "ambient rebound" since the polarization and radicalism started to be overtly noticeable. Then, the second level is an "acute rebound" that immediately followed the decision of the Ministry of Education. We believe that both are complementary in the sense that the first mediates the likelihood of the second to occur.

The wave of "cheerful protests" took the form of an Internet meme aimed to save the students. At the same time, it reflected the eagerness of the Tunisian people to find their old joyful selves. They shared, at some point, the state of mind of the people who participated in Wegner and colleagues' study when they were deprived to express one idea. Consequently, it goes without mentioning that any opportunity to express the "cursed thought" was used by Tunisian people who copiously mocked what they will consider the narrow-minded opponents to freedom, tolerance and peaceful demonstrations of discontent.

It is amazing to see how an attempt to reproduce a seemingly "silly dance" turns into a moment of national achievement in today's Tunisian cultural context. This is definitely attributed to what is referred to as an Internet meme, which summons, beyond the entertaining effect, explicit and implicit cognitive and cultural effects via imitation mechanisms and the spread of ideas.

In 1989, biologist Richard Dawkins brought to life the word "meme" as a neologism to capture the essence of cultural transmission through a basic unit of imitation mirrored in gene transmission. The Internet meme is the Web 2.0 version of this culturally transmitted unit of imitation. It is marked with recent big changes fostered by the new mass communication tools, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. These social networking platforms represent a new milestone of the globalization process and certainly a new promising venue for empowering people and promoting a new vision of democracy (but also things that can harm it). e-democracy is a compelling example with respect to this kind of societal changes where ordinary citizens can regain control of their decisions by spreading a wide social consensus. The latter can enhance citizen empowerment through today's information technologies (IT) and give rise to what is now called the leaderless revolution.

The Tunisian incident immediately echoed in Egypt where the police arrested the four university students held responsible for posting a Harlem Shake video in their underwear. Moreover, another group of students - called the Satiric Revolutionary Struggle- attempted to stage the dance in front of the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters. At this point, this so-called "silly dance" started to have different cultural and psychological meanings over its migration worldwide. More important, this dance gave rise to a particular significance about peaceful resistance against ideologically coercive governance in the two leading countries of the 2011 Arab revolutions.

In 2012, we introduced a model as a potential framework to explain such accelerated collective virtual behaviors of cyberspace interactions are being crystallized in one stance. We called it Virtual Collective Consciousness (VCC) as it embeds the resulting global behavior of individually driven actions summoned around a unique purpose.

Our modern society deepened our human psychology to lean toward a tolerance mode made possible by an outstanding cultural spread of human values and ideas that can be attributed somehow to the recent key concept of positive contagion. Hence, our world is shrinking to a small "agora" in a very witty way due to the growing up of social networking's and cultural viral phenomena. Marshall McLuhan stated years ago through his visionary concept of global village that communication technology will considerably affect our cognitive and social dynamics. Many new labels have started to be assigned to this kind of collective virtual behaviors. For example, David Amerland defined the social media mind as a new social capacity likely to overcome our biologically wired social mind. In the same vein, James Gleick gave the example of Wikipedia as a large-scale emergent by-product of human knowledge through the Internet.

Many psychological lessons can be learned from the Tunisian incident where the Harlem Shake videos have played the role of a genuine spontaneous reaction. They poured out from a collective consciousness against the fear of religious conservatism and pitfalls of radical societies. The coupling effects of the rebound from a radical framework (political, religious, social, economic, etc.) and positive contagion (Internet memes, catch-phrases, postures, etc.) modulate both individual and collective perceptions, a process that we suggest to call the "cultural rebound effect". The polarization sentiment froze people's mind in some kind of a vicious circle preventing them from making any leap forward in an uncertain political and economic climate.

Eventually, the collective reaction following the spread of the Harlem Shake meme took numerous spontaneous popular forms of dance in Tunisia as an occurrence of the transfer of positive attributes. It significantly helped to save these young students from being expelled and cheerfully changed the outcome of the whole story. All started in this flagship of the 2011 Arab revolutions with Youth and Youth claimed again, loud and clear, their right to have the ultimate say.

Yousri Marzouki, Ph.D, is an associate professor of cognitive psychology and statistical modeling at Aix-Marseille University. His research focuses on the relationship between emotion, attention and consciousness. Website: here. Twitter: @yoursrimarzouki

Olivier Oullier, PhD, is full professor of behavioral and brain sciences at Aix-Marseille University. He also works as a strategist for governments and corporations. In 2011, the World Economic Forum named him a Young Global Leader. Website: Twitter: @emorationality

Both authors are conducting research at the Cognitive Psychology Lab (UMR 7290) of the Behavior, Brain and Cognition Institute (FED 3C, FR 3512, CNRS & Aix-Marseille University)