'No One Should Die Because They Cannot Afford Healthcare': One Meme's Story

A map of the Facebook meme “No one should die because they cannot afford health care ..." as it mutated. Like phrasings tend to cluster together. The red dots include the phrase "next 24 hours" and seem to almost entirely emanate from a single source. 

Sometime around early September of 2009, someone decided to show their support for President Obama's healthcare bill with a Facebook status. It read, roughly:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

And more than 470,000 people agreed verbatim. That's how many people copied and pasted this precise formulation and reshared it.

But while copy-and-paste is good enough for some, many people out there changed it. Over the next two years, the "no one should" meme, as Facebook data scientists refer to it in a new paper, would be posted 1.14 million times in more than 120,000 variants.

The most common variants were just slightly different than the original. A version that began "thinks that" so that it would have read "Rebecca Rosen thinks that ..." was shared 60,000 times. Another, which included the sentence "We are only as strong as the weakest among us" was the third most popular variant.

But dramatically different incarnations caught on too. Just more than a week after the original phrasing went viral, a Star Wars-inspired take—"No one should be frozen in carbonite, or be slowly digested for a thousand years in the bowels of a sarlacc, just because they couldn’t pay Jabba the Hut what they owe him. If you agree, post this as your status for the rest of the day"—became even more popular. By early 2011, a politically-neutered, barely related variant—"No one should have to worry about dying tomorrow, but cancer patients do"—was consistently the most common.

Lada A. Adamic et al.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the popularity of the assorted "no one should" mutations varied across the political spectrum. Though the meme began as a show of support for President Obama's health-care plan—a position favored by liberals—conservatives had their fun with it too, sharing status such as "no one should die because Obamacare rations their healthcare" or "no one should go broke because government taxes and spends." Also popular among conservatives? Alcohol.

Average political bias associated with various mutations of the meme. -2 = very liberal; +2 = very conservative; based on user-reported political affiliations in their Facebook profiles. (Lada A. Adamic et al.)

Overall, the researchers said that 89 percent of people copied verbatim a version they had seen, and "11 percent introduced a mutation." As versions got farther and farther away from the original, socially, they were more likely to contain mutations.

In the paper, the Facebook data science team also found that users are susceptible to explicit prods such as "please post this as is" or "copy and paste this into your status" or "post if you agree". For any given meme variant, those that contained such nudges were posted about twice as frequently as the same posts without the nudge.

Four-word phrases that gave posts a significant advantage over the same posts, sans the nudges. The right-most column shows how many memes used a particular phrase. rg gives the value of the advantage conferred, "measured as the number of copies of variants containing the 4-gram relative to variants of the same meme that do not." (Lada A. Adamic et al.)

The data help fill out a picture of Facebook's sharing ecosystem, in which ideas that resonate can suddenly explode with popularity, and mutate into new forms that succeed among a different base. Post if you agree.

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.


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