Immunity dog: the canine with magical powers protecting Twitter users from death

How chain letters evolved into chain memes. 

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You have exactly five seconds to save your mother’s life. At least, according to a message sent on the social network Twitter. Hundreds of tweets on the site are commanding users to retweet them within five seconds or their mother will die (or they’ll never be rich, or they’ll never meet their favourite celebrity).

It’s a new iteration of an age-old trend. Chain letters which threaten the bearer bad luck if they don’t pass them on have existed for over a century, but the invention of email made the practice more widespread. Now, social media has allowed the trend to take on a new life – so that over 47,000 people were compelled to share a picture of highlighters for fear of failing their GCSEs, and a further 82,000 shared a tweet threatening generic “bad luck”.

“In most cases, avoiding negative outcomes is a more effective motivator than achieving good luck,” explains Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. This explains why a tweet claiming the reader will have “good luck” if they share it only has a comparatively measly 2,000 shares. “Most of us tend to be risk averse,” says Vyse.

Yet although the psychology behind chain tweets is much the same as behind chain letters (Vyse says people who are more anxious or superstitious are likely to share), the ease of a RT has allowed these messages to spread in unprecedented ways. “There is very little effort involved. As a result, many people engage in a kind of Pascal's wager. They know it is silly, but they just don't want to ‘take a chance’ that it is real. They see the effort involved in exercising the superstition as being very small in relation to the potential benefit. As a result, they feel better once they have retweeted or continued the chain.” Some people also spread these tweets as a joke, bolstering their eventual numbers.

Silly as it may seem to sceptics, many on the site are genuinely distressed by threats of death or bad luck. “People clearly just create them to capitalise on the anxiety of other people for likes and retweets,” explains Hannah, an 18-year-old who tells me she is prone to superstition, especially around exams results day. But thankfully, Hannah has a way to avoid becoming anxious about these posts.

His name is immunity dog.

“I love him!” exclaims Hannah, “It’s incredibly reassuring… immunity dog means I can ignore the post with a clear conscience and avoid spreading it onto my followers’ feeds.”

Immunity dog has one job – and it is to protect the humans with his magical powers. It goes like this. When someone posts a negative “RT or…” tweet, someone else will jump into the replies with a picture of immunity dog.

“This is the immunity dog,” reads the image, “he will protect you from ‘Your mother will die in her sleep tonight if you don’t reply to this’ and other likewise posts. He will also protect you from the ‘No immunities’ posts as well, so nothing can stop this dog from protecting you. Take good care of him, he is a good dog.”

It’s a joke – and yet it’s not. Immunity dog is a meme with unclear origins (though he has made many viral iterations). Many share immunity dog because it’s funny (fitting in with the internet’s general love of good boys) and yet others save him on their camera rolls and ensure he is ready whenever they see a bad luck tweet. Search the word “immunity dog anxiety” for example, and you will find hundreds of teens grateful for the meme.

Yet is immunity dog not, in himself, a chain letter? Vyse points out that the meme repeats the threat of “Your mother will die” in the body text. “It’s a very frightening thought that is part of the meme and cannot be easily separated from the picture of the dog,” he explains. “This is a classic of chain letters. The letter – or meme in this case – creates its own anxiety in the hope that you will then engage in the superstition as a means of relieving it.”

Indeed, many social media users share immunity dog even when they haven’t seen threatening tweets. In short, they are compelled to share him pre-emptively in the exact same way they share threatening tweets.

Still, as long as these terrifying messages exist, immunity dog will provide relief for young Twitter users. Joel is a 20-year-old student from Newcastle who has created an immunity dog account so he can pose as the dog and reply to the negative tweets he sees (he did not originally make the meme).

“To me the immunity dog is a joke, along with the superstitious posts I respond to," he says. "However, I do understand that some people do think it helps to retweet the immunity dog just in case."

“If this account or the immunity dog meme does help someone feel better, then it’s only a good thing.” Joel hopes that his account will both make unsuperstitious people laugh, and help those who really do feel reassured by what others see as a stupid meme.

Immunity dog is new – and so is the ease of a RT button (YouTube comments used to be full of “post this on ten videos or a clown will kill you a knife” but that was naturally harder work to spread). But Vyse emphasises that these chain comments and memes are all rooted in history. “Because we all have anxieties, chain letters and chain memes are an easy way to employ them for egotistical reasons… Seeing [them] go all over the world would undoubtedly be an enormous kick.” There are some things, then, we might never be immune to.

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.