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The Role of Memes in Politics

It is well known that social media has come to play an irrefutably large role in campaigning and politics. From Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush’s Photoshop Twitter war to Ted Cruz’s brilliant use of #CruzCrowd, the candidates of the 2016 presidential election have attempted to maximize their contact with voters over the internet. The role of the non-traditional forms of campaigning in this election, however, seems to extend beyond any novel e-communication tool. Some young Americans have found a unique opportunity via social media to express their political beliefs in a way that is accessible, humorous, and entertaining: memes.

Memes, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, are humorous concepts that spread rapidly through the Internet and essentially function as an inside joke that a large number of internet users are “in on.” Usually the meme is an image, video, or piece of text that can be slightly altered to react to various circumstances. Traditionally, memes are created and shared mainly for entertainment but 2016 has brought us a genre of memes with a political purpose.

One of the more popular memes of this election cycle is the “Bernie or Hillary?” meme. It always features the same basic structure: a title that reads “Bernie or Hillary?” and then underneath: “Be informed. Compare them on the issues that matter.” Below that are side by side pictures of Sanders and Clinton, with the amusing “issue” at hand above them and each candidate’s “stance” below him or her. Many variations of the meme exist with different “issues” and “stances.” One variation of the meme compares their stances on Harry Potter. Sanders is quoted as saying “Huge fan. Read all the books. Know all the trivia. I bet Hillary doesn’t even know what a muggle is.” Below Clinton reads “I’m a Hofflepump!” In another variation, on Olive Garden Sanders is quoted as saying “Only when I’m high.” and Clinton “An authentic italian [sic] restaurant for the whole family!” With each variation, Sanders is given the “cool” response, and Clinton is given a response that reinforces the stigma that she is “out of touch.”

While many find the meme innocently hysterical, writers for Buzzfeed, Salon, and the Boston Globe have all claimed that they employ sexist tropes. Salon, for instance, argues “These jabs at Clinton’s imagined sonic preferences reinforce the tired idea that the tastes of non-cis-male cultural consumers…are something to be mocked and disrespected.” Sexist or not, the meme does introduce or reinforce the candidate’s prevailing cultural image and might subconsciously influence those who traffic in this brand of internet satire. Memes have the potential to be powerful in an era where likability can be a deciding factor in elections.

Another popular message of many memes asserts that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer, propagated with the hashtag #ZodiacTed. The meme pokes fun at Cruz’s personal demeanor, which has been labeled “awkward” and “creepy.” It has become so popular that one enterprising opponent of Cruz started selling “Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer” t-shirts and donating all proceeds to an organization that provides funding and support for abortion services in southwest Texas. Despite the sarcastic and purposely halfhearted origins of the meme, it has proved powerful in shaping voters’ opinions of Cruz: According to a recent survey from Public Policy Polling, almost 40 percent of Floridians reported they were confident or “not sure” whether Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer, with a full 10 percent responding confidently that they in fact thought he was.

The prevalence of memes in the 2016 electoral discourse is part of the larger trend of discussing of politics as a form of entertainment, which can be a double-edged sword. When folks are driven to talk about politics based on its entertainment value, whether it be discussing the debates as though recapping a sports game (placing emphasis on “offensive” and “defensive” strikes and dramatic moments rather than the intricacies of policy differences) or passing along a funny political gif, they often develop opinions based on a vague “like” or “dislike” of a candidate rather than based on comprehension of their platforms.

Additionally, as more young Americans inform themselves and shape their opinions based on memes and social media, a smaller space is left for traditional news sources in informing and shaping political discourse. While these news sources fact-check and at least some of them attempt to give relatively nonbiased reports, memes and social media have no such restrictions. This means that much of the information disseminated in this way is more opinion than fact.

On the other hand, entertainment politics, including meme politics, does get those conversations started, and has the mobilize people who usually sit out of election season. While this may simply be a case of correlation, it is perhaps not a coincidence that in this election season, when young voters for the first time have memes at their disposal as a political tool, they are also showing record turnout — this is the first campaign in which voters aged 18-29 have shown up at primaries at the same rate as have baby boomers. While in reality there are many factors that might explain this increased engagement, including the issues at hand such as college affordability, it would be negligent to discount the possible role of social media and the internet, including memes, in galvanizing youths to vote. The rise in the youth vote is, after all, no small matter to consider in the 2016 election, when the number of youths who get out to vote has the potential to sway who wins the Democratic primary. Sanders, for instance, won 80 percent of this group in New Hampshire and Iowa.

While we tend to look at memes as silly and trivial internet time suckers, perhaps it is time to reconceptualize them as the powerful communication tool they have come to be. Humor has always been a vessel for engaging the masses in areas that might otherwise be of little public interest, and memes are no exception. Instead, the rapid and viral nature of memes make them a powerful tool for swiftly shaping the public’s image of different candidates. Especially in this election cycle, the role of memes should not be underestimated.


About the Author

Emma Axelrod '18 is a senior staff writer for the Brown Political Review.