NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

Meme mania as politics grapples with social media

The rise of social media may prove to have one of the largest impacts on politics of our age. Though rallies and advertisements continue to be staples of campaigning, and are not likely to become outmoded any time soon, the Internet has become a priceless means of engagement with both the voting public and between candidates and activists, their support and opposition. What is a meme? It may sound like a silly question to someone born and raised with access to social media, but what constitutes a meme is actually quite broad and open to interpretation. Oxford dictionary lists two definitions of the word, the more commonly understood being: “An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.”

While this definition fits best with the common practice of political memes, that is to say images that either give support to or mock a candidate, group, or platform, memes as propaganda may be best described using the Oxford Dictionary’s primary definition of the phrase: “An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” There are three tiers of political social media engagement which will be explored and discussed here. They are the interpersonal, the organizational, and the public figure tiers.

At the interpersonal level, memes are shared between individuals, or a private person shares a meme with their friends or followers. While a great many of these are confined to particular subcultures or communities, which can and do become insular to a degree, there is an ever-expanding library of relatively universal memes which circulate social media. Such characters as Wojak, Pepe the Frog, and Doge have become templates for messages of every variety, from the wholesome and tame to extreme to intentionally ridiculous.

Just emerging at the time of this article is a meme that has yet to take on a single name, being a variant of Pepe the Frog. Known as Honk Honk, or Clown Pepe, which features a poorly drawn Pepe wearing a rainbow wig and large red nose. This cartoon character seems to mostly represent a nihilistic attitude of amused indifference. “The world has devolved into a parody of itself, so all that’s left is to laugh.” Though not as explicit in its politics as many memes, the Clown Pepe does carry a tone of dissociation and mockery of perceived runaway Social Justice. It is a single image or format such as this that becomes part of a shared vocabulary and subculture across social media platforms, expanded upon and messed with by individuals. Above all else, the image must be shared between friends and social circles to promulgate it. This drive to be spread means that memes can end up being created and shared within almost any community.

Making memes has been, and is still by vast majority, simply an endeavor of enjoyment or distraction, by its nature not usually serious or with a specific goal in mind.  However, the concept of Information Warfare has entered the public consciousness. Since the cultural chaos of the “Great Meme War of ‘16,” it is difficult to imagine a campaign season without a firestorm of clever, stupid, or just plain bizarre memes for and against every candidate. There is evidence that some campaigns are even taking this a step further.

The second tier of memes in politics is the intentional use and manipulation of meme culture for a specific cause. Hence comes the curious case of the #yanggang. Begun as a nickname for supporters of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, the meme largely revolved around his proposed Universal Basic Income, which would allot $1,000 a month to every citizen.

Ironically, many of the memes to come from #yanggang were similar in their message to Honk Honk, in that they were often nihilistic, and largely sarcastic in their support for Yang, serving more as a vehicle for a disillusioned sect of the right to criticize Trump. “The choice is now between losing the culture war, or losing the culture war and getting $1,000 bucks a month from the Government.” Though the meme did catch on and have a fair amount of organic growth, the #yanggang lost it’s thunder in wider social media almost as quickly as it appeared.

This was due to two primary reasons. The first, being that because Yang’s campaign embraced the title and the hashtag, Yang had to specifically address the politically edgy and intentionally offensive and provocative content creators, telling them that “for anyone with this agenda, we don’t want your support… You are not welcome in this campaign.” While sensible and likely inevitable an action, this caused much of Yang’s soft support and indifferent or ironic meme creators to drift off to find something else to post about. The second reason is that a thread posted to 4chan’s /politically incorrect/ board claimed that #yanggang had been an orchestrated “shilling” (misinformation and/or demoralization) campaign against Donald Trump’s online support base. True or not, there is reason to believe this accusation played a part in taking the wind out of #yanggang’s sails.

The third tier of memes in politics is involvement by and of social figures. On April 4th, President Donald Trump shared a satirical edit of Joe Biden’s statement in which the former VP smells his own hair, parodying his “odd” behavior around women on stage. This tweet garnered mixed reactions from his support. Some believing it unprofessional and unbecoming of the President, while others were amused by what many have simply come to accept as Trump being Trump. Such instances are not uncommon, as public figures now have access to a near endless fount of material with which to support their friends, deride their naysayers and mock their opponents. President Trump has proven himself fond of sharing memes created by supporters.

As outlandish as the President’s twitter habits may seem, he may well simply be ahead of the curve. While his tweets demonstrate a sense of humor and manner of wit that strikes a chord with some, his past opponents have done much of the work for him in displaying how out of touch they are with the fledgling online culture.  2016’s election was filled with candidate Hillary Clinton’s woefully fake-sounding attempts at appearing hip, which itself became something of a running joke throughout the election. “More like Chillary Clinton amirite?” and “Tell us how you feel about college debt in three emojis or less” were basically pre-packaged parodies of someone trying to sound like they know social media.

This is the double edged sword that is politicians, and celebrities in general, trying to engage with internet culture. If done well, it can be a potent tool to mock opponents and call them out in a way they cannot easily rebut, but if done poorly the politician posting can quickly become the punchline, much to their own detriment.  Internet culture is in its formative years still, and it remains to be seen what the lasting implications in politics and culture will be, but if one thing is sure, it’s that the candidates of the future will have to either be Social Media savvy themselves, or have people close at hand who are.