IF YOU use any form of social media, chances are you’ve probably come across your fair share of internet memes. Those cute cat videos with funny captions. An evil Kermit that urges you to give in to your vices. An unflattering picture of a celebrity that make their troubles relatable. Whatever their content, memes usually take the format of a picture or video along with a satirical caption.
For Millennials, memes have become the designated humor platform of their generation. They like and share them by the millions. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have quickly transformed from venues to share tidbits about one’s life to a feed full of people tagging their friends in memes. College students worldwide have even created their own meme pages that lampoon their respective campus culture.
However, over the past few years, memes have graduated from the humorous world of doges and LOLcats to the rough-and-tumble realm of politics. During the 2016 US presidential election, candidates from all sides were attacked with the use of viral memes. Jeb Bush, a Republican Party presidential candidate and brother to former U.S. President George W. Bush, was widely mocked after he urged his bored audience to “please clap” during his speech. Memes highlighting this alleged weakness appeared shortly thereafter and provided the final stake in the heart of the already troubled campaign. Another Republican candidate, Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, became the target of a mock conspiracy meme that falsely suggested he was the “Zodiac Killer” – an unknown Californian serial killer in the 1970s.
And of course, Donald Trump. His Twitter and Instagram blast out memes by the weekly, ranging from a picture of a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo that was judged as a crude attempt to appeal to Hispanics, to a photoshopped video of Trump striking a wrestler with CNN’s logo as his face. Apparently, this was part of the President’s crusade against fake news.
Even NATO has joined in on the action.
“It’s time to embrace memetic warfare,” said Jeff Giesea, writing in Defense Strategic Communications, the journal of NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. “Trolling, it might be said, is the social media equivalent of guerrilla warfare, and memes are its currency of propaganda.”
But what makes memes so effective? Is it to their low cost? User engagement? Ability to attract disaffected youth?
The answer is all three, and more.
In politics, repetition is the key to success. The more a message is repeated, the more voters will hear it. Repeat it enough and voters may even remember who the candidates are and what they stand for come election day.
Memes by their very nature lend themselves to repetition. The easily digestible picture or short video with a corresponding caption is the perfect format for today’s smartphone-obsessed society. All it takes is a couple of seconds to “get” the meme, laugh, and share it among one’s social group on Facebook or Twitter. Before we know it, the meme has reached millions of people across the world.
In the past, campaigns mainly conveyed their messaging through TV advertisements. They had to hire producers, pollsters, cameramen, actors, and other consultants to determine what message the campaign wanted to send and which TV market to broadcast it in. This whole process consumed an enormous amount of time and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition, because these ad buys and development were often planned months in advance, the whole campaign messaging apparatus was not very nimble or responsive to changing events.
Memes do not have this problem. They are very simple to make and cost nothing to distribute. In fact, in most cases, the candidate’s supporters create and perpetuate the memes themselves at no cost to the campaign. A picture-and-caption meme also requires less time to understand than the typical 60-second TV ad. Viewers with low attention spans – also known as the vast majority of today’s youth - are thus less likely to scroll or click past it on their Facebook feed.
Because memes are unique among political messaging tools in that direct supporter participation is involved in its creation and propagation, candidates with meme messages thus appear more “authentic” to both supporters and the undecided. Why? Well, you can’t get more genuine than using messages that your own supporters made and not some Frankenstein slogan cooked up in a board meeting with 15 different people.
Donald Trump has ignited a fervent amount of loyalty in part due to his frequent retweets of his supporters’ memes. And when Hillary Clinton – who few mistake as a paragon of authenticity – launched a meme attack against Trump on Twitter, she received rave reviews for her cleverness and recognition of Millennial culture. Never mind that one of her junior staffers probably came up with the idea; “Delete your account” still went on to become the one of the most liked tweets of all time.
The dark side of memes
The rise of memes should be recognized for democratizing political messaging. Ordinary citizens now have the ability that only multimillion-dollar campaigns possessed in the past: the power to reach millions of voters. Furthermore, the satirical nature of memes has encouraged millions of youth to engage in politics – a worthy goal.
However, as with all communication revolutions, memes have had unintended consequences. Unfortunately, in this case, the very qualities that have led to the success of the meme are also poisoning our political discourse.
Since most memes are heavily stooped in satire, they are usually only deployed in a negative fashion. Political memes often take the form of targeting political opponents and mocking the supposed illogicity of their stances. Because arguing against the best arguments of the opposing side is difficult and unlikely to achieve lots of likes within the creator’s own political group, most creators thus take the lousiest opposing arguments and set up a strawman to be knocked down. A situation then develops where both sides perceive the other as these unrecognizable caricatures. This makes political dialogue all but impossible.
The picture-and-caption format makes this phenomenon even worse. At least in the heydays of the newspaper and TV, advertisers still had to put some thought into their full-or-half page ad or 60-second TV spot. Viewers could see a functioning reasoning behind the advertiser’s message. With memes, there is only a witty line or two against a twisted caricature. All nuance is lost and people gravitate toward purity politics and extremism.
Memes also drive this extremism by blurring the line between satire and real ideology. The ironic nature of the meme provides a convenient excuse to walk back offensive comments. The alt-right have turned this into an art form as they post neo-Nazi rhetoric under the cover of “dark humor.”
Author Alexander Reid Ross agrees. In his book, *Against the Fascist Creep,* he says, “Fascism is more or less a social taboo. It’s unacceptable in modern society. Humour or irony is one of the ways that they can put forward their affective positions without having to fall back on any affirmative ideological positions.”
He continues, “They’re putting forward the anger, the sense of betrayal, the need for revenge, the resentment, the violence. They’re putting forward the male fantasies, the desire for a national community and a sense of unity and a rejection of Muslims. They’re doing all of that, but they’re not stating it.”
This was on clear display following the far-right protest of neo-Nazis and other extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia. After clashes between protestors and counter-protesters, a man with white supremacist connections drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. One person died and at least 33 others were injured. A couple days later, Trump retweeted, then deleted, a meme of a train running over a reporter.