Meme-ing The Debates, Framing the Agenda

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This week, the third and final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took place, and, predictably, the meme-makers of the internet had a field day. From #Nastywoman to #BadHombres to #TrumpBookReport, Clinton supporters were quick to pounce on her rival’s performance with a bevy of mockery and ridicule, making the #BindersFullofWomen moment from the Obama-Romney 2012 debate look like mere child’s play by comparison. Of course, Republicans and Trump supporters have been circulating their fair share of memes as well, and while they haven’t dominated the latest post-debate headlines, their high-profile and controversial use of the Pepe the Frog meme illustrates how the right is catching up with the left in the realm of viral politics. At the same time, given Trump’s over-the-top public persona, it’s no surprise that his bizarre statements and phrasings are playing into the hands of meme parodists like none other.

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WIRED has a pretty comprehensive roundup of the major memes of the third debate, in case you haven’t already seen them all in your social media feeds. Also, the LA Times put out an interesting piece this week that puts this phenomenon into a broader historical perspective, noting not only the political internet memes of past election cycles, but also their connection to the traditions of political posters and cartoons, as well as image appropriation and manipulation more generally. However, while discussions of political memes tend to focus on the comic creativity of meme-makers and the cultural literacy required to make sense of them, I for one would like to see more analysis of how political memes are taking on the role of campaign marketing and advertising in the age of social media.

Indeed, this is a major theme of my research on the persuasive dimension of online political expression, including my upcoming book The Citizen Marketer (more details soon to follow)! Yes, it is certainly true that political memes may sometimes be completely frivolous and trivial, as I believe was the case with the Ken Bone memes from the second debate that seemed to have little to do with politics whatsoever. And yes, they do tend to circulate in the so-called ‘echo chambers’ of the internet, meaning that anti-Trump memes will mainly be seen by those who already don’t like him and thus may not change many minds. However, the fundamentally partisan nature of so many of today’s political memes cannot be ignored, and their resemblance to the propaganda posters and cartoons of the past underscores their role in processes of political persuasion.

The post-debate memes in particular illustrate their function as crowdsourced agenda-framing devices – in other words, by making Trump’s “nasty woman” or “bad hombres” remarks into memes and hashtags that are repeated and played with over and over, these moments come to define the debate itself for those who keep encountering them online (in lieu of other debate moments that don’t get the same meme treatment). It is no surprise that Clinton supporters would want to define the third debate in terms of Trump’s most extreme and offensive comments, and memes, like the Janet Jackson one pictured above, do precisely that.

And even though memes are seemingly ephemeral viral moments in pop culture, they do have a lasting power to frame larger political events – indeed, #BindersFullofWomen is probably the ONLY thing that people still remember about the second Obama-Romney debate of 2012. While political memes are often entertaining and silly, their role in the agenda-framing process should not be dismissed or taken lightly. For instance, thanks in no small part to the outpouring of memes and hashtags, “nasty woman” is now being talked about as a major flashpoint for feminist mobilization around Clinton in the final weeks of the campaign. So let’s not kid ourselves, even as we kid around with memes – viral politics is serious business.

How Memes Create Social and Political Change: The Guardian Tech Podcast

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I recently had the opportunity to participate in The Guardian‘s fantastic new tech-themed podcast, “Chips With Everything,” in an episode covering the wide world of political internet memes. Along with Paolo Gerbaudo of King’s College London, I talk about the definition and history of memes, their adoption by political campaigns and social movement activists, and their ability to draw citizens into the political process through accessible humor and entertaining pop culture references. Furthermore, I address how “people use these forms for political expression, to express their views, their opinions, and often in ways that they may see as spreading an idea that’s influential, that’s even persuasive.”

Towards the end, I also discuss my research on the Facebook marriage equality profile picture campaign, and make the point that political meme-spreading campaigns are often intended to heighten people’s identification with causes and move them towards additional forms of participation (in direct contrast to “slacktivism” fears).

You can listen to the entire podcast below (via Soundcloud), as well as from The Guardian’s website.

Political Memes in Brazil

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Political memes are now a global phenomenon, and Brazil is no exception. The country’s recent political turmoil involving the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff has inspired a huge outpouring of humor and commentary on social media, and this in turn has launched a national conversation about the role of political memes in Brazilian democracy. Writing for Nexo Journal, journalist Ana Freitas suggests that “memes help deal with frustrations and make policy more ‘cool’, but the debate may be shallow.” I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Freitas for the article, and you can check it out here (in Portuguese, but Google Translate can help). Basically, the point I make in the interview is that political memes have the potential to make politics both more accessible and more simplified and polarizing, as politicians like Rousseff are interpreted through the lens of popular culture and cast as Hollywood heroes and villains (mostly villains, in Rousseff’s case).

A think piece by Gigi Trabasso for Affinity Magazine (in English) comes to a very similar conclusion. Trabasso argues that Brazilian teens in particular are missing something important when their understanding of politics is limited to the circulation of memes:

Social media has been the main source of information regarding Brazil’s political state, not television outlets. Following the natural order, the young adult, teen population leads social media and, predominant on every culture, memes. For many, memes are currently the main (sometimes only) source of political information and updates on the nation’s political, economic, and social crisis. Now, one might assure that memes, the most recent form of comedy and humor, would be the greatest way to deal with such tragic times. It is true that Brazilians always seem to find a joke to crack, the silver lining, but once the topic at hand is a corrupt government, memes are not enough. The problem the country has encountered among its teenagers is poor interpretation an laziness. Through memes, one image becomes the representation of a political ideology, one nickname defines a politician, and no one is efficient enough to investigate the nature behind said jokes.

Now, I don’t entirely agree with the notion that political memes will always lead to “poor interpretation” of issues – in fact, sometimes it may be the opposite, as popular culture can become a resource for making resonant meanings out of complex political and social realities. However, it is quite clear that Brazil’s political media landscape, memes included, is currently experiencing many of the same tensions between style and substance that we’ve seen in the U.S., the U.K, and many other countries. Just as in these other national contexts, the phenomenon of political memes in Brazil is bound to have an impact, for better or for worse.

 

Social Media and the 2016 Presidential Election: What We’ve Learned So Far

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Is Bernie Sanders the most important social media story of the U.S. presidential election so far? What is the connection between #FeelTheBern and the #Occupy movement? How is Donald Trump proving that political discourse and social media discourse are one in the same in 2016? And how do popular culture memes, like the Back to the Future-referencing one above, create entry points for citizens to make meanings out of the political? I discuss all these topics and more in my conversation with Merrill Brown for cable TV’s Carpe Diem – here’s the video:

News Feed Filtering: A Threat to Online Political Expression?

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In recent years, it has become conventional wisdom that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter serve as democratic platforms for citizens to express their political views and opinions. The key assumption underlying this idea is that these sites operate on a peer-to-peer sharing structure that allows anyone to communicate to a public audience with their posts—provided, of course, that these audience members are connected to them as “Friends,” “Followers,” etc. Therefore, a social media user’s level of reach and influence (including political influence) could be understood as simply a matter of how many connections they have in their networks.

However, as Facebook has moved more and more towards a model of complex algorithmic news feed filtering, the notion that one’s posts will actually be seen by one’s peers is increasingly being called into question. This development, which is likely to become industry standard, may have important consequences for the use of social media as a platform of political expression.

At the moment, these sorts of concerns about Facebook are largely centered on the diminishing “organic reach” of organizational Facebook Pages, such as those of non-profit activist groups (in addition to businesses and brands). What is “organic reach,” you ask? As B. Traven explains in a great piece for ValleyWag,

Put simply, “organic reach” is the number of people who potentially could see any given Facebook post in their newsfeed. Long gone are the days when Facebook would simply show you everything that happened in your network in strict chronological order. Instead, algorithms filter the flood of updates, posts, photos, and stories down to the few that they calculate you would be most interested in. (Many people would agree that these algorithms are not very good, which is why Facebook is putting so much effort into refining them.) This means that even if I have, say, 400 friends, only a dozen or so might actually see any given thing I post. One way to measure your reach, then, is as the percentage of your total followers who (potentially) see each of your posts. This is the ratio that Facebook has more-or-less publicly admitted it is ramping down to a target range of 1-2% for Pages. In other words, even if an organization’s Page has 10,000 followers, any given item they post might only reach 100-200 of them.

As Traven argues, this lowered capacity for political organizations to send messages to their own followers significantly compromises Facebook’s role as an open marketplace of political expression. The only way that organizations can truly bypass these filters is to pay Facebook to promote their posts, and while major commercial brands (and perhaps major party candidates) can afford the price, small non-profits and advocacy groups largely cannot. Thus, Facebook is starting to look less like an even playing field for political communication and more like television, where big-ticket ad buys dominate and the resource-rich get a much louder megaphone than the resource-poor.

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However, I can’t help but think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The impact of news feed filtering will likely extend far beyond the realm of organizational Facebook Pages, which are already experiencing the effects of a diminished “organic reach.” Now that we know that Facebook is making behind-the-scenes decisions about which posts you will see from your connections and which posts will be hidden from you, how else could this model end up skewing the flow of online political discourse?

To explore this question, it is helpful to understand exactly how Facebook currently filters its News Feeds. However, this is not as easy as it sounds. According to TechCrunch, the algorithm that sorts Facebook News Feeds uses over 100,000 different factors to determine the relevance of posts. Among the most important factors are the following (as told to TechCrunch by Facebook News Feed Director of Product Management Will Cathart):

• How popular (Liked, commented on, shared, clicked) are the post creator’s past posts with everyone
• How popular is this post with everyone who has already seen it
• How popular have the post creator’s past posts been with the viewer
• Doe the type of post (status update, photo, video, link) match what types have been popular with the viewer in the past
• How recently was the post published

In addition, Facebook recently announced that it would push to prioritize “high-quality” content in users’ feeds and reduce the amount of spam posts. What constitutes “high quality” in Facebook’s eyes? Here is how the company defines it on its website:

While the goal of News Feed is to show high quality posts to people, we wanted to better understand what high quality means. To do this we decided to develop a new algorithm to factor into News Feed. To develop it, we first surveyed thousands of people to understand what factors make posts from Pages high quality. Some of the questions we asked included:
• Is this timely and relevant content?
• Is this content from a source you would trust?
• Would you share it with friends or recommend it to others?
• Is the content genuinely interesting to you or is it trying to game News Feed distribution? (e.g., asking for people to like the content)
• Would you call this a low quality post or meme?
• Would you complain about seeing this content in your News Feed?

In other words, Facebook is ostensibly adopting a model of ‘giving people what they want,’ rather than making editorial decisions about quality based on their professional judgment. Indeed, in a piece for Fortune, Matthew Ingram writes that “Facebook’s director of news partnerships, Andy Mitchell, rejected the idea that the social platform is some kind of gatekeeper when it comes to the discovery of news, saying Facebook doesn’t control the news-feed — users control it by telling Facebook what they are interested in. In other words, Facebook sees itself as merely reflecting the desires of its users.” Critics, on the other hand, have pointed out that the process is still susceptible to censorship based on various national laws as well as the site’s own community standards.

However, an even bigger potential issue here is how news feed filtering may pave the way for Facebook (and social media sites more generally) to manipulate the flow of news and political expression along ideological lines. Surely, the company would vehemently deny doing this. Yet I couldn’t help but think of what the recent gay rights-celebrating rainbow profile picture campaign suggests about Facebook’s capacity to elevate the flow of posts that display a particular political point of view. Did Facebook actually favor these rainbow picture posts in its News Feed algorithm, above and beyond the criteria outlined above? Honestly, I have no idea. Yet the very fact that the company itself orchestrated this particular meme on its own platform indicates that it is not entirely above the fray of partisan political battles, and furthermore, appears willing to leverage its prominent position in the viral media culture to advance certain political ideas.

Since I strongly support the sentiment behind the rainbow profile pictures, it’s hardly a sticking point for me. However, the campaign seems to complicate Facebook’s insistence on being a fully neutral channel for political discourse with no vested interests beyond serving the most relevant content to its users. Could it be possible that the site would play with its algorithms to filter down the reach of posts that it deems inimical to its worldview, or boost the flow of posts that support issues favored by its leadership? This may sound like conspiracy theory territory, but Facebook has opened Pandora’s Box in a very real sense by moving to a model of news feed manipulation.

What, then, could be a solution to this looming threat? It seems unreasonable to argue that Facebook should simply go back to its original model of showing every piece of content from Friends in the order in which they were posted. As the company often points out, there are so many people and organizations now on Facebook that an average user has approximately 1,500 posts that are eligible to show up in their News Feed every day—i.e. far too many to wade through. Twitter, by contrast, has had a long-standing commitment to showing every tweet from a user’s connections in chronological order, but recently announced via the New York Times that they are “question[ing] our reverse chronological timeline” in order to stay competitive and profitable.

At a time of increasing news feed manipulation, what I’d like to see is not only more transparency about how these feeds are actually filtered (which could alleviate fears over ideological bias), but also more user choice about how the criteria are applied. In other words, Facebook users should be able to decide how much “organic reach” they receive from their own connections. Now, it is true that Facebook already allows users to control their feeds to some extent by hiding posts from specific “Friends.” However, these options can be greatly expanded. Want to see more posts from your political organization Pages than just the default 1-2%? You should be able to choose such an option with a simple click of a button. Want to see more political posts that diverge from your views, rather than just seeing those that the algorithm determines you’d be most likely to “Like?” You should be able to have that choice in the settings. Putting users in more control of their own news feeds would go a long way towards mitigating concerns that social media sites like Facebook are becoming the new political media gatekeepers.

Facebook’s Rainbow Profile Pictures: The ‘Slacktivism’ Debate Rages On

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Every time a symbolic online campaign goes viral, a new round of debate ensues over the value of so-called ‘slacktivism,’ and Facebook’s recent gay pride rainbow profile picture craze is no exception. Amidst the flood of think pieces that appeared in response to the rainbow images, two articles in the Washington Post caught my attention in particular. First, there’s Caitlin Dewey’s slice of digital optimism, in which she makes a case for why these symbolic actions may be subtly, yet meaningfully, persuasive. While reading this piece, I heard echoes of my own research on the 2013 red equal sign profile picture campaign, which posited that the peer-to-peer agenda-setting dynamics of these symbolic actions cannot be easily dismissed.  In Dewey’s article, UW professor (and professional colleague) Philip Howard offers the key pull-quote: “Openly declaring your support for gay marriage or dissatisfaction with modern policing [on social media] can create a brief moment where people who see the image have to think about the issue.” Dewey then follows: “And if they don’t have a clear opinion, or see that image many times, it could — potentially! gradually! — shift their social views.”

Indeed, this is precisely the sort of logic that was invoked by a number of interviewees in my red equal sign study, and while the extent of such proposed effects is still very much an open question, it’s nice to see these ideas being given serious consideration in the mainstream media. As I point out in my article, the ‘slacktivism’ discussion has become overly focused on how online symbolic actions may relate to other (typically offline) forms of political participation–either empowering people to do more by boosting their identification, or convincing them to do less because they feel like they’ve already done their part–and this ends up side-stepping the thorny question of viral political persuasion altogether. Personally, I don’t think there are any easy answers to this question, and I balk when my research is used to unequivocally ‘prove’ that symbolic online activism ‘works’ (as it was in this Christian Science Monitor opinion piece from 2013). However, I am pleased to see that the issue of peer persuasion is edging into the public conversation about online political expression, particularly since it has been brushed aside by so many critics (as well as many academics in my field, quite frankly).

Another piece in the Washington Post, an op-ed written by LGBT activist Peter Mosk0witz, has gotten considerably more attention and has seemingly risen to the top of the blogosphere heap. In the piece, Moskowitz repeats the typical ‘slacktivism’ critique that online actions become a weak substitute for ‘real’ activism, citing a 2014 study which found “that people who make these token displays of support often do it simply to boost their own public images without making any real sacrifice to benefit the cause.” This research report, subtitled “How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action,” is a prime example of what I’m talking about above. Once again, the focus is on how taking a symbolic action online will influence future political behaviors. While this line of research is not without value, it conveniently avoids the issue of what symbolic online action may be doing (or not doing) as its own distinct phenomenon. Even the use of the term “token support” here to describe this symbolic activity suggests that the researchers are unwilling to entertain the notion that it might have real-world consequences in and of itself.

On the other hand, Moskowitz offers a more convincing critique of the Facebook rainbow profile picture campaign when he brings up the issue of political self-segregation on social media, i.e. the fact that most people who post about their political viewpoints are likely to have online connections that already agree with them, and that those who don’t agree with their views are likely to simply block them. This issue of digital ‘information cocoons,’ in the words of Cass Sunstein, is crucially important to explore moving forward. Facebook itself famously tried to mitigate these polarization concerns earlier this year with an internal study purporting to show a diverse and cross-cutting political conversation on the platform, although it has since been raked over the coals as sloppy and self-serving research.

The most controversial and talked-about aspect of Moskovitz’s op-ed, however, is his argument that straight allies should not be waiving the rainbow flag on Facebook because they do not fully understand the LGBT struggle and its history. In his view, the campaign is a form of co-optation that weakens the movement and its symbols: “When millions of people cloak themselves in a symbol without understanding what it means, they dilute that symbol’s power.” Moskovitz’s argument has since been pilloried on the right as an example of victimhood culture run amok, and on the left as an example of how some activists turn away valuable allies over petty squabbles. I have my own reservations about the idea that political symbols should be reserved for some but not others. However, I do find Moskovitz’s discussion about the ’emptying’ of the rainbow symbol to be quite interesting, and I sympathize with his concern that political symbols are often circulated online as trendy memes without much thought about their meaning and history. A major theme of my ongoing work on viral politics is that we need to become more thoughtful and reflective about the symbolic political material that we choose to forward to others, precisely because these symbolic expressions can be consequential. While I disagree with his conclusion that the Facebook rainbow pictures are somehow obscuring the multiple struggles that the LGBT community still faces (in fact, I would argue the opposite), I believe that these kinds of serious conversations about the deeper meaning of viral political content are incredibly important to have.

2014: The Year of the Political Hashtag Campaign

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As 2014 draws to a close, it seems destined to go down in history as a breakthrough year for the political hashtag. Of course, we’ve seen numerous examples of this phenomenon in the past, but in 2014, hashtag campaigns dominated political discourse on social media (and beyond) and reached a whole new level of prominence. Last year, it was the profile picture that emerged as a central locus of digital-era political expression, from the red equal signs for marriage equality to the Trayvon Martin-inspired blackout campaign. This year, however, hashtag campaigns were the story for viral politics. I’m not just talking here about the use of hashtags to classify, coordinate, and publicize broader political movements, which has been popular on platforms like Twitter for quite a while now (#OWS, #arabspring, etc.). Rather, what solidified in 2014 was the widespread use of hashtags as political memes in their own right, complete with a set of corresponding actions for each participant to take in the course of spreading endless variations on a theme. In other words, the hashtag emerged not just as a tool for online political mobilization, but also as a distinct advocacy tactic.

To illustrate the delineation I’m making here, let’s consider the most significant viral politics story of the year (at least in the United States): the online-fueled movement to protest the police killings of unarmed black civilians like Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Over the course of the year, many different hashtags were connected to this movement, from the catch-all #blacklivesmatter (which came to function as both the movement’s de facto name and its key rhetorical rallying point), to emotionally-charged references to the Brown case (#handsupdontshoot) and the Garner case (#icantbreathe). As they trended, these hashtags were mostly used within the movement as rather traditional political slogans, originating on Twitter and migrating to offline venues of protest like hand-held signs and T-shirts. However, it was another hashtag, #iftheygunnedmedown, which highlighted the use of the hahtag for distinctly participatory digital advocacy. The behavior, or instructions, for the #iftheygunnedmedown meme was quite straightforward: to create their own versions, young blacks juxtaposed two photographs of themselves, one fitting the media stereotype of the “thug” and the other showing a conventionally “proper” appearance in the eyes of mainstream society (in graduation robes, military uniforms, etc.). The campaign thus critiqued the way in which black victims of police violence like Michael Brown are negatively depicted in the news media, and furthermore worked to expand and reframe the visual representation of young black men and women in the public sphere. #iftheygunnedmedown was only a small piece of the broader social media activity surrounding the #blacklivesmatter movement, yet it most acutely demonstrates how networked digital platforms in fostering unique and innovative modes of grassroots political expression.

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This sort of hashtag-as-participatory meme popped time and time again in the online political discourse of 2014. Another example used in conjunction with #blacklivesmatter, #crimingwhilewhite (in which whites offered testimonials of their own privileged treatment when dealing with police), proved to be a source of controversy within the movement. The tactic was also employed repeatedly in the course of feminist online activism, another major viral politics story of 2014. In particular #yesallwomen and #whyistayed both worked to incorporate women’s personal testimonies into larger feminist advocacy efforts, epitomizing the emergent hashtag-as-meme trend. #yesallwomen was actually a response to another hashtag, #notallmen, which has been used to critique feminist arguments about the widespread nature of misogyny in society; both appeared in the aftermath of the May 2014 mass shooting in La Isla, California, perpetrated by a young man who was apparently inspired by his hatred towards women. #yesallwomen became a venue for women to share personal stories about their experiences with sexism, misogyny and the threat of gender-based violence, bringing visibility to the issue one tweet at a time. In a similar fashion, #whyistayed grew out of another high-profile violent incident in the news (involving professional football player Ray Rice’s assault on his wife), and provided an opportunity for women to collectively share stories about domestic violence in order to shine a public light on this often-ignored problem.

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What I find particularly interesting about #yesallwomen and #whyistayed (as well as #iftheygunnedmedown and #crimingwhilewhite) is how they use major news stories as springboards for addressing how the larger issues at stake affect the lives of individuals throughout the society. Rather than just spreading awareness or showing support or solidarity for a cause, they seek to expand the narratives and conversations surrounding political issues and provide ways of systematically linking them to the experiences of everyday citizens. This seems to me to be one of the most important aspects of viral politics more broadly: how social media and participatory culture can be used to make the personal political—and the political personal. Indeed, the many hashtag campaigns popularized in 2014 look to be a major step in this direction.