HRC Red Equal Sign Meme Takes Facebook: Visible Identities and the Digital Body


This was a big week for viral politics, with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) red equal sign meme taking Facebook by storm. To show support for marriage equality during the Prop 8 and DOMA Supreme Court hearings, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Facebook users changed their profile picture to various incarnations of the red-and-pink, love-symbolizing equal sign logo. HRC has a good roundup of the media coverage, corporate endorsements, celebrity shout-outs, and countless meme spinoffs that have proliferated in the past few days around this campaign. For more on this story, check out Facebook’s own report on the statistics behind the phenomenon, as well as Time and Slate’s compilations of the best red equal sign variations.

While there is quite a lot to talk about regarding this watershed moment in viral politics, I’m particularly interested in how it highlights the key role of profile picture-changing in politically-oriented social media campaigns. More than just a simple post, link, or status update, the profile picture has a strong connection to the identities of users, visually representing them during each of their platform-based activities (chatting, posting, commenting, Liking, etc.). If a social networking profile is now a person’s ‘digital body,’ as danah boyd has argued, then the profile picture is the virtual clothing that he or she uses to communicate identity. When this badge of identity is used to show off one’s political beliefs, its function becomes very similar to wearing a political slogan T-shirt in public, a phenomenon that I have studied in a number of research projects. In my IJOC article “Visible Identities, Visual Rhetoric: The Self-Labeled Body as a Popular Platform for Political Persuasion, I explore how people use these T-shirts to transform their physical bodies into rhetorical texts for political purposes. Here’s an excerpt:

When discussing motivations for wearing their political T-shirts, many participants emphasized not only the persuasive messages printed on the T-shirts themselves, but also the message-making potential of their bodies as they were labeled by these items. In these scenarios, the T-shirt functioned to publicize a key attribute of the wearer’s political identity that would not have been obvious or visible otherwise, in order to make a point about the presence of that identity in a particular locale… By creating visibility for their political identities via this popular culture platform, the participants here see themselves as potentially challenging public perceptions of who “the people” out there really are, a reality-redefining gesture that they conceptualize as an efficacious form of political action.

I would argue that the HRC red equal sign campaign follows precisely the same logic. In fact, in the conclusion of the article, I suggest that the ‘digital body’ of social networking profiles can be used in a very similar way as the physical body, providing further opportunities for politically-engaged citizens to make their identities visible as a way of advancing persuasive messages in the public sphere. When these practices are coordinated so that many bodies simultaneously articulate images of ‘the people’ in a collective show of force, these messages can be particularly powerful.

Indeed, the HRC used both strategies in their ‘love’ campaign this week, urging marriage equality supporters to wear the color red as well as to change their profile pictures to the red equal sign image. The organization is also selling T-shirts featuring the logo, further underlining the connection between these two sorts of identity-based viral communication strategies.

hrc red t-shirt

With the stunning success of the red equal sign campaign this week, I would expect that these sorts of self-labeling campaigns will become more and more widespread in the future – not only for LGBT activism, but for myriad political and social issues.

– Joel Penney


The Personal is Political on Facebook: Dad’s Pro-Gay Note Goes Viral

FCKH8 Dad Note
This week, a father’s loving handwritten note to his gay teenage son became the talk of the town on social media. Originally posted by the LGBT activist group/apparel retailer FCK8 on its Facebook page, the photo has since received coverage on Huffington Post and Daily Kos in addition to numerous repostings by groups like the Trevor Project. Although the note is not the least bit political in itself, it has been quickly adopted by the LGBT movement as a heartwarming example of pro-gay parenting that serves to counter homophobia and intolerance.

To me, what’s fascinating about this viral image is the way in which it illustrates how the classic feminist slogan “the personal is political” is becoming the new logic of political advocacy in the age of social media. On sites like Facebook, volumes of personal stories (expressed in photos, videos, and even status updates) that reference broader social and political phenomena are collected and stored for posterity, serving as raw materials for activist groups to appropriate for their digital outreach efforts. As the viral success of this image underlines, these humanizing stories seem to work very well on social media, as their emotional pull compels onlookers to comment and share. In fact, they may be more effective than politically-oriented posts that don’t capitalize on social media’s personal and intimate nature.

For instance, the group FCKH8 churns out pro-LGBT posts on its Facebook page on a daily basis, but rarely do they enjoy the kind of viral success as the dad’s note to his gay son. This same week, they produced several memes about the anti-gay positions of the new Pope Francis, but these posts (resembling typical political ads) received far less attention.
FCKH8 Pope Meme
To demonstrate the contrast, the above meme posted by FCKH8 got only 1,700 Likes on Facebook this week, while the dad’s note got over 77,200 Facebook Likes (not to mention the Trevor Project repost that got an additional 33,200 Likes). In other words, people seem to really like the personal stuff.

Of course, this brings up serious issues of privacy. One has to wonder whether or not the dad and son in question gave permission for their private correspondence to be spread across the internet in such a public fashion. While their identities are not referenced in the image, it is certainly possible that they would be uncomfortable having their personal moment transformed into a political symbol. Of course, on Facebook, privacy is an afterthought. The next time you post about your personal life, you may be unwittingly participating in viral politics…

Meme Templates: The New Tool for Political Activism

Privacy memes - futurama fry
Recently, my friend Peter Micek of the digital rights organization Access alerted me to how internet privacy activists are using popular memes to get their message across about Data Protection Regulation in the European Union (learn more about this important issue here). At the Privacy Memes Tumblr page, you can view dozens of user-generated one-liners that attempt to inject some accessible humor into a rather dense and complex policy debate. Here’s another entertaining example…


What struck me about this campaign is not so much the specifics of how it is adopting popular memes for its own purposes, but rather how such efforts exemplify the broader trend of using standardized meme templates as a new form of online political speech. In the past few years, a fairly small repertoire of stock memes (Futurama Fry, Advice Animals, etc.) have emerged as a cultural phenomenon, with their familiar joke set-ups serving as raw materials for a plethora of aspiring internet comedians. Originally popularized on Reddit discussion boards, these memes can now be easily customized by using a variety of sites like Memebase (part of the Cheezburger empire). While the vast majority of this stuff appears to be just for giggles, savvy activists like those above are beginning to latch on to this phenomenon as a means of articulating their political positions in the rapid-fire comedic language of internet culture. Some may view this as perhaps the ultimate dumbing-down of political discourse, but there seems to be a clear strategic value to using humorous pop-culture references as a way of making a message accessible to a broader public (particularly the youth demographic).

I wonder, however, if this stable of meme templates presents new limitations as well as new opportunities. For instance, if you’re not a fan of the sort of male-oriented geeky culture typically referenced in these memes (Futurama, Lord of the Rings, etc.) would the above make much sense to you? Are there any cultural/ideological assumptions or frameworks embedded in these templates, or are they completely adaptable to express any idea imaginable? The very concept of ‘the meme’ seems to be taking on a more and more narrow definition as of late, which is very different from how it was conceived more broadly in the 1990s by authors like Douglas Rushkoff (who was among the first to apply evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins’ original idea of cultural contagion to the context of media-based activism). Although new memes are certainly being generated every day, the increasing dominance of a handful of archetypal characters and images is a development that new media scholars should be attentive to when examining their uses in the political arena.