Meme-ing The Debates, Framing the Agenda

hillary-clinton-nasty-meme

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.

badhombre

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

wonka political meme

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

dilma

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

sanders_trump_back_to_future

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:

Political Viral Videos, Citizen Journalism, and the Question of Partisanship: Interview on WWOR 9 “New Jersey Now”

New Jersey Now Joel Penney Interview

Recently, I was interviewed on “New Jersey Now,” a public affairs TV program that airs locally on WWOR 9. Fortunately, they also put the shows up online, so you can check out the interview here. In the clip, I discuss the future of political viral videos, citizen journalism and partisanship, and a number of other social media-related topics with host Jim McQueeny. We also talk about a lighthearted YouTube video put out by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office entitled “No Pain, No Gain.” As you’ll see, I found the satirical tone of the clip to be a bit confusing in this specific context, although it’s safe to say that this kind of internet-style humor is the new normal for political advertising.

Obamacare Stories: User Reviews Meets Political Marketing

Obamacare Success Stories Facebook PAge

Now that the Affordable Care Act has gone into effect, Republicans and Democrats have been waging an intensive marketing battle to frame its impact on the country. Quite interestingly, user-generated content has become a primary focus of both parties’ communication strategies. Using social media outreach, the parties have been collecting personal stories of Obamacare successes and (alleged) horrors to use as rhetorical ammunition in the war of public opinion. As CBS news explains, the House Republican website now has a section soliciting “Your Story” in an attempt to find people who are upset about losing their healthcare plans and are eager to speak about it. They even ask for a YouTube video link on the story submission form, signaling how they plan to use this user-generated material in their media marketing. The Democrats have responded with a similar strategy, using the Facebook page Affordable Care Act Success Stories to help build a more positive narrative about the program.

Obamacare Supporter

While the personal story has long been a staple of political rhetoric (think of all of those people that Bill Clinton would single out in his speeches), these latest developments indicate how political marketing is being thoroughly overhauled in the social networking age. As any marketing professional these days will tell you, peer recommendations that circulate online are far more trusted than traditional top-down persuasive communication, and political marketers appear to be adapting accordingly. The Obamacare stories in particular signal a ‘user review’-style approach to political communication that is fairly new. Instead of telling citizens about the benefits or drawbacks of the program themselves, they would rather you hear from ‘everyday people’ whose experiences are inherently more valued and trusted. Of course, social media facilitate this process to an immense degree, as anyone can now broadcast their ‘user review’ of Obamacare with a few clicks of a button.

In an editorial for the Guardian this week, Ana Marie Cox decries this sort of strategy as ‘anecdata,’ noting that statistical information is far more credible for making a case about a government program’s effects than a handful of individual stories that may not be representative of the broader population. Cox also makes the point that a lot of these social media-generated stories turn out to be false, such as a Facebook note written by Ashley Dionne (“this law has raped my future”) that went viral despite containing misleading information about the plans she is eligible for. Obviously, both parties should be wary of running with user-generated stories that haven’t been checked out, as this kind of internet hoax is becoming all too common. However, the emotional appeal of personal narratives can’t be denied, and I would expect that political marketing will continue to move towards these sorts of participatory formats that exploit the trustworthiness of ‘everyday people’ for rhetorical gain.

Creepy Uncle Sam: Republicans Try Viral Video Strategy to Fight Obamacare

creepy uncle sam

With the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) going into effect on October 1st, Republicans have ramped up their attempts to undermine the legislation. In addition to Congress forcing a government shutdown, conservatives have turned to viral marketing strategies to try to shift public opinion against Obamacare. The most high-profile of these efforts involves web video ads released online by a group called Generation Opportunity, funded by the Koch brothers. As explained in this piece for Time, the ads are intended to convince young adults to opt out of Obamacare so that the program will lose out on a crucial source of funding and thus fail in the long term. However, the ads having been getting the most attention for their outrageous gross-out humor, which is, of course, the lingua franca of the YouTube generation.


The ads, featuring a masked “Creepy Uncle Sam” character who threatens unsuspecting young patients with comically horrifying gynecological and rectal exams, mark an important shift in tone for American political advertising. In an earlier post, I discussed how the 2012 Obama campaign used internet-style pop culture humor to get their message across to a new generation of voters who tend to tune out more formal types of campaign messaging. Of course, the Republicans don’t want to be left behind, and the “Creepy Uncle Sam” ads signal how they too are now trying to latch onto the zeitgeist and create digital content that is entertaining and novel enough to inspire social sharing. So far, it looks like Generation Opportunity has succeeded in ‘going viral,’ with each of its video ads topping a million views on YouTube. In a sure sign of viral success, the liberal group The Other 98% has responded with an online parody that asks viewers to “opt out of Koch propaganda, not Obamacare.”

What I find particularly interesting about all of this is how the internet has freed the agents of political communication to try things that were seemingly never possible in broadcast television or other media. To put it simply, these ads are pushing the envelope of taste. I’ll leave it to other commentators to deconstruct the potential homophobic (and even racist) undertones of ads that compare Obama to a rectal-probing rapist, but suffice it to say, this is the kind of humor that one would expect from South Park rather than from a policy-minded political group. However, as political advertising moves online more and more, we can expect that its creators will do whatever it takes to capture public attention an inspire viral shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms. The fact that these videos may be too risque for prime time TV is precisely the point – in a Wild West web environment where content is almost completely unregulated, shock is the rule rather than the exception, and audiences expect to see something that they can’t and won’t see anywhere else. I wonder, though, if there are any limits as to how far online political advertising will go in terms of skirting the lines of taste, or if these sorts of strategies could potentially engender a backlash. For now, it seems that all previous limits are off the table, and that the political classes are willing to be gross, weird, or just plain ridiculous in order to get jaded young voters to listen to their message.