Meme-ing The Debates, Framing the Agenda


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.


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


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


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:

2014: The Year of the Political Hashtag Campaign


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.


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.


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.

#Blackout: Justice for Trayvon and Profile Picture Campaigns


As anyone paying attention to the news for the past few weeks knows, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the high-profile Florida trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin has galvanized one of the largest protest movements in recent American history. Of course, in addition to marching in the streets, protestors have taken to social media in droves to express their outrage at the verdict and their dissatisfaction with racial profiling, gun laws, and a host of related issues. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict announcement on July 13th, social media sites were flooded with impassioned personal reactions, links to petitions, and numerous agit-prop graphics that went viral in a matter of minutes. Over two weeks later, much of the initial fervor has died down, yet one class of social media responses largely remains: the profile pictures.

Following the lead of the red equal sign for gay marriage and other similar recent campaigns, many supporters of Trayvon Martin have transformed the visual representations of their online identities into soapboxes to advance their cause. Perhaps the most popular strategy has been to use a stark black square, an idea that was promoted online with the hashtag #blackout and has since received the support of the Martin family. There have also been profile picture memes incorporating Trayvon’s portrait, a silhouette of the symbolic hoodie he wore the night of his death, and other graphics associated with this burgeoning movement.

As an observer of social media and politics, I’m struck by how these campaigns confirm the popularity of the profile picture as a primary space for political expression and engagement in the online world. Yet what I find most interesting about this latest round of politically-charged profile pictures is their sheer endurance in the rapid, blink-and-you-missed-it maelstrom of social media discourse. While links and image shares come and go very quickly, the profile picture enjoys a relatively stable digital presence, reappearing each time a person posts new content. Every time I log into Facebook and see the ominous black squares and hoodies in my news feed, I am reminded of the passion of this movement and the commitment of its supporters to anti-racism and social change.

The profile picture thus seems to have a weight that a lot of other social media strategies are lacking – in a way, its the strongest kind of link or association a person can make in the digital environment. To throw one’s entire online identity behind a cause, giving it an overarching presence in each and every activity they perform, provides politically-engaged social media users with a powerful symbolic tool unlike any other. Like the red equal sign campaign before it, the Trayvon profile pictures are blazing a trail for long-term social media activism that I imagine will be utilized by many more movements to come.

The Red Equal Sign Meme for Marriage Equality: A Look Back

red equal sign liberty justice

With the Supreme Court decisions striking down DOMA and Prop 8 last week, the red equal sign meme supporting marriage equality has been taking a victory lap on Facebook. As I wrote in an earlier post, this campaign is a significant moment in the development of viral politics, particularly for its use of profile picture-changing as a way of displaying a collective identity around an issue. Now that the dust has settled on this historic campaign coinciding with a major triumph for gay rights, it’s time to look back at some of the most interesting coverage that has appeared online in the past few months.

Anatasia Khoo, the head of marketing for Human Rights Campaign (HRC), gives an inside look at the creation of the red equal sign meme in pieces for Huffington Post and Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the former article, Khoo recounts an intriguing anecdote about the impact of the campaign:

“For many, this act marked the first time they had come out as a straight ally, or in some cases, the first time they had come out as a member of the LGBT community. Since then, we’ve heard so many stories, but one really sticks out for me. One day, we got a message from a gay soldier who had come out to his mother and unfortunately, it wasn’t the positive experience he was hoping for. It wasn’t until he saw that his mother had also changed her profile picture to the HRC logo that he felt accepted by her. It’s incredibly powerful to know that something so simple could provide such a strong feeling of support.”

In the latter article, Khoo offers a key lesson for organizations who wish to create a similarly viral social media campaign:

“We documented close to 100 different variations on the logo, and we made an important decision: We were going to not only embrace the memes, but also promote them. Politicians, celebrities, and corporate America embraced the logo. Bonobos, Bud Light, Martha Stewart, and Beyoncé all picked up the red logo—it became synonymous with equality… Most organizations are very protective about their brands, but for this campaign, HRC put our logo out into the universe without any organizational language, making it easy for individuals to embrace. It was a bold move for the organization… We certainly could have taken a much different approach to try and control the campaign or to brand it more tightly, but success relied on allowing people to make our logo their own and feel like they were part of something bigger.”

In a blog post for Scientific American, social psychology scholar Melanie Tannenbaum outlines a compelling theory for how the red equal sign meme may work as effective political persuasion. Basically, it all comes down to modeling behavioral norms (i.e. setting ‘descriptive norms’), which parallels my own argument in “Visual Identities, Visual Rhetoric” regarding the importance of visually articulating ‘the people’ as a way of changing perceptions about social reality:

“People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do. And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.”

Finally, in a thought-provoking piece for the New Yorker Online, Matt Buchanan compares the red equal sign campaign with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous castigation of “Facebook activism” as so-called slacktivism in the same magazine:

“While the HRC’s profile-picture activism relies on weak ties, like those between celebrities and their followers, it’s designed to exploit the stronger personal connections that lurk among the web of weak ties in a Facebook profile. That is, you are true friends with at least a few people that you are ‘friends’ with on Facebook… The odds that the HRC’s campaign, as wildly successful as it has been, will directly influence the decision of the Justices are nil, which speaks quite loudly to the limits of online activism: twenty million avatars are not twenty million people in the street. However, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote, as people and politics change, so does the Court. And online activism has shown, most notably through its role in the defeat of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act last year, that maybe it can change people.”

In other words, Buchanan is saying that while online activism may not have a direct effect on public policy, it may have a long-term impact on public opinion that can eventually trickle up. It’s an intriguing thought, and one that seems to be supported by Tannenbaum’s point about the power of social media to shape social norms, one Facebook friend at a time.