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.

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.

Black Twitter and the Rise of Viral Pressure Groups

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A few weeks ago, the Washington Post published an excellent piece about the phenomenon of Black Twitter, explaining how this community has used peer-to-peer social software to mobilize around numerous race-related political causes. Recently, Black Twitter activists have enjoyed a number of high-profile successes, such as pressuring a book publisher to drop a deal with a Trayvon Martin murder trial juror, pressuring InterActive Corp to admonish (and eventually fire) a PR executive who tweeted a racist joke, and pressuring singer Ani DiFranco to cancel an event at a former slave plantation. As these examples demonstrate, the political power of this form of activism rests in its high-profile application of public pressure. While tweeting responses to troubling news of racism and racial insensitivity may not “do” anything political in and of itself, it can put a media spotlight on an issue that may in turn lead to real change.

For many decades, professional watchdog organizations (AKA “pressure groups”) like the NAACP, GLAAD, and NOW  have engaged in this form of activism to varying degrees of success. Now, it appears that decentralized groups of citizens are taking it upon themselves to band together around common issues and draw the public’s attention to them through strategic media interventions. The fact that Black Twitter has no organizational center, but is rather an open-ended community of like-minded citizens who find one another via popular hashtags like #PoliticosBlackIntellectuals #solidarityisforwhitewomen, is quite significant. It reminds me a lot of W. Lance Bennett and Alexendra Segerberg’s point that the traditional collective action of  organized social movements is giving way to “connective action,” which describes a more diffuse and personalized style of public engagement that is powered by digital peer-to-peer networks.

That being said, there does appear to be a certain cohesiveness to virtual communities like Black Twitter, even though they are strongly decentralized. It is important to keep this point in mind when thinking about how political causes “go viral” on Twitter and social media platforms in contemporary times. When we say that a political news story, photo, or video “goes viral,” it conjures up images of widespread social popularity that does little to specify the investments and agendas of particular groups that have strategically contributed to the peer-to-peer spread of content. Communities like Black Twitter are essentially issue publics that draw upon their ranks to deliberately make a story like the Ani DiFranco concert or the PR exec’s racist tweet go viral – in other words, their viral popularity doesn’t just materialize out of thin air (i.e. from the aggregated effect of isolated, individual shares), but is rather the result of a concerted effort on the part of groups of invested citizens who wish to make an impact on the public sphere. Clearly, the agenda-setting labor of these viral pressure groups is a crucial object of study for scholars who seek to understand the emerging shape of digital activism.