Introducing The Citizen Marketer

citizen marketer book cover

I’m very excited to announce that my new book, The Citizen Marketer: Promoting Political Opinion in the Social Media Age, is now available from Oxford University Press! I’ve also launched a new website for the book,, which includes a blog where I’ll be posting in the future on relevant social media and politics topics. Since I’m putting all my effort behind the new site, I won’t be updating this blog as much anymore, although I invite you to check out the archive here for posts covering 2013-2016.

Here’s a short summary of the new book:

From hashtag activism to the flood of political memes on social media, the landscape of political communication is being transformed by the grassroots circulation of opinion on digital platforms and beyond. By exploring how everyday people assist in the promotion of political media messages to persuade their peers and shape the public mind, Joel Penney offers a new framework for understanding the phenomenon of viral political communication: the citizen marketer. Like the citizen consumer, the citizen marketer is guided by the logics of marketing practice, but, rather than being passive, actively circulates persuasive media to advance political interests. Such practices include using protest symbols in social media profile pictures, strategically tweeting links to news articles to raise awareness about select issues, sharing politically-charged internet memes and viral videos, and displaying mass-produced T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers that promote a favored electoral candidate or cause. Citizens view their participation in such activities not only in terms of how it may shape or influence outcomes, but as a statement of their own identity. As the book argues, these practices signal an important shift in how political participation is conceptualized and performed in advanced capitalist democratic societies, as they casually inject political ideas into the everyday spaces and places of popular culture.

While marketing is considered a dirty word in certain critical circles — particularly among segments of the left that have identified neoliberal market logics and consumer capitalist structures as a major focus of political struggle — some of these very critics have determined that the most effective way to push back against the forces of neoliberal capitalism is to co-opt its own marketing and advertising techniques to spread counter-hegemonic ideas to the public. Accordingly, this book argues that the citizen marketer approach to political action is much broader than any one ideological constituency or bloc. Rather, it is a means of promoting a wide range of political ideas, including those that are broadly critical of elite uses of marketing in consumer capitalist societies. The book includes an extensive historical treatment of citizen-level political promotion in modern democratic societies, connecting contemporary digital practices to both the 19th century tradition of mass political spectacle as well as more informal, culturally-situated forms of political expression that emerge from postwar countercultures. By investigating the logics and motivations behind the citizen marketer approach, as well as how it has developed in response to key social, cultural, and technological changes, Penney charts the evolution of activism in an age of mediatized politics, promotional culture, and viral circulation.


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.

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


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.

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.