This time last year was a hard time for me. Donald Trump had just won the election, and my friends and I were shocked, sad, and angry—to say the least. My Facebook feed was a patchwork of New York Times op-eds, long status updates, sad reacts, and protest events.
Also, there were memes. Specifically, a certain strand of lighthearted but heartfelt memes featuring President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
These graphics featured animated photographs of the pair with a bit of melancholy but comedic dialogue about their time working together and the imminent arrival of Trump and Pence. The memes surfaced only hours after Trump’s victory and demonstrate the way in which culture is instantaneously created and diffused on the web. There were countless variations of this same structure, all highlighting the uniqueness of the historical moment, the perception of Obama and Biden as benevolent leaders, and the famously affectionate relationship between them.
These tender images are but a small part in a long story of the intersection between politics and memes.
What is a Meme?
The word meme was first coined and defined by scientist Richard Dawkins in 1976 as a “unit of cultural transmission.” Spreading—often through social media platforms—from person to person, a meme is an idea, behavior, or style dependent upon and existing within a certain cultural context. The biological principle that form fits function is of high importance for memes, which rely on finding the perfect balance of image, text, and video to successfully communicate their point.
Easy to create and easy to share—and getting easier with the continued development of multimedia—memes have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years; according to Google Trends, “meme” as a search term finally surpassed “Jesus” last August. The fact that this boom in popularity happened just as Trump was named the Republican presidential nominee and the election heated up cannot be pure coincidence.
Most memes are highly intuitive—either you understand the joke, reference, or innuendo or you don’t. For those part of a certain cult of understanding, a meme can be an effective and powerful way to disseminate a targeted—often jabbing—message; those who don’t understand—or don’t accept the joke—just scroll on by. In this way, memes themselves become polarized—aimed toward one ideology or another. Most Trump supporters, I imagine, would not only fail to find the Obama Biden memes funny, but also fail to understand the intricacies of the message.
In the buildup to last year’s election, USA Today called memes the “lingua franca of the modern campaign.” Indeed, on the most basic level, memes about the election—of which there were many—democratized the issues and made them accessible to anyone with a Facebook. Memes are an art form that require only Photoshop and wit—anyone can make and share a meme with the world.
The “Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton?” memes, for example, surfaced during the Democratic primary, using the well-known opinions and eccentricities of each candidate to elicit laughs. Even the two photos that the meme used seem to epitomize the candidates perfectly. These memes—like the Obama/Biden ones—have a limitless number of possibilities, and can be remade new each time.
The Danger of Memes
In this way, however, the creation and proliferation of political culture is not just open to anyone with a computer, but to powerful fringe groups, who use memes to spread insidious messages of hate. Pepe the Frog, for example, was created with no malicious, racist, or anti-Semitic intentions, but was co-opted by white supremacists. Alt-right internet trolls on websites like 4chan and reddit plastered the innocent frog onto different backgrounds—a concentration camp and a plane heading towards the twin towers, to name two. The result was a new symbol of white supremacy.
While Trump tweeted out a photo of himself as Pepe the Frog, he did so early in his primary campaign, and before Pepe had acquired his alt-right connotations. However, in early September, Donald Trump Jr shared a “Deplorables” meme to Instagram, in which he, Trump, Mike Pence, Milo Yiannopoulos, and other conservative figures share the stage with Pepe the Frog. A mere few weeks later as the offensive Pepe references increased, the Anti-Defamation League classified Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol.
In a way, what happened with Pepe the Frog is similar to what happened with the photos of Obama and Biden—but to two opposite extremes. Memes give images entirely new meaning by placing them in unfamiliar contexts. The Obama and Biden photos were originally mundane documentation of life at the White House; it took only some quippy dialogue and lighthearted humor to make them into an internet spectacle. Similarly, Pepe the Frog was once an innocent cartoon character; now he’s an officially recognized hate symbol.
These memes are not meant to educate; they rely on and play off of internet users’ existing knowledge and understanding of culture and current events. They are not meant to change our mind, but to validate our existing opinions through humor. And because our knowledge and understanding of culture and current events often varies directly with political ideology, as a we scroll through our Facebook feeds, the plethora of political memes perpetuate our existing echo chambers.
Trump himself uses memes in this way. On July 2 of this past summer, Trump tweeted out a video of himself body-slamming someone whose face is covered by a CNN logo. This meme, understandably, was met with confusion and frustration from his opponents. While it is easy to criticize Trump’s treatment of the media, it is different entirely to try and criticize a meme—which is a joke. While this tweet was undoubtedly immature, it was so immature that taking it seriously seemed like the wrong reaction entirely.
This video, however, played directly to his supporters. Trump’s ongoing war with mainstream media continues to influence his base, some of whom claim that they trust videos on Facebook from unknown sources more than prominent news organizations.
Indeed, the tweeting out of the CNN meme was never meant to change the minds of any Democrats about this news site. Rather, it was meant to serve as more fuel in the fire for his base, who already question CNN as a credible source. And a meme was the perfect medium through which to do this, as it spreads a short, clear, and simple message, but it allows him to later tell the public it was a tweet meant only in jest.
Trump’s use of memes reveals the danger in this new way of absorbing politics. Getting information only from Facebook and other social media sites does not always make for accurate news. Because our feeds and the memes that we see increasingly reflect one particular ideology, memes are not and cannot be a substitute for substantive journalism. They are supposed to be easily and quickly consumable, but anyone who wants to be politically informed must make time for the news and information that takes longer to digest.
Memes from Moscow
Becoming the “lingua franca” of politics, however, has made memes a vulnerable medium. Indeed, they were not only used by the American public and the candidates themselves to further an agenda, but also by foreigners trying to influence American political discourse. Just this month, House Democrats released information about graphics and videos created by Russia as a part of the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the presidential election.
In a house intelligence hearing on November 1, Democratic Senator Mark Warner said that while the investigation focused on paid ads put out by Russians, “The real story is the amount of misinformation and divisive content that was pushed for free on Russian-backed [Facebook] pages, which was then spread widely on newsfeeds of tens of millions of Americans.” He went on to say that these images and videos reached an estimated 126 million people, a third of the American population.
These memes put out by Russian operatives are diverse in their content, and they were disseminated strategically, through a plethora of unique Facebook pages targeting different audiences; clearly the “LGBTQ United” page aimed to attract a different audience than “Army of Jesus.” These memes were did not pave an obvious way for Trump, but to escalate tensions between a wide range of groups and voters.
This first image of a buffed up Bernie Sanders was targeted to gay voters to influence the Democratic primary against Clinton. The coloring book from which the image was taken is real and available for purchase at Barnes and Noble. Thus, the Russian operatives behind this page did nothing more than collect cultural information and share it strategically.
The second meme showing Jesus arm wrestling with the Devil is more explicit in its support of Trump. It interacts with viewers directly, imploring them to “Like” the photo, thereby helping to get the image in as many newsfeeds as possible.
And yet there is nothing about these memes that suggests they were created by Russians. While memes can do an incredible job of involving almost every American with a Facebook page in the political process—something we want—they thereby also open the door to those we don’t want. If this is the potential cost of infusing our election process with pithy comedy—is it worth it? The better question might be, do we even have a choice anymore?
While I can suggest that the answer to this problem is to check our sources thoroughly, the idea of tracking down the creator of every meme that comes across our feed is not only impractical, but takes away from the fun and spontaneity that comes with seeing one of these funny images.
The solution may just be to fight back harder and “embrace meme warfare,” which is what at least some NATO experts want to do in the fight against ISIS. Just as internet jihadists use the internet to recruit foreign fighters, some are pushing for NATO to use memes militaristically to counteract their efforts.
Last year in NATO’s journal from the Strategic Communications Center for Excellence, social media guru Jeff Giesa wrote, “Trolling, it might be said, is the social media equivalent of guerilla warfare, and memes are its currency of propaganda.”
If propagating memes is indeed the new way to wage war, the United States and NATO will soon engage, I’m sure; it’s only a matter of time. And, if internet and design experts can make and use graphics and words to disrupt the plans of an international terrorist organization, we undoubtedly should.
But, at what point does this become unacceptable government-sponsored propaganda? At what point will we be stooping to Russia’s level? Should these memes be allowed to be target Americans? How will they be distributed? Will our government create fake social media accounts as the Kremlin did? Do the ends justify the means? Once something is on the internet, it can be perverted in any number of ways—like Pepe, for example. This is a slippery slope, and most definitely needs its own set of regulations before being implemented on any scale.
This conception of the meme feels very distant from the tender Obama-Biden series that spread following last year’s election, and very distant from most of the humorous graphics that I see every day. And, in essence, these two developments are occurring at the same time. Thus while the meme can bring communities together as it did last November—there is also a darker side to its potential that we have to be aware of when consuming this medium.
Can We Change Meme Culture?
I predict that memes will continue to become more and more vicious in the future—in tandem with increasing political tribalism. But, again, that is part of the point. Memes are meant to be laughed at, and in many cases, humor is at another’s expense, which isn’t always a bad thing. But when memes—like the ones retweeted by Trump and the ones produced by Russia—take on a more serious topics, humor comes into conflict with morality.
Changes in meme culture can only follow changes in the actual culture. Only when politics itself becomes less vicious will memes follow suit.
The featured image in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Alexa Perlmutter is a contributing writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate.