The Mainstreaming of Political Memes Online
Posted February 9, 2018 6:22 p.m. EST
Political memes have gone mainstream as the distance between the White House and subcultures like 4Chan has closed.
President Donald Trump has frequently retweeted his fans’ meme work, #MeToo jumped from social media to every workplace, and political campaigns started to invest in the form more seriously. The political meme — text over an image, sometimes short videos or digital clip art meant to spread and be imitated — is often a guttural, simple message couched in humor, like the doctored video from September of Hillary Clinton being hit with his golf ball.
Groups like the conservative Look Ahead America and the liberal Center for Story-Based Strategy emerged to nurture memers, and big political donors like George Soros and the Mercer family funded meme efforts.
“It’s almost like a new means of communication — the image and emotion and creation,” said Matt Braynard, 39, the former director of data for Trump’s campaign, who is now the executive director of Look Ahead America. “I don’t want to call it literature, but it has an art.”
Braynard said the trend of political meme-ing began “with a bunch of folks who maybe were not initially political but have tech-related savviness and had their hideouts online in forums like 4Chan.” Memes were a natural way for those voters to enter politics because it’s how they’d been communicating already, and mainstream donors saw their potential last year, he said.
Still, the shift toward a meme-based political discourse is in its early days, said Braynard. Already, he said, there was demand for meme content in international elections, like those in France and Austria, where “anti-postmodernist political movements” are growing.
Organizers on both the left and right said the left has so far been slower to adapt to meme politics. To catch up, Sean Eldridge, husband of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, is working on creating shareable content with Stand Up America, a progressive nonprofit that opposes Trump. And activist John Sellers’ The Other 98% has received funding from Open Society Foundations, a group backed by Soros.
“You don’t want to be grandpa in the nightclub like, ‘Hey, content creators, today we’re going to meme about how to revitalize coal communities,'” said Rob Flaherty, 26, a former digital communications manager for Clinton’s campaign and now creative director of Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC. “It has to happen organically. So the next thing now is to more effectively organize the memers.”
Trump has been crucial in the spreading of political memes, often through retweets of his fans. For his supporters, a retweet shows he’s listening — and that they need to keep meme-ing.
Take Jerry Travone, 34, a resident of Freehold, New Jersey, who found a meme last year gurgling around on Facebook: Trump’s smiling face moving across a somber portrait of Barack Obama. Travone fiddled with the tint a bit and posted it to his 15,300 followers. Then Trump retweeted it to his more than 40 million followers in August.
“When it comes to memes I think he’s the type of normal guy that sees a funny meme and laughs out loud and retweets it,” Travone said about Trump. “A picture can contain a thousand words.”
Andrew Boyd, who designs campaigns for social change, was one of the first to document political memes, writing a seminal essay, “Truth is a Virus,” in 2002. He argued that the most important recent political meme has not come from either party’s campaign or donors but from the #MeToo movement around sexual harassment.
“It has a crystal quality to it, a simplicity, and elegance, something that feels right and organized,” said Boyd, 55. “Me too. Me too. That happened to me too. The best memes are very populist, and yet they have a precision.”
Doyle Canning, who wrote a book on using memes for political movements and co-founded the Center for Story-Based Strategy, said people have now realized memes are replacing nuanced political debate.
“People in 2016 declined to take seriously the impact of the memes and clung to this narrative that rational policy discourse would triumph,” said Canning, 37. “And it didn’t.”
Now politics, she said, is just “a battle of the memes.”