Memes used to be niche internet in-jokes, but have now become a significant part of online political discourse. Peter Wilson argues that we should, therefore, take the phenomenon seriously.
A meme is an image, video, piece of text, or really any in-joke that spreads virally across the internet, often as variations on a theme. The term was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, and related to cultural norms spreading like genes. Until recent years, memes subverted mainstream conversation on politics, but they are now a crucial part of it for many young people.
The most fascinating aspect of memes is their ability to rapidly subvert mainstream political discourse. People can quickly engage in what similar-minded people are discussing. I spoke to Professor Daniel Miller, an expert in Digital Anthropology at UCL currently leading research on why people post on social media. He suspects that memes, “are mainly used to create entertainment out of politics, and to consolidate political views.”
This process was exemplified during Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. President Trump’s headline-grabbing behaviour created a symbiotic relationship between meme generation and his polarising appeal. One meme (above) featured Bill Clinton, with the caption “I invented grabbing her by the pussy.” This meme implicitly criticises Democrat outrage over the infamous leaked tape, serving to pander to Trump’s electoral base.
The most infamous display of the Trump meme phenomenon was the fracas surrounding the meme known as Pepe the Frog. Although it’s been around since 2005, it became a symbol synonymous with “alt-right” online content. It was quickly brandished as a symbol of hate speech by the Anti-Defamation League – though this did little to stop its circulation. On the day of President Trump’s election, word searches for ‘meme’ spiked and correlated almost perfectly with searches for Trump, suggesting a relationship between the two. In 2017, then leader of the “alt-right,” Richard Spencer, said “we meme’d Trump into power.” This shows the growing mainstream appeal of memes.
I got in touch with Casey Michel, a journalist at the Washington Post who has written on Russian online influence. The sinister possibilities of online manipulation were shown in anti-Islam protest in the US, “which saw Russian trolls convince white supremacists to show up in force in downtown Houston.” This was achieved through a Russian-managed Facebook group called Heart of Texas. It amassed more followers than the Republican and Democrat Texan Facebook groups combined. Michel said in the same correspondence that it “seemed clear Russian memes played a role in influencing political beliefs.” PhD affiliate from UCL Shriram Venkatraman told me, “visuals and specifically memes are becoming the process through which people express their dissent.” The events in Houston demonstrate that this is open to manipulation. The 2016 incident is not simply a case of fake news; it demonstrated memes can act as a platform for misinformation.
The influence of memes is by no means confined to the US. Young people are the largest demographic consuming and producing memes, based on data from the Political Bible Facebook page. In the UK, the 18-24 turnout rose by 15% between 2015 and 2017. Political memes were ubiquitous on Facebook and Twitter during the snap election last August and, from my personal experience, were shared on an unprecedented scale. Sharing memes of a certain political leaning can lend itself to tribalism, creating a kind of echo chamber. However, Venkatraman told me that memes have a “rather complicated relationship with echo chambers given their propensity to go viral.” Ipsos Mori has claimed that “age is the new predictor of voting intention in British politics.”
I asked the Political Bible whether exposure to memes of certain political alignment significantly influences opinion. As the biggest UK-based political satire page on Facebook, they are perhaps the best people to ask about this topic. They stated that “a good political meme will focus on the flaws in someone or something when the reality is the opposition to the meme is just as flawed.”
However, this absurdity was lost on many during last year’s snap election. The Political Bible said they get the feeling that many young people “sort of got carried away,” in regards to pro-Corbyn memes.
We can look to the recently launched Instagram page “Mementum” as a demonstration of this. Its content is not really self-reflexive humour, and seems closer to propaganda.
Ever wonder how Tom Watson could go from complaining of “Old-Trots” to chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” with only a year between keynote speeches at the Labour Party conference? Here’s a clue: it’s a meme.
I am by no means claiming that memes alone secured Jeremy Corbyn’s position in the Labour Party now, but they do seem to have played a significant role in maintaining Corbyn’s relevance for young people. That Corbyn won the meme war is undeniable. He also, coincidentally or not, won the youth vote.
One key lesson from the ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal is people’s malleability in the online sphere. The whistleblower Christopher Wylie has referred to psychological influence of social media, and it is important to note in this discussion. One can look to the rise of Pepe the Frog on political forums. Memes are perceived by most as an impartial format, untainted by private interest and implicitly subversive to mainstream politics. However, as I have demonstrated, memes can be deployed creatively under political banners, with significant and immediate impact. Memes are being used in many industries, most notably music and fashion. So it is not unreasonable, in light of firms like CA being ousted for shady dealings, to assume political groups have already used these with significant investment of time and money.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons