Thanks to the rise and viral nature of the meme, candidates that have spent months effectively campaigning can in an instant see their entire campaign overshadowed by a Tumblr blog or Twitter hashtag highlighting a single misstated fact or misspoken phrase. And unlike the news reported by traditional news outlets, meme creators tend to be anonymous and aren’t accountable or easy targets for offended parties or concerned campaigns to contact.
After Mitt Romney’s now-infamous “binders full of women” comment slipped out during the second presidential debate, a 24-year-old Canadian man (who will only identify himself as “M”) created a simple Facebook Page dedicated to the reference. Within an hour, the page had some 90,000 fans.
“I think that memes can definitely play a role in political campaigns, but not overtly. Much like political cartoons and shows like The Colbert Report or even SNL help larger crowds see issues in new ways,” M says. “The [Binders Full of Women Facebook] page was created as a reaction to a phrase that not only didn’t sound right, but quite easily encompassed Gov. Romney’s overall ignorance of women’s rights. I definitely didn’t think that the page would grow so quickly. Within a couple minutes, I had sent a message to a friend saying how the page I made had 400 ‘fans.’ By the time he responded, the page had grown to 90,000 [fans]. That took less than an hour.”
“Internet memes can turn some of the most trivial moments and gossips about the candidates into central talking points of the campaigns, which I think poses an interesting challenge for many sides that are involved,” explains Brad Kim, editor of Know Your Meme. “Of course, punditry and satires have been a staple feature of election news coverage for some time, but it is hardly comparable to the scale of participation that we’re seeing in the social media today,” he says.
No political event’s timing or content has been as ripe for meme-making as that of our current presidential campaign. Hundreds of memes have found a home in this election cycle, oftentimes overshadowing an entire event to the point that all we really remember from the recent political conventions, debates, and speeches are full of @ mentions and pound signs.
The birth of a meme
Traditional news media involves an inherent delay because of factors like fact-checking, waiting for story approval from higher-ups, and ensuring content is objective. Individuals creating and sharing content through social media, however, are free to publish their work instantly without review or worry about the potential side effects. And because of its instant nature, oftentimes a meme can completely overshadow the actual point being made – point in case, #Bindersfullofwomen.
“The point that Romney was (eventually) getting to, around the relative presence of women in his staff got lost—the social universe is voracious and sound bytes are like chum in the water,” Alle Aufderhaar, senior vice president, general manager at digital marketing agency Organic, explains of the instant classic.
From sound bites to significance
Memes accomplish several things that the traditional news media can’t always achieve, namely: Instantaneous distribution of news, extended audience reach, viral and easily sharable content, and the ability to focus in on (and often, blow out of proportion) seemingly unimportant—but highly shareable—sound bites. In addition, meme creators enjoy a level of autonomy that the old-school news outlets aren’t afforded by politicians and campaigns.
“Election memes tend to have a lot more leeway in terms of what can be said and what cannot be said about the candidates, whereas the scope of coverage in the news media can be limited within the ethical boundaries of political journalism, like non-partisanship, or criticisms of media bias,” Kim says.
And memes are more than just funny images or controversial hashtags, they have the ability to actually influence campaigns and public opinion.
“It’s changing the way that campaign strategists are working to win over the public. Today’s election memes are becoming tomorrow’s campaign slogans and firewood for negative ads, some of the more recent examples found in Obama’s You Didn’t Build That, Romney’s “Big Bird” comment and Biden’s laughing streaks, all of which have been turned into negative ads paid for by both campaigns,” Kim said.
“As far as memes’ actual impact on political campaigns go, I think it largely depends on the half-life of each meme. The debate-related memes we’ve seen in the last month have had their moments, but it’s doubtful as to how long they will [be] relevant. But then when we look back at the past elections and even the Republican primary from earlier this year, there have been a few candidates whose campaigns were ultimately derailed by gaffes gone viral, from Howard Dean’s Scream in 2004 and Sarah Palin’s gaffe streak in 2008 to Rick Santorum’s Google problem and Rick Perry’s brain freeze during a debate in 2012,” Kim says. “Even though these memes may have little or nothing to do with the candidates’ policy stances or professional merits, their power to define the candidates’ characters and public image alone could be significant enough to sway the outcome of the election.”
No one is safe: Remembering the current campaign in memes (or, re-meme-bering)
Because meme creators typically don’t reveal who they are, it’s harder for political groups to blame, retaliate against, or criticize the creators like they can with other reporters and journalists. While the finger of blame is often pointed at individual reporters or news channels for inaccurate or biased content, when a meme is shared by tens of thousands of people, the criticism that the content is biased or wrong is completely irrelevant.
During this election cycle, both campaigns have been the targeted by their share of viral Twitter handles, Facebook pages, Tumblr accounts, hashtags, and animated GIFs. Memes targeting the Romney campaign included:
When Clint Eastwood took the stage during the Republican National Convention, in support of Romney during an unscripted (and now infamous) speech, the actor turned director became the subject of several memes after speaking to a chair in which he was pretending Obama was sitting. During Eastwood’s speech, the Twitter handle @invisibleobama was created and within an hour, it had racked up 20,000 followers; today, the handle has a loyal fan-base of nearly 69,000 followers. It also sparked this much buzzed-about response from the President:
Fired Big Bird
During the first presidential debate, after Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer that he would cut funding to PBS and Big Bird, a Tumblr page and parody Twitter account for Fired Big Bird took over the Web.
Binders Full of Women
During the second debate, immediately after Romney’s now infamous comment about having “binders full of women” for job applications when he was the Governor of Massachusetts, dozens of related memes flooded the Internet, including this now-classic Dirty Dancing homage:
A Facebook page titled Binders Full of Women went live almost instantly—attracting more than 300,000 likes within just 24-hours. And of course, a Ryan Gosling meme was necessary:
Romney’s comment that 47 percent of the U.S. population is “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims” sparked memes across the Internet including one fake presidential campaign slogan: “Romney: Believe in [half of] America.”
Of course, memes no know bias, and a fair number have targeted the Obama Campaign as well:
You didn’t build that
During an election campaign speech in Virginia earlier this summer, Obama said, “If you’ve been successful you didn’t get there on your own…. If you were successful somebody along the line gave you some help.” Memes broke out immediately after that comment, including this image:
Laughing Joe Biden
During the vice presidential debates, many criticized Vice President Joe Biden for laughing while Congressman Paul Ryan responded to answers posed by moderator Martha Raddatz. Almost instantly, several related Twitter handles like @LaughingJBiden sprouted up, a hashtag for #Malarky—a word Biden used when referring to Ryan’s comments—was created and images of Biden laughing went viral.
Obama’s comment on The Daily Show about the recent fatal attacks against Americans in Libya being “not optimal” was the spark for the Twitter hashtag #NotOptimal.
The beauty and bane of the meme
The power of the meme to instantly highlight and circulate an image or phrase — creating campaign talking points and offering people new perspectives, all without having to answer to anyone — is what makes it so powerful. The speed, viral nature, and autonomy the make this medium so influential aren’t enjoyed by traditional news outlets. And this means that, popular memes can oftentimes affect campaigns much more than established news outlets can, for better or for worse.
This also means that candidates have to be all the more cautious and careful about what they say because anything that comes out of their mouths could potentially morph into a viral meme—stripped of any context, taking on a life of its own, and potentially overshadowing an entire campaign.