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Maria Gershuni

Masters of Arts candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Roman Mayka

Program Assistant at the Russian International Affairs Council

There will come a time when grandparents will tell their grandchildren stories of what politics were like without memes. Even today, memes have become so commonplace that it seems they have always been present in our life. They are everywhere: starting with social media to newspapers headlines, from business to politics. Though the meme was initially a product of the entertainment industry, today this phenomenon is widely used in political communication. Since there are several standard definitions of “meme”, hereinafter the following is applied:

A meme is a message in new media, which represents the reaction to political events and changes. Usually, it has catchy content and layout, is reposted by users and goes viral on the Internet. These memes might be a way to express the values of the Internet community, create its own language and document its significant symbols, rituals, moments, etc [1].

Back to the roots

The term “meme” was adopted from evolutionary biology. In his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to talk about an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from one person to another within a culture. Memes were used to understand why some behaviors that seemed to make no sense evolutionarily, were easily adopted and spread within society.

A powerful concept of mass imitation and repetition is appealing to governments, who used “memes” for political purposes. Early on, governments found that taking symbols and images, then adapting and spreading them, could yield politically positive results. An early example of a popular “political meme” is the “Britons, Lord Kitchener Wants You” recruitment image for the British Army during World War One (displayed below). The poster was created by the British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in September 1914. The powerful patriotic image and call to action turned out to be incredibly appealing and effective. Later James Montgomery Flagg adapted the British Lord Kitchener into the American Uncle Sam and created the iconic “I Want You” recruitment poster for the US Army in 1918. Similar images were adopted, adapted and spread through other countries, including the Soviet Union. All the examples shown below follow the same basic template – images and words are aimed at stimulating nationalism and action and may be considered early examples of political memes.

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During the 20th century, only governments had the resources to ensure these images could reach people across the country, which enabled the government to maintain a monopoly on early political meme creation. However, the creation of the Internet enabled ordinary people to not only produce their own images but spread them by uploading them onto popular sharing platforms. One of them was “4chan”, which started as an image sharing site for the fans to discuss Japanese anime cartoons. Unlike its evolutionary origins, the memes here were deliberately adapted by people and were passed on to others, who adapted them further. Early Internet memes that gained popularity were not political in nature.

However, the Internet’s anonymity made it an attractive forum for political debate. Forums like “Reddit” began to spring up, allowing for multiple debates on a single topic. 4chan also became a place for debates, transforming from a purely image-based platform into an image and text-based forum. The forums used English as their working language, but easily attracted international readers and subscribers. The political discussion on these forums, and the creation of political memes to accompany discussion, was uncoordinated and lacked cohesion. These early discussions and memes failed to result in a single political movement, because, unlike the political memes during the World Wars, they not speak with a united voice.

Alt-Right Memes and the United States

The anonymity of the Internet enabled users to express far right or far left opinions without being stigmatized. Closed communities also allowed users to share their opinions and create symbols and phrases that are familiar to the group members. The best of these political memes had simple visuals and templates that can be reproduced by users looking to adapt them.

This was the case of Pepe the Frog. Pepe was created by web-comic artist Matt Furie in 2005 drawn as a carefree frog that pursued joy. Internet communities adopted the image, adapted it to express a wide range of emotions, and shared it. Pepe became mainstream, with brands and celebrities getting in on the joke. However, Pepe’s original Internet-fans resented how their joke was being exploited by the mainstream. They began to draw Pepe wearing swastika armbands and saying racist or hateful things, in an attempt to return the cartoon its original meaning. It was difficult to tell if users were trying to turn Pepe into a shocking meme as a joke, or Pepe was a tool to express hateful ideas. After a while, it didn’t seem to matter what the original intention of Pepe the Frog was. The Anti-Defamation league classified Pepe as a hate symbol, placing it alongside the Swastika and the KKK Burning Cross .

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Source: KnowYourMeme

The development and popularity of online forums grew annually since their inception, and by the time of the 2016 US Presidential Election, 4chan and Reddit had hosted tens of millions of users. On the sites, memes became the new vernacular language and were used to tear down mainstream and politically correct opinions. Those posting off-color and politically incorrect memes used pseudonyms, and it was hard to tell who was just “trolling” — posting disingenuously to get a reaction — and who was genuine about their political views. It became fashionable for some sites to post the most shocking meme think of, regardless of whether or not someone truly believed in the message behind it. Various memes were spread first within the community and then bled out to other communities on other sites.

Then came candidate Donald Trump. Online community perceived Trump as the ultimate troll candidate. The idea to “take him seriously, not literally” blurred the line between real policy platform and trolling. With Trump, like with the Internet itself, it was hard to distinguish what was real and what wasn’t. His stated policies, like “building a wall” on the US-Mexico border, were simple enough to be “memeable” — turned into simple cartoons and images to be adapted and shared. The Presidential election became an obsession for online forums. On the 4chan forum /pol/, a place dedicated to discussion of the politically incorrect topics, real Trump supporters gathered and mixed with those who respected Trump for being the ultimate troll.

These places on the Internet also became the cradle of rumors about Trump’s opponents. Republican Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz was defined by his meme legacy. A joke, turned rumor, about Ted Cruz being the Zodiac Killer circulated as an in-joke and modified and spread on social networks. The meme went from being shared on 4chan, Twitter, and Reddit onto Facebook and Youtube as users turned the joke into a conspiracy theory. In February 2016, a Public Policy Polling poll found that 38% of Florida voters thought it was viable that Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer and one in ten people were convinced that he was.

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Source: Twitter

Hillary Clinton also got involved in a conspiracy spread on 4chan. The rumor had it, Clinton used a pizza restaurant as a headquarters for a human trafficking operation. As a result, a 4chan user, believing these rumors, stormed the restaurant with a gun.

Trump, on the other hand, was portrayed positively by the self-appointed “gate keepers” of internet memes on 4chan, Twitter, and Reddit. Pepe the Frog was frequently painted as a Trump supporter, wearing the “Make America Great Again” hat and standing next to the Trump family and election team. As memes evolved, they veered farther right and away from what used to be acceptable in polite debate. Trump retweeted the accounts that made these memes, giving them yet more mainstream exposure.

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Source 1: https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/653856168402681856?lang=en

Source2: Instagram

Hillary Clinton was never able to garner the type of internet meme support that her opponent was gifted with. Her campaign attempted to create a social media presence, but was often ridiculed and condemned for pandering. Her attempt to connect with students by tweeting the infamous question “How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in three emoji’s or less” was derided and turned into a meme of its own, the “Fellow Kids” meme.

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Source: Twitter

The message of these memes was clear — Hillary Clinton was fake and outdated.

Clinton also fell victim to negative meme-making when she beat Senator Bernie Sanders, an internet favorite, in the Democratic primary. Sanders had organic online support, similar to Trump, with Facebook users developing a “Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash” to show support for the Democratic Socialist candidate. Both Sanders and Trump had the merits of being blustery “political outsiders,” Trump because he was a businessman and Sanders because he was a Senator from a Third Party. Their accessible style made them internet darlings, while Hillary Clinton was panned. Many Bernie Sanders memes pitted Sanders directly against Clinton, painting her as “insufferable and cloying” when compared with Bernie’s easy charm. Therefore, when Sanders lost the nomination, his organic meme support was not transferred to Clinton.

In the general election, an internet-panned Clinton was pitted against Trump, who was defined as the ultimate internet inside joke. Trump’s embrace of the internet meme culture made the internet “gatekeepers” believe he was performing for them. Trump’s persona reflected the memes made about him, blurring the line between reality and internet culture. This made people on the Internet feel powerful, and meme making became a form of political participation, as memes appeared to define the candidate’s agenda. Candidate Trump’s embracing of internet culture allowed ordinary people to feel like they have a stake and say in politics. Clinton, on the other hand, panned meme culture, denouncing Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol. She was clearly not the candidate of the Internet. When Trump won the 2016 election, it was to the elation of those meme makers who felt like they had a say in defining his image.

UK and the Brexit memes

The Brexit case is another example of how memes can serve as a marker of people’s reaction to changes in the country. Britain has no standard internet meme symbol for either far-right movement or left movement, but Brexit uncovered a variety of ways how memes can be easily politicized.

After Theresa May had activated the official mechanism of leaving EU (Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty) it did not take long to trigger the internet community. People’s reaction to Brexit was largely noticeable in the memes they shared online: from different interpretations of the UK flag to pictures celebrating the main pro-Brexit politician Nigel Farage. Even Pepe the Frog, painted in the colors of the British flag and holding a cup of tea, was posted multiple times on the web. On the other side, pro-EU advocated expressed their indignation by posting memes with former Prime Minister David Cameron and the red bus warning Brexit cost of divorce bill.

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The UK provides interesting example of how memes and political discourse evolve in real time. As the British government and the EU are negotiating the particularities of Brexit, British social media are yet again generating memes about what outcome they see favorable and what kind of relationship Britain will have with the European Union in the future. The hashtag #peoplesvote has been growing in popularity as some in the UK are demanding another informed vote on Brexit. A parody Twitter account Office of Brexit Preparedness routinely creates memes parodying the lack of preparedness the British government demonstrates to leave the European Union.

The variety of political social media meme responses to the current Brexit debate represents the quickly evolving stakes in UK-EU negotiations and the confusion regarding Brexit aftermath could actually entail among the British public.

***

In the rapidly changing world of international politics, memes have become an effective “weapon of the people”: they are quickly made, quickly distributed, and most importantly easily understood. In addition, the “memefication” of politics increases as the sphere as such becomes a meme: memes are becoming used as part of election campaigns and as instruments of political and social protest. Memes can be seen on Donald Trump’s Twitter accounts, as well as on the social media pages of the Embassies of the Russian Federation. Memes have become effective means of communication, and their ability to “go viral” allows people to use them for various political ends.

Memes, when employed correctly, can have political power. They identify a person with the same views and show support a political movement purely online. It is much easier to share a meme on a Facebook page rather than participate in a political rally, or go door to door canvassing.

Among other things, one must not forget that meme is essentially a simplification, an easily understood form which can convey views and values through the lense of satire and humor. Even the most innocent cartoon in the right context and in the hands of a professional can easily influence the public, either by making a certain candidate attractive to voters, or vice versa, by making a political agenda unattractive using biting quickly spreading satire.

Across the world, internet memes are manifesting and evolving as are reactions to the current domestic issues. Often, political memes are used to criticize those in power and satirize the mainstream: whether through supporting political outsider candidate by sharing frog cartoons, putting a national slogan over pictures of crumbling infrastructure, or derail delicate economic discussions pertaining to a customs union. Memes are revolutionary because they allow people, whose voices would not be heard otherwise, to state their opinion on the political matters. Because of memes’ viral nature, punchy graphics, and clever captions, a opinions of ordinary people can be heard by millions.


1. Шомова С.А. Мемы как они есть: Учеб. Пособие / С.А. Шомова —М.: Издательство «Аспект Пресс», 2018. – 136. с

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