This year, one out of every 10 eligible voters in the U.S. will be a member of Gen Z, according to Pew Research Center. While the youngest generation makes up one of the smallest age demographics of the electorate–with Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers comprising the majority–its impact on how politics is accessed in the age of social media has had an irreversible effect. The digitally native Gen Z continues to drive politics towards clickbait headlines, presidential Twitter feuds, and the proliferation of political memes. While these trends began with the Millennials before them, really coming into play in the 2016 presidential election, they have become key components of political media, especially as 2020’s candidates seek to gain traction with fresh, young voters.
Derived from the Greek mimeme, or something imitated, memes and their pop cultural influence have specifically rallied around politics, for better or worse. The social media-friendly images, GIFs, and soundbites extracted from campaigns, speeches, or other events become viral tidbits, easily shared in a split-second. Their mass-appeal makes them powerful advertising tools, used by politicians (more on this later) and various brands. In 2017, Gucci collaborated with a number of artists for a timepiece campaign presented in meme-format.
When successful, they enter the collective conscience of digital denizens, being shared and re-shared into oblivion. For example, images of Nancy Pelosi at the past two State of the Union addresses have become viral memes, both emblematic of a specific point in politics and transcending their initial context. In 2019, a photo of the Speaker of the House of Representatives clapping towards President Trump with outstretched arms was soon disseminated across social media. Then at this year’s address, Pelosi again garnered the internet’s attention for ripping her copy of the president’s speech in half. While her attitude and the intent of her gestures was initially questioned–considered trolling or a non-verbal clapback by many–the discussion soon left the political sphere and the images became memes independent of any political meaning.
In election years, this ultra-transmittable form of media is especially helpful for candidates who are looking to turn an online presence into grassroots support. As free publicity, memes comes with the same convenience that mass-sharing over email chains once did, except now it can be done over various channels, exponentially growing their reach. Through dynamic images and quippy text, they give politics a digestible edge and candidates unmatched exposure. While memes undoubtedly offer oversimplifications of important issues, their impact on the political system is unquestionable. During the 2016 election, pro-Trump iconography flooded the web, forcing traditional news outlets to address conspiracies about his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. This also shows how memes become a form of propaganda in political media. Of course, Trump’s Twitter account has been a site for such rhetoric and meme-worthy moments, including Clinton’s own top tweet to date:
While they certainly limit the depth and scope of a political message being shared, memes provide a gateway to reaching the younger constituents, who, by the way, are the best-informed generation of voters in history, thanks to growing up with the internet at their fingertips. For this year’s Democratic primary, several candidates have tapped into meme culture for their campaigns, aiming to capitalize on where Gen Z puts its attention. Billionaire and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg launched an Instagram campaign that pandered to the youth through humorous, fake DM exchanges fabricated with the help of Meme 2020, a project led by Mick Purzycki, the chief executive of Jerry Media. The ads were posted to Instagram accounts including @FuckJerry, @GrapeJuiceBoys, and, @Tank.Sinatra, all of which have followings reaching into the millions. While the sponsored content has since been removed and Bloomberg has dropped out of the race, the ad campaign prompted others to create their own iterations of the DM format, some even making fun of Bloomberg, showing the effectiveness and reach of memes as a form of media.
Other candidates also strategized their social media engagement, like Andrew Yang, who’s following known as the Yang Gang made his internet presence unavoidable with memes, songs, and music videos. While Yang has ended his campaign, its initial impact was due to his rise on digital platforms, which brought the businessman and political newcomer out of obscurity.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s known for his popularity among progressive voters under 30, has made a mark with his internet-based impressions since the 2016 election. His campaign proliferated on sites like Facebook and Reddit, where young supporters were creating memes and spreading his platform. In this year’s primary, Sanders again leads in online popularity as it has been noted that his “memes are pervasive, popular, and generally positively skewed toward him–making him the Democratic frontrunner, at least according to the meme economy.” You’ve probably seen a screenshot from a Sanders’ campaign video from December 2019 in which he says “I am once again asking for your financial support.” The meme blew up when people started using the captioned image to describe any scenario in which monetary donations are being solicited. Now, it has evolved into a meme for general pleas, where users substitute “financial support” with just about anything.
Besides the numerous Sanders meme pages on Facebook, such as Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash with a nearly 400,000 following, the senator’s personal pages have also surpassed those of other candidates by number of interactions. Sanders has also secured endorsements from influential people with sizable social media followings, like model Emily Ratajkowski (25.7 million Instagram followers), podcaster Joe Rogan (8.8 million Instagram followers), and YouTuber Ethan Klein (2 million Instagram followers). The primaries have proven that the online support has not translated to polling success, however, as young people consistently have lower voter turnout than older generations, but perhaps it will in the future when Gen Z makes up a greater portion of the electorate.
While the internet gives users freedom to take a meme and run with it–for or against a candidate or away from politics completely–the sheer exposure that they give public figures makes a considerable impact on its own. The democratization of these images brings idiosyncratic intersections, connecting politics to pop culture through social media in unexpected ways. In the fashion world, Instagram accounts like @Siduations and @Hey_Reilly appropriate pictures of politicians, royals, and other celebrities, Photoshopping them into various fictional images that often play on luxury branding and name recognition. Many of the images point towards the absurdity of fashion, while at the same time relating it to timely matters like the election or even the current global coronavirus pandemic. A recent post from @Siduations depicts Sanders as the ideal model for Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2017 men’s collection, which featured the fashion house’s name in a similar style to that of Sanders’ own campaign logo (although designer Demna Gvsalia denied that Sanders was a point of inspiration for the collection). These meme-like creations also spoof on the pop cultural appeal of political figures, while bringing a campiness to the whole premise.
When politicians capitalize on this free publicity and strategize how to generate excitement and an online following around their platforms, they might just go viral.END
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createdAt:Wed, 25 Mar 2020 17:33:34 +0000