Rethinking the “Meme Election”

I have been turning over some ideas about the move to christen 2012 as the “Meme Election.” To some extent, this desire to revisit the 2012 campaign was driven by an Atlantic article by Megan Garber, which places emphasis on the Obama campaign’s deft ability to navigate various social media, an interpretation grounded in Obama’s own willingness to participate in various election-year memes, as well as the lively Obama Tumblr, which allowed the campaign to use a more playful tone. This playfulness is typified by Obama posing with McKayla Maroney, the “Not Impressed” gymnast from the U.S. Olympic team, whose scowl launched one of the more popular memes of the 2012 election.

Garber’s article seems to take for granted that Obama’s campaign was far more successful at using memes than Mitt Romney’s election team, and there is probably some truth to that, although to some extent at least, Obama’s team built upon an existing community of creative class workers who were more likely to support him than Obama. Many of the more popular memes (as Garber defines them), such as Eastwooding and Binders Full of Women (here’s my response), came from outside the campaign itself, as everyday people sought to participate by demonstrating their cleverness or by sharing the creativity of others, often to make a political point. As my somewhat infrequent blog posts show, I’ve been consistently amused by many of these memes and find them to be a fascinating expression of political culture, one that fits neatly with my enjoyment of (almost) all things snarky and satirical. Popular culture (as Henry Jenkins¬† reminded us in his discussions of “fan activism“) can be a powerful tool for conveying a political idea.

But I think this focus on image macros and other forms of visual cleverness may contribute to an incomplete depiction of how the 2012 election functioned. First, in the final days before the election–and even in the immediate aftermath–much of the debate was focused on the practice of interpreting polls. During the days leading up to the election, there were (for example) countless attempts to discredit polling expert Nate Silver, whose predictions turned out to be more or less spot on.¬† There was the “unskewed polls” guy, whose predictions were briefly shared, and certainly conservative fears about Obamacare, gun rights, and Benghazi, among other issues are shared in a viral (or meme-like) fashion. If we take the idea of the meme more broadly to include any “concept” that spreads via the internet, we have to take account for these attempts to circulate ideas, even if many of them are later proven false by fact-checkers (and of course, the critique of fact-checkers itself arguably became a meme). By talking about these issues as “memes,” I’m not ignoring other effects of calculating polling results or other aspects of the campaign, including the use of email and social media to fundraise and target voters (and I would argue that one of the under-reported stories of this year’s election is the intensification of campaigns using “Big Data” to identify and reach out to likely voters). Instead, I think we might benefit from a more nuanced perception of how memes function in the spaces of political and popular culture.

Garber is absolutely right about a number of points. Much of this communication is, as she puts it, “niche [and] networked.” To be sure, I disagree politically with many of my Facebook friends and often encountered image macros that didn’t reflect my political views, but the Obama Tumblr and other social media tools tended to attract participants who shared political views. She also points out the idea that we have reached the era of the “permanent campaign” (if we weren’t there already), one that involves an active, ongoing participatory political culture, one that isn’t necessarily tied to a specific political candidate, even if Obama benefited tremendously from social media. Much of that material will be frustrating, and memes can spread false information almost as quickly as it can spread truthful information. It can be profoundly clever and can dramatically change our perception of public figures (or at least reinforce emergent views of those figures). Perhaps rather than thinking about memes in terms of campaigns, we should understand them as part of an ongoing–often fraught–political conversation.

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