In a time of uncertainty, unrest, and political debates, one thing is certain. No, it's not death and taxes. You know what it is. It's memes.
Memes, of course, were initially created as a way of using a funny image and some text to make us, the internet, laugh. But this is 2020. Yes, memes are still fun images that make us laugh. However, they've also become tools of debate. When the eyes of the world are watching events like the 2016 election, and the current 2020 election, these images transcend just a clever play on words or a topical joke. Now they, too, are a way of spreading a message. Are they even more effective than traditional media?
That's for you to decide.
We've all done it. We're watching a movie, or a news story, and a particularly stand-out moment takes place. "That's gonna be a meme!" we say. "I'm callin' it!"
In a political atmosphere fraught with particularly stand-out moments, meme makers of the world can have a field day, every day.
No matter your politics, if you were watching President Trump's State of the Union speech, you smelled a meme coming from a mile away when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi decided to rip up a transcript of his speech on national television.
Amidst such a charged moment, you knew: Everyone was going to be talking about this. Yep, it was gonna be a meme. Some were perfectly neutral, tongue-in-cheek:
And others, of course, were more politically charged.
And that's where memes begin to change. Once harmless messengers of a few chuckles, in the context of a political election, they turn into a weaponized medium for either side. In the incredibly eloquent words of Elon Musk: "Generally, the view that I've had on Twitter is if you're on Twitter, you're in, like, the meme - you're in meme war land. If you're on Twitter, you're in the arena. And so, essentially, if you attack me, it is therefore OK for me to attack back."
Back in the early 2000s, when memes were only barely emerging (can you imagine?), politicians were less susceptible to politically charged mockery. Typically, memes acted as just mockery in general. No matter what side of the political spectrum a person fell on, they seemed to be able to agree that Bushisms were an entertaining form of memery.
Instead of pointing fingers and trying to get a point across about how they felt about George Bush, memes mostly highlighted amusing gaffs. There was enjoyment to be had here, in the reminiscent clip-arty style of the 2000s.
And we all can't forget the beautiful bromance chapter that came out of the Obama presidency.
It was also widely agreed, no matter your politics, that this was a lovely chapter in the meme history book. Of course, throughout the existence of memes, there have always been those with agendas behind them. There was always a message to be had. But in the early days of memes coinciding with politics, their full potential had yet to be realized.
Memes. According to a evolutionary theory proposed in 1976, "a meme is passed to the imitator, similar to the way blue eyes are passed from parents to children through genes."
Enter the 2016 election. We'll all have this adoption of memes and politics forever seared into our minds:
Where presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton urged her potential voters to "Pokémon Go to the polls," hosting her event at a Pokéstop to lure out voters much like you might lure out a Pokémon itself. Whether this attempt caught 'em all or not, it was a sign of the times: Politicians were realizing that memes had power.
Then, in a post that can only be described by saying, "Wow, 2016 and onward is weird," Trump fired back with a video on Facebook:
It's safe to say that after all this, memes were now fully embedded into the fabric of American politics. No longer were they just a young politicians game. They were everyone's game, whether they were viewed as just an older age demographic trying to connect with young voters, or actual effective means to garner support.
Can memes really influence the way that we see an election?
If anything proves that many people would answer this question with a resounding "Yes," it's Mike Bloomberg's presidential campaign.
Billionaire businessman Bloomberg was able to afford making some less traditional campaign choices, and see where the ball landed. Bloomberg teamed up with Jerry Media, a wildly popular, yet controversial, juggernaut of social media. This was the marketing team behind Fyre Festival, after all. No matter your feelings on that, the company has control over many heavy-hitting social media accounts.
The resulting content was full of self-depreciating humor, mixed with an attempt to promote Bloomberg's alleged "coolness."
Yes, it is 2020, and this is really happening. Although Bloomberg has ended his presidential campaign, perhaps his last-minute approach might have performed differently in the hands of a carefully thought-out marketing strategy. Memes, in the hands of the presidential election, could only grow in power.
Maybe political hopefuls have been paying attention to a little bit of psychology. Research shows that seeing a similar statement over and over makes it more believable. Pairing it with a picture only increases that effect. "The repetition of statements works even from unreliable sources, that is even if the person making the statement isn’t trustworthy. This happens because people generally forget the source, but remember the information," writes Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.
With that in mind, politicians obviously don't have to be the ones behind the creation of their own memes. When you're in politics, memes are naturally bound to happen.
In fact, most of our most prominent politicians today have particularly memeable personalities. Candidates like Bloomberg are already trying to capitalize on it. Is this what's next in politics?
If 2020 is proving anything, it's that memes rule the internet. And now, they're even ruling politics. Memes - where will they go next?