What are memes? Urban Dictionary calls them “Popular quotes, images, and real people, which are copied, imitated, and spread all over the Internet(s)!”
Interestingly enough, it neglects to mention that those quotes are generally made up, in order to emphasize a humorous or political point that contrasts with or embellishes the image they’re blazoned across.
In one way, memes are perfect for capturing the developments of this past election cycle. Not in the way you might think, though, because what memes are perfect at capturing is the reductive and simplistic way the American electorate loves to engage with politics.
In that sense, they perfectly sum up what was wrong with the 2016 election season.
Take, for example, this meme bashing Hillary Clinton supporters as being stupid for not knowing how to capitalize, this one showing Bernie Sanders as insisting he will pay for education with “Pixie dust”, this one that attests that Hillary voting twice for the Patriot Act shows she doesn’t support privacy, this one contrasting where Clinton and Sanders “were” in the 1960’s, or this one, that, well, throws around terms like socialist and murderer for some reason.
Needless to say, memes and their political variations are some of the most widely shared and popular items on the Internet, and given the increasing number of websites that allow anyone to create them, the sheer number and their variants is only likely to increase.
I was speaking to a friend this week about writing this article, and she took me to task for critiquing memes. She argued that they are made by the already politically informed often as a way to find humor in light of the seriousness of politics, to be shared amongst a peer group as an amusing anecdote commenting on a perceived absurdity.
While this may in part be true, I’m skeptical that is the purpose or origin of the memes I note above. A second issue is that once these memes are created and released onto the Internet, they can be shared, co-opted, and used outside of the control of their creator. In fact, the creation of these memes have second and third order effects. That is, they have consequences and effects beyond our initial intentions when creating them.
This may not seem hugely damaging at first, but when taking into account the way that memes communicate emotions, policy, or political thought, that changes. As Vincent Harris, a Republican political consultant, told NPR, “These memes have a whole lot of resonance with voters, and they are very successful at branding the candidates, mostly in a negative way. And, they are virtually cost-free.” He also noted that, “We are entering a post-pundit era, where people don’t care so much what these talking heads are saying. A lot more is being decided by the online chatter.”
If so, then memes are a problem because they grossly oversimplify well, essentially everything. If the substance of our politics was decided totally by labeling candidates and their supporters as “stupid” or utilizing “pixie dust” to pay for education, then memes would be great. But that’s not the actual substance or implications of our politics. The creation and formulation of policy is complicated and nuanced, neither of which are words the least bit associated with memes. An alternative to memes is a thing called journalism, which maybe we just don’t have the patience or tolerance for today. Regardless of the applicable critiques of the media landscape during election season, most articles use more than 10-20 words when communicating an idea.
It’s also important to keep in mind that with the crowd-driven and unfiltered nature of memes, there is a plethora of misinformation out there. As Libby Nelson at Vox.com reflected on April Fools day, in an article that explored a completely false article about the history of the bathtub that went what was the equivalent of “viral” in 1917:
“Mencken claims he didn’t know this would happen, and that he found the bathtub story patently ridiculous when he wrote it. But just as people today get outraged about stories from The Onion that are meant as satire, somebody always ends up falling for it.
That hasn’t changed. We’re just better at quantifying the phenomenon. A study published in the journal PLOS One recently found that it takes seven times longer to debunk a false rumor on Twitter than to prove a true one.
Mencken was making a point not just about silly rumors or satirical jokes, but about history itself, and how quickly a statement goes from word of mouth to conventional wisdom.”
Memes are constantly shared on Twitter and fall into this same category of a medium for information that can at worst be categorically wrong and at best reductive of much more complicated issues. As we continue to bemoan the state of American politics and democracy, it’s worth thinking about the fact that if we love memes so much, what does that say about us and our preferred engagement with the democratic process?