The Memery Behind Election Campaigns

Jul 28, 2019 | 0 comments

(originally published on socialstrategist.net – by Sarah Marilyn) You can’t manufacture a meme campaign – many brands and political hopefuls have tried. Andrew Yang is the only one to really achieve a modicum of success doing so. He paid for a handful of internet memers to generate some content for his campaign, and drum up some hype – with mixed results. He could be forgiven for such a rookie move because in the last two elections, memes were decidedly impactful. If your strategy is to come into the race strong, launching with some memes can seem smart, based on what we’ve seen in the past.

So, is it a Joke, or Not?

His manufactured meme movement did make a small splash, even though he was early to the Democratic primaries and attempted the paid-meme campaign coming right out of the gate – no warm-up. If you think that paying someone to make a meme is the same as making a real meme, you might miss the fact that memes actually require many layers of context. It’s not like an influencer marketing campaign or sponsored content. If no one has heard of you, there isn’t much context for a meme. Unless the forced not-having-heard of you becomes a meme, that is. It’s like making up a word that nobody has heard before, and expecting everyone to understand the meaning with no context. Most people will just ignore the information, and nobodyis going to go – ah-ha! Contrast this with the viral Marianne Williamson meme movement #OrbGang, which sprung up completely unconnected to her campaign, spontaneously after her first debate performance. There were moments during the debate that were notorious, and there were also years and years of Marianne Tweet backlogs to comb through to give the memes the requisite layers of context. Presently, the Twittersphere hosts both #YangGang and #OrbGang – and at this time Andrew Yang does have some authentic memers dedicated to his cause. Outsiders can try and parse the irony levels of each movement, but ultimately whether people support the “$1000/month basic income” or “harnessing love for political purposes” ironically or not is actually tertiary. Focusing on measuring the irony is both a lost cause and misses the point. Nobody asked whether the Pepe memes of the Trump campaign were serious or not. Like orbs and YangGang, people were inclined to write it off as a joke that kind of went over their heads. At that time we had little awareness of the power and importance of memes in elections. Now, we are more aware of the potential of a viral meme phenomenon, but still possess few clues about how to weigh and assess the layers of ironic context in meme movements. Joshua Citarella, an independent academic, is most lucid in summing up our 2016 hindsight on the matter: “the Pepe-style trolls of the Alt-right made it clear that irony had never been apolitical. Ironic propaganda functions the same as real propaganda. Ironic voting is just voting.”

The Story of Subversive Meme Operatives

The two biggest historical examples of political meme operative movements are the hacker collective Anonymous and the alt-right Pepe the frog movements. Both had similar beginnings, but the Pepe movement’s solid traction on social media as well as its successful result during the 2016 election allowed us to draw some important conclusions about how this phenomenon works. The first new conclusion was that it actually does work. #YangGang was the next notable attempt at replicating the results. Because they launched a paid-meme campaign with little context, it was an open invitation for eager meme-actors to fill in some context of their own. Yang’s paid-meme campaign quickly attracted some of the notorious alt-right and crypto-white supremacists on social media. These trolls are quite vigilant, after getting a taste of the limelight in 2016, in private forums about keeping track of trending meme movements to co-opt with their messaging. Yang (hopefully unwittingly) opened the door wide open for them to fill in their own context into his movement. The ideological operatives quickly appropriated segments of his message to disseminate among their groups and on new meme pages of their own, to deliberately attempt to co-opt the Yang campaign messaging. To be clear, few of these users actually believe they will co-opt an entire movement (although they did have a field day with the Trump campaign). They know that their views are fringe, and so are eager to disseminate their ideas subversively in publicly palatable formats like memes, which most people engage with without much intellectual rigor and syndicate widely. Their goal is simply push their views out into the light, so that they can step out of the shadows. Injecting some symbolism here and there, twisting quotes towards their “blood and soil” agenda…more than just propagandistic experimentation, it is actually game-ified by ‘like’ buttons, shares, and retweets – they can view their Facebook analytics and track which memes work the most subversively, and watch the engagements roll in. In an age where likes and shares are addicting, there is a built-in incentive for viral meme propagandizing or “trolling”. Like the bully who doesn’t mind being bad to other kids on the playground, so long as they get the attention they crave – it doesn’t really matter how high or low-quality a meme is, so long as it gets the engagements. Social media platforms are a playground for these people. Social media platforms right now are a playground for everyone, actually. Social media is popularly viewed as a non-adult thing, and it is not policed by anyone but the platforms themselves. Nobody is held accountable for their own actions on social media, so victims of cyber-bullying or harassment have two choices:
  1. report to a platform admin – who, unlike school playground admins, have no legal responsibility to treat the situation with due consideration.
  2. handle it themselves – doxx the person, find out where they work, and demand that their employer be the supervising adult and mediate this behavior – because they are the only responsive and locate-able authority that will do anything.
Some people will end up standing up to the cyberbullies, and some just log off and kill themselves. Whether its cyberbullies or political operatives, we apparently still don’t take social media seriously enough to change the status quo.

Corrective Action and Preparedness

Looking at the profiles of many troll meme accounts, they generally all follow the standard white supremacist and crusader pages, and have even dipped toes into a few of the presidential campaigns this election – all Democratic candidates – interestingly. There are subsets of these alt-right groups that are actually very upset with Trump, because they view his support of Israel as a betrayal for sending American resources to a Jewish country as aid. The most popular Democratic candidates among these trolls are Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, and now Marianne Williamson. The rise of alt-right trolls in these movements happens to coincide with growing Libertarian interest in the candidates. With #YangGang, they were able to be most successful – not only is Andrew Yang rising in the polls (albeit slowly), there is now even a Yangistan, an analog to the famous alt-right Pepe kekistan territory. The right wasted no time taking the meme bait, and by all appearances they are actually successfully replicating their activities of 2016, if Andrew Yang’s rise continues. It remains to be seen whether the Yang campaign will be able to prevent their memes from being associated in mainstream consciousness with the alt-right, given the apparent lack of meme culture foresight going in. High-profile political candidates of the future will have to be more prepared for this type of activity. The Trump campaign openly welcomed the Pepe memes, and assisted in syndicating the memes to a wider audience – much like Marianne is doing with the orbgang memes she finds. It’s a strong way to handle the memery behind elections, and in my opinion, the best way. Any meme movement that springs up around your brand should be harmonious and empower your brand – otherwise you will simply lose control over your brand. You cannot control the memes made about your brand any more than you can control what people say about your brand. But you can control the discourse. The Trump campaign had no bones about cozying up to the white supremacist ideologues in the meme-sphere, and it is doubtful that the Marianne campaign will attempt to drum up white supremacist support in the same way. It remains to be seen, as with the Yang campaign, what becomes of the memery behind their campaigns, and what steps will be taken. I would predict, actually, that the Marianne campaign will do as much to shut down any alt-right meme ideological machinery as the Bernie campaign did – provided they are aware and alert to it. It will be interesting to see whether one of them ends up accidentally sharing one of the crypto-white supremacist memes floating around their campaign, unaware of the subversive symbolism or coded language these people use. How the operatives are energized by a success of that nature, and how they react to the candidate’s handling of the situation, will also be interesting to study. This is the political frontier on social media. It would be an ultimate satisfaction for these people whose goal is to be as cryptic and subversive as possible, to penetrate the mainstream consciousness with their ideology to any extent. The more they are successful in this, the more they can come out of the shadows in public life – the radical rise in white supremacist activity and violence after the Trump campaign being the ultimate indicator of off-social-media implications. When you have a young base that is highly aware, like Bernie does, you are better prepared to meet dangers like this despite being largely ignorant of memery. If there is not a strong base of people fluent in memery attached to the campaign, either people like Andrew Yang or Williamson must be personally very aware, or they risk being the target of these semi-ironic, subversive troll political operatives – who, thanks to 2016, have a successful blueprint for their operations. After the Trump campaign, and seeing how the 2020 election is opening up, we can figure at least one thing out – that it’s quite risky to wage a major political campaign in this day and age without awareness of the memery behind elections or internet culture.

The Right Can Meme – But So Can Everyone Else, Now

Why do alt-right ideologues work so heavily within meme culture? They even have a slogan, “the left can’t meme”, and take pride in their ability to meme effectively. According to most scholars and activists, the art and science of political memery has been harnessed most effectively by conservative organizations. Why is that? Social media and mobile technologies that offer a “direct-to-consumer” political experience circumvent traditional norms that exist in public discourse. Silos of algorithmic echo chambers allow toxic cultures to germinate where they otherwise wouldn’t in geographic society. Things that would never be said on TV or in town halls can be said in exclusive meme content groups. This makes it one of the few opportunities that fringe groups have to portray themselves as something other than fringe. There are extreme left segments of social media too – and if you dig in, you’ll find the memes. This may be a personal bias, but the memes on the left are actually better – however, Pepe is a very low bar to meet. While the extreme left has been systematically targeted and exterminated by law enforcement in this country for decades, the extreme right was only emboldened. They have the Tea Party, Roger Stone-esque thinktanks, Klan members policing our streets with guns and uniforms, and a man on TV sharing their memes and speaking their dogwhistles out to the entire world. Across America, non-whites were being shot at gas stations, harassed in grocery stores, and anybody who dared to say anything was drowned out by chants of “build the wall – send them back”. The “silent majority” was roused and raising their voices. Movements like the Marianne campaign have similar synergies with a silent majority – and the orbs are our first clue. Marianne said nothing about orbs, but orbs are the object because the orbs represent individual and collective power, unity with one-ness within and without. It hearkens to an all-encompassing mystical power. It tapped into a mythos as much as the Trump campaign did. This is from the young people drawn to her campaign. The old people drawn to her campaign have an analogous draw – they feel that they are also a silent majority – the silent majority of all religious and spiritual people who feel that their spiritual life has been forcibly separated from their political life for far too long. They too, are rallying around a “mystical” one-ness that feels more and more righteous as more people keep saying, “me, too”. The Trump campaign roused together people who wanted to get the politicians out of politics and the Other out of America. Marianne has realized that what we really wanted, was to get our morals back in to our politics. And that was the power behind the alt-right political memers who were so successful in the last election – they didn’t rally around getting certain people out, they do everything they do to move their morals in. That was the deeper moving force and potency.
Is OrbGang an analog to the Pepe memes of Trump’s campaign, as Reason magazine argues? In a way, I suppose you could say that. They were both organic movements that began outside the scope of the official campaigns. While OrbGang has ironic under/over-tones, most of them are sincere in their belief that amplifying Marianne’s voice in the elections is the primary goal of the meme movement. The Anonymous and Pepe movements were centered around trolling activities, having a genesis on 4Chan, and experienced major diminishing when their culture tried to shift to serious applications. Now that the memery behind elections is officially mainstream, we can see the rise of things like the Orb movement from more mainstream sources, like Facebook and Twitter, instead of dark corners like 4Chan. Additionally, the members rally around to actual causes of the campaign. For instance, when Marianne asked her followers to donate to Senator Mike Gravel’s campaign to keep him in the debates. These spontaneous meme groups rallied and made sure he got enough donations to qualify – notably, this was happening a mere week after the spontaneous forming of the groups. The Marianne campaign did not have to apprehend, assess, and act in order to get this outcome from the group activity, it was just endemic to the meme culture in some way. The Pepe groups around this time were not only without any sort of guiding goals or principles whatsoever, they were still deep in 4Chan sipping Mountain Dew, scribbling grotesque portrayals of feminists into Microsoft Paint while using sexual slang like ‘cuck’ to express themselves. They are both meme-based election movements, which is notable – but that’s where the similarities end. We need to not just be talking about the broad implications of memery behind election campaigns, but the specific iterations of this new technology and discourse, and their unique characteristics. We need to be able to forecast, and prepare. We need to not be caught so unawares that a small group of pre-teens can effectively hijack our political discourse, simply because they have a technology or language that we do not understand. We saw the end of ‘politics as usual’ with the Trump campaign, in many ways. There were many confounding mechanics at play in the 2016 election, but what happened in meme-space deliberately shifted the needle. There’s no denying their political force and role in our political discourse. It will be interesting to see how the political establishment evolves to meet it – at present, it appears that only the political outsider candidates have a real grasp on the situation.


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