Although biologist Richard Dawkins originally coined the term in 1976, the rise of the “meme” as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon. Initially referencing the spread of cultural contributions and ideas in a similar pattern to that of individual genes within genetic pools, the common use of the word “meme” now references user-generated viral images and text within a unique Internet subculture.
The Democratic and Republican parties still haven’t nominated presidential candidates, but today’s political discussion — especially among young people on social media — is chock-full of memes.
For example, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders seem to generate many of these memes, often juxtaposing Sanders alongside former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and including comical jabs at her expense. This is no surprise, as young people both overwhelming support Sanders and frequently use social media.
What I find interesting and notable about the creation of political memes is their contagious and organic nature. Most memes aren’t something a centralized political campaign generates as a piece of propaganda. Instead, it’s social media users who make memes for their comedic and satirical value.
The observations in memes are still an important part of political discourse, however. Similar to how punchy late-night shows often eclipse traditional political news commentary for young people, memes are proliferating as a form of political discussion.
Nevertheless, it will take deftness and connectedness to youth for political campaigns to artificially harness memes to their advantage. In fact, a lot of the memes actually lampoon Clinton’s inability to connect with young people. A recent example was the #imnotkiddingmaddi fiasco, in which a seemingly desperate email Clinton’s campaign sent out to voters spawned a wide variety of critical commentary.
I imagine that if many of the Republican candidates tried to capture more of the youth vote via memes, they would fare even worse than Democrats.
The difficulty of harnessing memes hints at their organic and contagious nature. In contrast to so many other forms of advertising, such as campaign commercials, we as consumers are willing spread memes to each other. Their self-replicating nature allows them to diffuse opinions through society in a more unobtrusive way than other forms of media.
As I recall, memes weren’t nearly as refined or common during the 2012 election as they are today. It will be interesting to see whether any candidates try to capitalize on them. We should also study how seeing political memes shapes voting behavior.
If you want a barometer for youth opinion (at least among social media users), keep your eyes on the memes. Granted, Internet subculture by no means determines the result of an election, but it can affect campaign strategies and offer insight into the future of politics in our country.
Jasper Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]