It seems no breaking political news story is complete without a Buzzfeed post full of gifs and pop culture parallels. Here are some of my personal favorites: government shutdown compared to Arrested Development, government shut down compared to Mean Girls, and the Syria situation, explained by The Hills. The rates at which these articles were shared on social media were huge (the Mean Girls articles has been viewed over one million times since October 1). Buzzfeed is known for its constant infusion of gifs, sarcasm and numbered lists. They take on everything from Miley Cyrus’ music videos to the Syrian conflict. So how is this new, and hugely popular, style of political “reporting” affecting American voters?
In an article entitled “The Meme Election” the effects of this pervasive meme culture are analyzed. Seconds after Romney referenced his “Binders Full of Women” and Clint Eastwood yelled at a chair, there was already a meme preserving the moment. In fact, most of the major gaffes of the 2012 general election have been summed up in one glorious meme.
With memes entering the mainstream culture and permeating the news cycle, it’s time to ask what their role in politics and elections are. Are they merely for entertainment? Or is this a new form of political discourse? I doubt Habermas would find Buzzfeed’s explanation of the government shutdown to be a sound democratic practice. However, in this digital age where political candidates are finding it increasingly difficult to break through the clutter of information and reach people, could viral memes help to bridge the gap? Another important question is, why do certain political memes have staying power and others do not?
In “The Meme Election” Kate Miltner and Whitney Phillips discussed why Romney’s Binders Full of Women meme stuck around so much longer than other memes, like those poking fun at Clint Eastwood and the chair. Miltner feels that audience agency plays a large role in whether a meme remains popular. This depends on if the core issue really speaks to people. In Eastwood’s case, his bizarre antics equated to little more than a “WTF” reaction from the internet and comparisons to Grandpa Simpson. Romney’s Binders Full of Women comment had greater traction because it dealt with issues of gender equality. Miltner states ” [this] is where I think memes can contribute to meaningful political discourse—they can act as springboards for deeper analysis and debate about important topics.” She also adds “it’s easier to bring about awareness of political issues through humor than it is by being preachy.” So the next question is: are memes used in this substantive way?
In two different studies on user-generated content and its relation to political behavior and knowledge, it was found that citizen journalism (including the creation of viral memes) does in fact increase political participation, but not political knowledge. In Kaufhold’s article, the research shows that consumption of citizen journalism leads to offline participation like voting and donating money, as well as a better understanding of politics. Ostman’s article found the same thing, political participation both online and offline are correlated with user-generated content involvement, though UGC was negatively related to political knowledge.
So where does this leave meme culture? Can it be written off as useless clicktivism? Or is it a legitimate contribution to political discourse? I lean toward the latter. Though people who consume traditional media may be have more political knowledge, citizen journalism and meme culture have the power to involve people would who otherwise be unlikely to participate in political discussions. Memes have turned political events into need-to-know cultural knowledge. If your twitter is exploding with #NSAPickUpLines and Ted Cruz memes, you are likely to investigate and even participate yourself, and there’s value in that.
Ostman, Johan. “Information, Expression, Participation: How Involvement in User- Generated Content Relates to Democratic Engagement among Young People.” New Media & Society 14.6 (2012): 1004-021. Sage Journals. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.
Kaufhold, K., S. Valenzuela, and H.G. De Zuniga. “CITIZEN JOURNALISM AND DEMOCRACY: HOW USER-GENERATED NEWS USE RELATES TO POLITICAL KNOWLEDGE AND PARTICIPATION.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 87.3-4 (2010): 515-29. Sage Journals. Web. 9 Oct. 2013.