Pepe the Frog, Nasty Woman, #NeverTrump.
Internet memes, the viral in-jokes of online culture, have emerged as a potent force in the presidential race, serving to build up and tear down candidates.
Brad Kim, the editor of Know Your Meme, a website that dissects the viral phenomenon, has been tracking each political season since 2008, when he was a student at New York University.
He spoke from his office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, about how memes have become a dog whistle of this election cycle, and their impact on Election Day.
Q. When did memes become a force in American politics?
A. The 2008 election was the light-bulb moment. Campaigns were trying to reach out to younger voters on emergent social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster went viral, inspired countless parodies and was an early breakthrough that shed a light on social media’s potential for crowdsourced campaigning.
There were also so-called “single serving” sites like Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle, which really blew up. That was a very simply laid-out website that would display randomly generated non sequiturs that portrayed Barack Obama as your helpful next-door neighbor, like, “Barack Obama warmed up your car for you,” or “Barack Obama left a message on your blog.”
The general message was: Barack Obama is good for you, he is in tune with the social media generation.
Were Republicans able to counter with memes of their own?
In 2008, memes were simply a P.R. nightmare for the Republican Party. Most of them were satires of Sarah Palin. She was one of the first major candidates to be perceived as a loose cannon and as a sound-bite generator that ultimately worked against the party.
A hashtag that really took off was #AccordingtoPalin, which was just a running joke about remarks that she had made that were very questionable, like, “You can see Russia from Alaska.”
So surely the G.O.P. learned its lesson by 2012?
As far as memes go, 2012 was an even bigger nightmare for the Republicans. Obama had a comfortable lead for most of the way, and Occupy Wall Street was a grass-roots movement that really saturated social media and aligned sentiment against rich guys in general.
A lot of memes ended up portraying Mitt Romney as the Sith Lord of America. The “binders full of women” line from the town hall debate was a prime example. Within 24 hours, that gaffe turned into a full-blown meme, mostly in the form of captioned image parodies.
What’s new this year?
From what we’ve observed so far, memes are no longer treated as nuisances, although they still can be. We’ve seen memes play a vital role in crafting a powerful cult of personalities for Bernie Sanders and Donald J. Trump.
Sanders seemed to come out of nowhere this year. Were memes a factor?
If I had to pick one thing that was the most unique this year, it was the idolization of Bernie Sanders through meme caricatures.
Two of the most popular ones were Barnie Sandlers and Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash, two Facebook pages that operated on the same joke, that Bernie was running on a pro-meme platform. People would cut and paste text onto promotional materials, like official Sanders fliers, so it would seem as if Bernie was making insightful comments on the state of memes, as opposed to the state of politics.
Ultimately, they helped provide him an exceptionally large online following, in comparison with his actual delegate count.
What about with Donald Trump?
This year, meme culture has outgrown its longstanding, left-leaning edge. Reddit, for example, has a sub-Reddit page called The_Donald, which is one of the fastest growing pro-Trump communities. There is also 4chan’s /pol/-Politically Incorrect page.
Donald Trump himself has been a major factor. No other candidate in modern U.S. election history has had such an openly antagonistic relationship with the news media and a high level of disregard for Beltway conventions. Memes have been his way to take his message straight to the people.
Which brings us to Pepe the Frog. How did this cartoon frog take off?
Pepe is an internet symbol that has been around for years. He was a character in the comic “Boy’s Club” by Matt Furie, and he used to be known as “Feels Bad Man,” because he looked so sad.
Feels Bad Man frog inspired many spinoffs over the years, but until 2015, he was a symbol of sad-sack, beta-male singledom for users of 4chan. That site is widely described as the “cesspool” of the internet. It is basically a locker room full of a bunch of single dudes commiserating over their social awkwardness.
So how did Pepe become a Trump symbol?
Pepe didn’t become political until Donald Trump endorsed it by retweeting a Trump version of the character, which led to a mass influx of pro-Trump Pepes.
You have to consider social media’s political climate leading up to 2016, which has been heavily marked by the gender war and identity politics. These things led to the emergence of a reactionary movement, namely the alt-right, and Trump was kind of the natural poster boy for that.
Pepe plugged into the ideology of the alt-right because it was a reaction against the people they call “normies.” Pepe had been a symbol of the disenfranchised, social outcasts. It was Trump’s natural audience.
Pretty soon there was a huge influx of racist Pepe memes from 4chan and The_Donald community on Reddit. But the real trigger point that led to mass production of Nazi and other offensive Pepes was after Hillary Clinton released a denouncement of the meme, which is a milestone in meme history.
No meme has ever been denounced by a presidential candidate. In a way, Pepe serves as a social media dog whistle for Trump followers to echo their implicit support of ultraconservative beliefs in public forums without risking the invitation of backlash.
Is there a meme shared by supporters of both major party candidates?
One that has been used by both sides is “This Is Fine” dog. It’s a web comic by K. C. Green, of a dog sitting in a room engulfed in flames, but he says, “This is fine.”
This is how many American voters feel about the state of affairs in this year’s election. They think the world is ending.