Memes Are Shaping Elections And No One Is Immune From Them

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Tuesday, Mar 12, 2024 - 11:20 AM

Authored by Austin Alonzo via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

Moments after more than 100 million Americans finished watching the Super Bowl, a post on President Joe Biden’s personal X account showed an image of him smiling, while his eyes emanated red beams. The Feb. 11 post read, “Just like we drew it up.”

(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Getty Images, Shutterstock)

For the uninitiated, the message seems confusing at best and scary at worst. But the picture wasn’t for them. It was designed for the online supporters and detractors of President Biden, who are already well aware of the so-called Dark Brandon meme.

Dark Brandon is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of political memes that are subtly shaping the thoughts and perceptions of millions of voters in 2024.

In practice, an internet meme is any image, phrase, video, or other electronic material that people enjoy replicating, sharing, or reinterpreting to share with others.

“If you have a very, very potent meme that ruins a politician’s reputation enough, that could potentially sway an election,” said Don Caldwell, the general manager and editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins originally coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.”

There, Mr. Dawkins said a meme is any thing or behavior humans or other animals want to copy. An influential idea, he postulated, continues to live in human minds through the power of memetic cultural transmission.

Author and video blogger Tarl Warwick said he, too, believes memes are as old as human history.

Mr. Warwick, who’s been active in internet culture since 2008 and wrote a book on memes: “Occult Memetics: Reality Manipulation.

The book centers on what some refer to as “meme magic,” he told The Epoch Times.

This “magic,” Mr. Warwick says, is the ability of Internet users to create, remix, and share seemingly irreverent content in a way that changes the way people think, act, or speak.

Memes are irreducible, he said. They take an abstract concept and make it easy to understand. When human society was largely illiterate, he said, people used universally understood painted or carved pictures to communicate ideas on a massive scale.

Pamela Rutledge, director of research organization Media Psychology Research Center, said memes are a potent form of communication because they are both social and visual.

Humans are inherently social animals, Ms. Rutledge told The Epoch Times, and they feel rewarded when they’re included. It’s nice to be in the know. In prehistory, it was necessary for survival.

Furthermore, pictures are processed by the brain much quicker than text, Ms. Rutledge said. When the two are juxtaposed, an image influences how viewers interpret the text.

Political memes exploit the human mind by creating a sensory rather than a critical response. Moreover, they link pieces of information together to take advantage of the so-called availability heuristic—a mental shortcut in which humans gravitate toward whatever is most accessible in their minds.

For example, a meme of President Biden tripping while climbing the stairs of Air Force One creates a lasting mental image of the executive as a doddering 81-year-old man.

President Joe Biden trips while boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on March 19, 2021. (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

“All of these little memes can really influence how people experience someone, whether it’s true or not,” Ms. Rutledge said. “Because these memes have created this image, and this image has now been repeated and is in our brains, it then frames the information that we receive next.”

Feels Right

The power of a meme lies in its simplicity. In politics, memes can circumvent the multimillion-dollar world of consulting and advertising.

Mr. Warwick, who’s made political memes and describes himself as a “general in the meme war,” said political candidates pay communications firms to craft a message they hope will catch on with voters. Meme makers do it in their spare time.

“The powers that be will pay a million dollars for a focus group to develop a 30-second video,” Mr. Warwick said. “Then there are those of us who open MS Paint.”

Mr. Warwick went on to say he and many others like him who work either anonymously, under a nom de guerre, or with their real names see themselves as engaged in a battle between the people and the powerful.

We’re doing it ourselves, often not for any particular central goal or anything,” Mr. Warwick said. He said most meme-makers remain unpaid or are “paid a pittance.”

Because memes utilize mental shortcuts like the availability heuristic and confirmation bias—the tendency to believe information that reinforces existing beliefs—not every single one needs to hit home; especially as they’re relatively easy to make. Ms. Rutledge said just a handful of viral memes can go a long way toward crafting mental frames and influencing people’s political outlook.

“We are looking for something that feels right,” Ms. Rutledge said. “So memes are very powerful in the fact that they condense information so much that they can skip lines of logic.”

Mr. Caldwell said the rapid rise and spread of political memes is a sign that social media is the new town square.

“Everybody finally recognized that social media [is] now the battlefield where political wars are waged,” Mr. Caldwell said. “Memes are ... one of the more sophisticated and effective weapons that can be used.”

Most importantly, people who make memes have fun doing it.

(Top) Supporters of former President Donald Trump have their photo taken in front of a poster of his mugshot and a photo of former President Ronald Reagan, outside a rally in Las Vegas on Jan. 27, 2024. (Bottom) An editor looks at a monitor showing different memes. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images, Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

“If they’re entertained or they believe, erroneously or truthfully, that ... they’re changing something within socio-politics, that’s an incentive,” Mr. Warwick said.

“If you can get people to do work, but they’re being entertained at the same time ... it’s not work at all.”

That Escalated Quickly

The history of a political meme predates the Internet, according to Mr. Caldwell. He defines political memes as any viral cultural phenomenon that touches on the world of politics.

Know Your Meme is the world’s largest online database of memes, and includes their origins as well as most popular iterations. It is part of Literally Media Ltd., which owns humor sites like Cracked and eBaum’s World.

In American history, Mr. Caldwell said political cartoons were the first kind of political meme. Everything began to change with the arrival of the Internet and the smartphone.

Mr. Caldwell, who’s been immersed in the meme world for at least 13 years, told The Epoch Times digital political memes started as funny viral moments. However, they turned more mean-spirited and are now targeted at putting down one group or person while lifting up another.

The first big modern political meme was the so-called Dean Scream. It began when Democratic Party presidential candidate Howard Dean enthusiastically yelled at his supporters after coming up short in the party’s 2004 Iowa Caucus. That moment effectively ended the former Vermont governor’s political career.

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