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Memes and their Impact on Politics: A Sample Political Science Essay

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So, what exactly is a meme? A meme an image, generally posted on the Internet, that portrays a humorous idea relevant to a culture. The image can be in the form of a picture, video or text. Often the subject of the meme resonates with those who view it and the image is then shared with others who in turn spread the image virally either nationally or globally. Memes are transmitted through a variety of media, such as the textual media our writers use when providing writing services. They're also commonly transmitted through social media networks, blogs, news sources, and email.

Memes: A definition

The term meme has been attributed to Richard Dawkins, a British author, evolutionary biologist and ethologist, in his book The Selfish Gene (Jordan). He likened the word meme to the concept of the gene, in that a meme was its behavioral equivalent. Like a gene, a meme represents a cultural unit which is replicated perfectly or imperfectly.

The meme can start as one idea, be shared, be slightly modified by the recipient, and then shared again. In the end, a meme about a funny concept, like Donald Trump’s hair, could start off as one meme, make its way across a college campus, then take on a new form as it travels to students’ homes and other communities over the Internet. The original meme of Donald Trump’s hair could turn into a meme about his hair and his roving eye, or moving out of the country if he's elected president. The bad hair day meme might have been funny, but the bad hair day meme that also shows Trump’s roving eye might be perceived as even funnier and transmit across the Internet faster and further.

This process demonstrates Dawkins’ framework for the concept of cultural evolution relative to memes, in the same manner that biological evolution is based on genes. Richard Semon, a little known biologist, published a book on the concept that was quite similar to the concepts expressed by Dawkins. Dawkins distinguishes Internet memes as being somewhat of a mutation of the original concept (Dawkins).  

A form of political expression

In more recent years, young political enthusiasts have made use of social media networks to express themselves and become a part of the political process in a manner that is humorous, entertaining, viral and in some instances motivated by political purpose (Axelrod).

2016 presidential election meme timeline Source: NS
The 2016 Presidential Election may be the most memorable election in modern US history. See how it was chronicled in this series of political internet memes below.
June 14, 2015 - Jeb!Jeb Bush uses ! in presidential campaign logo.
June 29, 2015 - Trump your catDonald Trump's signature hairstyle placed on cat.
December 15, 2015 - Ted Cruz is the Zodiac KillerTed Cruz's campaign logo edited to read True Zodiac.
January 28, 2016 - Bernie or HillaryBernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton compared on mock political issue about wolves.
March 1, 2016 - Chris Christie's faceChris Christie has tense facial expression as he stands behind Trump during speech.
March 25, 2016 - Birdie SandersImage of Bernie Sanders depicted as bird.
June 9, 2016 - Delete your accountHillary Clinton tweets for Donald Trump to delete Twitter account.
July 28, 2016 - The Clintons love balloonsHillary Clinton is agape as she looks up at balloons falling during Democratic National Convention.
September 26, 2016 - Trump snifflesA collage of Twitter accounts ostensibly owned by Donald Trump's recurring sniffles.

For example, a recent meme that has emerged is the Bernie or Hillary? meme. The meme has the look of a political campaign poster, but it's really a farce. Under the title Bernie or Hillary? the meme usually says: Be informed. Compare them on the issues that matter. The issue offered is variable, and is selected for its potential humor level. For example: Sleeping. Under the Bernie Sanders picture it says: [chugging vodka Red Bull] "I'll sleep when I'm dead!" Under the portrait of Hillary Clinton: [plugging self into wall outlet] "Robots do not need to sleep." The meme is generally used in support of Bernie Sanders, where Clinton is the butt of the joke (Axelrod).

How voters are influenced

Several of the major online magazines, like the Boston Globe, Salon, and Buzzfeed have stated that political memes are trending toward sexism, suggesting that women are “something to be mocked and disrespected” (Axelrod). The problem with this is that memes often reinforce an aspect of the candidates image (wrong or right), and could influence those who view it; as such, they have the power to influence individuals who do not invest time and energy in assessing the candidates on a deep level, and it can represent social proof to some (Axelrod).

As an example of the potential for memes to alter how candidates are perceived, a meme made popular in the 2016 Primaries is one that declared that Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer (Axelrod). The meme went viral utilizing the hashtag #ZodiacTed. The meme addresses Cruz’s personal demeanor and has actually been used to sell t-shirts labeled “Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer” where the proceeds were donated to support abortion services (Axelrod). An obvious effort at demented humor, the meme has been responsible for manipulating voters opinions. A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling indicates that 40 percent of the electorate in Florida stated they were influenced by the meme and were either sure or at least influenced regarding the question of whether or not Cruz was actually the Zodiac Killer (which is also a very sad commentary on voters and voter influence). Ten percent of respondents indicated that they actually thought that Ted was the Zodiac Killer (Axelrod).

The role of memes in social media

Memes have probably become an inescapable factor in elections from this point forward. In fact, the existence of memes matches the circus like atmosphere of the Republican Primaries. Perhaps the reason that Trump was doing so well is based on his ability to serve the entertainment needs of the voters, a concept he was more familiar with than his opponents.

Young votes are especially susceptible to memes and their influence on politics. Since young voters spend most of their time on social media, they may not get the more well-rounded information they would normally get from traditional news sources (Axelrod). They might not spend the time needed to gather no-biased, non-opinion based political information. The fact that anyone believes Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer is proof that although meme may make us belly laugh, and make our day, some memes are actually having a negative impact on the electorate and on an issue as important as the next President. The idea that people actually believe the memes is simply put, scary (Axelrod).

Are memes bad politics?

Social media networks have provided a means of distributing ideas on a quick and grand scale (Bartlett). As a result, things that would have little impact before, have major impact now when they strike a chord. One individual may have over 200 friends on Facebook. If they share information with their friends, and those 200 friends share information with their friends, the data can go worldwide in a matter of hours. During the 2012 U. S. presidential campaign town hall forum, Mitt Romney, in an attempt to answer a question posed about inequality for women and fair play issues, responded by saying that in an effort to hire more women, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women” (Parker). The “binders full of women,” remark sound quite peculiar to most, but within a matter of hours, Romney was mocked on Twitter and other networks with memes galore. What may have been seen as just a gaffe years before, became a global political embarrassment (Bartlett).

Bernie Sanders seems to be leading in the meme race (Paul). A meme representing the time a little bird landed on his podium during a campaign stop, is still a big favorite on the popular Electmeme.com site, a website that monitors political meme trends and provides its members the ability to upvote their favorites into the number one spot. Despite Sanders’ distinctive lead in the meme department, it does not seem that the same level of popularity has translated into votes in his favor. Yet some candidates have been effected by memes enough that they have felt the need to respond to consistent representations (Paul). In the case of Hillary Clinton, an issue that has followed her during her campaign is the idea of pandering. Particularly in response to perceived pandering to Hispanics through an abuela post, where she was accused of “Hispandering” and in response to a Rosa Parks type logo. But Clinton is trying to let these things roll off her back, and was found laughing at the joke (Paul). Hillary Clinton's political career will likely endure many more memes before November 2016 rolls around.

Role in global politics

Political memes are not limited to the U. S. political theatre of events (Trabesso). They exist worldwide and have even been reflective of the political turmoil that surrounds Brazil’s suspended President Dilma Rousseff’s impending impeachment trial. Rousseff was recently suspended from her position as President of Brazil due to, according to her statement, a conspiracy led by those who would have been the focus of a probe into mass corruption (Chabba, “Brazil Impeachment”). Recording has emerged that link numerous persons involved in spearheading her impeachment trial to an attempt to limit the graft investigation. Rousseff’s troubles have garnered a lot of humorous posts and commentary on social media. Consequently, a barrage of memes have emerged, sparking the conversation about the part political memes play in the democratic process in Brazil (Trabesso). Some have posited that memes address the frustrations of many and also help to make positive and negatively perceived policy more digestible, despite the shallow nature of the debate. Politicians are placed under the “lens of popular culture and cast as Hollywood heroes and villains (mostly villains, in Rousseff’s case)” (Trabesso). Youth, the primary fixtures on social media networks, miss the deeper message when their concept of politics is reduced to memes shared through a news feed. Gigi Trabasso, a journalist for Affinity Magazine had this to say: 

Social media has been the main source of information regarding Brazil’s political state, not television outlets. Following the natural order, the young adult, teen population leads social media and, predominant on every culture, memes. For many, memes are currently the main (sometimes only) source of political information and updates on the nation’s political, economic, and social crisis. Now, one might assure that memes, the most recent form of comedy and humor, would be the greatest way to deal with such tragic times. It is true that Brazilians always seem to find a joke to crack, the silver lining, but once the topic at hand is a corrupt government, memes are not enough. The problem the country has encountered among its teenagers is poor interpretation an laziness. Through memes, one image becomes the representation of a political ideology, one nickname defines a politician, and no one is efficient enough to investigate the nature behind said jokes. (as cited in Trabesso)

Humorous, but helpful

Political memes are not always the basis of immature or uninformed understanding of the issues. In fact, memes can help people understand issues that are primarily complex and likely not to be understood generally, anyway. So Americans and the Brits need not fret that they are the only society dealing with the grand dichotomy between style and substance (“Political Memes”). Political memes are here to stay and will continue to be a humorous or offensive (depending on your point of view) part of the fabric of bureaucratic debate in all major national contexts. Even the freelance writers at Ultius have been known to reference memes in formal research papers. As with many aspects of life that have changed due to the existence of the speed and viral nature of the Internet - where instead of calling people to say hello and discuss how they are feeling, we get on Facebook, post our status, and offer up an image of a cup of coffee instead, memes are simply an aspect of the times that if nothing more, give us a good giggle every now and again. 

Works Cited

Axelrod, Emma. "The Role of Memes in Politics." Brown Political Review. 20 March 2016. Web. 27 May 2016. http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/2016/03/role-memes-politics/.

Bartlett, Jamie . "Viral memes are ruining our politics. Share if you agree." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. 27 April 2015. Web. 27 May 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/politics-blog/11565661/Viral-memes-are-ruining-our-politics.-Share-if-you-agree.html.

"Brazil Impeachment: The Process for Removing the President." The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 12 May 2016. Web. 27 May 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/world/americas/brazil-dilma-rousseff-impeachment.html?_r=0.

Chabba, Seerat. "Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff Says Impeachment Aimed At Hindering Corruption Probe." International Business Times. IBT Media, Inc. 30 May 2016. Web. 30 May 2016. https://www.ibtimes.com/brazils-dilma-rousseff-says-impeachment-aimed-hindering-corruption-probe-2375803.

Dawkins, Richard. A Devil's Chaplain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. Print.

Jordan, Mark, A. "What's In a Meme?" Richard Dawkins Foundation. n. d. Web. 27 May 2016. https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/02/whats-in-a-meme/.

Parker, Suzi. "Mitt Romney’s ‘binders full of women’." The Washington Post. Nash Holdings LLC. 17 October 2012. Web. 27 May 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2012/10/17/mitt-romneys-binders-full-of-women/.

Paul, Kari. "How Memes Shaped the 2016 Presidential Election." Complex. Complex Media, LLC. 12 May 2016. Web. 27 May 2016. https://www.complex.com/life/2016/05/election-memes.

Trabasso, Gigi. "Political Memes in Brazil." Viral Politics. n. d. Web. 27 May 2016. https://viralpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

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