“He who controls the memes, controls the millennials!”
– Unknown social media strategist
From emulating the emoji-laden language of a teenage fangirl on Snapchat to posing for selfies with Kim Kardashian on Twitter, Hillary Clinton and her team of new media “experts” have invested heavily in creating an online persona that young people would (hopefully) find cool and relatable. Yet this appropriation of youth culture has gloriously backfired, with users across the spectrum quick to call out Clinton’s pandering to the hashtag generation as desperate and inauthentic.
In response to an official campaign-tweeted photo of Clinton posing with the cast of Comedy Central’s Broad City followed by a #yas, one user astutely proclaims the campaign to be “the thirstiest presidential campaign in history.”
In contrast, her rival Bernie Sanders — who currently reigns over the millennial demographic — has galvanized the internet’s anonymous masses into supporting his campaign without the use of a single reaction GIF or emoji. Echoing Obama’s 2012 internet primacy, Sanders’ domination of the online community is manifest in the endless proliferation of memes championing his candidacy (with the possible exception of Donald Trump, no 2016 presidential candidate has been as ‘memefied’ as Sanders).
So popular is the 74-year old socialist candidate with meme-makers that the Washington Post has crowned Sanders “The Lord of Dank Memes,” in reference to the Facebook group “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash,” where over 300,000 followers have congregated to disseminate their pro-Sanders creations throughout social media. While it’s easy to chalk this disparity up to demographics and likability, one is inclined to wonder: Why have pro-Sanders memes gone viral when pro-Hilary memes (few there are now) have floundered and dissipated? And why do meme-makers overwhelmingly favor anti-establishment candidates like Sanders over party favorites like Clinton? It’s not like Sanders has the meme-makers on his campaign payroll.
Comparing the online approaches of these campaigns vis-á-vis, observe that the Sanders campaign keeps its official feeds on all the relevant apps meme-free, which lends Sanders’ populist truisms an air of seriousness and urgency. This is reflective of the Sanders campaign’s refusal to pander, focusing on issues that break millennials from their apathetic bubbles as opposed to mimicking their apathetic surface culture.
The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, peppers its talking points on Twitter and Snapchat with regurgitated memes, reaction GIFs, and emojis. This is a campaign that communicates to young people in the most superficial sense, appealing to their lingo and pop culture while trivializing their deepest concerns regarding tuition free education and raising the minimum wage as the stuff of fantasy.
Inspiring little affection from the internet’s denizens, the contrived nature of campaign-appropriated memes reveal a gross inauthenticity at the heart of such enterprises, in which the attempt to vibe with young voters by adopting their culture not only rings false but gives the condescending impression that the allegiance of one’s age-group can be bought with the deploying of some neologisms. Put more simply: someone trying to be cool is bound to end up more uncool than somebody not trying at all.
Seizing the Memes of Production
With the meme-makers firmly on the side of the more authentic candidate, there’s growing concern among the establishment’s pundit class that millennials — fed up with a mass media that constantly downplays the momentum of their candidate — are opting to rely on memes and online communities such as Reddit for their election information instead of the tube.
And why shouldn’t they? By intermixing the latest in trends and pop culture with political happenings, memes can rapidly convey important facts while being more funny, more entertaining, and more engaging than the news, a medium that an increasing number of Sanders supporters view as being controlled by the very oligarchs Sanders decries. Moreover, the participatory nature of memes enables the person sharing them to feel as if they’re contributing to a movement much greater than themselves, where the discourse is fueled by and for the masses and cannot be manipulated by any central authority figure. This is because memes are, by their free-flowing, non-copyrighted nature, antithetical to authority.
Some columnists have condemned this trend as regressive, urging millennials to purge their timelines and dashboards of memes, claiming they consist mostly of vapid, apolitical smears that offer little in the way of legitimate evidence for or against a candidate. The editorial staff of the Washburn Review argue that memes “are less concerned with the policies and factual statements of candidates than they are with growing a particular candidate’s icon status,” their coolness. To back this claim, they refer to the obvious falsehoods perpetuated by the infamous “Bernie or Hillary?” comparison meme, which juxtaposes Clinton as a casual band-wagoner to Sanders’ diehard fan.
These columnists — who must not be acclimated to the internet’s many reality distortions — have misunderstood the function of this meme, the purpose of which isn’t to convey facts about these candidate’s policies, but to contrast the authenticity of Sanders with the inauthenticity of Clinton. Turns out the meme actually does have a basis in reality, its truth being reflected by the fact that Sander’s progressive views have remained consistent over a thirty year period, and by the fact that Clinton has only recently adopted some progressive views to suit whatever is most politically advantageous.
It would be myopic to conclude from this trend that millennials are somehow becoming more objective and clear-minded than their baby-boomer forbearers, since they are only choosing propaganda (yes, I believe memes constitute a sort of propaganda) that suits their perspective, liking pages with which they identify and following people with whom they agree. In this manner, young people are actually becoming more subjective than prior generations, and therefore less trustworthy of institutions that claim any pretense of objectivity.
But rest assured. Despite their obfuscation of reality, memes have nevertheless offered millennials a viable discourse free of the establishment’s influence (for the time being), helping to amplify a candidate’s humanist message so that it can no longer be drowned out by the tube, and the whole internet is listening in.