For more than a year, the lowly media consumer was told the 2016 election was one of memes, debate Vines, Bernie bros, the alt-right, and Snapchat. We were told that this was an election in which everyone was given a voice through the power of social media. It turns out that the real movers and shakers were the people who opted not to participate at all: Democratic voter turnout was about 56 percent, the lowest of any presidential election since 2000. Liberals have plenty of regrets, but among them should be spending the final years of the Obama presidency giving undue attention to the smoke-and-mirrors bombast of social media fanaticism while neglecting the unenthusiastic voters who weren’t hyperconnected online but still needed to be reached.
This isn’t the first time that the media has wildly overestimated the importance of social media. It happened in April 2009, when the Communist Party of Moldova won a majority of seats in the parliamentary election. The resulting youth-led demonstrations were dubbed the “Twitter Revolution.” There was another “Twitter Revolution” two months later when the Iranian government rigged the presidential election in favor of the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This wasn’t a complete fabrication — there were people using the #IranElection hashtag — but they were mostly native English speakers trying to prank the band Hoobastank.
It should have been absolutely mortifying for anyone who bought into this narrative when in 2010 Malcolm Gladwell, the reigning king of pop-psychology fairy tales, called it an oversimplification. The final “Twitter Revolution” happened in 2011, when mass uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia kicked off the series of events known as the Arab Spring. When reports came in that young activists were coordinating protests through Facebook, journalists like Thomas Friedman and Jose Antonio Vargas were more than happy to emphasize the tech angle, coining embarrassing catchphrases like “Revolution 2.0.” The unrest, relatively unaided by social media, spread into Libya and Syria and within months mired each country in a bloody civil war. For some reason, once people started doing iBeheadings and releasing Sarin Gas 2.0, tech evangelists instantly forgot how instrumental social media had been in all of it.
Despite its shortcomings, the spectre of “tech” journalism haunted this election. Eleven days before Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States, The New York Times ran an article in its Style section titled “How Pepe the Frog and Nasty Woman Are Shaping the Election.” The intro paragraph alone reads like clueless liberal bingo: Alex Williams, whose previous articles include “Why a $15,950 Tourbillon Watch Is Considered a Steal” and “Why Does This Watch Cost $815,000?,” interviews the editor of Know Your Meme, an NYU grad who lives in Williamsburg, who explains the significance of 4chan and Pepe the Frog to the Times’ aging readership. It goes on: “In 2008, memes were simply a PR nightmare for the Republican Party.” Were they really? Did Obama owe his landslide victory to the exposure of Floridian septuagenarians to LOLcats, or was it the financial crisis, widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, and record turnout among African-Americans? No evidence is given as to if or why any of this is shaping the election; that it exists at all somehow makes it newsworthy.
Two days later, the Times published an article in its Arts & Culture section titled “Memes, Myself, and I: The Internet Lets Us All Run the Campaign.” Here, we see the bizarre assumption that anything that exists on the internet must necessarily have originated there. The article starts off by discussing how politicians reclaimed insults lobbed at them hundreds of years ago and then goes ahead and calls politicians reclaiming insults lobbed at them a brand-new phenomenon. The author confuses catchphrases like “basket of deplorables” and “nasty woman” with internet memes, going as far as embedding a picture of two elderly women wearing “deplorable” pins at a Trump rally. Did those women really hear about that on social media, or was it through Fox News and some quick-on-the-draw merch salesmen? The article offers no proof either way. Did “nasty woman,” an off-the-cuff phrase coined by Donald Trump at the third presidential debate, really owe its dissemination to the internet? Other examples of internet memes in the article include the website WikiLeaks and the video of Hillary stumbling while leaving a 9/11 memorial, which was immediately reported by Fox News. The piece ends with a declaration that “memeing is officially a bipartisan act” and backs this up with links to a few of the JPEG-artifacted Hillary photoshops that your racist uncle has been forwarding you since 1996. This is a satisfying conclusion, not because it contains any kind of salient point but because upon finishing it you realize that the author mercifully spared the Times readership another Pepe explainer.
Four days before Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States, The Guardian ran one of the most out-of-touch articles of the entire out-of-touch election season. This article was titled “Meme warfare: how the power of mass replication has poisoned the US election.” Send the kids out of the room, because this is about to get twisted — the header illustration that accompanied the article is of a man in a backwards hat throwing a Molotov cocktail filled with app icons. In the piece, writer Douglas Haddow makes the absurd claim that “memes are ruining democracy” with very little to back it up. Haddow’s central argument is that memes, a categorization in which he includes magazine ads and campaign slogans, are fundamentally dangerous because, unlike TV, they give a voice to those who wish to spread misinformation. He proves his expertise on memes by relating his experience working for Adbusters in the 2000s, where he engaged in “meme warfare” by creating fake advertisements that lampooned consumerism. Imagine a less subtle Banksy, just the most embarrassingly on-the-nose satire — stuff like a guy shooting up a syringe filled with money or, even better, the Nike “just do it” logo over a guy shooting up a syringe filled with money. The money represents consumerism. In Haddow’s own words, these memes, if you can call them that, were “...meant to trigger paradigm shifts that would upend the prevailing logic of late capitalism.” He practically wrote his own rebuttal: They didn’t upend anything. No one saw them. It didn’t work.
Hillary Clinton herself was guilty of exaggerating the importance of memes during this bitter election. In September, her staffers published a dead-serious Pepe the Frog explainer, calling him a symbol of anti-Semitism and white supremacy. Now, as much as it pains me to explain a meme, let’s be clear: Pepe is a webcomic character who pulls his pants all the way down to pee. Sure, people have made a lot of derivative photoshops of Pepe, and some of them are deliberately offensive. But that’s it. If exit polls had asked voters whether a drawing of a pissing frog had any effect on their vote, the dataset would have been a series of blank stares. By acknowledging the stupid in-jokes of the online far-right, Clinton embarrassed herself in the eyes of young voters. No one wants to see a senior citizen, especially one who ran on a platform of predictable, old-fashioned competence, struggle to explain why anime nerds are posting frog pictures. Hillary wanted to be your abuela, but abuelas don’t get in flamewars with guys who wear dragon T-shirts. When they do, it turns into a freak show — call it the Rapping Granny effect.
By acknowledging the stupid in-jokes of the online far-right, Clinton embarrassed herself.
On Nov. 9, while half the country was reeling from a stunning upset, the media doubled down. “Here are the 10 best memes from the 2016 presidential election.” “Web users shocked at Trump's surprise victory react with a string of tongue-in-cheek memes.” “These 8 Memes Helped America Get Through a Very Stressful Election Night.” That might work now, but we have a very stressful four years ahead of us, and we’re going to need something else, even if it’s something we can’t aggregate, to help us through it.
Every new generation wants to believe they can shift the balance away from the 55-plus, gated-community types that sit at the top of every corporation and body of government. In the 1960s, the baby boomer generation made themselves the center of attention in a Greatest Generation world with their rapid takeover of pop culture, campus activism, and organized civil disobedience. By the end of the decade, however, Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” had put him in the Oval Office, partially in reaction to the growing youth-led counterculture. Vietnam continued for four more years, the War on Drugs continues to this day, and the counterculture of the 1960s was assimilated into Reaganomics. If the millennial generation is to have any control over its future, we must be careful not to overstate the influence of Lena Dunham, or of Hamilton, or even of the frog who uses the urinal wrong.
We always hear about how modern technology makes it so easy to create, so easy for the unwashed masses to gain a voice. It democratizes. The unpleasant corollary is that anything plentiful and easy to create holds little value. Every day we see a thousand memes, each one the product of 15 seconds of labor, and it takes us half as long to forget them. We remember memes like swarming insects. They move with such frenetic grace that our primitive eyes struggle to pin down anything but the mass itself, a survival strategy used by the vermin of the world to evade predation. As Mao once said, “All memes are paper tigers.”
Alex Nichols is the social media editor at Current Affairs.