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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

November 3, 2012 at 7:00 PM

LOLcats and the election: how memes have taken over the news

As election day looms, “zinger” retweets and reblogs catapult political memes into the public eye.

On Twitter memes often appear in the form of hashtags.  (Image courtesy of / UW Election Eye)

SEATTLE — Internet meme (n.): “a catchy phrase or idea associated with an image, which often becomes viral online.”

During the presidential debates, my Twitter feed was aflutter with homemade memes and my Tumblr flooded with political commentary in that oh-so familiar form of white blocky text over photos.

Memes catapulted to fame in 2006 with the rise of the LOLcat and the kitties of I Can Haz Cheezburger.

The first memes I remember seeing were of the “I can haz” variety, but plenty has changed in the past few years, and now this internet art form has become a key part of the 2012 presidential election.

This became especially apparent during the months leading up to the first of the 2012 presidential debates. As October neared, Internet users of all ages were churning out Obama and Romney memes at full-speed.

With the kickoff of the first debate, it seemed that everyone became a “mini meme machine.”

Within an hour, “Relatable Romney” had infiltrated the Twitterverse. This meme poked fun at Romney’s failed attempts to relate to “average” Americans by criticizing his affluent background.

A tweet from the day after governor Romney announced he would cut funding to Public Broadcast Services. Many fake Big Bird Twitter accounts began popping up to express PBS fans’ rage. (Image courtesy of / UW Election Eye)

“I don’t know if [Internet memes] mean that much in terms of moving votes, but I think they keep people engaged with the news,” said Alex Miller, the program director at Washington Bus, an organization that seeks to engage young Washingtonians in politics.

“[Memes are] a lot of the way younger people connect with politics. It is a very narrow window into what is happening with the news,” Miller said. “[They add] levity to the [political] process, especially when grappling with the future of our nation.”

But not everyone agrees. Some, such as Anna Fahey , senior communications specialist for the Sightline Institute, fear that memes are part of an increasingly superficial political discourse: “I think the meme phenomenon fits into a larger context where political coverage is not as substantive as it should be to help voters make informed decisions about the candidates — and in particular about their positions on issues that matter to American families.”

For me, personally, political memes are both heartening and concerning. I love to see my peers so eager to engage with politics — but what happens when a meme gets something wrong?

“The problem is when a false or misleading meme overwhelms ‘real’ news coverage and when political journalists cover the phenomenon of the meme rather than uncovering the falsehoods,” said Fahey. “There is still a responsibility on the part of journalists to help us sort fact from fiction. In this election season I’m not sure that is happening to the extent it should.”

Memes aren’t always images with catchy misspelled phrases. They can take the form of short videos, animated GIFs, or Twitter hashtags.

And while memes may be generating buzz about the elections, they don’t always foster political discourse.

“[Memes] provide a coalescing opportunity for people of like minds,” said Kathy Gill, a past UW Election Eye contributor and senior lecturer for University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program. But, she continued,  memes do offer a new way to express one’s political views. “When someone chooses to share one of these [humorous] posters on Facebook, they are saying something public about their position on political issues. I find this interesting because Americans don’t usually talk about politics in public.”

By way of a final example, this video, from ART NOT WAR PRODUCTIONS, hopes audiences will sympathize with cute kittens (the 99%) over money-loving fat cats (the 1%):

As we count down to November 6, here is a collection I’ve compiled of some of the best political Internet memes from this election cycle.

Comments | More in Culture, National | Topics: discourse, Election 2012, memes


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