Dr. Geek: Political Memes: Mass Appeal, Not Mass Effect

In case you were not aware, and it would be really hard not to be, election season is upon us — has been with us for over a year,  And regardless of what tribe you belong to — or adamantly do not — we are probably all pretty damn sick of it by now and just want to vote.  Luckily, as of this article’s publication date, we only have a dozen more days of the season to stomach.  And regardless of the outcome, we can probably agree that this has been a slog of a campaign.  But since we are in the campaign, I wanted to direct this week’s article to a particular technological concern of modern day campaigning.

Political science and communication scholars, public relations experts, campaign managers, they all want to know how to effectively use social media to push some political agenda or some political candidate through the tubes of the Internet.  The 2008 campaign, and the successful adoption of social media by the Obama campaign, is often cited as the spur for politicians to learn how to tweet, Facebook, YouTube, and whatever else the “kids” are into these days.  But just how successful social media is to further their goals remains to be seen.

There is no denying the importance of social networks, which predate the Internet; social networks are basically just a way to visualize how the relationships you have with the people in your life.  Scholars have been studying such networks, without that specific term, for decades.  For example, communication researchers Lazarsfeld and Katz in the 1940s theorized that information and persuasion spreads from the mass media to the general public through the word-of-mouth of opinion leaders within specific communities, or social networks.  Thus, opinion leaders, receiving their information from television news and newspapers, would be  influential in positioning the network towards acceptance or rejection of some political idea.  With online social media, such social networks are extend or originate online.  Concepts like viral marketing are just more mediated forms of word-of-mouth marketing: the utilization of the social network to spread a message.

Two-Step Flow Model: Early theorization on the spread of messages through social networks. (Courtesy of the University of Twente)

One of the types of messages spread are memes.  Coming from the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, memes are behaviors, styles and ideas that spread from person to person, and increasing from culture to culture.  Dawkins conceptualized them as similar in function to genes; genes carry biological information from generation to generation, ensuring that certain traits will replicate, while memes carry cultural information from person to person, ensuring that certain actions and ideas will spread.  Internet memes are a specific subset of memes; a specific message is sent through various Internet channels and platforms, and may be added to, expanded upon and altered by others as they bring their own particular “take” on the message.  Typical memes use a picture open to interpretation that serves as the basis for captions to capture the message of the picture.  But memes can occur in other media forms, such as the recent spat of “Gagnam Style” responses to and parodies of the original South Korean music video.  I quite like this appropriation for how it utilizes the original song but in the context of Western Halloween customs:

During this election season, memes have been circulating within online social networks, but not from the formal organizations related to any particular political idea or politician.  For example, just consider the three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  Statements from both candidates were judged to be meme-worthy: from Romney’s statement about liking Big Bird but cutting funding to PBS to Obama’s statement about the military having less horses and bayonets, the online community has produced an array of memes in response to the campaign messages.

Memes are fun, funny, meant to critique through humor, and they have been doing all of that about the candidates and their campaigns.  Of those coming out of the debates, three big ones seem to be rather negative of Mr. Romney — focusing on his reference to Big Bird in the first debate, his having “binders full of women” in the second debate, and the zinger from Obama about not needing more “horses and bayonets” in the third debate.

Now, mind you, the two-step flow model is not really in play here.  These are messages that do not originate in the mass media, from some traditionally official source.  However, there are opinion leaders at work, because these messages of humor and critique are coming from ordinary users.  They circulate within social networks that will “get” the humor and critique encoded in it because they are already tuned into that critique and thus receptive to the message.  The creator of the meme is the primary opinion leader within the online community, and then the people who first introduce the meme to their social network would be secondary opinion leaders.

So memes are fun and spread from opinion leaders through online social networks.  Some social media commentators believe that these memes are having more impact online than the official messages from the campaigns, to the point where the candidate’s campaigns should reach out to the opinion leaders for their assistance in spreading official messages.  But I theorize that this approach misses the point of the role that these memes play within the social networks.

Spreading the memes to a social network that shares the sensibilities of the meme is a way to maintain the social network’s commitment to a particular political position.  If you do not like Romney, then you will find the memes that criticize him as funny and be more likely to spread the meme through your social network, most likely to others who will also find it funny because they share that position toward the candidate.  If you like Romney, then most likely you will not like the meme and be unwilling to share it with your social network.  Thus, memes are most likely circulating within networks of like-minded individuals; they are not likely to change minds.  Their persuasive ability is in the maintenance of a political position, not in the adoption or rejection of one simply because it is unlikely that the memes will breach the barriers into social networks that are opposed to the position that lead to the understanding and spreading of the meme.

And these memes do appear to do well at maintaining the political position of the social networks through which they spread — or, at least, they have been spreading so well across the Web that even the traditional media have been paying attention to them.  There are those who decry this new form of political participation for being a further example of the simplification and superficiality of political campaigns while others feel the need to be relevant by focusing on their spread through the social media.  Right now, the numbers are showing that this is a growing form of political participation, perhaps because it helps people express their frustration with a seemingly corrupt or unresponsive political system, the same way that other forms of political humor help us cope with our democratically elected representatives.

Humor is a powerful way to help people deal with things they cannot control.  And if you are in on the joke, then you are sharing not only an experience but a sensibility — a way of looking at this feeling of powerlessness — with a like-minded community.  The jokes help you vent, but also help you connect with others, and to reaffirm that you are right to want to vent in the way that you are.  Humor is a great way to maintain these communities, and memes are fulfilling this role in the online world of social media.  But just as you may not find a joke funny or persuasive if it espouses a worldview you are opposed to, you probably will not like and spread a meme for the same reason.

While memes have mass appeal within the communities that share them, I do not think they have mass effect on changing people’s minds during a political campaign.  Especially not when we have a society as politically polarized as ours currently is.  Which is a shame — everyone should like a good joke.

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