Biden-laughs and Ryan-abs, Big Birds and binders and bayonets: There is something fascinating when an event as stodgily ceremonial as the presidential campaign is run through the lulz-filter of social media, secreting a hallucination of phrases and images and videos and, of course, gifs. An army is at the ready to spin off a gag at every turn, to propagate the joke to maximum scope; digital arpeggiations of candidate goofs and campaign blunders are transmitted from host to host through a mere caress of the touch-sensitive screen. Watching debates with that second screen of fast-moving social media streams and text-input boxes begging our thoughts has positioned many of us as hunters for the most shareable, memeiest content, ready to pounce at something, anything, and in the process, changing the overall narrative of an event. We’ve developed a kind of meme literacy, a habit of intuiting in real time the potential virality of a speech act — to hear retweets inside words.
Campaigns can’t plan memes. Instead, the campaigns can merely react to them.
But nearly any attempt on the part of the campaigns to manufacture virality fails. The memorable memes are those that seem to authentically emerge from the bottom up, their very spontaneity serving as evidence of something genuine.
Analyses of memes that examine their specific content at face value often miss that virtually all election-related memes are inherently a critique of the election in general. In a moment where trust and favorability in politics is near an all-time low, the political statements we make about the presidential election increasingly need to account for the absurdity of the process, from the behavior of the campaigns themselves to the mainstream coverage of them. One of the most common narratives about presidential conventions, commercials, and debates is what silly performances they are. We all know that style is as important as substance, that the “winner” of a debate isn’t the one with the strongest logic, and that both candidates are telling such a slanted story that accepting anything uttered as fact is a sure sign of naiveté. Presidential “debates” are rightly mocked as mere recital of many scripted mini-speeches rather than the back-and-forth exchange of ideas the term debate should conjure.
Because of this frustration, many stand ready to find any bit of authenticity, any deviation from the script and scream it to the crowd, hashtag and all.
What is essential here is that what goes viral isn’t what is most accurate but rather the sort of information individuals to want to be a part of — that demonstrates we are in the know and offers us the best opportunities to add our own two cents along the way in comments and likes. Look: I know about the Binders Full of Women Tumblr! I found the funniest Big Bird captioned photo! I have just the best GIF of Biden laughing you’d ever want to see!