The purpose of this study is to critically analyze the effects of memes and humor on political discourse with four candidates during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. This study seeks to answer the research question: could humor and memes have played a role in the turnout of the 2016 presidential election through their creation of an unorthodox discursive environment amongst both presidential candidates and US citizens? The goal of this study is to uncover the capabilities of memes and their media power while potentially effecting a large system change, namely the discourse surrounding the political candidates of the 2016 presidential election.
This paper aims to examine a few primary objects, each of which has been critically analyzed and discussed amongst academics, critics, and journalists. The first object, understand popular culture intertextuality and media power, has been researched and analyzed by Professor Bradly Wiggins at Webster Vienna Private University and Heidi Huntington Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University. Wiggins discusses how memes are created for political engagement, the role they play within popular culture, and their ability to become discursive tools that engage, enrage, and amuse social media users. Huntington cites academic sources that discuss methods of critiquing visual political rhetoric and adds consideration of intertextuality and metaphor to further contextualize the methodology for the rhetorical analysis and critique of internet memes as graphical, political rhetoric. Huntington further discusses how memes are used as a means of visual political rhetoric, mainly in protest movements.
The second object demonstrates humor and memes as a tool in a digital age. Wiggins, Huntington, Pearce, and Waddock all discuss this topic in detail. Both Wiggins and Huntington add further context to this subject matter by citing specific situations throughout Trump, Clinton, and Sanders campaigns. Pearce demonstrates memes capabilities within social media sites and their effective use in activism and dissent due to the affordability of content creation. Pearce also describes how political humor affects people on both a sociological and psychological level with a few key examples. Moreover, Pearce speaks widely on humor’s role in activism, with a suggestive stance that questions user-generated content’s effectiveness when compared to a more professional, conventional source. Likewise, she draws interesting correlations on their differences and similarities in the behavioral dimensions of democratic engagement. She does agree there is an association between the two, but leaves further question to be asked as to their effectiveness. Likewise, social media’s role in activism is directly correlated with the creation, communication, organization and spread of protests which memes play a major role in developing. Furthermore, Waddock details the power of memes as discursive tools, noting meme’s capabilities as being expressive tools in media which have the power to alter political discourse and affect the culture surrounding political commentary.
Moreover, understanding ‘fake news’ with humor and meme’s roles through the changes in media technology, will be discussed. Allcott and Gentzkow give in-depth understandings of how ‘fake news’ was perpetuated throughout various social media sights during the 2016 presidential election. These scholars offer theoretical and empirical backgrounds to frame the debate on whether or not the abundance of ‘fake news’ perpetuated by the use of grass-roots activism through meme generation, could have shifted the political landscape in favor of a Trump presidency. The authors also offer statistical evidence that demonstrates such an event could have occurred, while also summarizing the effectiveness of ‘fake news’ on social media platforms.
Lastly, the ultimate goal of the paper is to offer theoretical and empirical background to frame the debate on ‘fake news’ while showcasing the effectiveness of meme generation from a cultural standpoint on social media. Also, this paper describes how ‘fake news’ was perpetuated throughout various social media sights, mainly Facebook, during the 2016 presidential election. The paper notes both the reason for ‘fake news’ popularity on social media and the negative effects that carry with it. Apart from conceptualizing ‘fake news’ this paper aims to uncover several other areas of importance. These being the importance of social media relative to sources of political news and information, an affirmative stance on fake news’ means of favoring Trump, statistical evidence that demonstrates such findings, and interference between true versus false news headlines in their own survey data.
Social media’s role in political discourse during the 2016 presidential election is a topic of conversation that is relatively recent amongst the media and academics alike. Since the object of study (the 2016 US Presidential Election) is so new, several issues require further research by scholars to develop a more concrete understanding of humor and memes’ role as it pertains to the outcome of the election. The subject of memes and their effect on political discourse has been discussed widely throughout the academia sphere and investigative journalists. A consistent theme is present throughout these conversations on the topic: memes have the capacity to enable grassroots-style activism and cause rapid decent amongst a wide audience. These capabilities have led scholars to believe that memes’ use of humor as an expressive tool in media has drastically altered political discourse, thus affecting the culture surrounding political commentary. An example of such came with the advent of ‘fake news.’ Considering the grassroots nature of meme generation within varying cultures, the subject of ‘fake news’ has been linked to user generated content like memes.
In order to understand the political discursive environment in a large context, a deep understanding of how popular culture’s influence through media can change, charge, and guide political tension and discussion. Wiggins, Pearce and Hajizada, and Huntington have discussed how memes are a form of rhetoric in their articles. Each article expressing the idea memes hold the capabilities of generating large system changes through dissent amongst wide audiences. Waddock also discusses memes in large system changes in her article as she reflects on the power of memes in media. The article explores the idea that “memes at their core are narratives, ideas, visions, values, norms, and other cultural symbols that shape human culture, individual or shared understandings, and other ways of relating to systems and each other at different levels of analysis” (Waddock, 265). With this base understanding of how memes are at the foundation of understanding, shaping, and changing systems, a correlation can be drawn, exhibiting their capabilities in fostering or inhibiting change within greater media spheres.
In their Article, Allcott and Gentzkow discuss how the spread of ‘fake news’ became near commonplace during presidential election cycle, thus fueling popular political discourse with confusion and irrational rhetoric. They discuss the marketing structure further enabling ‘fake news’ and its advantages to political news organizations, the trends related to ‘fake news’, the use of social media as a source of political information, the partisanship of fake news, the exposure of ‘fake news’ and lastly the producers of ‘fake news’ and their motivations behind such a phenomenon.
Likewise, Bradley Wiggins of Webster Vienna Private University wrote in his journal, “Digital dispatches form the 2016 US election: Popular Culture Intertextuality and Media Power,” of how memes can be used as a catalyst for generating activism, and levying dissent. His discussion on memes’ capabilities to progress a grassroots-style charge of discourse makes a direct correlation to the discussions within Allcott and Gentzkow’s article. With these tools in mind, Wiggins has shed light on the structural process behind what makes the production of ‘fake news’ so profitable and appealing to those who aim to tear at the fabrics of political discourse.
The subject of memes in popular culture surrounding the presidential election has also been widely discussed by news sources, namely the New York Times and Complex News. Their involvement in the broader discussion is vital to understand all aspects of meme generation and the effects had on popular and political culture. Amanda Hess from the NYT said it best when she wrote,
Americans are no longer just spectators at the political circus, They’re performers too. The internet has elected supporters to the role of surrogates, capable of creating their own messages and running their own inline campaigns on their social media feeds. (1)
Hess analyzes the aesthetic of memes and how easily they can come into fruition. She gives examples of instances in which individuals used Clinton’s misfortunes as an easy target for ridicule and negative exposure. Two examples include: various leaked emails by WikiLeaks which turned into a massive scandal or even a shaky video recording of her nearly collapsing outside of a talk at the 9/11 memorial in NYC. Hess also comments on the reasons why there was more of a Republican-leaning force in meme campaigns against Democratic candidates. Hess suggests the reason may lie in which social media sites were used most frequently in the past election, Facebook being the most popular.
Kari Paul, a cultural and political writer for Complex News, comments on the ridiculousness of memes and likens them to ‘fake news’ when she writes, “As campaigns developed, memes became more absurd and pervasive, from insisting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is Canadian to likening Ben Carson to Jesus.” Her input into the broader discussion of meme’s capabilities in shifting cultural attitudes will be important when focusing on specific, selected memes during an analysis. She brings to light the variance in popular opinions on each candidate. For example, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton were subject to much harsher criticism in memes than were Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. These variances in popular opinion can be observed in the results of each of their campaign’s outcomes.
Could humor and memes have played a role in the turnout of the 2016 presidential election through their creation of an unorthodox discursive environment amongst both presidential candidates and US citizens? All these items considered will demonstrate a clear picture as to the rise and popularity of memes in popular culture and their ties to ‘fake news’ outlets. These news outlets may have been perpetuating the spread of false news from user-generated memes. Each object of study will aid the discussion of how the presidential candidates became the focus of humorous articles and memes. By understanding the power of memes in media and the tools they stand as will uncover a theme that embodies the unorthodox nature that political discourse took in this past election cycle.
1. Restate your research question.
Could humor and memes have played a role in the turnout of the 2016 presidential election through their creation of an unorthodox discursive environment amongst both presidential candidates and United States citizens? Sub-research questions include: How can people be more adaptive to the changing discursive landscape on social media? How will this affect upcoming elections now that the subject has been discussed more openly after the election process has been concluded for almost a year now?
2. What terms in your research question do you need to define? What contexts (historical, cultural, formal, etc.) do you need to consider?
Several terms that need to be defined include: memes, activism, dissent, political discourse, fake news, visual political rhetoric, intertextuality and media power, humor’s role in politics, generational identities, evolution of popular culture due to the internet, and the landscape of both Trump and Clinton’s campaign rhetoric.
The use of a meme is not based on educational, racial, gender, or cultural restrictions. It is a universal language. Those who use and participate in its culture are aware of its abilities, commonalities, and variances of use. It is those who choose not to, or are too far obscured generationally to understand the capabilities of memes’ in popular cultural that are outliers to this experience. For the populations situated in generational gaps that are not savvy to the technological age, the subject of humor in terms of memes seems irrelevant or too difficult to understand. Thus, consideration of such discourse is overlooked in popular discussion amongst certain generations due to its progressive association of the recent pasts’ upcoming generation. It is also important to understand memes’ humorous effect on political discourse and how it may have a large system change effect.
3. Identify each of your primary objectives and state why each helps you answer your research question. Why these objects? What is the justification for using these specific objects over others?
I will first outline my specific objects of discussion, then parenthetically analyze the reasons for choosing each.
a. Understanding popular culture intertextuality and media power (Bradley Wiggins , Roland Barthes )
b. Humor and memes as a tool in a digital age (Roland Barthes , Bradley Wiggins , Katy Pearce , Heidi E. Huntington , Sandra Waddock )
1. Understanding the use of memes visual political rhetoric
i. means of activism, dissent, and its ability to relieve tensions
ii. humors social functions and expressions
2. Memes ability to create a large system change and the sense making behind it
c. Understanding fake news with humor and memes’ roles through the changes in media technology (Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow)
a. Understanding popular cultures’ intertextuality and media power
This piece is vital to understanding the landscape of my research question. (Could humor and memes have played a role in the turnout of the 2016 presidential election through their creation of an unorthodox discursive environment amongst both presidential candidates and US citizens?) In order to understand the discursive environment in a large context, a deep understanding of how popular culture’s influence through media can change, charge, and guide political tension and discussion. This base understanding will allow for a deeper analysis into humor and memes’ roles in the subject itself.
b. Humor and memes as a tool in a digital age
Once I have identified the philosophy of popular cultures’ intertextuality and media power, I will then transition into a deeper dialogue that aims to uncover how humor and memes are a catalyst for generating activism, dissent, and so on. This subject is important to understand because humor can play a role in affecting culture in a variety of ways. Humor can be a tool that fights oppression head on. Humor is also an expression of: superiority, tension relief, a means of dealing with incongruity. Another important element of meme is the manner in which it bolsters activism amongst wide audiences in a grassroots-style of momentum.
Moreover, humor has a couple key functions: creating identity, creating sense of control. These are important factors to consider when dissecting the reasoning behind a certain meme’s creation or its ability to create activism, further dissent, and relive tensions. Lastly, humor and memes have the ability to attract those who are not interested in politics, increase political tension and learning, increase feelings of political efficacy, allow people to look at politics with less scrutiny.
c. Understanding fake news with humor and memes’ roles through the changes in media technology
After demonstrating how humor and memes are tools that affect large system change throughout popular culture in a digital age, a critical analysis is due of the effects of memes on political discourse pertaining to four presidential candidates in the 2016 presidential election.
Furthermore, the term ‘fake news’ became overwhelmingly popular throughout this time period, thus fueling popular political discourse with confusion and irrational rhetoric. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders are prominent candidates on both sides of the isle, each subject to the praise and slander that is associated with meme generation
Further research and analysis is due on the marketing structures appealing to ‘fake news’ generation, trends related to fake news, the use of social media as a source of political information, the partisanship of fake news, the exposure of fake news, and lastly the producers of fake news and their motivations behind such a phenomenon. All this considered, I will then be able to take an educated position as to whether or not humor and memes could have played a significant role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
4. How will you examine your objects? What features of your objects are you going to look at & why?
Analysis of viral memes and their context are specific instances in which a meme or humorous article in popular culture demonstrates a large-scale affect through the power of social media. Specific memes will be dissected by observing its curation, how it became popular and eventually dispersed throughout a culture, how it generated activism and discussion, and finally the outcome of its powerful message. A meme or stream of memes would be the best object in this discussion because it demonstrates how social media in the digital age as become a catalyst for political discourse in a new generation of political engagement.
In my last section, (Understanding fake news with humor and memes’ roles through the changes in media technology), I will analyze fake news and how the term was coined. I will then use memes as an object of study and focus on how each candidate was affected by them. I will then further analyze the marketing capabilities of producing fake news and the benefits it had to certain news organizations. It is important to understand why these news organizations perpetuated the spreading of ‘fake news’ throughout the election cycle. Through that understanding, it will be clearer as to why and how the spread of ‘fake news’ became such a hot-topic amongst Trump and Clinton specifically.
5. How does the method above help answer your research question?
(Could humor and memes have played a role in the turnout of the 2016 presidential election through their creation of an unorthodox discursive environment amongst both presidential candidates and US citizens?)
The methods previously stated will set the groundwork for a more educated discussion on the matter of memes and humor within a greater social and cultural sphere. All these items considered will demonstrate a clear picture as to the rise and popularity of memes in popular culture and their ties to ‘fake news’ outlets. These news outlets may have been perpetuating the spread of false news from user-generated memes. Each object of study will aid the discussion of how the presidential candidates became the focus of humorous articles and memes. By understanding the power of memes in media and the tools they stand as will uncover a theme that embodies the unorthodox nature that political discourse took in this past election cycle.
Understanding Popular Culture Intertextuality and Media Power
Social media’s role in political discourse during the 2016 presidential election may have played a large role in the outcome of the election. A consistent theme is present throughout these conversations on the topic: memes capabilities to enable grassroots-style activism and cause rapid decent amongst a wide audience. “Memes at their core are narratives, ideas, visions, values, norms, and other cultural symbols that shape human culture, individual or shared understandings, and other ways of relating to systems and each other at different levels of analysis” (Waddock 65). These capabilities have led scholars to believe that memes’ use of humor as an expressive tool in media has drastically altered political discourse, thus affecting the culture surrounding political commentary. In the 2016 presidential race, memes as visual political rhetoric was at the forefront of political discourse on social media. The use of memes as they pertain to popular culture constitute various levels of understanding within larger contexts. Moreover, in order to assess a meme’s rhetoric, one must understand the intertextuality and metaphor associated with it. Memes are only understood when considering the larger context for which they were created. The consumer must “reconstruct the persuasive cues within the visual rhetoric in order to reconstruct the artifact’s argumentative claims and to better understand its persuasive nature” (Huntington 5). Various forms of persuasive cues are present within each user-generated meme – each functioning to persuade the viewer emotionally. “Such visual arguments have particular rhetorical power through engaging the view in the completion of visual enthymemes…viewers must complete the arguments themselves” (Huntington 80). Therefore, memes create persuasive power though “a self-convincing audience” (Hunting 80) capable of examining and discerning cues for themselves.
Social media in the 2016 presidential election played a vital role in generating support and conversation with wide audiences. Specifically, meme creation amongst individuals on social media played an important role in highlighting popular topics within each campaign. The use of social media in branding and marketing has led presidential campaigns to capitalize on certain topics throughout each of their campaign cycles. “Memetic creation often does not happen forcefully but rather organically” (Wiggins 2). Memes are created when a specific real-life situation is turned into an idea or thought process, which is subsequently shared within a wide culture. When real life events are then able to be spread in a digital format, campaigns capitalize on their momentum and then use them to further progress a specific message.
One example of how a meme was used to popularize a campaign message was when Bernie Sanders had a bird land on his podium during a speech he was giving in Portland, Oregon
“The Sanders campaign capitalized on the moment by incorporating the bird into online (and offline) campaign propaganda” (Wiggins 1). The image was officially recognized by the campaign after the incident. The bird image was then coupled with the running campaign tagline ‘Together,’ and was officially tweeted by Bernie Sanders in an animated format on social media just a day after the event. The tweet received a staggering 40,000 retweets and over 80,000 likes. This use of a meme in Bernie Sander’s on social media translated into a massive momentum boost for the campaign, seemingly overnight (Wiggins).
The Sander’s campaign took a random, real-life event and exploited it– making headlines all across social media and TV broadcasts. “The subsequent inclusion of the bird in campaign messaging denotes and astute understanding of branding and marketing, but more importantly this suggest a purposeful reproduction of a real-life event on a digital landscape” (Wiggins 2). This goes to show how a meme can be born in a single moment of time and then recaptured and altered to be used in a digital format, allowing the message to be spread and consumed across a vast audience with ease. Not only was this specific instance a positive reinforcement for the Bernie campaign’s message of “togetherness,” but it goes to show how powerful the use of memes and their ability to capture messages within small image-based forms is to a campaigns marketing scheme. Further discussion on how memes are used to generate activism and dissent amongst wide audiences will be explained in the following section of this paper. However, further consideration of how media narratives can affect popular culture on social media needs to be understood. Moreover, as with any election cycle, media narratives are born as a consequence of a candidates campaigning and popular cultures response to various political debates, campaign messages, election results, etc.
Furthermore, on the topic of Bernie Sanders affiliation with memes in the 2016 presidential election, “regardless of the specific candidate or reference, popular culture intertextuality functions as the dominant source material for memes that propagate Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash [(BSDMS)]” (Wiggins 2). The collections of memes which appear on a fan-based Facebook page are comprised of thousands of instances where Bernie Sanders is related to other positive tropes in popular culture. These include reference to characters in films, video games, comic books, and other forms of media. They are all used as the basis of eliciting a message that people who engage in popular culture would understand and be able to relate (Wiggins, Huntington).
Within this stash of memes, user generated topics appear to both criticize and uplift certain candidates – some more than others. For example, an overwhelming number of memes were created casting hateful messages at both Clinton and Trump – to be expected, as both candidates became front runners in the election and also came under fire for various indecencies throughout their election. The use of memes to denote Clinton were demonstrably higher than those opposing Trump. “The level or degree of vitriol directed at Clinton was demonstrably greater when compared to Trump” (Wiggins 3). Popular culture within the realm of the BSDMS suggest more hate was directed toward the creation of anti-Clinton memes than anti-Trump. Proponents of the Sander’s campaign saw Clinton as being less qualified than Sanders, while Trump was simply being lashed out for pre-election stunts he had committed. The media messages within the democratic campaign seemed to fight more towards the demise of Clinton and less toward the hate for Donald Trump. This resulted in Clinton being accused by both her own party and of the Republican Party. The overwhelming amount of contempt associated with Clinton negatively portraying her more than other candidates caused for consumers of popular culture to have lower trust in her capabilities – which led to greater cynicism associated with her campaign messages.
Humor and Memes as a Tool in a Digital Age
Since memes have been proven to play a powerful role in the political discursive environment within popular culture, memes creation, dissent and consummation is all notably important. Memes are a catalyst for a few things: memes offer shortcuts of understanding; memes diffuse tensions; memes allow people to talk about intimidating election topics with ease; memes are a tool that can be used to generate activism; and memes allow individuals to express themselves through a form of visual rhetoric. These tools in a digital age are important to understand because humor can play a role in affecting culture. Humor can be a tool that fights oppression head on. Humor and memes are a means of dissent as it pushes political discussion through various forms of online engagement. Humor and memes carry social functions as they create identities and a sense of control. These are important factors to consider when dissecting the reasoning behind a certain meme’s creation or its ability to create activism, further dissent, and relive tensions. “Today with digital tools and social networking sites, humor can be an even more effective strategy for activism or dissent because of the affordability of content creation and the speed and efficiency by which it travels” (Pearce 72). Moreover, humor has the ability to attract those who are not interested in politics, increase political tension and learning, increase feelings of political efficacy and ability to allow people to look at politics with less scrutiny.
The means by which Bernie Sander’s bird meme became so popular was through its ability to so easily be spread through social media spheres. The meme was just one example of how an idea or image was created and then spread throughout a culture. The ability for user-generated content to be a tool to engage in political discourse led people to form grassroots movements through meme generated political discourse. “The internet has elevated supporters to the role of surrogates, capable of creating their own messages and running their own online campaigns on their social media feeds” (Hess 1). This allowed people to not only be consumers of information, but also producers of it. Memes and other tools within digital culture allowed people the freedom to manipulate campaign messages to tailor new conversations around candidates. “Internet memes are not simply static images with text but rather represent activities that guide and alter the dynamics of human culture” (Wiggins 3). In this sense, a meme is essentially a complex system of social movements with various structural features that aim to embody new cultural meanings on subjects within campaigns.
Probably the most common and simplest use of a meme is its ability to create shortcuts, in the sense a single image carries with it certain emotions and styles of thought. This unspoken aspect of memes is what makes them so useful and easy to use. Instead of describing feelings through copy, a person can simply choose a favorite meme for the certain situation; similarly to the way people use emojis. This aspect of meme-sharing often occurred on social media when people wanted to express their feelings on certain candidates.
Memes played a role in the discursive political environment as means of relieving tensions. People used humor to diffuse tension because it eases pressure and allows for a more relaxed or funny conversation to unfold. As tensions rose with the decision to elect either Trump or Clinton in the 2016 election, people became weary when deciding which candidate could possible fit the presidential position better. Memes were often used to alleviate these tensions, while casting jabs at their candidate in the process. Some candidates were the butt of jokes more than others. For example, Clinton received a substantially larger amount of backlash on social media than Trump. While Trump was perceived as something of a “joker, wildcard, and possibly as an agent of chaos,” (Wiggins 4) memes of Clinton on the other hand carried a strong sense of “rejecting her as part of the establishment,” (Wiggins 4) and further pushed the trope of Clinton as an agent of untrustworthiness and deception.
Another instance where memes were used to relieve tensions through humor, while adding to the political discursive environment was when Ted Cruz was accused of being the Zodiac Killer. Leigh Alexander of The Guardian said it best when she wrote:
‘Skewered by social media memes’ is the essential story of the Cruz campaign, and the gleeful and prolific satires of the ordinary citizens’ online community surely played a role in exaggerating the candidate’s inherent strangeness, sketching him as a grotesque figure vulnerable to his rivals” (Alexander 1).
The meme originally started as an idea from a t
Twitter user, but quickly gained traction on many different social media sites. This is just one example of how Cruz’s popularity changed after user generated memes took aim at some of his quirks. Similar to how satirical cartoons printed in magazines and newspapers have been taking shots at political figures ever since the dawn of newspaper publications back in the 1800’s.
This example of how Ted Cruz became the subject of jokes through the powerful discursive environment of social media meme campaigns goes to show how memes can not only be used as a tool for humorous engagement to relieve tension, but also how their abilities can translate into real-world issues for campaigns. Sometimes, the power of memes directed at candidates is so overwhelming, that the candidate needed to respond. In the case of Ted Cruz being accused of being the Zodiac Killer, his wife, Heidi Cruz elicited a response, “Well, I’ve been married to him for 15 years, and I know pretty well who he is, so it doesn’t bother me at all. There’s a lot of garbage out there” (Paul 4). This example, and others like it, proved to be devastating for the candidates’ social appearance, rendering him laughably incompetent to become president in the public eye. As Joe Readle of Getty images puts it, “It’s probably absurd to assume that one image could someone’s political career. But what about lots of them?” (Alexander 1).
Additionally, memes are a great tool that have changed the way people communicate, specifically when it comes to activism. Now, it is important to note that “the number of memes isn’t necessarily a positive correlation to how the candidate is viewed. A lot of memes are poking fun at candidates” (Paul 4). This is most evident in discussing Clinton’s appearance in memes. As evident in the Bernie Sander Dank Meme Stash on Facebook, it was more important to denounce a Clinton presidency than to suggest and possibility of have a Trump victory. “It is possible that the vitriol directed at Clinton occurred due to a concerted effort to out-meme any potential Clinton support, thereby positioning her as objectionable and indirectly encouraging the embrace of other candidates through silent acquiescence” (Wiggins 5). Wiggins goes on to express the idea that by denouncing the Clinton, an establishment candidate who was perceived to win the election, Trump chances of winning proportionately rose (Wiggins).
No other candidate in presidential election history has used social media more in their campaigning than Trump. He has called Clinton “such a nasty woman,” “crooked Hillary,” and much more. He even used her own words against her when she chose to use the phrase, “basket of deplorable” when referring to Trump supporters. The phrase immediately became a focal point for hate against her as Trump supporters bashed the candidate for making such a statement. Trump supporters took to Twitter to express outrage at the candidate’s use of the phrase and even started wearing t-shirts that said “deplorable” on it. This negative term was now used against her by Trump supporters to ignite rage against the democratic candidate, while also showing support for Trump (Hess).
Historically, meme generation was mainly used by democratic-leaning activists to show support or cast hate. However, the 2016 presidential election showcased the rise of the Republican presence in the online sphere – “among them, men’s rights activists, pickup artists and white nationalists, all of which feed into the freewheeling ‘alt-right’ movement” (Hess 5). Trumps online aesthetic fueled right-leaning activists to take aim at Clinton in a similar manner in which Trump has so popularly done. In a way, Trump’s online presence created an army of activists, ready and willing to back him in a variety of ways that no other candidate before him
had been able gather support for in the past (Hess).
Understanding Fake News with Humor and Meme’s Role in Change in Media Technology
Since user-generated memes can be useful for generating activism and dissent in the form of humor amongst a wide audience with ease, it is important to note their creation is informal and lacks credibility when related to that of official news organizations. Similar to the way grassroots movements are created and spread starting at the lay-civilian level of society, so is fake news. Fake news, like memes, are originally created from an idea that eventually gains traction after its created and altered by many – leaving many variations and interpretations up to the reader to decipher. The term ‘fake news’ became overwhelmingly popular throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle, and it brought with it a lot of confusion and irrational rhetoric in popular political discourse. Trump is most notable for using the term ‘fake news’ when opposing news stories that negatively portrayed his appearance in the social sphere. The spread and further discussion of ‘fake news’ was perpetuated by official news organizations. News organizations perpetuated the discussion on controversial ‘fake news’ topics because there were benefits in doing so.
The peak of fake news dissent came in the final weeks before 2016 presidential election. The New York Times reported on the Saturday before the election, “[The Denver Guardian] claimed that an F.B.I. agent connected to Hillary Clinton’s email disclosures had murdered his wife and shot himself. The story was fabricated, and The Denver Post published a detailed report explaining that The Denver Guardian was a hoax” (Rogers and Bromwich 1). These false stories began to spread like wild-fire. Even elected officials began sharing false information on their social media feeds: “Jefferson Riley , the Republican mayor of Mansfield, GA, posted a message on his Facebook page: “Remember the voting days: Republicans vote on Tuesday, 11/8 and Democrats vote on Wednesday, 11/9” (Rogers and Bromwich 1). Even though the mayor deleted his tweet soon after posting it, his attempted humor could have been construed to some a legitimate notification. Fake news, like memes, are able to be created by any and all, leaving the common citizen subject to fallacies even from their own mayor in the latter instance.
The rise of social media brought a new age of receiving information. With it, brought a means a new means of political engagement. Users are able to relay content from user-generated news sources that do not follow the same standard or rules associated with conventional news sources. Often times, these unconventional news sources on social media go un-fact-checked and are not subject to editorial judgement or any sort of fact-based filtering measures.
Recent evidence shows that: 1) 62 percent of US adults get news on social media; 2) the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories; 3) many people who see fake news stories report that they believe them; 4) the most discussed fake news stories tended to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton (Alcott and Gentzkow).
The last point is ironic considering Trump was overwhelmingly more vocal about how ‘fake news’ had targeted him throughout his campaign. Regardless, these statistics demonstrate the unorthodox nature of how people receive and believe information in the new age of politically driven social media marketing (Alcott and Gentzkow).
The spread and use of fake news is easier and more marketable than ever before. In this digital age, barriers to entry in the media industry are quite low. It is now simpler than ever to create a “news” website and monetize its content to make a profit. Through the creation of insane-to-believe news headlines and eye-catching titles, anyone with the means of setting up a website and distributing its content can make ‘fake news’. The creation of this content, however lucrative it may be, is not present in national news organization like NBC, Fox News, The New York Times, etc. in order to maintain credibility and accountability in journalism. Speaking about their presence and suggesting truths behind their claims however is definitely part of their schema (Alcott and Gentzkow).
The rise in fake news came at a time where Americans began to trust mass media less than ever before. “Polls reveal a continuing decline of ‘trust and confidence’ in the mass media when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly” (Alcott and Gentzkow 215). Hunt and Gentzkow suggest the declining trust in mainstream media could be both a cause and consequence of fake news gaining more traction – especially amongst Republicans over Democrats. Likewise, Alcott and Gentzkow suggest two main motivations for the production of fake news: 1) “news articles that go viral on social media can draw significant advertising revenue when users click to the original site”; 2) “the second motivation is ideological. Some fake news providers seek to advance candidates they favor” (Alcott and Gentzkow 217). The rise in social media use proved to be a perfect place for fake news sources to flourish, especially in the unorthodox discursive environment surrounding the 2016 presidential election. By producing fake news, users were able to pick and choose articles that appealed to their initial beliefs – further perpetuating feelings of anger or love for their preferred candidate. This proved to be detrimental in terms understanding what was actually the truth and what was simply a ploy to elicit more views, thus creating monetary gain for rogue news sources.
Since fake news played such a large role throughout the political discursive environment on social media, user-generated content in the form of memes responding to such stories also circulated quite frequently. This proved to have a detrimental toll on democratic engagement. Since consumers who mistook fake news as legitimate sources of information, their inaccurate beliefs caused them to be worse off when conversing in social media activism. The illegitimate claims of fake news sources were therefore perpetuated by user-generated content – furthering the confusing nature of the news subjects. Alcott and Gentzkow also suggested that since people who believed and engaged in these news topics were misinformed to such a degree “consumers may also become more skeptical of legitimate news producers, to the extent that they become hard to distinguish from fake news producers” (Alcott and Gentzkow 219). This inability to discern real from fake may have caused the result of the presidential election.
The purpose of this study on the topic of fake news and its ability to deceive and perpetuate inaccuracies amongst voters is not to claim Trump was the victor solely because of his voter base’s higher susceptibility to believing such false information, it demonstrates how social media and user-generated content can be used to sway election topics and cause debate. Democratic engagement during the 2016 presidential election has differed from any other election. The use of memes to generate activism and dissent amongst wide audiences has proved to be a vital tool in the spread of information, whether real or fake. The power of social media has proven to be a vital instrument in spreading campaign propaganda and has allowed for voters to directly engage with its messaging through social media engagement. The manner in which information is spread and consumed during this past election is historically dissimilar to previous norms surrounding political discursive environments. There is still much to be known about how social media affects people’s opinions and how people are psychologically willing to accept or deny sources of information based on preconceived notions from social media engagement within their specific spheres.
Could humor and memes have played a role in the turnout of the 2016 presidential election through their creation of an unorthodox discursive environment amongst both presidential candidates and United States citizens? The evidence presented demonstrates a clear picture as to the rise and popularity of memes in popular culture and their ties to ‘fake news’ outlets. These news outlets may have been perpetuating the spread of false news from user-generated memes. Each object of study, popular culture intertextuality and media power, humor and memes as visual political rhetoric, memes ability to create a large system change, and meme’s roles in focus of the spread of fake news, led scholars to believe that ‘fake news’ might have been pivotal in the election of President Trump.
By understanding the power of memes in media and the tools they stand for will uncover a theme that embodies the unorthodox nature that political discourse took in this past election cycle. Considering meme’s have capabilities to enable activism, further dissent, spark outrage or even be humorously inviting, scholars suggest there to be much evidence to demonstrate meme’s capability to quickly provide further exposure to news and events. In light of memes’ capabilities to further dissent amongst wide audiences, memes’ ability to further the exposure of fake news directly and indirectly may have been particularly important when considering how much pro-Trump media was consumed over pro-Clinton media. Since ‘fake news’ imposes some social cost, what can and should be done to stop this from happening in future elections?
Facebook may not be the creators of ‘fake news’ itself, but with such an immense user base, it certainly has solidified itself as the world’s largest disseminator of ‘fake news.’ Should Facebook rely on the trust of informed users and journalists rather than Facebook taking a stance on regulating the circulation of news information spread on its domain? Social media sites face the difficult task of vetting their news sharing capabilities to better target and cease the spread of fraudulent sources. In doing so, social media sites may boost or ensure social welfare and the public’s ability to make educated decisions not based on untruths. However, if social media sites like Facebook become the mediator of information that spreads throughout society, or those who use Facebook, who then, becomes the arbiter of truth?
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