The Left Can’t Meme is a phrase alt-righters use to claim victory for the ascension of Donald Trump in 2016. Whilst this is predominantly used to trigger ‘liberal snowflakes’ online, they may have a point.
Political memes are not a new thing. Cartoonists have been satirising politicians since the start of print journalism. Before writing books, Dr. Seuss started his career as a political cartoonist, creating cartoons about the USA’s lack of intervention at the start of WWII.
What I think makes memes a much more effective political tool today are their simplicity and instant recognisability. By using an already popular meme format, one can easily push thoughts and opinions through a meme. This is made even more successful now that can potentially be seen by millions on social media, now a key battleground for political parties and interest groups.
The resurgence in political interest amongst the youth makes memes even more enticing for politicians, who are now spiralling trying to appeal to millennials and Generation Z after years of targeting median voters in the ‘middle England’ demographic.
So far, politicians have failed to actually utilise memes themselves. ‘Hillary Clinton’s Meme Machine’ is a hilariously cringy video that featured No-Scoping, the Harlem Shake and Harambe memes. The fake meme ad satirises just how out of touch Clinton is with the majority of young voters. She fell into the trap of trying to appeal to a community she didn’t belong to looking condescending.
By anonymously spreading memes through various social media streams, individuals have the potential to alter perceptions and even voting intentions
This is a problem that plagues many politicians, as it is hard to combine memes and internet culture with the professional public image they aim to maintain. Until they break this status quo and will openly call Trump a motherf*cker (a description given by newly-elected Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib), they are best sticking to leaflets and BBC interviews.
Memes are instead best utilised as part of ideological movements. By anonymously spreading memes through various social media streams, individuals have the potential to alter perceptions and even voting intentions.
Ironically, whilst young people tend to be much more left-wing, the right have actually utilised memes in a more effective manner.
A UCL study into the spreading of memes found that the most effective memes came from a subreddit thread rife with alt-right users. In this study, the researchers concluded that the same subreddit was where ‘the most racist and politically motivated memes are posted’, whilst simultaneously being the best at spreading memes outside its community.
The alt-right attribute this victory over liberals to the ‘snowflake culture’ of the left. What this means is that liberals are less likely to use offensive or edgy humour in their memes, and it is this humour that often garners the most attention.
I don’t think, as some on the right do, that liberals are just not funny. Modern left-wing policies are just much harder to turn into memes. It is much harder to push the Green Deal or a living wage using memes than pushing the populist right-wing rhetoric of ‘build the wall’.
Memes are not fact-checked, but instead taken at face value, undermining any chance of a healthy debate
Memes are not just an innocent way to ease the tension and uncertainty of politics. One of the main problems with this type of political content is the lack of scrutiny they face. Memes are not fact-checked, but instead taken at face value, undermining any chance of a healthy debate.
They also turn political campaigns into ones of personality politics, as the most common memes will mock a person’s physical features; an easy way to win political points, but a cheap method, nonetheless. To some, this entire article will seem like a joke, but that is exactly the problem. Memes are immune to criticism as to condemn them is to condemn humour.
If you need to see the impact of memes on public perception, look no further than Ted Cruz. He was subject to an internet joke that asserted he was the Zodiac Killer. Despite the Senator being born after the last confirmed killing, Public Policy Polling surveyed Floridians and found 10% believed he was the killer, and 28% were not sure. Whilst some may take memes as a light-hearted joke, this doesn’t mean they cannot have far-reaching political consequences.