Internet memes emerge as election's dog whistle
In a presidential race where social media drives much of the political conversation, Internet memes have emerged as the lingua franca of the modern campaign.
Those humorous images, short videos and slogans ricochet across Twitter and Facebook with the speed of an irresistible piece of celebrity gossip. They deliver instant commentary on, say, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s debate-night sniffles or Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s shimmy.
Some are far uglier, referencing the Holocaust or the deaths of black Americans.
That memes have come to define, satirize and add a dose of digital ugly to the 2016 race for the White House is not lost on the Clinton and Trump campaigns. Both camps have embraced certain memes as a shorthand way to share inside jokes with supporters, spread campaign messages or deliver rhetorical gut punches to their opponent, while distancing themselves from the most hateful.
“Something as simple as telling Trump to delete his account” — Clinton’s Twitter retort to a Trump tweet dismissing her endorsement this summer by President Obama — “is the kind of thing that can move around,” said Joe Rospars, founder of Blue State Digital and former chief digital strategist of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns.
Trump is a walking, talking meme-generator, coining disparaging nicknames that stick uncomfortably to political opponents and reverberate endlessly in the echo chamber of social media, including “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Ted” for his Republican rival for the presidential nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
The political potency of memes in an era of media fragmentation came into focus again last week after the millionaire founder of the Oculus virtual reality headset company, Palmer Luckey, admitted he donated money to a group looking to fund online smear attacks via memes of Clinton. The group, Nimble America, did not respond to an emailed list of questions about the underground campaign, but claims to be responsible for a billboard in Pittsburgh that features a distorted image of Clinton, with exaggerated high forehead and pursed lips, under the headline “Too Big to Jail."
Pepe, skittles, stars
Often the memes bubble up as harmless pop culture references that, on deeper look, have affiliations with hate groups.
Take the smirking visage of Pepe the frog — a cartoon character from Matt Furie’s comic “Boy’s Cub,” which celebrated the slacker lifestyle of “drinkin’, stinkin’ and never thinkin.’” It was initially circulated online as a goofy and and harmless joke meme by teens and then celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. But then it was adopted as a mascot by white supremacists and anti-Semites, dressed up in a Klan hood or Hitler mustache.
With those memes circulating, inserting Pepe into any visual message could to signal allegiance to in-the-know groups in a way that looked innocuous to outsiders. On Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League added it to its list of hate symbols.
Two weeks earlier, Donald Trump Jr. had shared with his followers on Instagram a photo meant to lampoon a Clinton remark that half of the Republican nominee’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables.” The photo, also shared by Trump adviser and confidante Roger Stone, superimposed the faces of Pepe, Donald Trump Sr., and others on a poster for the action film “The Expendables.”
Trump Jr. told ABC he didn't know it had any negative connotation, and the Trump campaign said it doesn't deliberately use the symbols and code white supremacists use to signify their alliance.
“Mr. Trump's massive social media following is engaged by his message to Make America Great Again, a conversation he drives with authentic and genuine interactions and content,” said Hope Hicks, a Trump spokesperson. “Mr. Trump and the campaign have repeatedly disavowed all groups and individuals associated with a message of hate.”
Charges of the Republican presidential candidate’s winking courtship of white supremacists have dogged Trump ever since the real estate magnate and reality TV star rose to national political prominence on a five-year-long “birther” campaign that falsely questioned President Obama’s citizenship. It's continued as he's tweeted or retweeted memes with links to racist or anti-Semitic groups.
The campaign apologized this summer for Trump’s anti-Clinton tweet featuring a Star of David placed atop a giant pile of moneythat was criticized as anti-Semitic. The image originated on an Internet bulletin board associated with the alt-right that included Neo-Nazi sentiment.
"I do think the campaign is using them as dog whistles, but most likely because of the content of memes, not because of the origins,” said Nicole Hemmer, a University of Virginia professor and author of the book “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics," adding, “The whole point of dog-whistling is to disguise overt racism and anti-Semitism.”
Earlier this month, Trump Jr. was rebuked for a tweet that featured a bowl of Skittles with a caption that read, “If you had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
Trump Jr., who is a top advisor in his father’s presidential campaign, drew online fire for showing insensitivity to victims of a civil war that has displaced some 5 million people. But observers of the alt-right saw something else.
Skittles have been used by white nationalists since the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman while walking back to his father’s townhouse with a bag of the multicolored candies he’d bought at a nearby 7-Eleven. It’s become an online symbol of opposition to the BlackLivesMatter movement.
“Every time there’s another shooting, (members of the alt-right) pepper in images of Skittles. It’s a way of sign-posting to others, one that you have opposition,” said Angelo Carusone, executive vice president of Media Matters for America, a liberal advocacy group.
Reddit, 4chan, 8chan
Anonymous online message boards, particularly Reddit but also sites like 4chan and 8chan, have become incubators for such memes. These passionate online communities develop images that promote a particular message — and the most popular get “voted” to top.
Once a meme achieves resonance within this community, it’ll get plucked out and recirculated on a Facebook page or on Twitter, effectively crossing over to the mainstream.
Clinton’s campaign, with its well-organized fundraising apparatus and digital team, has crafted many of its own memes to parry her rival’s political barbs.
When Trump accused Clinton of playing the “woman’s card” for political gain, the Clinton’s rapid response team campaign turned Trump’s dismissive remark against him, using social media to urge voters to collect their “woman card” by donating to the campaign.
A series of fundraising emails brought in $2.4 million in three days.
“There’s an element of happy warrior and good-humored defiance for something like that,” said Rospars, whose digital consulting firm is working with the Clinton campaign. “The woman card is not something for undecided voters. It’s one of these inside jokes. You want your supporters to be committed, but also calm and productive in how they respond to attacks on the candidate or attacks on the campaign.”
Clinton supporters 'astro-turfing'
The Democratic presidential candidate has benefited from the work of surrogates who engage in Astro-turfing — orchestrated online campaigns that are designed to look as if they originate with grassroots supporters.
Self-described media organization Shareblue writes stories designed to spark outrage among Clinton supporters — then fans the flames on social media. The New York Times recently described how the firm started the #Trump50percent Twitter campaign to bring attention to a Trump remark last year that half the country didn’t want to work — a social media effort launched around the time when the media was fixated on Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark.
Another group, the Correct the Record super PAC, announced it would spend $1 million during the Democratic primary to confront supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who posted unkind things about Clinton online. Both are associated with Clinton supporter David Brock.
Clinton was the inspiration for one of the earliest political memes. The iconic 2011 photograph of then-Secretary of State Clinton using her BlackBerry while wearing sunglasses took on a life of its own.
“As far as I can recall, that was really the first huge political one — where people took it over and made it their own,” said Christina Sheffey, director of video at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a digital advertiser of the Democratic party.
'I like Ike'
In a sense, memes are a modern version of the political tools of yesteryear, when campaigns handed out lapel pins and bumper stickers with pithy slogans, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike,” or developed catchy commercial jingles proclaiming “Kennedy for Me!” in support of John F. Kennedy’s candidacy.
“Presidential campaigns have always been engaged in trying to find these persuasive, short, compelling tools,” said UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck, co-author of “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election.”
The main difference is anyone can come up with a slogan that the campaign embraces.
“It’s as if we let everybody make button for Richard Nixon in 1960 and go to a flea market and the guy who sells the most button wins,” said Vavreck, who is currently working on a book about the 2016 contest.
Dawn Chmielewski is a journalist covering technology and media. In the past she’s written for Recode and the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @DawnC331