Welcome to the Internet: The Role of Memes in the Presidential Election

Recently Donald Trump advisor Roger Stone tweeted a image featuring a number of figures associated with the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

In the picture, flanking Trump, were people like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Trump’s sons and professional troll Milo Yannopoulos.

But, among these ostensibly non-fictional characters, one stood out: a cartoon frog immediately to Trump’s right.

He’s known as Pepe the Frog. It’s a meme that became popular on 4chan and has since been embraced by the self-described “alt-right,” a petulant group of internet neo-Nazis.

It’s a sign of just how prominent a role memes are playing in the U.S. presidential election campaign.

The image, which was later posted on Instagram by Donald Trump Jr., is a sort of meme itself.

The photoshopped movie poster, referencing Hilary Clinton’s claim that half of Trump’s supporters were “a basket of deplorables,” is a type of image that’s familiar to anyone who spends much time on the internet.

What’s new, though, is that this is coming from the campaign of a man who has a legitimate shot at becoming president.

For the first time, internet culture is shaping political discourse in the U.S. and it’s doing that at the highest levels.

Politicians have used the internet for years, but never like this.

Barack Obama leveraged the internet to identify potential voters, send them highly-targeted messages and raise millions of dollars from small donors.

It was an extension of his offline campaign, a new set of tools to do an old job.

Even in the age of social media, politicians, at least mainstream ones, have generally used the internet the way brands and media companies do: as a way to reach targeted audiences and, occasionally, to engage in some tightly controlled conversations.

Politicians didn’t use the internet the way people do, especially people who use sites like Reddit and 4chan.

In the past, when politicians have tried to make memes, it’s tended to go poorly. Trump’s campaign is different. Its use of memes isn’t an attempt to piggy-back on internet pop-culture in a misguided attempt to reach “the youth.”

Instead, its use of memes like Pepe are a way to subtly signal to a specific audience – in this case white nationalists – that the campaign stands with them.

It’s digital dogwhistle.

It makes sense that Trump’s campaign would know how to use memes – many of his top advisors and their fellow-travellers come from communities that developed online, like the 9/11 “truth” movement and the alt-right.

And it doesn’t hurt that Trump himself is endlessly memeable.

But it’s not just Trump. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president, Tweeted about Harambe last month. Now, with polls putting her popularity around three per cent, Stein isn’t exactly mainstream – but she’s definitely being influenced by memes.

More than that, memes having an effect on the way people think about individual politicians.

In 2004, a scream derailed the candidacy of Howard Dean, who was running for the democratic nomination. This year, it was Jeb Bush asking an audience to “please clap.”

While the “Dean scream” was mocked on television and radio, Bush was the subject of countless Vines. YouTube may have been even worse for Bush than Vine. There, videos made him looks sad and pathetic.

Memes may not have been the only thing responsible for the collapse of the Bush campaign, but there’s no doubt that they played a role.

Still, there are limits to the internet’s influence over presidential politics. Hillary Clinton has been the subject of memes but she’s hasn’t put them to use and that’s probably for the best. Her attempts at being contemporary on social media have been cringeworthy.

But one thing’s for sure—this is just the beginning.

The boundaries between online political movements and mainstream politics are breaking down and the online ones often have reach beyond their numbers.

And, as more and more people become familiar with internet culture, memes can only play a growing role in politics.