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Monday, August 12, 2013

The Snarky Punch Line on Facebook and the Media

An Internet political meme featuring President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Even if you didn't watch any of the three presidential debates, 
chances are you're familiar with Big Birdbinders and bayonets.
The words were barely out the candidates' mouths before Internet memes — 
snarky punch lines slapped across images that, in this case, served as a 
takedown of a candidate or issue — began appearing on Facebook, Twitter 
and Tumblr feeds, where they quickly went viral.
The Romney and Obama campaigns may have spent hundreds of millions 
of dollars on TV and Web ads, but spontaneous memes created by 
average people are stealing their thunder and arguably doing a better job 
of "messaging," says Vincent Harris, a Republican political consultant who 
ran the digital campaigns of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich 
at various times during the GOP primary.
"The campaigns were not expecting these memes to be picked up by 
the general public, and certainly not in the way they've been used in 
these presidential debates," he says.
Poised To Pounce
Harris says he first noticed the power of memes when Mitt Romney 
bet Perry $10,000 over a policy dispute during a debate last December. 
"At the time, I was working for Perry. That $10,000 bet launched a series 
of memes that worked in our favor," he says.
Mitt Romney meme
Since then, what Harris calls a cadre of 
"social media elite" have been poised to 
pounce, "looking for any stumble or 
catchphrase to latch onto and produce 
a meme."
This election season has given rise to a slew o
f incisive and hilarious memes.
How effective have they been? "These 
memes have a whole lot of resonance 
with voters, and they are very successful at branding the candidates, 
mostly in a negative way. And, they are virtually cost-free," Harris notes.
Paul Brewer, associate director for research at the University of Delaware's 
Center for Political Communication, says he's fascinated by the sudden 
emergence of political Internet memes.
"Partly because they are a new phenomenon and partly because they 
are a participatory form of campaigning. It's so easy for citizens to 
generate these and for them to take off," he says.
Who's Funnier?
Memes have become a running commentary on the debates — and the 
most effective ones echo long after the debates end, Brewer says. 
While political memes aren't entirely new, they've caught fire largely 
because the way we experience debates has changed.
"Many of us are using television, social media, smartphones and 
tablets all at the same time as we take in the debates," Brewer says. 
"By the time the debate is halfway over, there's already a Tumblr site
full of memes."
An Internet meme poking fun at President Obama.
The campaigns have tried to get out front 
and control the message by creating 
memes of their own. But Brewer adds 
that none of them seems to have captured 
attention like those generated at the 
grass-roots level.
"The people hunkered down in the campaign
 bunker aren't going to be able to compete with the thousands of people 
out there. The crowd is inevitably going to have funnier ideas," he says.
The 'Wild West'
It represents a huge loss of control for the campaigns, regardless of 
whether the message is negative or seemingly beneficial, says Harris, 
the GOP consultant.
"It's the Wild West out there," he says. Even a well-intentioned supporter 
could generate inappropriate memes. "There could be a boomerang effect, 
where the message comes back to hit the candidate in the face."
For the campaigns that are simply on the wrong end of an unflattering meme, 
they can try a redirect, he says.
For example, in response to the "binders full of women" memes, the 
Republican National Committee created its own meme featuring a photo 
of a binder filled with blank pages and captioned "Obama's Second-Term 
Harris thinks smart campaigns will want to hire more staff to focus solely 
on social media, where they can communicate with citizens creating the 
memes, and others shaping perceptions of debates or other events.
"We are entering a post-pundit era, where people don't care so much 
what these talking heads are saying," he says. "A lot more is being 
decided by the online chatter."

Published 10-16-2012

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