If you listen to political analysts discuss the 2016 presidential campaign, you’ll often hear that it broke trends in several unprecedented and upsetting ways. Foreign powers colluding to usurp our government? Check. A man without a political background going on to win the presidency? Check. Internal collusion within the Democratic National Committee to ensure the success of one candidate over another? Check.
One major new actor on the political stage, however, was social media. While one could argue that social media played an important part in the proceedings of the 2012 election, its role in the 2016 election completely eclipses its previous performance. The rise of subreddits like r/thedonald, the algal bloom of Twitter’s userbase and Facebook’s constant news algorithm mishaps all contributed to the strangeness of the election cycle.
However, there is one dimension to social media’s role that feels criminally overlooked: politicians trying to use memes.
I could complain for hours on end about major corporations or organizations trying to tap into the powerful clout that memes provide, but my magnifying glass here lies solely over politicians. Who could forget Chillary Clinton’s famous “tell us in 3 emojis or less” tweet? Or, perhaps, prominent Democratic and Republican Facebook groups launching pejorative doge memes at each other? If those aren’t your speed, what about Rand Paul trying out a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread? The list goes on.
However, my last straw was Ted Cruz last week tweeting a Zodiac Killer image, sounding the death knell for the whole joke altogether.
My issue stems from the fact that politicians are very firmly not our friends. They do not understand how internet culture operates, and making attempts at invoking it come off as transparent and exploitative. Why else would Hillary awkwardly try to make a Vine, if not to try relating to “the kids”? Why else would any of them do any of the weirdly unfunny things they’ve tried to do, if not to benefit from it? Let your interns go home and go make a documentary or something.
Beyond the fact that their efforts bear little comedic fruit, there’s the additional point that the community they’re trying to reach with their attempts at humor is a community they’re actively screwing over with their work. Ted Cruz has continuously worked to neuter healthcare in Texas, making medicines and medical procedures more expensive. Hillary has backed a number of controversial projects like the Keystone Pipeline, and continues to represent a number of the Democratic party’s antiquated and harmful ideas. Rand Paul is Rand Paul. Et cetera et cetera.
Level with me here: I get that this is sort of nitpicky, and that there are bigger fish to fry. But I feel like this whole problem is symptomatic of a bunch of larger problems in the political system that have yet to be addressed. For example, there’s the fact that essentially any politician on a national scale can now cash in on this trend of appealing to people online by bashing Donald Trump or making a stale, cringeworthy meme, regardless of what they’ve done in the past. People rave about their bravery or their sassiness when they’re passing underhanded legislation in the background. It’s a cheap tactic that they receive too much credit for.
In general, we just need to be more aware of the content we consume online. It threads back to the big-picture problems, like Facebook’s algorithms; we don’t pick things apart enough, and end up shooting ourselves in the foot. Ted Cruz jokingly implicating himself as the Zodiac Killer shouldn’t just be lame, it should also be seen as a cheap way for an unlikeable man to try to worm his way into the spotlight. Don’t let these people off the hook so easily, especially if you’re a college student whose loan debt is at the mercy of senators and congressmen who care more about quick fame than your future.
Evan Siegel is a fourth-year literary journalism and criminology, law and society double major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.