Few things are more visually pervasive on in the Internet—in our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds—than memes. Sometimes they’re designed to make us laugh. Sometimes they’re designed to make us ponder the mysteries of life. Sometimes they’re offensive. Sometimes they’re ingenious.
And sometimes they just might change the course of a presidential election.
While that may seem like an audacious, perhaps even a ridiculous, statement, there are those that believe otherwise. An article published at Complex.com in May 2016 is titled, “How Memes Shaped the 2016 Presidential Election.” Television news Channel Five (WTVF) in Nashville, TN, produced a segment in February 2016 titled, “Could Political Memes Impact Election Results?” The Brown (Brown University) Political Review offered a March 2016 article titled “The Role of Memes in Politics.” There are websites—politicalmemes.com and electmeme.lol—dedicated specifically to political memes. There are numerous websites that feature the “top political memes” of the 2016 election season.
But none of that answers the initial question: Could a meme actually affect the course of an election, or change someone’s mind in terms of who they may or may not vote for? There are plenty of people who think they can, who think they already have (read articles on the “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” meme trend that swept social media if you need convincing). And if a meme did change a voter’s mind, or actually had an impact on the election at large, why was that meme so effective?
“The visual aspect of the meme is probably more important than the content, because it needs to instantly be a joke,” stated Ari Spool, a “meme scientist” at Know Your Meme, in a 2015 Vice Magazine article about why some memes go “viral” and some don’t. “It’s definitely not a science, but my personal opinion is that the formula often involves absurdity, and it also requires a certain inside-joke quality. I think people like humor that seems tailored directly to them, and memes, while they may appeal widely, have the appearance of an inside joke that everyone is sharing and owning and creating.”
Until the day comes where election exit polls include a questions about internet memes (“Did a political meme affect your decision today? If so, which one?”), we’re left only with supposition on their election-day impact. Here are some of the most entertaining, offensive and impactful memes of the 2016 presidential election season.
Bernie Sanders “scares” Donald Trump at rally
As is the case with most memes, the creator of the meme (in this case, a gif file) is unknown, (or at least, unproven). But it remains one of the funniest and most popular memes of the entire election season. Humor was clearly the name of the game here, with the underlying theme being “watch out Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (and his growing popularity) is out to get you!” While the Sanders v. Trump election did not come to pass (leaving millions of Bernie fans despondent), this political meme is destined to live on in internet lore.
Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer
The origin of this meme has been traced to a tweet from 2013 from an account called @RedPillAmerica. The tweet stated, “#CPAC Alert: Ted Cruz is speaking!! His speech is titled: ‘This Is The Zodiac Speaking’. Then the memes started, and did not stop, for years. Yes, literally, years. The “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” meme trend finally peaked in February 2016 during the period of the GOP Primary Debates. While the idea behind the meme is clearly ridiculous—Cruz was born in 1970 and the Zodiac Killer committed his murders in 1968 and ’69—it contributed to the negative perceptions (the word most often used was “creepy”) that afflicted Cruz throughout his campaign.
Things I trust more than Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton
Popular culture and politics meet face-to-face with this internet meme trend that continues, and likely will until the election runs its course. The “things I trust more than so-and-so” change regularly—they need to be tied in to something current, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or the ongoing sexual assault trials against Bill Cosby—but the idea is the same. They’re funny, they’re timely and they get the point across: This candidate is completely unable to be trusted on any level.
The Clinton email scandal that will not go away
Benghazi (the September 11, 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya) created a storm of negative attention for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and yet it still hasn’t caused as much damage to her current polling numbers as her email scandal has. And the memes aren’t helping. There are hundreds of email-related Clinton memes starring everyone from the “skeptical African kid” to Heath Ledger’s “Joker” to Richard Nixon.
Of course, many showcase Hillary herself with some crazy look on her face or wearing sunglasses, looking arrogant and flippant. Some reference Tom Brady and the cell phone he allegedly destroyed (“Deflategate”), some compare Clinton to Richard Snowden. Some are humorous, but most are designed to create anger in the viewer as they make Clinton appear as if she is above the law of the “common person.” There can be little doubt, however, that this meme theme continues to be a thorn in Clinton’s side.
“Trump is stupid—and so are his supporters”
“Dumb” jokes are among the easiest to make, which means they’re also prime fodder for memes. Humor is also a key to memes going viral, which is certainly one of the reasons why there are so many memes that show how “dumb” Trump is, or by extension, how stupid his supporters must be to want him to be President of the United States. The point these memes are attempting to convey is obvious: If you’re voting for Donald Trump, you’re a moron, because he’s a moron. Typically, the meme features one of Trump’s less-than-stellar “quotable” moments (such as his recent “analysis” of the history of the Iran/Iraq conflict), or features some popular TV or movie character that implores the meme viewer not to vote for Trump.
Connecting a candidate to something vile
From the moment that the infamous white nationalist David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan came out in support of Donald Trump’s candidacy, there have been memes designed to paint Donald Trump and his supporters as racist. While some of the “Trump and his supporters are racists” memes are designed with humor, most are much more dark in their direction and tenor. The most damaging of these are arguably the ones comparing Trump to Hitler (due to the similarities some seen in Trump’s idea that Muslims wear ID badges and Hitler’s idea that Jews should wear ID badges). Is Donald Trump a racist? It’s hard to know one way or the other, but with thousands of “Trump is a racist” memes in circulation, there are clearly many, many people who believe he is (and want everyone else to believe it, too).
Hillary Clinton, by comparison, continues to be demonized over the events of September 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans died). She’s called “evil,” while other memes claim she has their blood on her hands. Though it is impossible to say that Hillary Clinton and Hillary Clinton alone was responsible for the deaths of those Americans, she has taken the brunt of the blame for Benghazi since it happened four years ago.
There is also a persistent (and preposterous) idea that’s found its way into the public consciousness. That idea is, the Clintons have people murdered. There are plenty of conspiracy theorist websites (see here and here for starters) touting “proof” (or lack thereof) that the Clintons routinely have people murdered; specifically, those who would “expose” some secret of theirs that would land Bill or Hillary in jail. While it is as ridiculous a rumor as the strange Zodiac Killer accusation that hurt Ted Cruz, it is still just as pervasive.