What do Big Bird, the number 47, Batman, and marijuana have in common? They are all important topics in the 2012 election! Or so Internet memes would have us believe. Memes do a great job of simplifying "arguments," or, more accurately, any dumb thing a politician said, wore, or smiled at. In doing so, memes successfully create fallacious arguments either for or against political candidates. This phenomenon is linked to what Arizona State professor Dr. Aaron Hess calls "vernacular spectacle." Hess believes that the general public is attracted to spectacular arguments (which are usually fallacious) and largely ignore sound arguments that take time to process and understand. This tendency is amplified on the internet. Hess's study in 2008 dealt with viral YouTube videos, but in our interview with Dr. Hess on October 23rd, he stated that the tenor of the 2012 election has lead more to memes than to videos (although videos are still very influential). An example of 2012 viral YouTube videos utilizes the same oversimplification techniques that memes do; the makers of this video took one phrase out of context and used it to build an entire fallacious argument against Obama.
This was not a one time occurrence; Mitt Romney was also featured in one of these spliced videos. An ABC article found here links to both videos and explains their virality. Aside from videos, though, both political parties are also guilty of using the humor of memes to convey their beliefs. However, the major fallacies come into play when we begin to look beyond the surface humor of memes; we find that memes aren't making real arguments at all. Instead, as Dr. Hess asserts, they use the fallacies of ad hominem (attacking the person instead of their argument), and guilt by association. As I alluded to in the opening lines of this post, some popular meme subjects that are utilized through these fallacies during the 2012 election have been race, Big Bird, Batman, binders, horses and bayonets, marijuana, appearance, money, birth certificates, and animals (see memes at the end of this post). All of these completely irrelevant, unrelated things have transcended the important issues at hand during this election.
Regardless of your personal political convictions, politicians, no matter their party, have a platform. They have opinions, they have policies, they have previous voting history, etc. Each and every politician stands for something, and it's their job, and the job of their ad campaign manager, to tell us what that something is. However, we are increasingly seeing these people being lax. Sure, they advertise, they sell themselves and bash their opponents, but they also let the public do their own campaign promotions and oppositions. In doing so, the general public is often more aware of the latest meme subject than a valid point that a politician made during that night's debate. Since memes simplify the creator's argument (which has absolutely nothing to do with the politician's beliefs), we are left with a humorous photo and a caption that tells us almost nothing of value. Not only this, but recent memes are found to be racist, prejudiced, profanity-ridden, sexist, and downright offensive.
And yet, it's no secret that politically-oriented memes are prevalent during this election season. In fact, googling Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in Google images will likely turn up more memes than actual photos of their campaigns. Despite this prominence in pop culture, the question still remains: just how influential are memes? Sure, we see them all the time, in our Facebook newsfeed, our Twitter timeline, and pretty much anywhere else on the Internet that we visit regularly. But do they actually affect our political views?
Dr. Hess seems to think that memes have less of an effect than we may think. "Memes are very popular," he said. "But they carry minor weight." Despite this, Dr. Hess also asserts that the oversimplification of arguments in memes naturally breeds polarization. Every time we see a meme, we are essentially taking in the most extreme version of anything that has happened in the realistic political sphere. While this is true, it seems hold true that uneducated folks will be more likely to be swayed by the fallacious arguments of memes than more educated digital media viewers. But no matter how influential they are, memes will always be extremist, and they will always breed polarization.
Moral of the story? Memes are funny. But don't use them as the basis for your voting choices next Tuesday. Just...don't.
Take a look at these memes (easily found by googling either "Barack Obama memes" or "Mitt Romney memes"), and challenge yourself to think about what they are really saying. Or are they saying anything at all? You decide. But don't just laugh at the intended humor. Think. Then form your opinions.