Trickle-down awareness: memes, social media & the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election

In 2008, everyone was certain we were seeing the first “social media election”. The term was paraded around day & night; candidates and their supporters flocked to Twitter and Facebook; many a voter turnout prediction was made.

What we saw in 2008 was nothing compared to what we’re seeing now in 2012. Four years later, the social media focus has moved beyond what the candidates are saying online and towards how people are reacting to what they’re saying.

Twitter reported a record 10.3 million tweets sent during the first presidential debate, 7.2 million during the second and 6.5 million during the third. Twitter is even indexing how the candidates are faring online via The Twitter Political Index.

What’s most encouraging, however, is the potential for trickle-down awareness via social media in this election. With Twitter users and meme-generators hanging on the candidates’ every word, the debates spawned inherently shareable images and videos that begged for context. Is it possible that these widely-shared images actually encouraged those not in the know to look into their origins?

I’d argue that it’s more than possible: in our social media age, no one likes to be left out. There’s a constant drive towards knowing what the next big thing will be, along with being privy to the many references to memes and politics now peppered into everyday conversation, online and off.

Here’s a meme recap:

“Eastwooding”, where Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair (a metaphor for Obama’s empty chair administration) spawned thousands of photos online, including one from President Barack Obama’s account.

Romney’s declaration during the first presidential debate that he’d scrap PBS, although he loved Big Bird, resulted in the photo below and 135,000 tweets per minute referencing Big Bird at its peak.

Romney’s internet fame continued in debate #2, when a question about workplace equality was answered with

““And I—and I went to my staff, and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are—are all men.’ They said: ‘Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.’ And I said: ‘Well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?’ And—and so we—we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.

In the third and final debate on foreign policy, Obama unleashed this zinger on Romney, calling out his outdated military ideas:

“You mention the Navy, for example, and the fact that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said. “We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

The horses & bayonets meme was born:

All this is interesting, but does it really translate into awareness? Consider this: when Romney made his “binders full of women” comment, the Internet was set ablaze with Tumblrs, a Facebook page, Twitter accounts and tweets galore within seconds. While that doesn’t automatically translate into awareness (especially with the understanding that an individual’s social connections and networks likely hover around the same level of political acuity that would inspire a re-post of a meme), the fact that those creating the new meme-related platforms are using them to share political content might.

Where a Binders Full of Women fanpage might have previously been a standalone page, re-circulating different aspects of the same meme, the creator has actually taken to using it as a platform for spreading political awareness and encouraging people to get out the vote (GOTV). These meme-creators and lovers are also political activists, set on spreading their message beyond the politically-inclined and onto those who might just hop onto a cool-internet-thing bandwagon.

So, will the memes of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election make a difference? It’s hard to say. However, this much is true: social media has been a true game-changer in how we experience elections. Through memes, live-tweeting and Facebook, it’s hard not to get informed. Not only are we consumers of information, political activists and innocent bystanders: we’re now active participants and content creators. GOTV tomorrow, America.