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Election 2013 media panel

Who generates election memes?

Tonight’s debate will be watched hawkishly by a range of ‘interested parties’ for material to generate image macro memes about the Prime Ministerial candidates.

Debates as sources for meme generation

Mitt Romney suffered in two of the three 2012 US Presidential debates due to gaffes made in response to questions.

In the first debate Romney argued for reduced spending. One measure of this austerity would be to reduce funding to PBS. Romney, then realising that he was speaking to Jim Lehrer, the host of PBS’s “NewsHour” said:

“I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too [referring to Lehrer] … But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

This lead to memes about Big Bird, a beloved character of the children television show Sesame Street. Big Bird was depicted as either facing unemployment or death at the hands of Romney. These memes were generated spontaneously by Internet users.

Big Bird unemployment meme.
Big Bird Obama versus Romney plan meme.

In the second debate, Romney’s attempt to display his interest in gender equality lead to the notorious binders full of women blunder.

Mitt Romney binders full of women meme.

Unlike the spontaneous Big Bird memes, however, in this second case Veronica De Souza, at the time an out of work social media community manager, claimed to have been on the lookout for a phrase to cultivate as a meme during the debate. When Romney dropped his gaffe, De Souza created a few basic image macros, posted them on a Tumblr blog, then linked those on Twitter as already “a thing”. Internet users then followed suit and the meme is reputed to have played a small but important part in Romney’s loss.

Of course, Internet users might have generated this meme spontaneously anyway, but the deliberate look-out, cultivation, and simple-but-effective social media strategy to spread them is a far cry from more spontaneously-generated Internet comment.

The nature of meme generation is very important during elections. Anyone can create an image macro meme–and do so very easily–all it takes is a combination of sufficient attention, the right kind of quirky concept, and a meme template.

As well as unaffiliated citizens, and Internet slacktivists, both official and unofficial supporters of all parties, now, are likely to be on the lookout for such opportunities. Indeed, we have already seen a limited verion of such semi-institutional opportunism in the 2013 election

Stephanie Bannister: I can see Islam from my house

Stephanie Bannister has the dubious honour as the subject of the first true image macro meme of the 2013 Federal election campaign. Bannister made several gaffes during a television interview, most notably apparently mistakenly referring to the religion of Islam as a country. The image macro meme below uses a direct quote over an image of Bannister, although not an image from the gaffe-laden interview. It appears to have been created by an Internet user.

Stephanie Bannister meme created by an unknown Internet user. Quora

The Courier Mail reported the similarity of this gaffe to statements made by Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin in the 2008 US Presidential election. As part of that story, the Courier Mail ran the following image macro meme at the bottom of its article. This meme uses the template of the Tina Fey parody of Sarah Palin as its core concept.

Stephanie Banister meme: Sarah Palin/Tina Fey reference.

However, the source attribution for this meme appears to have been generated by the Courier Mail itself. Whatever we may suspect about the Courier Mail‘s intentions in creating such a meme, it is important to note that had it gone viral (and at this stage it is unclear just how widely it has been shared), this would have been a direct result of editorial go-ahead, if not necessarily editorial policy.

Given the potential power of such memes, if/when one or more memes from tonight’s debate (or a future debate) goes viral, citizens, commentators, and all other interested parties should be somewhat concerned to trace its origin.

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