Memes are all over the 2012 election campaign. Not only do they provide endless fodder for snarky conversations, they’re changing who gets to define a candidate’s message. “Local reporters and national reporters thought [the phrase 'You didn't build that'] was pretty minor, or nothing,” commentator Dave Weigel told Amanda Hess at Poynter. Then it went viral – and became a monthlong talking point.
Now campaigns don’t have to worry about their own gaffes and misspeakings alone, but also about to the hive mind of Internet users everywhere to seize on one phrase and keep passing it along in hundreds of iterations.
Part of the reason these short-lived jokes get so much attention, Hess argues, is that many highly engaged voters and journalists are multitasking while following debates and rallies. That makes it more likely that they’ll notice and grab onto something superficial and funny, however irrelevant that is on the grand scale.
There’s another reason memes spread so far and wide into news coverage, though. It’s really easy to find them. One look at Twitter’s “trending topics” gives you at least two or three highly discussed phrases on any debate night or rally.
Twitter claims that more than half of the messages sent during the third Presidential debate were about the economy. But even millions of messages about the same topic are very difficult to track if they all happen disparately, using different terms and phrases. One catchphrase like “horses and bayonets” however, is highly visible. Both users and reporters will therefore continue to spread the memes.
Twitter would do well to get better at surfacing the more in-depth conversations happening on the service if it doesn’t want to be associated only with an insidery meme culture. Journalists, too, need to wonder whom they’re serving by covering these viral jokes.
Because the question is, do memes swing any votes? Hess is not so sure.