NARRATION: Memes are everywhere. These images and videos, often combined with text, are made by regular folks to express opinions on social media about what is going on in their lives and in society.
Some go viral, like this video of actress Keke Palmer admitting she has no idea who former Vice President Dick Cheney is.
ARCHIVAL (VANITY FAIR, 2019):
KEKE PALMER: I hate to say it, I hope I don’t sound ridiculous. I don’t know who this man is. I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.
(GRAPHICS OF “SORRY TO THIS MAN” MEMES.)
NARRATION: “Sorry to this man” became one of the most popular memes of 2019. Like these…
ARCHIVAL (VANITY FAIR, 2019):
KEKE PALMER: I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.
NARRATION: Like it or not, this condensed expression offered by memes is now part of American politics.
HENRY JENKINS (PROFESSOR OF COMMUNICATION, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ): Memes are the people’s editorial cartoons. Historically, the news media had the ability to compress a political debate into a single image. Political editorial cartoons gave us the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, right? What now we have in the age of the internet is people can create their own editorial cartoons.
What spreads, spreads in part because it hits an emotional chord with people. Memes are condensed expression. They’re shorthand. Just add water, and they - becomes something - something bigger.
NARRATION: Memes have provided a language for a new kind of politics, and are being used by the left and the right to score political blows, often below the belt.
One controversial example: Pepe the frog – which started out as a harmless cartoon, but is sometimes used to spread hate by white nationalists.
HENRY JENKINS: Pepe is a cartoon character appropriated from a cartoonist who’s not too happy about it. But Pepe is appropriated by the alt-right as a political symbol and they’re attaching all kinds of meanings to them.
NARRATION: President Barack Obama became the first president to get the full meme treatment.
HENRY JENKINS: The idea that Obama was Muslim or that Obama wasn’t born in the United States spread very far, very fast, conspiracy theories, racist memes and so forth. That expressed something we need to pay attention to in our culture. But it did not have the virtue of being factually right.
NARRATION: President Trump has had to deal with an onslaught of memes since day one, but he’s also learned how to use them.
GEOFFREY BAYM (PROFESSOR OF MEDIA STUDIES, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY): Every presidency, and every election, and every political era are defined by the communication technologies of the day. FDR and his fireside chats, Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Donald Trump is clearly the first president of the Twitter era.
NARRATION: And Trump is clearly a fan of memes – these are just some of the memes he has posted on Twitter.
GEOFFREY BAYM: The pace of which information is released, the expectations of these rapid-fire bursts. And, and the emotionality I think is quite interesting, particularly with the way the Trump tweets. Because his tweets are always laden with emotion and often offer some sort of window into his psyche in an interesting way.
HENRY JENKINS: We have a President that likes to just pass along pieces of information and say, “Well, I didn’t know whether it was true or not, it just looked interesting.” And that’s sort of the way a lot of teenagers relate to media, too. The things that fit their opinions, things that they find curious, things that seem outlandish they pass along and wait for other people to decide are they accurate or not?
NARRATION: So while memes can be factually questionable, or even divisive, they can be a window into society. After recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran, World War III memes spread like wildfire, reflecting undercurrents of fear and anxiety.
HENRY JENKINS: So it may be you’re introduced to a topic through a meme. But that’s not where it stops. That’s just a point of entry into a larger discussion. And there’s plenty of evidence that young people, in fact, are using it precisely that way. I think they communicate things to people that are really vital. And so the meme is a flag that says, this is going on. Pay attention. Find out more.