Bernie Sanders is winning the 2020 meme race, but can internet fandom get him elected?
- As Senator Bernie Sanders faces close competition in the Democratic primary race, there's one element of the modern political sphere he dominates: memes.
- Pro-Sanders memes are more pervasive and popular than memes for any other Democratic candidate, and overall Sanders is second only to Trump in terms of meme power and social media influence.
- Memes like "I am once again asking for your financial support" and "Bernie or Hillary?" demonstrate the Vermont senator's lasting meme power, while meme pages generate publicity for his campaign for free.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
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On December 30, Bernie Sanders' campaign uploaded a video of the Vermont senator wearing a taupe windbreaker, standing on a nondescript suburban street lightly dusted with snow.
"As the FEC fundraising deadline for 2019 approaches, I am once again asking for your financial support," Sanders said in his usual gruff New York accent, slightly red in the face.
The video itself is unremarkable, especially compared to the thousands of similar pleas filmed by every presidential contender. But the Sanders clip, and specifically "I am once again asking for," has become a hugely viral meme.
As documented by Know Your Meme, the unofficial database for nearly every internet phenomenon in existence, the captioned image of Sanders speaking became a meme around January 15, when a Reddit user posted it to the "r/libertarianmeme" subreddit with the caption "showing up to my parents after spending another months rent on weed and edm festivals..."
That got reposted to the Being Libertarian Facebook group, and then an Instagram meme page with over 2 million followers, "drgrayfang," modified the caption to "showing up to my parents after spending my rent on weed and concerts again."
On Facebook and Reddit, the meme blew up, and you can now see countless iterations across platforms, many deviating from the original captioned format to "I am once again asking for," followed by just about anything.
"I am once again asking for" is one of the most popular Sanders memes, but it's far from the only one. Moreso than any other Democratic primary candidate, Sanders memes are pervasive, popular, and generally positively skewed toward him - making him the Democratic frontrunner, at least according to the meme economy.
Trump's ascent to the presidency shows how memes translate to political power, and Democrats are taking notice
Memes are by definition a laughing matter, but the value in being a meme-able candidate shouldn't be underestimated. There's a reason Mike Bloomberg worked with Jerry Media to launch a meme page campaign, spending a significant amount of time (and money, although Bloomberg's campaign spending is limitless) to devise a meme strategy with top humor influencers on Instagram, as revealed by The New York Times.
Internet humor is a core building block of political discussion in 2020, and as Trump meme creators proved in 2016, making your candidate go viral and consolidating support via memes can change the entire political media landscape around that candidate, boosting their success, inspiring attacks on their opponents, and assisting in place at the polls.
As Ben Schreckinger wrote for Politico, "There is no real evidence that memes won the election, but there is little question they changed its tone, especially in the fast-moving and influential currents of social media."
"The meme battalions created a mass of pro-Trump iconography as powerful as the Obama 'Hope' poster and far more adaptable; they relentlessly drew attention to the tawdriest and most sensational accusations against Clinton, forcing mainstream media outlets to address topics-like conspiracy theories about Clinton's health-that they would otherwise ignore," Schreckinger wrote.
Trump's meme machine and his influence on social media extend far beyond any Democratic candidate according to almost any metric, from the interactions his tweets get to the number of Reddit supporters he has. There are also dedicated, volunteer Trump meme makers, like Carpe Donktum, a Twitter user with more than 230,000 followers whose Meme World website enlists more than two dozen meme volunteers to make pro-Trump content.
That content often gets shared by Trump himself, earning the president endless internet points from his supporters. It encourages them to keep promoting him through humor.
"He is the first president to have fully embraced internet culture," Carpe Donktum, who uses the identifier as a sort of "stage name," told Insider. "He was an early adopter of social media and I would say that there is no one in politics that does it better. You could say that he is 'one of us,' he posts memes, he trolls, and he participates in the national conversation in a way that no politician ever has."
That savviness helped Trump build a core internet fanbase, but has also landed him on hot water, like when he shared a meme of a "Trump train" running over the human embodiment of CNN.
On social media platforms, Bernie Sanders leads among Democrats
In comparison, Sanders has a much more refined social media presence than Trump, and he's less likely to directly encourage his meme makers. But when it comes to left-leaning meme creators, Sanders is the majority pick.
The Vermont senator has the largest Democratic base on Reddit, with his two biggest subreddits "r/SandersForPresident" and "r/Our President" totaling more than 564,000 subscribers. The former has more than 442,000 subscribers alone. In comparison, most other Democratic candidates lurk below 50,000, with fellow New Hampshire and Iowa frontrunner Pete Buttigieg's subreddit clocking in 33,000 subscribers.
Having a large, devoted legion of social media followers is certainly beneficial, but is by no means a direct path to success. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang was always a long shot candidate, but his devoted "#YangGang" following racked up impressive numbers online, touting the "" emoji across platforms.
The "r/YangForPresidentHQ" subreddit has over 105,000 members, second only to Sanders for Democratic primary candidates. In Yang's case, he's an ex-candidate, having officially dropped out after a disappointing showing in the New Hampshire primary. But even a full week after his campaign officially ended, the Yang Gang subreddit is still the fifth-fastest growing subcommunity on Reddit.
That speaks to the pervasive rhetoric of Yang's campaign and the unifying sentiment that keeps building, at least on Reddit, even after he's no longer a viable candidate. It demonstrates why Sanders, with "join the revolution," and even Trump, with "make America great again," are so popular on the same platform.
While "r/The_Donald" is quarantined - meaning users have to view a warning screen before entering it, and it doesn't show up in search results - it's still larger than both the Sanders and Yang subreddits combined, with more than 789,000 subscribers.
Reddit is a platform that largely prioritizes memes, and a majority of Reddit users have preferred Sanders to other candidates since 2016. Given that Reddit is also a huge marketplace for meme creation and dissemination, it makes sense that Sanders' sway on the platform lends itself to more pro-Bernie memes, or just Bernie memes in general.
On Facebook and Instagram, Sanders' own personal pages dominate other candidates by volume of interactions, according to April 2019 data collected by The Hill. On Facebook in particular, despite its boomer-friendly reputation, Sanders meme pages - and meme pages that support Sanders - have grown popular.
The candidate himself personally thanked the Facebook group "New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens," an irreverent meme group dedicated to public transportation memes, after its moderators endorsed Sanders.
"Thank you NUMTOT for your support of our campaign, and for all you are doing to create the lasting and fundamental change our country needs," Sanders wrote in the group, alongside a photo of him boarding a bus. Other popular meme repositories include "Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash," a Facebook page that popularized the "Bernie or Hillary?" meme phenomenon, which started on Reddit.
Past Sanders meme efforts have generated controversy, but it's all a net positive for his campaign, based on the Trump playbook
Having a lot of meme power behind him doesn't guarantee Sanders any sort of win. The fact that modern political meme culture is most pervasive among young voters, or even those who are too young to vote, means a lot of pro-Sanders meme creators and enjoyers may not even contribute their vote, given youth turnout statistics - although the numbers were on the rise in the 2018 midterms.
That being said, free publicity worked for Trump, and Carpe Donktum argues that the same outrage that fueled Trump supporters and pro-Trump meme-makers works for Sanders, too.
"Bernie and Trump are actually very similar figures," he told Insider. "Stylistically and politically they are on polar extremes, but they are both outsiders. Even though Bernie has been in politics forever, he still maintains a certain outsider status because of his socialist beliefs, until recently, put him outside the norms of the Democratic Party."
Carpe Donktum also thinks Sanders' base is more likely than other fanbases to attack other Democratic candidates, since he represents an anti-establishment desire that performs well among those who are very online, all the time.
That instinct among Sanders supporters has recently drawn criticism online after a conspiracy theory put forth on Twitter about a Pete Buttigieg went viral and was quickly debunked by Insider, among other outlets.
"I think that many of the most active people on the internet, both right and left, are searching for something they have never had, their champion," he said. "Both Trump and Bernie are hated by the establishment, though they are on different sides of the equation, they really are very similar anti-heroes. They are both very popular among meme makers because they are a symbol of what we think has been missing."
That sentiment is best reflected in the "Bernie or Hillary?" meme, born in 2016 to compare him to Hillary Clinton as a cooler, more relatable, edgier candidate. The "Bernie or Hillary?" meme has since been repurposed for the 2020 election, comparing Sanders to his top competitors, like Buttigieg and Warren.
The attitude that characterizes Sanders as an "anti-hero" has also given rise to the "Bernie Bro" quandary and the age of stanning (obsessively being a fan of) politicians, from Trump to Sanders and everyone in between. But even if Sanders has captured the internet's adoration, only the primaries will tell if he's convinced voters and delegates.
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