How are memes being used to sway voters? Researchers aim to find out
A person browsing their laptop and cell phone is seen in this file image. (Pexels)
TORONTO -- Memes have become a powerful tool for political parties and partisan groups to spread their message, and a group of researchers aim to find out just how this social media content will be used to sway votes in this election.
With the help of his undergraduate class, Fenwick McKelvey, an associate professor of communication studies at Concordia University in Montreal, will be taking a deep dive into the memes of the 2019 Canadian election, including how they’re shared, what went viral, what was particularly effective and how they changed the conversation.
In the group’s first report, the team suggests 75 per cent of the meme-posting Facebook groups they found are negative toward Trudeau.
“We’re seeing a lot of anti-Trudeau memes,” McKelvey said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca prior to starting the research project. “(There’s) strong evidence that a lot of negative campaigning targeting Trudeau himself is a central part of what we’ve observed so far.”
Mireille Lalancette, a communication and politics professor at the Universite du Quebec a Trois-Rivieres whois not involved in McKelvey’s research but studied memes during the tenures of Trudeau, Stephen Harper and former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, said coming across more anti-Trudeau memes is to be expected this election.
“It’s normal that we have more anti-Trudeau memes, because he’s the one with the power now,” she said. “When we had the last election, it was mostly anti-Harper memes.
"(Memes are) not about raising, they’re about joking, they’re about denouncing, about criticizing, but not about raising.”
A meme is an image, video or piece of text that is sometimes altered slightly, often to make the content more humorous, and is designed to be shared widely online.
McKelvey said an effective political meme is one that elicits a reaction from the viewer and helps galvanize the base of a certain party or issue, regardless of whether the content is factual.
“I don’t think the goal of the memes is to go necessarily viral to the public, I think it’s to build support and affinity between partisans,” he said.
Lalancette said memes are particularly important to the political discourse because 94 per cent of Canadians have at least one social media account, meaning nearly all Canadians have been in contact with memes.
This type of internet content is particularly popular among the younger population. McKelvey notes that among his class, just one student first saw the images of Justin Trudeau in brownface through traditional newschannels, while the others first saw it either on Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat.
Lalancette said memes aren’t effective in swaying a voter, as people are more likely to be exposed to memes they agree with.
“I don’t think one meme can change political perception, it can mostly reinforce prior bias, because they will be in the echo chamber of what you already think,” she said.
“If you are already thinking that Justin Trudeau is not the politician you want to elect and everybody in your family or your circle are hardcore Conservatives, you may see many of the memes denouncing Trudeau.”
McKelvey added that while memes don’t have the power to sway the vote, they do have the power to keep a certain moment in the public’s eye for longer than it would otherwise.
One of the biggest examples of this is Mitt Romney’s use of the phrase “binders full of women” following a question concerning pay equity during a U.S. presidential debate in 2012.
The moment quickly went viral -- a Facebook page called “Binders Full of Women” received 274,000 likes at its peak -- and became the talk of the election in online circles. Barack Obama went on to beat Romney and win a second term as president.
McKelvey said the images of Trudeau in brownface have the same potential to resonate.
“I think this also is going to create the type of content that ultimately might mobilize the Conservative brand,” he said. “You might see this also helping improve the anti-Trudeau meme makers and make their lives a bit easier.”
McKelvey’s team found conservative memes surrounding the scandal focused onTrudeau’s hypocrisy when it comes to racism, while memes from the left focused more on the societal issues surrounding the images.