Clint Eastwood, the surprise guest at the 2012 Republican National Convention, walks on stage and begins addressing an empty chair, pretending President Obama is sitting in it. The speech is off-the-cuff, off-kilter, and a decidedly “huh” moment amid an otherwise cut-and-dry convention.
Wait for it … wait for it “¦ And nearly instantly #eastwooding is born on the Internet.
Within two hours, there were 78,272 tweets about the moment. Nineteen minutes after Eastwood started talking, the Twitter account @InvisibleObama was created (it still has 64,000 followers). Thousands of people tweeted out pictures of themselves pointing toward empty chairs. Halfway through the next day, the number of #Eastwooding tweets reached over 25,000. And this happened.
Sen. Marco Rubio spoke directly after Eastwood at the convention. Does anyone remember what he said? Had the evening been hijacked?
It was a part of the political show this election season: Watch a debate or a convention, and have your social media open and ready for the instant memes. Any gaffe would sure to erupt into Internet madness—and that was part of the fun. We watched for the substance, but also waited for the instant satire to emerge on the Web.
“For some, political memes represent an epic win for crowd-sourced democracy,” Whitney Phillips, a Ph.D. Internet culture researcher (yup, that exists) writes at the Awl. “For others, they are a sign of the intellectual apocalypse!”
There’s the rub: Memes are good for political discussion because they get people engaged, but they’re bad for political discussion because they oversimplify and ridicule important issues.
But their importance shouldn’t be understated as trivial. This was the year the social Web became a major facilitator of political messaging and get-out-the-vote. As Megan Garber at The Atlantic surmises, memes “both despite and because of their smallness, represent a significant shift in participatory politics.”
Here’s one reason why that shift is important: Whereas in previous eras, candidates needed to avoid being quoted out of context, in 2012 a greater concern was getting memed out of context. A good case-in-point: Obama’s “You didn’t build that” gaffe. Taken in context, the president was saying that business owners didn’t build the infrastructure that allows their enterprises to function in the economy. Republicans took the line (and took the meme, which had already taken hold on social sites such as Reddit) to propagate the idea that Obama doesn’t believe in individual success. Heck, they even created a whole convention based around it.
Likewise, Romney’s “binders full of women” comment became a way for his opponents to underscore a “war on women.” However, it seemed clear Romney intended the line to mean the opposite.
But other memes are more frivolous, not pushing any policy or idea. They aren’t created to make a point; they exist to be irreverent. Like “Texts from Hillary”, or McKayla Maroney’s “not impressed” face. They’re funny, but don’t make too much of them.
Below, we share the most pervasive political memes of the year.