In case you couldn’t sit through the US vice-presidential debate between current vice president Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris on 7 October, we took the painful task of summarising it for you upon ourselves, although—it really wasn’t as uncomfortable to watch as the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump.
The face-off between Pence and Harris that took place on Wednesday 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah, was far more civil than the somewhat chaotic presidential event prior. But even so, some sharp exchanges were still featured over COVID-19, the China policy, health care and the creation of new jobs.
With President Trump currently ill with COVID-19, the vice-presidential role seems to have received more attention than usual. Voters told the BBC that they were pleased with the civility between the two candidates during the 90 minute long debate.
There were undoubtedly some heated remarks on a range of policy issues, with the strongest disagreements being about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Pence defended the presidential administration’s actions, but Harris called it “the greatest failure of any presidential administration.”
Talking of the virus, the pair were separated by glass barriers as a precaution against the spreading of COVID-19, and unsurprisingly, the global pandemic was the opening topic of the debate. Harris’ most pungent line was when she cited the coronavirus death statistics. With 210,000 Americans dead, she charged the Trump administration with “ineptitude” and “incompetence.”
Pence seemed to expect this, and his response was ready. He stated that the Biden-Harris plan was largely a copy of what the administration was already doing, and he boasted the speedy progress of a vaccine while linking Harris’s criticism of the administration as an attack on first-responders and US healthcare workers.
Surprisingly, both candidates didn’t spend much time on the fact that the White House has now become the latest coronavirus hotspot.
The memories of the presidential debate from the week prior lingered for all watchers, and both vice candidates seemed to have this in mind, as Pence’s typically calm and methodical style served as a counterpoint to Trump’s aggressive stance. That being said, he did attempt interruptions but Harris turned up ready. “Mr Vice-President, I’m speaking,” she said. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, then we can have a conversation.”
Both parties seemed pretty uncomfortable on this topic to say the least. Presidential candidate Biden has recently expanded his plan to address climate change, and Harris was an original sponsor of the Green New Deal climate proposal which has set ambitious, yet necessary, targets in order to reduce carbon emissions.
Pence advertised America’s clean air and clean water while refusing to address the fact that climate change is one of the driving factors behind events like wildfires and hurricanes. He also refused to say that climate change is an existential threat and repeated Donald Trump’s claim that forest management was “front and center” of the historic wildfires in the American west.
The vice president claimed that Biden would ban fracking (a technique that fractures the underground rock as a means of increasing the flow of trapped gases), which Harris denied with the statement “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.”
Pence gave an array of misleading answers on the problem of hurricanes, saying that the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that there are no more hurricanes today than in the past. However, analysis this month has shown that hurricanes have become much stronger and more damaging around the world since the late 70s. Pence was criticised for his climate responses not only by climate scientists and activists but by former allies.
As tensions rose to what feels like a constant boiling point around the world, a tired fly uninterested in social distancing and seeking a rest, parked itself onto Pence’s perfectly white and coiffed hair for a full two minutes and three seconds. With no comment, it happily buzzed off leaving us to judge on whether it was a sign on what to do next from nature.
Biden tweeted a photo of himself gripping a fly swatter—talk about taking advantage of an evidently smelly situation.
Shortly after people noticed the fly, memes flooded the internet. While Pence is likely to notice some of them, then again, there is no such thing as bad publicity, right?
As 2020 continues to throw curveballs, at many points the expression ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ has seemed apt. With this, we have seen a rise of political content on social media to help the general public make sense of major global crisis after major global crisis. Internet memes make a joke, a point, or a connection and can operate to affirm and shape today’s politics through participation by reappropriation. But are they actually helpful?
As the best part of any group chat, memes are fundamentally fun. However, when used within a political context they enable a new kind of participatory conversation which complicates the traditional political structure. Internet memes are defined as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated and transformed by Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience.” For young people, who do a great deal of their communicating online, memes have become a significant practice for political engagement. A far cry from the cat memes of 2010, 2020 sees the internet taking on politicians and the established elite through the medium of memes.
Humour is inherently critical and functions to challenge social norms dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. In a way, memes are a continuation of caricatures, which were popularised in the 1700s as a form of satire. Political memes create and spread satire, allowing them to actively question politics rather than passively consume through more traditional news sources. Logan Callen, creator of the Instagram account @quarantined_political_memes, which is well known for its political compass memes, told Screen Shot, “When I first started my page back in March, the amount of engagement on political pages was much lower than it is now. My page has grown a lot recently, especially among younger people. I attribute this growing interest in politics to the popularisation of politics on social media.”
With few socioeconomic barriers to the internet, access to political content has never been easier, arming the younger generation with a powerful tool. However, the meme’s biggest strengths, speed and lack of gatekeepers can also prove its biggest flaws.
At their crux, memes are supposed to be funny, whether that humour is light-hearted or macabre. However, at the intersection of politics and humour, there is a very fine line to be balanced. Bigoted hostility, harassment and dangerous propaganda are often overlooked as ‘just a joke’, as extremists hide behind irony to make their bigotry seem more palatable. A 2015 study by the Texas University found that individuals who were socially isolated and more likely to be characterised as ‘on the fringe’ have a greater chance at creating a successful meme, lending weight to the idea of memes being an effective tool for extremists.
“Social media giving everyone a voice for their opinions is a double-edged sword,” explains Callen. “While it allows for every opinion to be heard, it also grants the opportunity for ‘trolls’ to spread misinformation. I have seen this a lot while on the political side of Instagram. While most memes I have come across aren’t dangerous in spreading misinformation or propaganda, I have seen a few that almost tricked me, and would definitely trick younger people.”
Memes thrive on a lack of information, the faster you can understand the point the higher the chance of it going viral. Seemingly well-intentioned memes can still dehumanise others through fetishisation, as when everything is reduced to an Instagram graphic it’s easy to forget the very real human experiences behind the content. One particularly disturbing example is the recent murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. An article in Vox stated that “as soon as Taylor’s name went viral, the call to action became something closer to a meme-fied catchphrase, with many social media users turning calls to arrest Taylor’s killers into a kind of structural gimmick.”
The tools we use to communicate are in danger of becoming counterproductive to actual communication. The term ‘slacktivism’ describes the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media, involving very little effort or with the main purpose of boosting the participant’s ego.
And then there’s the concern that memes can very easily become our own personal echo chambers. Tatton Spiller, creator of the Instagram account @SimplePolitics and author of The Breakdown, explains, “The echo chamber effect is pretty awful. You follow people with whom you agree. You share those posts. You don’t interact with friends you follow but don’t share values with, they drop off your timeline, you see more of the stuff with which you do agree. You hear nothing, ever, of the other side. You forget that people with other views really exist. How can anyone believe that nonsense? You completely lose the ability to chat or engage with anyone who doesn’t hold your points of view.”
Memes aren’t going anywhere. They are a part of public conversation and shape the way we interact with events and debates. Even deepfake memes are on the rise. Activist and author of Millennial Black and Anti-Racist Ally, Sophie Williams, tells Screen Shot, “I think people spend so much time on social media, consciously and unconsciously absorbing the information they see, that it can be a really good starting point for people. What I think is essential to emphasise every time, is that posting or sharing on social media is not activism in itself. It’s not the end, it’s just the start. People have to take the information and apply it in their everyday lives, offline, through their actions.”
Social media is a powerful tool. It’s hard to imagine a major pop cultural or political moment that doesn’t generate an influx of internet memes. But with that comes a breeding ground for lies, indifference and optical allyship. Proceed with caution.