The outcome of the 2016 election came as a shock to many. For those expecting a crushing victory by Hillary Clinton, it was a very unpleasant surprise. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s supporters were rejoicing at what seemed like a miracle. Most pollsters and news sources had projected an easy Hillary victory, with the New York Times and Huffington Post giving her an 85% and 98% chance of winning, respectively.
As we all know, these predictions were wrong. Following the initial shock of Trump’s election was the question of how this all happened. Projections have been wrong in the past, certainly, but this election was unlike any other before it, featuring a lying grandmother and the Cheeto puff billionaire from The Apprentice. There are many variables that played a role in Trump’s victory, and I could ramble on and on about them, but that is not why I decided to write this. I would like to share with you, the reader, the story of The Great Meme War.
The Great Meme War is generally understood to refer to the shenanigans we saw on the internet during the election season. The war was “fought” largely in part by anonymous 4chan users, and their preferred method of attack was the spreading of pro Trump or anti Hillary memes. They conducted numerous “operations” to sway public opinion and troll people who were not gullible enough to fall for their tricks. The end goal, of course, was to help elect the “God Emperor” Trump.
Among some of the most memorable “operations” done by 4chan was the spreading of fake Hillary campaign ads. These images featured women in the military and the hashtag “Draft Our Daughters”, painting the false picture that Hillary Clinton supported a draft for women. In a short time, #DraftOurDaughters was trending on Twitter and so many people fell into the trap that Snopes had to step in and debunk the meme.
The Hillary campaign saw the power of “meme magic” and the influence it had on the gullible users of social media. They decided to try and harness that magic, and it ended horribly. To continue this anecdote, we’ll have to back up a few months to when the primaries were not over.
Trump had not yet been declared as 4chan’s “God Emperor” and Clinton was still struggling to put down our favorite 75 year old socialist, Bernie Sanders. Most of us are familiar with the “Bernie or Hillary?” images, which were originally used to compare the two candidates’ stances on a specific issue. It wasn’t long before 4chan put their own spin on this, turning it into a meme. Bernie Sanders was depicted as being very adept at connecting with his supporters through extensive knowledge of the culture, whereas Hillary was portrayed as only pretending to be “cool” and trying to exploit it to garner more support (similar to when your mother makes an Instagram).
This attitude toward Clinton was adopted by many people, so when Clinton sought to exploit memes for votes, that attitude became a reality in their minds. A tweet from her personal account reads: “How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.” Many people cringed at this pathetic attempt at pandering, but the torture did not stop there. The Hillary campaign jumped on the bandwagon of the once popular “mannequin challenge” by releasing their own version of it. And of course, who could forget when Hillary decided to “do the dab” during a live appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show? If you haven’t seen it already it may be in your best interest to not watch it.
While 4chan was off doing damage on their own, they simultaneously seduced Hillary into trying her hand at “meme magic” – only for it to backfire entirely. Not bad for a bunch of anime lovers who spend all their time at their keyboards in their mother’s basement.
The icing on the cake came in September of 2016 when the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a symbol of hate. At around the same time, the Hillary campaign identified Pepe as a symbol of “white supremacy.” As the news spread, many people laughed at the fact that these prominent groups were essentially declaring war on a harmless cartoon frog. It was later revealed, however, that this was just another instance of 4chan baiting Hillary into doing something stupid.
Two alt-right leaders were interviewed by The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi, and they convinced her that they were trying to “hijack” the popular meme and turn it into a mascot for white nationalism, Nazism, and anti-Semitism. Nuzzi published a piece relaying this information to the public, totally unaware that the two alt-right leaders made up the entire story. The Hillary campaign jumped at the opportunity to connect Donald Trump (who tweeted a Pepe meme) with white nationalism, and so propagated the completely fake story. Nuzzi, the Hillary campaign, and the Anti-Defamation League probably felt pretty humiliated.
As I mentioned in the beginning, there are many different variables that come into play when analyzing what caused Trump to win the election. Whether or not 4chan is one of those variables is certainly up for debate. It is worth noting that Trump won certain states by extremely slim margins, such as 30,000 votes (in Wisconsin) and 13,000 votes (in Michigan). Could it be that, over the course of the entire election season, 4chan managed to sway that many voters? Is it impossible, or is anything possible in the world of meme magic?