Big Bird and binders: Election memes explained

Romney with Obama's hair; Obama with Romney's Designer Shelby White (@shelbywhite) posts hair swaps on his Twitter feed

Do debate comments that catch fire online influence the election?

To run for president in the age of the internet is to risk that your words, your image and - most importantly - your mistakes, will be photoshopped, clipped, edited, remixed and remastered online in the form of a viral meme.

A "meme" is a bit of cultural zeitgeist trapped in the form of bits and pixels, passed along via Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

"Whether it's a quote or a video clip or an advertisement any media that gets passed around on the internet - when that media changes in form or meaning, that would be considered an internet meme," says Brad Kim, editor at Know Your Meme, a website devoted to explaining and charting memes.

Other debate-inspired memes

  • Jim Lehrer's bad day - After the first debate, the idea that moderator Jim Lehrer fell asleep at the wheel generated a Twitter feed consisting mostly of stammers and sentence fragments
  • Hair Swapping - Portland, Oregon artist Shelby White has gained national attention in the US for his photoshopped images of each candidate wearing the other candidate's hair posted on Twitter

Remember when Facebook was full of that image of Hillary Clinton on her Blackberry, texting from inside a plane? That was a meme.

The same with the graphic-heavy depictions of "What I think I do/What my friends think I do/What I actually do" for various professions.

Kim says elections are particularly suited for widespread internet memes because they attract a lot of media attention. "There are tons of people watching like a hawk, waiting for the candidates to say something particularly funny," he says.

But these memes aren't just about getting a laugh - they make a political point too, says Elsbeth Roundtree, a co-founder of Know Your Meme.

"If you look at history, characters and cartoons have been made as a way of expressing yourself. It's about trying to deliver your thoughts or opinions in a different type of way."

How much these memes in turn directly influence the election will remain to be seen. Yet with one debate of the 2012 election cycle still to come, several memes have already driven the next-day conversation.

'Binders full of women'

The origins: When asked about what he would do to end pay disparity between male and female, Mitt Romney told a story of how he tried to appoint more women to his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Patrick Swayze still from Dirty Dancing with the phrase "No one puts baby in a binder" superimposed A post on Bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com

When he asked to see more female candidates, he said, aides presented him with "whole binders full of women".

The internet response: On Facebook, the Binders Full of Women page had garnered more than 300,000 likes less than 24 hours after Romney made his comments in the second presidential debate. Beyonce's lyrics were appropriated ("If you liked it, then you should have put three rings on it") as were jokes about how other politicians and celebrities responded to the binder.

Who likes it: Obama supporters love mocking Romney for what they say was a tone-deaf and patronising remark (indeed, the Obama campaign put out a campaign advertisement soon after the debate, using the binder comment to label Romney's views "condescending".)

Romney supporters, on the other hand, find it much ado about nothing. "Someone explain to me, conceptually, what's funny about Romney looking for women to fill cabinet posts," tweeted the National Review's Daniel Foster. And journalist Ann Friedman argued that the notion of collecting and accessing a file of qualified women was laudable and necessary to break gender barriers.

Laughing Joe Biden

The origins: In the vice-presidential debate, split-screen shots of both candidates showed Vice-President Joe Biden laughing, smirking and rolling his eyes when Congressman Paul Ryan gave his answers.

Joe Biden still with phrase "I don't always laugh like an idiot. No wait. Yes I do." This take, found on knowyourmeme.com, uses a simple but popular meme-generating style

The internet responds: New Twitter accounts @LaughingJoeBiden, @BidenSmirk and @LaughingJoe formed on the night of the debate, according to Know Your Meme, while hashtags proliferated along the same theme - along with #Malarky (a Biden phrase). Photos of Biden laughing, accompanied by sarcastic messages, soon appeared as well.

Who liked it: Republicans used this meme to promote their image of Joe Biden as an immature, gaffe-prone buffoon. One take on the meme included a top 10 list of reasons Biden was laughing. Examples: "Lax security in Libya"; "Making people believe he and Obama are helping the middle class". Another quoted the biblical book of Proverbs: "If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet."

A Romney ad featuring Biden's laugh made similar points soon after the debate.

Fired Big Bird

The origins: In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney said he would not shy away from making tough choices in an effort to cut the US deficit. Those cuts, he said, included ending federal funding to the Public Broadcasting System - despite admitting that he likes Big Bird, star of PBS staple Sesame Street.

Big Bird sits on Sesame Street and holds a sign that says "Will Work For Food" The spectre of an unemployed big bird was too much for voters who grew up watching Sesame Street

The internet responds: Before the debate was over, several Twitter accounts had opened in Big Bird's name, pleading for clemency. By the next day several images had surfaced of Big Bird apparently begging for mercy, searching for work or pledging his revenge on the Republican nominee.

Who liked it: Obama supporters rallied to Big Bird's cause, using his apparent plight to contrast a wealthy Romney with a sad-looking Big Bird. Others compared Obama's role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden with Romney's plan for the big yellow bird. Obama for America put out an ad claiming Romney was tough on Sesame Street but soft on Wall Street.

Two weeks after the first debate, "Big Bird" is still shorthand for Romney's proposed PBS cuts - in fact, President Obama mentioned Big Bird in the latest debate. But the meme is no longer attracting as much attention.

That's the thing about memes, and about presidential elections - just as one thing starts to make news, something else comes along to steal the spotlight.

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.