This week I thought I’d do something a little different. Instead of highlighting the horrible things trolls and bad actors do, we’re going to talk about a grassroots digital organizing effort that’s as helpful as it is wholesome: Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear and the coalition of meme messengers that have formed online to support Kentucky’s efforts to flatten the curve.
The lack of competent leadership in the White House has created a void that state governors have been left to fill. New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Washington State’s Jay Inslee, and California’s Gavin Newsom have been singled out for praise in particular. Governors are a calming presence on local media, issuing orders to social distance or shelter in place and advocating for their states with the Federal Government. Because Trump’s only mode of operation is polarization, governors are depoliticized by default.
I’ve been paying particular attention to Kentucky governor Andy Beshear. I’m a Kentucky native and most of my family lives there. Initially, I was just relieved that Matt “Chicken Pox Party” Bevin had lost his election last November and wasn’t in charge. But soon I began noticing something on my family’s Facebook profiles: Andy Beshear memes. A ton of them. Even some of my Republican relatives were sharing them. I also noticed that those same Republican relatives had stopped referring to the Coronavirus as a hoax or an election-year ploy.
My mother explained to me that Governor Beshear holds a briefing every day and that they are must-see television in Kentucky. I also discovered the source for most of the pro-Beshear memes is a public Facebook group, andy beshear memes for social distancing teens, which currently boasts more than 200,000 members.
I joined the group and began exploring. What I found was so much more than just brilliant and funny memes. An entire subculture had sprung up around Beshear’s daily briefings. The group hosts a daily watch party and creates gifs, video clips, and memes from each day’s briefing in real-time. Governor Beshear is their main muse but they’ve also found inspiration in Virginia, the sign language interpreter for each briefing and Kenneth, the staffer who typically runs AV. Additionally, there are posts encouraging community, conversation, and solidarity.
It’s also worth noting that despite being founded by James Line, a former Beshear campaign staffer, the group is noticeably not political or partisan. There are political threads and discussions in the comments but the vast majority of original posts feel more like a Facebook fan community than a political organizing group. This is probably part of why Republicans in my own family feel more comfortable sharing the memes on Facebook.
But things really clicked when I started watching the daily briefings for myself. They start promptly at 5 PM every day and are a combination of church service and fireside chat. The formula doesn’t vary much; Beshear always begins by asking viewers to “start the way we always start. By saying we will get through this. We will get through this together.” He asks Kentuckians to say this phrase aloud with him from home.
Here’s where things get interesting. Beshear asks viewers to help spread the word on social media, to create “social peer pressure” encouraging other Kentuckians to social distance and do their part to flatten the curve. He puts the same hashtags up on the screen every day and then amplifies some of the best content from around Kentucky during the briefing.
Beshear also gently shames businesses, organizations, and individuals who are not doing their part. His catchphrase, “You can’t be doing that.” has also become the most popular line for memes.
There’s more to the briefings, including graphs, a daily update on Coronavirus cases and deaths, and questions, but after watching several of them I have three takeaways on why they’ve become such a statewide cultural phenomenon.
- Repetition. Beshear’s message never varies. The briefings run at the same time, follow the same schedule, and offer the same messages every day. After watching a few of them you can repeat his main points by rote.
- Community. Each briefing hits home that the only way to win is by sticking together and having one another’s backs. Flattening the curve requires every Kentuckian to do their part, for not just for themselves, but for their county, their state, and their nation.
- Enlistment. Beshear makes a clear hard ask every day for those watching to become evangelists for social distancing and to use social media to model good behavior for others.
The resulting echo chamber is fascinating to watch from a digital organizing perspective. More important, it will save lives. There’s already evidence that Beshear’s policies compared to other state governments in the South are paying dividends. Adding an element of grassroots social pressure has the potential to burst through hyper-partisan news bubbles in a way that not much else can.
We need a national version of what’s happening in Kentucky but we won’t see it from President Trump. What’s maddening is that Trump has the online army in place to create a national echo chamber if his Administration wanted to. The White House has been communicating with pro-MAGA influencers but instead of asking them to amplify public health messaging or help create a sense of national unity they’ve been called to defend Trump’s handling of the pandemic and blame his political opponents for the Administration’s failure.
I have no way of knowing if what’s happening in Kentucky will make a statistically significant impact (though if you have polling on this please hit me up!) but anecdotally Beshear seems to be gaining some respect from some of his Republican constituents. Personally, I’m relieved that Beshear’s briefings and memes have influenced people in my own life to take this pandemic more seriously than they might have otherwise.
We will get through this. We will get through this together.
The above article is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt-Right Delete, a newsletter devoted to covering the rise of far-right extremism, white nationalism, disinformation, and online toxicity, delivered on a weekly basis to more than 16,000 subscribers.