this is not #sponsored by @mikebloomberg
Last month, I held a lively discussion at Stanford University about the power of memes and the story of Meme 2020. Meme 2020 was the creator collective contracted by Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign to drop memes about him on February 12, one week before his first debate in South Carolina. A professor in the audience raised the question, “but will this kind of thing actually help Bloomberg win?”
As we soon learned, maybe not. In his Super Tuesday debut on the ballot, Bloomberg failed to surpass rivals in any primary except American Samoa and he promptly dropped out of the race.
But when it comes to the true impact of Meme 2020, whether Bloomberg succeeded is beside the point. The memes that landed on February 12 reveal how everyone is unprepared to handle a viral pay-to-play strategy.
It’s not enough to acknowledge that today’s information ecosystem is complex: we’ve also unintentionally — and collectively — created the ideal conditions for the total dominance of the meme.
First, a matter of definition. We often use the word “meme” interchangeably to refer to four different aspects:
- the meme account
- the meme format
- the memetic network
- the meme culture
All four aspects came into play on February 12, when this collective of professional meme makers (the accounts) posted a series of DM screenshots (the format) that leveraged inside jokes (the culture) to go viral (the network).
1. The meme account as a business model
Today, meme accounts are a creative industry in their own right. They have profitable business models built on branded content: meaning the client pays the creator directly to post on the creator’s account. In the case of Meme 2020, Mike Bloomberg’s campaign paid the collective to create (at least) 18 pieces of branded content and share on their own accounts.
2. The instantly recognizable meme format
Look at these three screenshots, taken on February 13: can you spot one of the original Meme 2020 posts?
The mutation of the format is what makes a meme a meme, and why it’s so hard for traditional policymaking to keep up. Even though the campaign and creators added branded content labels after the fact, the tools put the onus on individuals. The two-way “handshake” procedure for labeling branded content is a manual process that introduces human error at scale, even when all humans involved have the best intentions.
3. The viral nature of memetic networks, powered by algorithm
We commonly refer to memetic networks as “the algorithm,” a reference to the recommendation systems that personalize each of our experiences on a platform. Memes go viral because the algorithm is successful at predicting you will engage with them. The Meme 2020 accounts coordinated the timing of their posts to take advantage of their overlapping social graphs, which totaled more than 60 million followers.
“The algorithm doesn’t have a central prefrontal cortex, the people do. Recommendation systems are designed to show what people are interested in. If this post is more compelling than the previous one by the same person, it will get more distribution,” explains Thomas Dimson, who authored Instagram’s original recommendation algorithm.
4. The real and rising influence of meme culture
One year ago, interviews with meme creators were the occasional novelty news feature. Today, meme creators are issuing official statements in the mainstream news cycle (see next section below).
It is also worth noting that the combined reach of the meme accounts far outstrips the reach of the traditional media outlets reporting on the campaign.
The sheer number of fake “#sponsored by @mikebloomberg” posts out there also points to the fact that meme creators have begun to contribute to the national dialogue in their own significant way.
The Response to Meme 2020
When it comes to tracking political memes, not every case study begins with such a transparent opportunistic actor like the Bloomberg campaign. So it’s important to understand what happens next. So far, here’s how the various players have responded:
☝️What the Bloomberg campaign said in a statement, February 13. Reaching people is an incentive that checks out, and is sensible reasoning for any presidential campaign. But was this meme strategy an effective component to reach people?
Journalists quickly turned to the platform where the meme strategy was deployed: on Instagram, a subsidiary of Facebook.
☝️What Facebook said in a statement, February 27. Facebook’s statement makes sense for a platform to say because there is no existing playbook for the scenario. Platforms currently have no visibility into branded content transactions, unlike ads. The creator and the paying client must self-disclose their relationship with platform tools.
But how does a platform enforce disclosure, if the branded content memes look just like non-branded content memes? Facebook punts the question of disclosure guidelines to external regulators.
☝️Three of the six seats in the Federal Election Commission are currently vacant, and the FEC is not updating their general recommendation. To the public eye, Facebook’s response might suddenly seem less earnest. The FEC does say that paid “public online communications” advocating for a candidate must include a disclaimer to inform who paid for it, but told POLITICO that “commission regulations do not explicitly address social media influencers.”
The FEC regulations fall short in another unexpected way. Several of the most-followed Meme 2020 contributors toggle between private and public accounts, a well-known growth tactic in the meme community. Is a private Instagram account still a “public online communication” that the FEC requires be disclosed?
Private accounts are a major regulation loophole that is not going to be solved quickly, and illustrate just how tricky it will be to update (or create) actual election laws for social media.
☝️What Meme 2020 liaison George Resch (@tank.sinatra) said to the New York Times on February 13. To a meme account, making branded content for a political candidate is not so different from any other branded content deal: the incentive structure is about the LOLs, the likes, and the cash.
But making a political meme for the LOLs and the likes alone may be worth it. There are already thousands of copycat memes that now include “#sponsored” in the caption simply because it was a key design element in the original posts. These memes further muddy the waters of “whether or not it was real,” but makes for a brilliant, living branded-content campaign.
Why Meme 2020 wins
The Meme 2020 case study lays bare all the players in a viral pay-to-play strategy, but it’s not always so transparent. Are we collectively ready for the next wave of election interference campaigns: the branded content edition?
The stage is set for a more malicious player to go viral exactly the same way: with platforms deferring responsibility, policymakers scrambling to keep up, and creators pushing full-steam ahead making content for a decentralized algorithmic recommendation system.
Currently, the Meme 2020 playbook seems unstoppable. Who even is in a position to try? We have a lot to learn from the content creators who are clearly moving faster than everyone else. Their role is only going to become more crucial and we should be paying far more attention.
Pamela Chen is 2020 JSK Journalism and Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Fellow at Stanford University, working with influential content creators to better understand how our perceptions of “the algorithm” shapes the reality of our creative process. She is a former creative director of Instagram by way of National Geographic and the Open Society Foundations.