Lock Her Up? The Long Tail of Viral Slogans
March 6, 2020 — Besides Trump, there was no bigger opponent to Hillary Clinton in 2016 than Roger Stone. In the lead up to the 2016 election, “lock her up” became a mantra among the MAGA crowd, when delegates at the Republican National Convention began chanting it after Chris Christie closed his speech accusing Clinton of misdeeds as Secretary of State. The chants continued throughout Trump’s campaign and long after he became president, partially aided by Stone’s promotion of this meme and “Hillary for Prison’’ t-shirts for sale on his website. Now, facing several years in prison and impending bankruptcy, Stone must be haunted by how this slogan turned against him, as “lock him up” has permeated online fora since he was found guilty.
THE TLDR: Recently, Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison for lying to a congressional committee and witness tampering. Stone is infamous for his political and media manipulation, particularly his waves of attack on Hillary Clinton. Stone’s accusation of many criminal wrongdoings on Clinton’s part culminated in the viral slogan “lock her up,” which has spawned countless iterations amongst right wing media ecosystems to this day. Following the 2016 election, Stone promoted his “Charge Hillary Clinton” campaign using the hashtag #LockHerUp by tagging President Trump on Twitter. This phenomenon, described by Donovan and Friedberg (2019) as viral sloganeering, is “a process of crafting divisive cultural or political messages in the form of short slogans and propagating these (both online and offline) in an effort to influence viewers, force media coverage, and provoke institutional responses.” However, the meanings of viral slogans are unstable, and if they are truly memetic, old slogans will attach themselves to other events or ideas creating a long tail of shifting connotations.
Stone has a history of political manipulation, experimenting with dodgy and fraudulent slogans designed to hijack media attention. In the 1970s, he moved quickly through Young Republican college groups and became the youth director of Nixon’s first presidential run, where he first came under the mentorship of the infamous Roy Cohn, a lawyer for Joseph McCarthy. Later, Stone contributed to the Watergate scandal via a spurious donation, attempting to link a Nixon opponent to a socialist youth group. Stone built a reputation as a dishonest political influencer, where even real leaks were rumored to be forged documents by the “dirty trickster,” specifically when George W. Bush’s draft dodging came to light in 2004.
Later, Stone met and befriended Donald Trump via their mutual ally Roy Cohn. After numerous personal scandals and failed manipulation attempts, Stone was pushed further from the Republican mainstream and maintained an outsider position. He adapted to the new media environment opened up by the internet, using his website to push controversy. Alongside old friend Mike Caputo, Stone helped launch a media blitz to discredit Elliot Spitzer in 2007. It was the same year Stone began a decade-long assault on the reputation of Hillary Clinton.
Starting with his personal website before the ubiquity of social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, Stone relied on mass media amplification for his smear campaigns. His misogynistically abbreviated “Citizens United Not Timid” campaign was designed to smear Hillary Clinton’s reputation in the press, and he was infamously featured on MSNBC via a guest appearance on Tucker Carlson in 2008. He was subsequently sued by Citizens United for trademark infringement for the materials used in this media blitz.
Stone’s attention drifted back to Clinton when she announced her second bid for president. He co-wrote “The Clintons’ War on Women,” published in 2015, helping to expand the accusations and disinformation swirling around her as she became the Democratic presidential candidate.
Stone’s background in disinformation and sloganeering laid the groundwork for right wing attacks on Hilary Clinton throughout the tumultuous 2016 campaign. When Wikileaks distributed the hacked emails of John Podesta, Stone fancied himself an important figure distributing and framing the leaks in a manner damaging to Hillary Clinton. Steve Bannon claimed, then retracted that Stone was their “access point” to Wikileaks. In 2017, he was permanently suspended from Twitter for repeatedly harassing journalists.
At the same time, Roger Stone was a self-styled hero to the many factions comprising Trump’s online support during the 2016 election cycle. Stone frequently associated with elements of the so-called ‘alt-lite,’ like far right US media figures including Mike Cernovich and Milo Yiannopoulos, who distanced themselves from the overtly antisemitic ‘alt-right,’ which was champoined by disgraced white supremacist Richard Spencer. Stone frequently served as a bridge between the conspiracy theorists and DC pundits, best represented in his one-time friendship with Alex Jones, and former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon.
While often competing for attention with the open racism of neo nazis, the ‘alt-right’ and ‘alt-lite’ — dubbed by Clinton as a ‘basket of deplorables’ — collaborated frequently leading up to the 2016 election. Stone’s media muscle was instrumental in harnessing this energy for the Trump campaign. ‘Alt-lite’ figure Laura Loomer, known primarily for hijinks that landed her a permanent suspension from Twitter, claims Stone as a mentor. Adopting symbols used by these factions, the street militia The Proud Boys supported Stone outside of his arrangement by wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Roger Stone did nothing wrong.” This meme is a wink and a nod to viral slogan “Hitler did nothing wrong.” His trial was attended by many far right provocateurs, including figures Gavin McInness, co-founder of Vice magazine and the Proud Boys, and Milo Yiannopoulos, former reporter for Brietbart who was removed from Stone’s trial for falling asleep.
Over the last year, #LockHerUp lost its fervency among the MAGA crowd. In 2019, chants morphed into #SendHerBack at Trump rallies and were largely directed at Ilhan Omar and other freshman members of Congress. Later, Trump was forced to disavow the chant. However, viral slogans are not under the direction of any single author or person. They warp and woof as Stone has now learned.
In the end, when asked who controls a meme? The answer is no one.
Meme War Weekly is a newsletter addressing political messaging that comes from the wilds of the internet, produced by the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Each week, we will look closely at the use of popular slogans and images and how they are shifting political conversations.
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