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How Bernie Sanders became the lord of ‘dank memes’

The main image on the “Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash” Facebook page. (BSDMS)

Bernie Sanders may not be winning with baby boomers, and he may not be winning with minorities. But the 74-year-old senator has locked up one vote: the producers and peddlers of Internet memes.

In a Facebook group called “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash” — dank meaning quality, in old-school stoner-speak — a staggering 300,000 supporters have gathered to edit the candidate’s wild-haired visage into video games, comic books and movie scenes. They slap incongruous pop culture references on his campaign photos. They ascribe to him opinions on Buzzfeed, the Avengers and the rapper Lil B.

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Most important, the frenzied denizens of BSDMS share their pro-Sanders creations far and wide: across Facebook, on Reddit, in their Twitter and Tumblr feeds. You’ve heard that many voters chose George W. Bush in 2004 because they thought he’d make the best drinking buddy; 12 years later, as we approach the most-memed election in U.S. history, it may very well matter which candidate makes the best image macro or remixed Pepe.

“There’s a space — a very important space — that memes occupy,” said Benjamin Burroughs, an assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “They speak in a language that people have grown up with on social media … which can make them very articulate and very poignant.”

Just ask mementhusiast Sean Walsh, one of the two original moderators of BSDMS. Walsh, a 29-year-old writer and data entry analyst in Danbury, Conn., never took much of an interest in politics — he’s not the sort to volunteer at a call bank or hang campaign signs in his front yard. But he spends most of his free time making weird image macros on his phone, and he figured he might as well make them political.

Who knows, he thought: Best case scenario, some other apathetic 20-something would spot “punk Bernie” in his timeline and decide to look the candidate up.

“This generation’s memes are that generation’s C-SPAN or Huffington Post,” Walsh said — “that generation” referring to that of his parents. “Seriously, memes are going to be very prevalent in politics. They’re going to get ideas into your head.”

“If this group can get people to give a crap,” he adds, “that’s great. That’s what matters.”

Broadly speaking, getting otherwise indifferent people to “give a crap” is the highest bar of success for political memes. (The other bar — revving the base — is both less difficult and less interesting.) Past research suggests that voters aren’t necessarily persuaded by artifacts like punk Bernie — what is there to be persuaded of, exactly? — but that they might pay attention to or take note of the issues flagged in memes in a way they wouldn’t more traditional political messaging.

For one thing, memes are usually pretty funny. They’re also inherently participatory and shareable in a way that news articles or official campaign missives are not: They’re faster, better attuned to current culture and events, and less likely to tick off disagreeing friends or relatives.

On top of that, memes organically target niche communities, frequently those that would otherwise feel apathetic toward the political system. Nowhere else but on Facebook is Sanders addressing nostalgia video gamers or fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, two audiences his meme-ified self seems to hold in high regard: “Let’s not have these memes be about politics,” enthuses Walsh. “Let’s make them about the things kids really care about.”

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But that diffuse, participatory model also has its drawbacks, as the case of BSDMS makes abundantly clear. In the five months that the group has been online, its moderators have been locked in on-and-off squabbles about how to run the group and who is “in charge.” (The very idea of memetics being, of course, that there is no central authority figure controlling the message or dialogue.)

The Sanders campaign has also struggled, periodically, to rein in digital supporters who go off-message: They’ve publicly sparred, on several occasions, with the faction known as “Bernie bros,” and they’ve launched a social media portal to coordinate digital campaigns directly with voters.

Will Dowd, the founder of BSDMS, says he’s personally never coordinated with the Sanders campaign. There is, after all, little to coordinate: The group’s only overriding message is that Bernie is “cool.” The memes are far less concerned with policies the candidate has promoted, or statements he’s actually said, than they are with furthering his Internet-icon status. In fact, some of the most successful Bernie Sanders memes are also, on their face, the least factual: The “Bernie or Hillary?” poster, which paints Clinton as a semi-literate hanger-on, is a persistent example. It’s also probably worth noting that BSDMS has a pretty narrow definition of what it considers “dank” or “cool”: This is quality as judged by white suburban stoners and nostalgic male nerds.

Ask the authorities at Know Your Meme why Sanders is polling so well with meme-makers, and they’ll tell you that it springs from some combination of demographics and Sanders’s outsider bent. In other words, it doesn’t hurt that Sanders is an anti-establishment white dude — like much of the Internet’s creator class.

“For candidates,” said Laura Olin, who ran social media for Obama’s 2012 campaign and currently consults for Hillary Clinton, “whether [meme-making] helps or harms depends on whether you’re the one who’s embraced by the wider Internet creator class or not — it probably harms the ones that aren’t.”

Obama had the memevantage in 2012, Olin added. It’s all about Sanders this election.

To some observers, this all forebodes some worrying changes: a sign that the future of political discourse only gets shallower and less informed. I groaned, audibly, when Walsh told me “his generation” (also my generation) would rather get information via meme than from official channels. Memes are awesome, but c’mon — not exactly fonts of nuanced analysis.

Burroughs, the UNLV professor, plays down those concerns. He did some of his early research on the rise of political blogs, which critics accused of cheapening or distracting the public discourse, too. In reality, bloggers haven’t replaced professional political analysts or serious campaign reporting — the discourse has just expanded to include more diverse views.

Walsh, the meme-maker, is grateful for that: He credits Bernie Sanders memes with his own political awakening. Recently, he’s followed more election news; he’s suddenly passionate about higher-ed policy.

“Four years ago, I didn’t even know what a caucus was,” Walsh said. “Now I can’t wait to caucus for Bernie.”

And never mind that Walsh’s state, Connecticut, doesn’t caucus for its primary.

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