This is part of an occasional series in which we explain what’s behind a popular meme. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon a joke, tweet, image, app or GIF you don’t understand, we have the answers — insofar as answers can be had.
The Meme: Vote Rickrolling
Rickrolling is one of the Internet’s oldest memes: Trick people into clicking on a link expecting one thing but instead lead them to a video of Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.” That’s probably why the official video for the song has more than 487 million YouTube views.
In recent weeks, Rickrolling has been reborn. But instead of tricking people into listening to a song, people are using the bait of celebrity gossip to trick young people into visiting a voter registration site.
Here’s an example:
How did this meme grow?
The idea of tricking people with link shorteners like bit.ly, as used in this meme, is not at all new. However, this particular version emerged as part of a larger viral campaign to increase voter registration and participation for the 2018 midterms, particularly among younger voters.
The activist and writer Ashlee Marie Preston tweeted an early, super-viral version of the current meme format.
“Welp . . . it’s official . . . Kim Kardashian finally decided to divorce Kanye West . . .” she tweeted. The trick went viral: the original tweet has more than 60,000 retweets and 140,000 likes.
But that doesn’t quite capture the full spread of her tweet. Others, appreciating the trick, quote tweeted her and expanded on the weaponized clickbait.
Soon, others were making their own versions. Tim Cigelske, whose clickbait tweet about the Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson split is quoted above, was also amplified by a number of big accounts, including some celebrities. Ashton Kutcher, Colin Hanks and James Corden all retweeted his tweet to their millions of followers.
Did it work?
Well, according to data from Bit.ly, the link shortener used for these memes, quite a few people clicked on the links. Cigelske examined the aftermath of his tweet in a Medium post that he’s continually updating with data on the tweet’s reach. He wrote that “honestly at this point i’m not sure how many more notifications my iphone can take but we’re at 1.4 MILLION CLICKS."
The tweet that inspired his clickbait — Preston’s fake-out about Kanye West getting divorced — is approaching 3 million clicks.
Obviously, that doesn’t necessarily translate into actual registrations, although it appears to have inspired at least a few. Cigelske has been collecting tweets from those who say the viral trick prompted them to register.
We reached out to vote.org for comment on whether this viral meme has resulted in a corresponding spike in registrations through its site. Its answer was inconclusive, but the site is optimistic about the effect of conversations about voter registration in general.
“Since the vote rolling memes started, we have seen more than 100K people under 30 register to vote. While we can’t suggest they caused all the registrations, we can say all of the cultural conversations surrounding voting certainly correlate to spikes in young voters engagement,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.
How can I use this meme as if I know what I’m doing?
Should you decide to participate — we’ll get to the “should” later — setting up a vote rickroll is pretty easy. First, create a link to vote.org (or whatever else you want to trick people into visiting) using a link shortener such as bit.ly. Bit.ly works pretty simply: You enter in a URL, and the site spits out a shorter version. It’s a relic from a time when URL length counted toward characters on Twitter but is now used to hide the original source of links.
Then, choose the right piece of gossip. Cigelske capitalized on the emerging news of the Grande-Davidson split, while Preston timed her tweet to Kanye West’s visit to the White House.
However, there are good reasons not to use this meme.
Please be a buzzkill on this meme for me.
Okay, sure. On Thursday, Elle magazine decided it was their turn to rickroll people into voting.
The tweet is a perfect encapsulation of why this meme, no matter its good intentions, is wading into tricky territory.
First, while this meme certainly is an effective way to get people to click on a link that leads to a call for civic engagement, the meme seems to promote an assumption that the people who are interested in celebrity gossip — particularly young people — are not interested in voting or democracy. Just months after a bunch of teens responded to mass shooting at their high school by launching into full-time political activism, this seems like a bit of a cynical and outdated way of viewing how younger voters understand their role in democracy.
In 2015, the Atlantic’s Megan Garber identified this phenomenon as attention policing — the idea of shaming someone for liking a frivolous or unimportant topic or meme (as, in her example, #TheDress) when the world is full of tragic or important moments. But attention spent on, say, celebrity gossip is not necessarily at the expense of an important story. Giving attention and amplification to each serves different purposes in building online community, Garber argues. Get-out-the-vote efforts can go viral because of the interconnectedness of Internet culture that was built, in part, by a bunch of people caring about dumb gossip or arguments for an hour.
And, some celebrities — Ariana Grande specifically, to use one of the names taken for this meme — are already aware of the power they have to drive people’s attention to important topics and movements. Grande, whose 2017 show in Manchester, England, was the target of a bombing that killed 22 people, was one of several celebrities who participated in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
In conclusion, fake news for a good cause is still fake news. Particularly in this Elle tweet, which comes from a publication that covers both celebrity news and politics, the virality of this meme is dependent on saying that sometimes it’s okay to spread misinformation on purpose — a weird thing to assert in 2018. Plus, creating and spreading a deceptive link, and encouraging people to click through to a hidden domain of unknown safety or ownership, is not a good online hygiene practice.