The Meme-fication of the 2022 Presidential Election (Part 1)
by Ram Bernal
First of two parts.
Political humor has the power to elicit reactions even from those who are not active participants in political issues and discussions. Since discussing political stances could be considered controversial, masking it with humor allows people to participate in the political discourse without exposing too many views and opinions.
In this day and age, political humor manifests itself through internet memes. 60% of the three million social media users share funny content (Forbes, 2018), 38% of young adults follow meme accounts on social media (YPulse, 2019), and memes can yield 60% organic engagement with ten times higher reach (The NYU Dispatch, 2020). Naturally, presidential candidates in the recently concluded 2022 National and Local Elections joined the bandwagon in hopes of expanding their audience. In this piece, we unmask another face of memes besides the apparent novelty they offer. We discuss how a meme is no longer just a harmless, laughable image but an effective and productive medium for spreading disinformation.
Memes as Propaganda Tools
Candidates poking fun at themselves to gain popularity is not news to Philippine politics. The first person noted to employ this tactic was former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. Erap jokes were so widespread that a book was written about them. Twenty years later, this strategy has been updated to match the proliferation of social media platforms. Enter the meme.
When we say ‘meme’, what usually comes to mind are anomalous photos combined with poorly chosen fonts and colors, usually in square format, that solicit laughter from a particular audience. However, memes can also be videos with grotesque pictures juxtaposed with comical background music or mismatched voiceovers. In the essay The Language of Internet Memes, Davidson (2012) defined an internet meme as “a piece of culture…which gains influence through online transmission”. He makes it clear that not all memes are jokes. What sets internet memes apart from the rest of internet languages is the speed of their transmission or their virality, while also retaining their form. Memes are attention grabbers and can be shared with just one click. They can be easily replicated via simple mobile applications. An image can be juxtaposed with other elements and viewed simultaneously by multiple users, yet the whole picture becomes subject to different interpretations. Thus, memes can be pretty effective as propaganda tools. Meme production itself was a prominent part of recent campaign playbooks, as we explore in the following examples.
Vice President Leni Robredo’s campaign was one of the sleekest and ‘by the book,’ from an advertising perspective. Professionals designed her campaign collaterals. Her branding was on point. Her campaign slogan “Sa gobyernong tapat, Angat Buhat Lahat” was obviously a result of several focus group discussions. Generally, her PR strategy was to pose her as a calm, capable and trustworthy public figure with a clean track record. It was a surprise when one of her PR teams released the Hadouken Tiktok video, a campaign gimmick that drew flak from VP Leni’s supporters and critics. The video, where VP Leni was making imaginary energy blast attacks on social issues, backfired as the video came from nowhere and was off-branding. Hadouken references the popular computer game Street Fighter, but her strategists have to remember that memes are products of popular culture. Although Street Fighter is a classic game, it is not so popular these days. While some netizens appreciated VP Leni’s fun side, the ballistic supporters of her archenemy propagated the video and turned it into a nasty meme. Nevertheless, VP Leni got engagements and widened her intended audience.
On the other hand, presidential aspirant Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso seems to be the most adept in the language of the masses. A video of him making a hand gesture, “two joints,” a sign associated with smoking weed, went viral. Critics were quick to condemn his actions for seeming to promote the use of illegal substances. Mayor Isko defended himself by saying “two joints” referred to him and his running mate, Doctor Willie Ong. Since he uses street jargon such as ‘yorme,’ Mayor Isko cautioned the netizens not to take his actions out of context.
Speaking of actions taken out of context, Ka Leody De Guzman’s unintentional mention of “maputlang spaghetti” drew flak. Since the tweet was made after VP Leni publicized her intention to run as president, some kakampinks thought that the tweet was an attack on VP Leni. They said that “maputlang spaghetti” was used in reference to the earlier meme post of a known DDS blogger, Thinking Pinoy.
While some publicity stunts of presidentiables backfired, one of the most notable that did more good than bad to the candidate was when netizens turned the dictator’s son Bongbong Marcos Jr. into a meme. Marcos Jr. skipped the presidential debate forum organized by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) while the rest of the candidates were present. Instead, he scheduled an interview with Korina Sanchez-Roxas. In this interview, a netizen noticed that Marcos Jr.’s shirt was similar to the service crew uniforms of 7–11, LBC, and gas station staff. The dictator’s son was turned into a meme that went viral in a day.
However, Marcos Jr. ‘s PR team grabbed the opportunity to turn the insult into a PR stunt, portraying the candidate as more relatable to Classes C, D, and E. The meme’s original intent was to make the dictator’s son appear to be doing menial jobs, which was dubbed elitist by Marcos Jr.’s supporters. Instead, he was projected to be someone who could do the masses’ jobs, therefore making him more likable. In this example, we must recognize that meme production has been hijacked by PR firms and communication strategists farming trolls to proliferate the narratives of lies and disinformation.
To be continued.