Little do most people know that the Bernie Sanders' campaign has an official, active Giphy account with just 181 gif uploads that collectively enjoy a whopping 549.5M total GIF views! (Note: this above gif is NOT one of them, this is Larry David, humorously portraying Bernie Sanders on SNL). But the question at hand is pertinent, pastiche or not, do these oddly viral digital affordances and tools give the Sanders’ campaign an edge? Who knows. But what it does do, by design, is give people a way to interact with the curated content, put together by the campaign, and it’s affiliates, for individuals to personalize their own digital media platforms with branded political, albeit digital, “swag”.
In the journal article “Personalization, gender, and social media: gubernatorial candidates’ social media strategies” McGregor, et. all, state: “Social media have enabled for everyone a new culture of personal identity construction that is at once both private and public. The ability to share photos in particular provides new opportunities for politicians to share glimpses of their daily lives in the same way that many social media users now routinely do.” And I don’t think it should be lost on people that the Sanders campaign uses Giphy. Because, simply put, there is something to be said about spreading a positive, pervasive, friendly, ubiquitously charismatic display of character across all social media platforms, big and small – in a way that perhaps more fully permeates, or saturates the complete, complex culture of our technology-driven society, beyond the collapse of the context of our everyday lives, before the horizon of the internet levels that field. Here we find ourselves, spending an increasing amount of our day, like, WHERE? Answer: on the internet, where our favorite political icons are now made into funny viral videos and playful emojis. I’m into it, it’s nerdy, it’s political. The revolution still will not be televised. It’ll be advertised.
If political style as Groshek and Koc-Michalska define it is: ‘political style as the repertoires of performance that are used to create political relations’ then each of our main personalities certainly have what appear to be QUITE defined styles, each in a certain sense a fringe candidate, where the fringe has now, in an age of drastic ideologies, become the reactionary populist mode (!?). What a pill to swallow. But here we are. Presidential candidates know they need to be “out there” covering flat surfaces with their image, if they can. Yesterday it used to be political flyering, today it’s advertisements on Facebook. But as a student of the juggernaut like media machine, I’m coming fast to understand that the political influencer game isn't as simple, always, as being a single actor on one platform in one social network or ecosystem, it requires a type of canvassing like never before.
In the article “Media audience homophily: Partisan websites, audience identity and polarization processes”, Shira Dvir-Gvirsman states: “when one is embedded in an online environment that boosts one’s political self, this specific aspect of one’s self-identity is activated, becoming more dominant than others.” The bottom line, and what all candidates know, but perhaps Sanders and Trump both know best, the cult of personality has a small margin, and the best case scenario, is that someone, some ordinary citizen has a slight preference for one candidate over another, and perhaps a gif might help do that? Furthermore, Dvir-Gvirsman’s conclusion states: “Audience identity did influence preference, regardless of the political slant of the content. In addition, there is some evidence that audience identity influences perceived extremity and salience of political identity.” So all these little tricks of social media, every last post and tweet and gif and meme, will continue to be social collateral in the twisted network of web, internet, IoT, and well, the communication networks at large.
While Trump dabbles in the apotheosis, Sander’s also has his own message, and, as far as what the recent debates have shown he is ramping up for, must at some point deliver its own Coup de gras against Trump, just as Trump effectively did (where he’s stood true to his word or not, is a different story) claiming his intention to “drain the swamp” in the Replublican debates in 2016 – which in its own way, captured the imagination and creativity of a fed-up voiceless public, and with it came a tremendous response of support from the wide, populist base of the Right.
But the landscape is unpredictable, as just last week the Washington Post reported that “Bernie Sanders briefed by U.S. officials that Russia is trying to help his presidential campaign” – Sanders officially announced that he had been briefed by the US officials that the Russians were trying to help him in his bid for the Democratic nomination, likely because the Russians believe he would be the candidate most easily defeated by Trump in 2020. Instead of being consumed by the information, Sanders decides to call out Putin as being the one behind these efforts, and takes the higher road, stressing a high standard for the American people, who want a fair and honest election without outside interference from foreign governments, BUT that IS the story – they’re ALREADY doing it! So on the flip side to the coin, let take a look at how yet another news agency, this time MSNBC, decides to cover the story, in a video piece titled “Sanders calls Putin a thug, tells him to stay out of US elections” with its usual amount of SPIN, deflecting the actual severity of the accusation, and creating a controversial headline simply out of Bernie Sanders’ response, likely to get clicks on the article.
Of course, in the end, Dvir-Gvirsman found that “users assign importance to a spectrum of features characterizing a media outlet, among them the affinity of its content and of its audience” - and so we’re left with what we ask for when we sign up for every new account and check the box off on every new user agreement: a curated existence.
For a completely different but historically relevant take on how past not-so-different media shifts affected how the public perceived a Presidential candidates, I am reminded of the first ever televised presidential debate in 1960 between JFK and Nixon. I know this is a topic that is often analysed by political theorists and historians, but it’s key to look at here in Emerging Media, because it is a media flashpoint of sorts – showing how a hyper-real display of moving images affect the public’s persona of an individual, their charisma or lack thereof on any given day. The inception of the televised debate as part of the American political process is fascinating! Give it a watch and then look at a brief analysis from The Smithsonian.