In late April, a Joe Biden campaign ad went viral, receiving thousands of retweets and likes as users left and right began to circulate the image throughout the vast network or tomfoolery that is Twitter. The image was completely ridiculous, featuring a beaming Biden, light shining from his chest, with the phrase “His brain? No. His heart” written in bold white and red letters.
At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was real, and when my brother shoved his Twitter feed in my face, I stared back in complete confusion. It was too dumb to be real, but just dumb enough to exist within our twisted reality. I was entirely ready to believe that some out of touch Biden staff person had created this monstrosity of a campaign ad, which was so idiotic that it felt like a practical joke. I wasn’t alone in my incredulity, and Twitter users across the web began to ponder the purpose behind the ad.
In an article on The Verge, Bill Russo — Biden’s deputy communications director — blamed the Trump campaign for the image and Twitter quickly deleted all mentions of the image from the database and suspended all users who shared the image, as it was deemed a “political ad.”
However, this ad came from a meme page.
If you’re at all into leftist art world memes, then you’re probably familiar with Brad Troemel. You might have also attended his talk in Milstein Hall on October 3, in which he attacked the hierarchy of blue-chip galleries in full Joker face paint. In either case, you’d be aware of Brad Troemel’s disdain for liberalism, as well as his specific brand of satire which ranges from early 2000s meme formats to fake Aetna ads asking people to “Join the Resistance Against Socialized Healthcare.”
This is also the man responsible for the Tumblr blog The Jogging, which has been described by The New Yorker as “an online art factory that, starting in 2009, produced thousands of strange images that blurred the distinction between art and meme.” So, it’s not at all surprising that Brad Troemel created a fake Biden campaign ad. What’s more surprising is how many people, myself included, thought it was real.
Troemel took to IG TV to comment on the situation, stating: “[The ad] is real in the sense that this is truly [the Biden Campaign’s] message to you. That Joe Biden is a mentally and morally defunct candidate who’s folksy centrist charm will lead him to victory… This image wouldn’t be shared so widely if it wasn’t believable.”
Troemel went on to comment on the artistic quality of his meme, and he has a point. If the purpose of art is to respond to the times in which we exist, then Troemel’s meme is — by definition — art.
What truly astounds me is that this incident, among others, marks the validation of memes as genuine political tools. After all, the same laws that Twitter used to prevent intervention from SuperPACs are now affecting memes.
On one hand, this type of validation feels self affirming. As somebody who created memes for Climate Justice Cornell and was a huge fan of the Mike Gravel campaign, I do think there’s something to be said for using memes — which are arguably the vernacular of our generation — for political purposes. But on the other hand, that isn’t always a good thing. We’ve all seen how the alt right has weaponized and coopted meme culture, taking images and phrases which were all fun and games and using them to spread hatred. For every meme which educates and spreads awareness, there’s another meme designed to incite violence. More than ever, what kind of memes you share indicates what kind of a person you are, and suddenly harmless deep fried content has the ability to take on a sinister life of its own.
This isn’t to say that you should swear off all memes for fear of accidentally incriminating yourself in an insidious narrative. The exact significance of memes, especially as social media evolves, is still up for debate, and it’s up to you to determine your own relationship to meme culture. To share or not to share, that is the question.
Yet, the humanities student in me still has to speculate as to the meaning of memes.
Maybe the content we share and create is a reflection of our increasingly chaotic world and deteriorating mental states, and years from now scholars will look back at meme culture as the moment it all fell apart. Maybe, as Brad Troemel argues, memes are simply our newest art form, and like all art, they’re an extension of ourselves — and, like people, should be considered within a spectrum of morality rather than a distinct binary between good and evil.
Or maybe I’m taking this far too seriously, and this article is itself a meme.
Mira Kudva Driskell is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com. She currently serves as the community retention chair for Climate Justice Cornell.