4 of the Most Viral Election Memes Debunked
The 2016 presidential election will probably go down in history as one of the most significant ever. It is often difficult to notice when you are going through important historical events, since being in the moment makes everything seem important. The way that the 2016 campaign was conducted and the surprising result that confounded and wrong-footed most critics and analysts (not me, I rather smugly tell my friends), seem to suggest that this election will be talked about in years to come.
However, just as the candidates themselves were guilty of half-truths and sometimes blatant lies, internet meme culture has also jumped into the world of misinformation. Memes glossing over or completely misrepresenting information is nothing new of course, but this election cycle has seen an explosion of political meme activity. A great many of these are opinion represented as facts or, as in the case of the ones featured below, completely false.
As I have seen the same ones come back again and again, and people continuing to fall for the same misinformation, I got annoyed enough to write an article about it. Here are my top four picks of fake election memes and information circulating the internet following the 2016 presidential election:
1. Donald Trump called Republican voters 'dumb' in a 1998 interview
This quote attributed to Republican party nominee and now president-elect, Donald Trump, has been circulating since October 2015, according to myth-busting website Snopes. In the quote Trump claims to be able to lie and win huge amounts of votes, since Republicans are 'the dumbest group of voters' in the country.
While Trump did appear in People Magazine a great many times during the 1990s, he never said this quote or even anything remotely resembling it.
It seems to have gained a great deal of traction online, and much of this may be due to the fact that it appears to fit our expectations of the man himself. During the primaries, the media discussed in great depth Donald Trump's position as 'not a real Republican', and during the campaign itself focused extensively on his elastic use of the truth. This image, in some ways, is the worst kind of mistruth, because for many people, especially Clinton supporters, it seems like it could be true.
2. The Simpsons predicted a Trump victory in 2000
Starting immediately after the announcement of the election results, the internet went wild with suggestions that once again 'the Simpsons predicted it'. Now while the show does have a remarkably interesting record of animating things into their shows that go on to happen in real life years later, this meme is in fact a collection of several different things.
The Simpsons 'prediction' of a President Trump, comes from an 2000 episode entitled Bart to the Future in which Lisa is elected as the 'first straight female president' and refers to inheriting a heavy budget deficit from 'President Trump'. This is it as far as predictions go. This is, at the time of writing, the only reference to a Donald Trump presidency in the Simpsons canon proper.
The image often shown in the prediction meme, of Trump standing behind a podium, or of him descending an escalator together with Homer, were in fact part of an animated Simpsons short called Trumptastic Voyage, created in July 2015 specifically to make fun of Trump's announcement of his candidacy. His running for the presidency, the design of the banner that he would use, and his famous trip down the escalator, had all already happened before the animated short was made. No predictions there.
In another more recent version of the meme, we see the usual Simpsons prediction claim, coupled with what appears to be regular character Mr Burns standing in front of an electoral college map of the United States. The map appears remarkably similar to the actual map of the 2016 election results, and often accompanies a secondary claim that The Simpsons also predicted the exact state-by-state outcomes. There are two important things to spot here:
- The map isn't actually the same, as several states are incorrectly colored (see Virginia for an example).
- Once again this is not from the actual show, but rather from another animated short, created in 2012 to announce Mr Burns' 'endorsement' of Republican candidate Mitt Romney for president. It has no connection whatsoever to the 2016 election.
Once again, no predictions here.
3. Kurt Cobain predicted a Donald Trump presidency back in 1993
Kurt Cobain was in many ways a true visionary. He even predicted the rise of someone like Donald Trump for president as far back as 1993. Except that he didn't. This meme appeared around July 2016 and is lacking in evidence of any kind. Nobody has yet been able to find any instance of the Nirvana frontman uttering these words or any words like them. The more eagle-eyed folks online spotted the misspelling of his name as 'Curt' Cobain, and have speculated that this may well be a wink from the creator to the audience, hiding in plain sight the fact that the quote is made up.
As a rule, this would seem to fall under the category of 'too good to be true'. The wording of Cobain's 'prediction' is so remarkably on point that most people's reactions were to disbelieve it. Predictions are rarely this detailed or this accurate - just look at Nostradamus for an example of what futurology in the past really looked like. Oh, and if you hadn't heard, he also 'predicted' a Trump presidency...
4. Harambe received thousands of votes for president
Harambe, the gorilla shot dead in Cincinnati zoo in May 2016 to save a child from a mauling, has undoubtedly been 'meme of the year' so far, with a wide variety of posts appearing ranging from strong condemnations of his shooting all the way to suggestions that his death was a CIA conspiracy. On the night of the presidential election however, a new series of claims based on viral tweets emerged. It was reported that a large number of people had taken the Harambe obsession to the next level by writing him in as their candidate for president. Figures of 10,000, 11,000, 14,000, 15,000, and 20,000 were variously reported as the number of votes, which should have been the first clue that this claim was not on the level.
As CNN points out in a well-written debunking, only seven states in the US actually allow voters to write in a candidate, so the phenomenon was likely nowhere near as widespread as reported. Other sources have pointed out that many states don't even bother to count the votes of write-in candidates, and even those that do, don't count them until well after the election, given that they are frequently not serious and make little difference to the overall result.
While candidates such as Trump running mate Mike Pence and failed Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders probably did receive a large number of votes nationwide, it is unlikely that legends such as Harambe or podcasting duo CGP Grey & Mike Hurley won more than a handful of votes on the night. Prove me wrong, internet, prove me wrong.
Since I have been in the prediction game of late, allow me to make a not-so-bold prediction of the next viral election meme: a chart showing the relationship between average voter IQ and who they voted for in the 2016 presidential election. This chart will undoubtedly show that states who swung for Hillary Clinton sport high state-wide average IQs, while those who voted for Donald Trump show comparatively low average IQs.
If this sounds familiar, then it should. The most famous of such charts emerged following the 2000 presidential election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. The chart appeared to show a correlation between being of a lesser intelligence and voting for Bush...and vice-versa. This chart was quickly debunked, but not before it was featured in an article by The Economist, no less (the article has since been removed, see the retraction here). As mentioned in this fantastic misconceptions video by Mental Floss, no attempt at studying such a correlation has ever been made. This didn't stop very similar maps emerging following almost every other presidential election since.
The 2016 election has a lot of the same ingredients as the 2000 election: a hugely divided country deciding between one more term (three total) of a scandal-tainted Democratic administration, or a brash, non-politically correct Republican candidate with seemingly little experience for the job of president. Both elections featured an incredibly tight final result, and one in which the winner of the popular vote (both times a Democrat) lost the vote in the Electoral College. Both results have rubbed the East and West Coast elites up the wrong way and horrified a comparatively liberal Europe, and have led to repeated claims of stupidity against those who voted for the Republican candidate. The 2000 chart also tapped into a long-held American and international stereotype of the 'stupid Southerner', and with the South having voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump this time around as well, I'm genuinely surprised that at the time of writing, I still haven't seen such a chart trending online.
It is easy to find similarities between any two events if you look hard enough, and I should point out that I am not claiming any more than a superficial relationship between the 2000 election of George W. Bush and the 2016 victory for Donald J. Trump. However, many people, especially those involved in social media meme culture, only every take a superficial look at relationships and correlations, and only ever provide a superficial explanation for such. I stand fairly confident in my prediction that such an electoral map will emerge online very shortly - please let me know in the comments below or on Twitter if you find it before I do!