I’ll begin anecdotally in the build-up to my assertions.
What struck me most on reading this piece was the close correlation between what happened in the Arab Spring and the most recent US presidential election.
I’m clearer in the case of the US elections how a peppering of humor embedded in social media polarized–and in many respects fixated people’s notions of the candidates and what they did or did not stand for.
The candidates were in many ways reduced to archetypes by Alec Baldwin’s and Kate McKinnon’s respective portrayals.
I’m not at all clear if the same dynamics played out in the Arab Spring because I’m neither fluent in the languages spoken there nor locally acculturated.
The Arab Spring has been characterized as a textbook case on the rise and impact of citizen journalism. Regarding the latter, the case can be made that an iPhone and a Facebook page led to the downfall of 5 Middle Eastern regimes. In effect, social movements were catalyzed by tweets, newsfeeds and embedded audio/video. Again, I can’t judge whether the characterizations were spin-doctored, nor whether humor played a role in galvanizing the people in those regions.
What we can say in both cases is that social media provided a more accurate narrative of the zeitgeist than the mainstream media. If we–let alone the Hillary Campaign–had paid more attention to what was going on in the social media feeds, we’d have had a better indication of the outcome.
It was clear that tens of thousands more were attending Trump rallies. Hillary barely managed to fill high school gyms. That was the tale of the tape, but somehow New York Times reporters got it wrong. The flip side of it is that when Obama filled stadiums, the indications were soberingly clear–but only because his viewpoints aligned to those of the Times contingent–the writers and their bicoastal readership.
We, of course, are still embedded in that context. I’m only aware of my own biases when I venture from Yankees to Red Sox “country”–the polarizations between southwestern and northeastern Connecticut. (Giants vs Pats is another delineation.) Incidentally–don’t go away with the impression that I’m a sports fan–other than Lacrosse–occasionally–which happens to be the only NCAA sport with nearly a 100% graduation rate.
Trump has fallen victim to a similar dynamic in his campaign to overturn the Affordable Healthcare Act. It was sartorially dressed-up and attacked in the guise of “Obamacare.” Yet, ironically, Americans in the “flyover states” are in equal measure–yet diametrically–in favor of public health care, failing to realize that they are one and the same. Don Verrilli was a classmate of mine, and I’m intent on asking whether his association of the “Act” and the “Obama” persona was an intentional deception.
In consideration of all that, though not central to Nichols’ thesis, I’d be interested to hear if humor played a part in the Arab Spring, the memes it evoked, and how it all played out in social media in that part of the world. That’s because the existence of a parallel dynamic might imply something of its universality.
Regarding the author’s hypotheses, the reductio is that Trump had supporters who acted upon their rhetoric, while Hillary had a mere following. The superiority of the latter in numerical terms was offset in percentages by the agency of a minority.
Therefore, I’d argue to the contrary that Nichols is overlooking the fact that memes are significant, that they did and do play a role in elections, and that outcomes are affected to the extent that citizens act upon them. Eric Hoffer makes a similar argument in The True Believer–though I’m at a loss as to which candidate would be deemed more charismatic.