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The long history of political social media

One of the key stories of the last US presidential election was the battle of words and images fought by supporters of the candidates on social media, or what one journalist has called “The Great Meme War” of 2016. From hashtag slogans like #FeelTheBern and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain to jokey internet memes like “Nasty Women” and “The Deplorables,” public participation in political advocacy and promotion has reached a fever pitch in the age of networked digital technologies.

After the election ended, this activity has only seemed to intensify with each Trump-related meme of the day, even hour. Citizens are not only following politicians on a range of social media platforms, but are also actively spreading messages of endorsement and opposition by posting and sharing digital content that essentially functions as political advertising. However, although these practices have now reached a level of prominence perhaps never before, they are far from new. Rather, they represent only the latest phase of a long and unheralded tradition of citizen participation in the spread of political messages.

Prior to the advent of online platforms like Twitter and Facebook, participation in the landscape of political communication flourished in the form of material culture—banners, sashes, and ribbons, and eventually more modern items like T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers. Back in the nineteenth century, before politicians were able to take advantage of the broadcast airwaves to bring their messages directly to voters, they depended upon their supporters to act as surrogate message carriers at public events such as parades and rallies.

The William Henry Harrison campaign of 1840 was a watershed moment in this participatory election spectacle, as enthusiastic supporters engaged in actions like rolling giant balls made of buckskin through the city covered with campaign slogans like “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Over a century before Twitter, the ‘great meme wars’ of presidential politics were waged in the streets between everyday citizens who filled the public vistas with the messages of their favored parties and candidates.

This tradition diminished in importance in the twentieth century, when political candidates began using radio and eventually television to deliver slickly-produced campaign advertisements without the mediation of surrogate message carriers. However, although formalized mass displays like parade processions eventually became old-fashioned, a more informal tradition of citizen political expression started to build steam in the context of Postwar countercultures. For the hippie generation, political expression became intertwined with cultural self-expression, bringing message-sending and statement-making into the spaces and places of everyday life. Slogan buttons like “Make Love, Not War” became a part of everyday dress and effortlessly broadcasted one’s political beliefs to onlookers while moving through public space.

3.15.2008 by Danielle Buma. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Around this time, a new ethos was emerging of the individual as a screen for promoting new social identities and worldviews—an alternative, grassroots media channel that set itself in opposition to mainstream media and advertising dominated by the status quo. No one epitomized this more than the hippie icon John Lennon, who made a point of promoting an anti-Vietnam War message in all aspects of his life (such as wearing T-shirts in public adorned with the peace sign). As Lennon remarked, “‘Henry Ford knew how to sell cars by advertising. I’m selling peace at whatever the cost. Yoko and I are just one big advertising campaign.”

This notion of using personalized expressive channels to become an advertisement for favored political messages—what I refer to as the citizen marketer approach to political action—proved to be highly influential in the following decades. By the 1980s, wearing slogan T-shirts to make public political statements had become a notable fashion trend, especially in the form of designer Katharine Hamnett’s famous block-letter environmentalist shirts like “Stop Acid Rain” and “Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now.”

Election campaigns and their supporters embraced the trend as well, and by the 1992 presidential race between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, there were so many election-themed T-shirts in circulation that the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York devoted an entire museum exhibition to it. As curators Richard Martin and Harold Koda put it,

The candidate may throw his or her hat into the ring, but the voter can actively participate as well long before Election Day in sartorial persuasion and expression. There are those who believe that sound bites and media-centric campaigning have displaced the grassroots democracy in which opinions are freely expounded and exchanged neighbor to neighbor. Perhaps the intensity of this year’s T-shirts gives us reason to believe that voters are ready to speak out.

Replace “sartorial” with “social media” and “T-shirts” with “tweets,” and their words sound strikingly familiar. Indeed, they illustrate that the impetus for everyday people to participate in the political media landscape did not originate with the appearance of peer-to-peer digital technologies. Rather, today’s ‘great meme wars’ on the internet descend from long traditions of citizen-level political expression that are grounded in material culture practices such as dress.

Looking at this history of material culture as the predecessor to today’s social media helps contextualize many of the current debates and controversies around online political expression. For instance, in the 1980s, slogan T-shirts like Hamnett’s were a frequent target of derision for seemingly dumbing down political discourse—a preview of the ‘slacktivism’ critique of political social media that frames it as empty and lacking in substance. By contrast, during the same decade, the ruling party in apartheid South Africa banned the public display of T-shirts featuring the symbol of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Such an action demonstrates the feared persuasive power of grassroots citizen media, foreshadowing the current wave of governments around the world shutting down internet access and blocking social media sites to quell oppositional voices.

Like their material cultural forbearers, tweets, memes, and viral videos have the potential to shape the flow of political ideas, one citizen at a time—even as they draw from repertoires of cultural expression that often clash with the norms of elite political discourse.

Featured image credit: Social Media apps by Jason Howie. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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  1. […] elections. Before political warfare was waged on Twitter and Instagram, campaigns were defined by material culture: banners, T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers — all marked by eye-catching hues and trendy […]

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