WASHINGTON: Muppets are not normally associated with US politics but they popped up in this year's election campaign thanks to a popular culture phenomenon known as the meme, which has stormed the Internet.
A constantly evolving online spoof on a common theme in the form of photos, Twitter hashtags, videos or GIFs (animated pictures), the meme has emerged as a fixture in the race to the White House as people react to politics online.
Big Bird, the affable Muppet star of Sesame Street fame, is the subject of perhaps the most famous meme after Republican challenger Mitt Romney threatened him with financial asphyxiation in the first presidential debate last month.
"I like PBS (US public TV network that airs the show). I love Big Bird," Romney said, as he pledged to cut support for public broadcasting.
No sooner had he made the comment than online denizens flocked to the Internet in outrage with parody Twitter accounts, sarcastic photos and GIFs.
Within minutes, a meme was born. A picture of Big Bird holding a cardboard sign reading "Will work for food" made the rounds, as did comic shots of angry Sesame Street puppets proclaiming "S**t just got real."
Carrie-Lynn Reinhard, assistant communications professor at Dominican University in Illinois, said online memes emerged in the 2010 US mid-term elections but burst into the open in this year's presidential race.
"The fact that more people are familiar with memes, more people have the capability to create and distribute them, means that we're going to see more of them overall," she said.
On Saturday, the Big Bird meme burst out into the real world when hundreds of Americans took to the streets with their puppets to shore up support for public television, ahead of Tuesday's election.
Big Bird is not the only online meme to have become a staple of this year's campaign, however.
When asked about unequal pay in the workplace during the second debate, Romney said that as Massachusetts governor, he had been given "binders full of women" to help him find female cabinet members.
A Facebook fan page promptly sprung up, as did a post on blogging platform Tumblr that showed funny pictures of women with self-made binders, and the Twitter hashtag #bindersfullofwomen was used to accompany satirical tweets.
Romney's $10,000 bet over healthcare with Texas Governor Rick Perry during the Republican primaries also became a popular online meme.
And when movie star Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair meant to represent President Barack Obama during his speech at the Republican National Convention, netizens spoofed the event with the hashtag #eastwooding.
Obama's campaign team even waded into the meme, tweeting a photo of the president sitting in a chair with his back to the camera, with the caption "this seat's taken."
"People are trying to deal with the craziness of the election, the uncertainty of the election and one of the ways you handle such things is through humour," said Reinhard.
But it is still unclear how much of a concrete political effect the Internet meme has and experts say they usually reach only a like-minded audience because of the common bond that connects members of social networks.
"You're not going to reach undecided voters to the same degree you will with a commercial during a football game," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Source: AFP via I-NET Bridge
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