I992. Vice President Dan Quayle visits an elementary school in New Jersey and jumps in to facilitate a Spelling Bee. A student goes to the blackboard to show the correct spelling of the word “potato.” After writing the word correctly, Quayle urges a student to add the letter “e” at the end of the word potato, yielding “p-o-t-a-t-o-e.” Here is how people reacted:
2008. Sarah Palin says on an interview with ABC News, “I can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.” Here is how people reacted (and continue to react today) on social media:
2012: Alejandro Garcia Padilla wins the Election for Governor of Puerto Rico. He offers a press conference to discuss the details about his transition committee with the local media. One member of the press from CBS asks him a question in English. Here is the video clip:
This video went viral (the view count is almost 400,000 and it has 1,000 comments) and people began to react to it on social media with memes, parodies, and judgmental comments making fun about the way Garcia Padilla speaks English. Here are some of them:
TRANSLATION: PLEASE WATCH THIS VIDEO. THIS IS WHAT AWAITS US! ALEJANDRO
GARCIA PADILLA SPEAKING ENGLISH.
TRANSLATION FOR TEXT ON POST: BRUTO= STUPID
TRANSLATION: HOW DUMB…THE PROBLEM IS HE DOESN’T SPEAK ENGLISH OR SPANISH
Taking a look at these reactions, they have one thing in common regarding the general public’s conception about Quayle, Palin, and Garcia Padilla: they’re “stupid” and incapable. These responses in the form of cartoons, satirical user-generated memes, YouTube videos, as well as comments on Twitter and Facebook reflect this view.
Why do people react this way? They have expectations about the qualities of individuals holding or aspiring political positions. It’s important to note that culture plays an important role regarding these expectations. Regarding Quayle, Palin and Garcia Padilla, these qualities include spelling words correctly, dominating foreign policy affairs (plus geography), and speaking English as a native speaker, respectively. When people feel these public figures fail to meet these expectations they react.
However, in the three examples covered in this discussion, there is one thing that’s different. Quayle’s faux pas was in 1992, when there was the possibility to establish a reputation for an individual, but the media controlled content and distribution. The dissemination of reactions was in the form of cartoons drawn by people from traditional media. Brenda Reyes-Tomassini, Public Affairs U.S. EPA Region 2, says: “Memes play the role that cartoons had in traditional print media. A cartoon is an illustration that distorts the physical appearance of a person sometimes framed into a social situation to create a humorous effect. Memes feature a real photo of a person, but it’s the language that creates that humor, provoking laughter, while mocking something or someone.” Also, back in those days, content did not have the virality potential it has now due to the effect of social media, when people can spread messages by clicking a button.
In Satirical User-Generated Content Memes as an Effective Source of Political Criticism, Extending Debate and Enhancing Civic Engagement, Vasiliki Plevriti discusses the use of memes as a form of political satire. “Political memes satirizing politics are about making a statement, participating in a normative debate about how the world should look like.” People are free to create, establish and convince others that Palin’s and Garcia Padilla’s digital reputation feature them as “stupid” or dumb. That’s the statement. They draw these conclusions based on the expectations they have about people occupying such prominent positions. That’s how the world should look like. Once this content is posted, audiences begin to cast judgment and the idea around that content becomes what the majority of this virtual community thinks.
According to some content posted on social media, one of the expectations that Puerto Ricans have for the Governor of Puerto Rico is speaking English as a native speaker, in a place where, according to recent Census data, 17.6% speak English “very well.” Some questions that could be asked regarding this matter are the following: Why should he when he lives in a place in which people speak Spanish everyday? Why should he speak English as a native speaker? Do those judging him on social media do so? If he doesn’t meet these requirements and “performs” as expected, does that make him stupid or incapable? Based on comments on social media, based on the expressions of embarrassment and shame.
This content mocks and ridicules how he speaks English and questions where he learned to speak English. Some of the memes feature make-belief scenarios in which he would speak that “unacceptable” English, not being able to pronounce words correctly or misspelling words. There is also an audio parody posted to YouTube about what he and Obama talked about at lunch during the President’s visit to Puerto Rico:
Comments on Facebook and Twitter include: “I felt so ashamed I couldn’t even listen to the message. He is the Governor!” “My 7-year old can give him English classes for free” or “I cannot deal with this “moron.” In the end, there were people criticizing him, some suggesting that he doesn’t know English at all, when that’s not the case.
Other comments made referral to how important it’s for the Governor of Puerto Rico to be able to speak English; others asked him to buy Rosetta Stone courses:
TRANSLATION: ENROLL IN THE SCHOOL OF SAN JUAN. THE GIRLS ON THE AD OF THAT SCHOOL SO SPEAK ENGLISH. JAJAJA!
#1: ALLUSION TO ONE AD ABOUT AN ENGLISH COURSE
#2: JAJAJAJA WHAT AN EMBARASSMENT!
#3 GO BUY ROSETTA STONE. WHAT AN ANIMAL. THE WORD GOVERNOR IS TOO BIG FOR HIM
This content is a reflection of an audience that thinks there is a correlation between speaking English as a native speaker and intellectual capacity; that someone holding the position of Governor of Puerto Rico and who does not speak English without an accent is an indication of lack of intelligence.
The best way to explain this point is by going to Google, typing “Moron Governor” and taking a look at the results. Here is a Vine video about this:
Taking a look at Sarah Palin’s case, based on reactions on social media, one can conclude that the expectations people have about an aspiring Vice President include full dominance of foreign affairs (and geography!). Reactions on social media mean to tease and ridicule her, taking Russia as the main theme. By creating alternate situations around that idea with the use of words, the result is a statement about her lack of capacity by saying something that’s not possibly right. Once the piece of content is out there, others are motivated to do the same; the cycle begins and the message is repeated constantly: Sarah Palin is a “moron.”
Taking a look only at Pinterest and searching “Sarah Palin memes,” one will be able to find thousands of pins. Also, there is a Facebook group called “I have more Foreign Policy Experience than Sarah Palin,” which currently has close to 2,000 members.
It only takes one mistake or wrongful use of information for people to change their perception about a candidate. It doesn’t matter what school preparation that person has, if they say something wrong or something that makes those meeting of expectations vanish, that’s all it takes for social media audiences to change their idea about that person. They seem to forget about the rest of the qualities of the person.
However, this is not what’s new; it’s the concept of going viral on social media and the fact that the person on the other side of the screen has all the resources available to begin to build that new digital reputation and start spreading the message. In To Go Viral, Here’s What Content Has to Make You Feel, Ekaterina Walter discusses one of the factors that viral content has: elicit emotion. As Walter mentions: “that posts inspiring feelings of awe, anger or anxiety are shared more often than others, with anger being the most viral emotion of all.” In the reactions discussed here, there is some anger, as well as shame.
As those messages go viral, others receiving the message are convinced about the veracity of what’s being said, to the point that they take that idea as the truth and adopt that idea as their own. Once they do so, they begin to repeat it over and over to reinforce it and spread a message about something that they probably never thought about. In Meme Culture, Devyn McDonald discusses how user-generated content like memes contribute to the political discourse, more so because “meme culture have the power to involve people would who otherwise be unlikely to participate in political discussions. Memes have turned political events into need-to-know cultural knowledge.”
It’s important to note that the virality effects of this digital reputation content didn’t stop in 1992, 2008, or 2012. The effects are permanent and this is well evidenced by searching Google today, where one will find content posted recently, still making fun of them, featuring new videos, comments on Facebook and Twitter, and memes. Donald Trump makes the best example of a future article about digital reputation and expectations on social media. There is already plenty of content to consider which is enough for another discussion.