This article originally appeared on Priceonomics.
To most people, memes are just silly pictures overlaid with some text, designed to evoke a visceral reaction. But on a deeper level, the meme is a vessel for transmitting the current beliefs, opinions, and thoughts of our culture.
But what are the memes actually about? We analyzed data from Priceonomics customer Me.me, a search engine that’s indexed practically every meme ever produced and made the text on the images searchable.
Using this data, we set out to analyze how memes have changed in these tumultuous times: Which themes, or people, are being increasingly meme-ified? Have they become more politicized? To answer these questions, we poured through our database of memes, analyzing keywords (the text that appears on the memes).
Memes may have a reputation for being “silly” or “funny”, but in the wake of the 2016 election, memes have gotten very political.
We took all of our keywords, limited to those which appeared at least 10,000 times in memes as of January 2017 and manually sorted through them, removing the boring stuff (prepositions, pronouns, etc.). Then, we calculated the percentage increase in usage of each term from January 2016 to January 2017.
Below, are the keywords that increased the most in usage. Notice anything?
The list is loaded with political terminology.
“MAGA” (a shortened version of President Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”) ballooned from one use in January 2016 to more than 12,000 uses in January 2017 — a 1.2 million percent increase. Among other high performers were “libertarian,” “DonaldTrump,” “conservative,” “politics,” “liberal,” “republican,” and “president.”
Of the top 25 terms above, 14 — nearly 60% — are political in nature. Identity-related terms (“LGBT,” “vegan,” “Christian,” “black,” “white”) also experienced large increases in usage.
A look at terms that went from zero mentions in January 2016 to over 1,000 mentions in January 2017 reveals a similarly politicized list:
It should be mentioned that almost all of the terms in our database increased in usage over the past year, as memes have just become more popular in general. But the terms included above experienced an increase beyond the scope of what we consider to be normal.
That said, some terms have experienced a decline in recent months. Comparing term usage from November 2016 to January 2017, we can see how seasonal memes are: the biggest decreases were November-specific terms like “Black Friday” and “Thanksgiving.” Other notable decreases include “Fidel” and “Castro” (who died November 25th, 2016), “Jill Stein,” and “Standing Rock.”
Among the most increased terms, “DonaldTrump,” “Trump,” and other variations of our 45th president reigned supreme. Stacked against other political figures, this astronomical increase is even more apparent.
In September of 2016 “Trump” and “Clinton” were mentioned in an equal number of memes. By the November, there were nearly 20,000 more “Trump” memes than “Clinton” memes — and since the election — well, Trump handily wins bragging rights as the most meme-ified politician.
Interestingly, leading up to, and since, the election, we also saw a spike in the use of “Putin” in memes:
Trump’s rise seems to be indicative of a wider increase in general memes about conservatives. “Republican” memes have increased at a far more dramatic rate than “Democrat” memes. In fact, even memes containing “Libertarian” outrank the Democrats — and “Communist” memes aren’t far behind.
Now, let’s dive a little deeper into specific themes that have seen a dramatic increase in the past year.
Perhaps as a byproduct of Trump, terms relating to the failures of traditional media — “fake news,” “conspiracy,” “media check,” and “bias” — have seen a spike in usage:
As Trump has threatened and alienated a growing population of subgroups, terms related to personal politics have also increased.
At the intersection of racism and politics, we’ve seen terms like “racism” (6,000% increase), “Nazi” (3,200% increase), and “white supremacy” (11,000%) explode in usage.
A similar trend can be seen with sexual identities — specifically, ”LGBTQ.”
There has also been a spike in the usage of various religion-related terms. In the wake of Trump’s Muslim ban talk throughout the election, the term “Muslim” saw a usage increase of nearly 9,000% over the course of 2016.
Of course, the increasing divisiveness of politics in 2016 also caused a bump in “resistance” memes — that is, memes that either champion of mock political backlash.
You can see a small bump in “march” during the month of March — but the massive increase around December 2016 is more than likely due to the Women’s March, and other highly publicized protests around the country. We’ve a seen similar, albeit less dramatic, rise in terms like “protest,” “movement,” and “resistance” over the course of 2016 — mostly, post-election.
Most people think of memes as little more than funny pictures of animals, or age-old inside jokes on the Internet. But in 2016, we saw a considerable increase in the politicization of memes. Moving forward, for better or worse, memes may play an increasing role in the way politics are discussed online.