First Monday

The political memes and the politics of memes: Methodological proposal for a content analysis of online political memes

This paper aims to discuss preliminary results of a comprehensive research on the uses and appropriations of political-electoral memes. Our main goal at this stage is to develop, following former propositions from other scholars, a taxonomical matrix able to assist researchers interested in dealing with online political memes with greater objectivity. Therefore, we tried to perform a content analysis of memes that circulated on Twitter during Brazilian 2014 presidential elections.


1. Introduction
2. “I think we’re in the midst of a revolution”
3. Humor and politics: When popular culture invades serious business
4. Particularities of the Brazilian case
5. Memes on politics: A taxonomy proposal
6. Results and discussion
7. Final observations



1. Introduction

Since 2014 elections in Brazil every national political episode, including street demonstrations for and against the government, feminist meme events in Twitter, protests against the 2016 impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, releases of political leaders under contested premises, and off-course electoral campaigns have been scrutinized by the online political discussion among Internet users, with online memes gaining prominence. No wonder the 2014 elections in Brazil were marked in popular Brazilian imagination as the “elections of memes”. Online and off-line well-known vehicles in Brazil, such as Folha de São Paulo, R7 Portal and O Estado de S. Paulo, intensely resonated Internet electoral “jokes”. Candidates shared these perceptions and tried to develop influential strategies for the Web, from content created specifically for Twitter or Facebook, to bots that were supposed to widen the reach of messages reproducing them surreptitiously through fake accounts. Amongst voters that populated the social media ecosystem, everything was a reason for “goofing” and an overt radicalism (Lattman-Weltman, 2015). From a scientific viewpoint, there were rare attempts at understanding what online memes represent for political communication.

This work provides preliminary results from a comprehensive investigation about the usage and appropriations of online memes. Our main goal, in this stage of the research, was to develop a taxonomic matrix capable of helping those researchers interested in dealing with memes more objectively. We undertook a content analysis about memes that abounded throughout 2014 Brazilian electoral debates.

Our hypothesis is that memes acted as a mishmash of advertising and political charges, constituting as real election thermometers, empowered to indicate highs and lows in a given candidate’s performance. This paper is organized in five sections. At first, we present a brief review about the literature on the interface between Internet and political communication in Brazil and abroad. Afterwards, we point out how humor has been used by campaign commands, by supporters and by voters in general in formulating political strategies. Then, we venture into an analysis of memes, giving special heeding to their use in political contexts. Finally, we close with a methodological proposal for investigations of online memes, presenting preliminary research results for discussion.



2. The Internet and political culture: Challenges and gaps in contemporary studies

Studies on the uses of technology in political communication are flourishing in Brazil and elsewhere in the world. A number of studies have focused on the use of social network sites as part of a campaign strategy for Barack Obama (Gainous and Wagner, 2014; Adams and McCorkindale, 2013; Gomes, et al., 2009). These technological tools enabled an identification of specific groups of voters, in order to gather supporters and volunteers (Gomes, et al., 2009; Marques and Sampaio, 2011). Other studies examined the use of social media in popular protests in different countries. Some analyses (Valenzuela, 2013) pointed to connections between access of information on networks and an expression of political opinions and activism. Others (Parikh, 2012; Conover, et al., 2011; Alves, 2016; Lattman-Weltman, 2015) investigated the radical and polarized behavior of certain groups, identified as fandoms.

Internet and politics studies in Brazil, for example Aldé, et al. (2013), point to a need for further research on the relationships between political cultures and new technologies. Some research in Brazil has examined: (1) the changes in the representative system and the introduction of online deliberation processes and e-participation platforms (Sampaio, et al., 2012; Araújo, et al., 2015); (2) ruptures and continuity between candidates and voters in campaign strategies with new interactive dynamics (Aggio, 2016; Rossini and Leal, 2013; Cervi and Massuchin, 2013); (3) initiatives of social control, transparency and accountability (Sampaio, et al., 2011); and (4) cyberactivism and hackactivism (Parra, 2012). There are, however, few studies that try to understand political and electoral components from a cultural substrate.

As Goldfarb noted [1], the dimension of political culture is normally employed to indicate a political fate or destiny. Starting from Tocqueville, there is a certain sociological sense to political culture. Goldfarb reminded us that the political nature of social action must not be approached only under the optics of engagement, on behalf or against political institutions. It is in Putnam (2000) that Goldfarb found support for notions on how social relations operate to reinforce bonds between culture and politics. Putnam (2000) in a sense revisits Tocqueville, suggesting that American society lost its associative capacity by an overvaluation of individual experiences. Disillusioned by a reduction in associativism and a subsequent weakening of some institutions, Putnam developed a notion of social capital intimately related to an institutionalization of culture. Goldfarb [2], citing Fine (Fine and Harrington, 2004; Fine and Kleinman, 1979) argued that not all politics is subject to a specific degree of formality [3]. This approach leads us to understand that not only power relations are symbolically constructed but also social relations in general are always permeated by politics themselves.

In this paper, we deal with political matter from a vernacular creativity viewpoint (Burgess, 2007), disregarding traditional concerns about institutional formalism. This approach does not ignore the relation between the diffusion of political memes by party supporters or by political parties themselves. Following Marques (2006) and Aldé (2011), we are particularly concerned about investigating the changes in the circulation of political information on the Internet, especially those that appear more spontaneous [4]. Our efforts focus on understanding user-generated content and its political appropriations in a more immediate context.

In this paper we consider the role of humor in contemporary political culture, specifically on the Internet. Not all content circulating during electoral debates in 2014 was humorous; some, on the contrary, was merely informative, with no trace of comicality. Yet, our argument is that humor stimulates the diffusion of content (Shifman, 2013; 2012) and contributes to the constitution of collective identities and shared literacy experiences (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007). It is then paramount, before we carry on, to plunge deeper into some of the aspects that relate humor, the Internet and political cultures.



3. Humor and politics: When popular culture invades serious business

Some note that public disengagement, lack of popular mobilization and lack of interest in collective matters are seen as threats to the legitimacy of democratic institutions and democracy as a whole. This has led some to search for answers about this “crisis” and ways to revitalize political participation [5]. Humor has been a relatively recurring aspect of these debates.

The emergence of new kinds of humor, enabled by information and communication technologies, reinforces even more the importance of thinking about the use of humor in a political context. Having said that, what we propose is that political humor on the Internet contributes to the creation and consolidation of a web of shared meanings, which absorbs and re-frames content from popular culture. Thus, it acts as an exhaust valve for moments of tension, strengthens bonds of solidarity and makes learning much more fun, besides stimulating collective actions (Tay, 2012).

Shifman (2013) points out that humor confers positivity to a story. Berger and Milkman (apud Shifman, 2013) described six factors as motivations for sharing content on networks: positivity inspired by them; provocation (on an emotional level); packaging (simplification and narrative clarity); participation or interaction to a recipient; prestige for the original author; and the positioning in time and space. Humor responds emphatically to at least three aspects (positivity, provocation and packaging). For Tay (2012), comicality is a vehicle for politics to be explored, incorporating elements of popular culture and media entertainment and acting in order to include ordinary citizens in processes that require participation.

Studying humor provides a means to analyze a society where humor acts as a code of interpretation of the real, as a comic sense is generated as a result of social interaction (A. Berger, 1993). That’s why jokes from other countries often lose their humorous sense in other cultures (cf., P. Berger, 1997; Shifman, et al., 2014; Shifman and Katz, 2005). Börzsei (2013) generates a definition of what a “National Web” would be [6], to exemplify an interpenetration of political culture and social media in Hungary. Although humor was present in elections long before computers and networks [7], online social networks can greatly extend the reach of political humor to much broader audiences in a much shorter time frame.

When we observe the diffusion of information on the Internet [8], it is clear that its great reach is possible due to the speed and capillarity of memes on social media. As a cultural product, an online meme depends on a repertoire extracted from social relations, memories, historical, geographic and economical references and specific conjectural aspects. Internet users post, share and like what they judge to be interesting (positivity); what reflects their impressions about a theme (packaging); what somehow affects or sensitizes them (provocation); and that is why humor is so present in memes. But which are the common elements of this sort of humor?

After a content analysis of YouTube videos, Shifman (2013) proposed that humor in online social media resorts systematically to some elements. According to Shifman, it (1) is based on shared experiences of many individuals; (2) questions or satirizes the place occupied by masculinity; (3) invests in incongruent comicality, i.e., breaches of expectation; (4) transmitted in a simple and popular language; (5) filled with repetition; and (6) focusing on eccentric or extraordinary situations. Some of these characteristics can be relativized for political contents examined in this study.

Memes are often created by amateurs, in touch with the feelings and sensibilities of the masses (Sá, 2014; Felinto, 2008). It is by no means unusual to see these users create and share contents with focus on ordinary individuals, creating a kind of involuntary humor. Politically, this sort of humor is achieved by displacing the context of a professional politician, exposing him to the ridiculous.

According to Sá (2014), we must note the role performed by the so-called “performative gesture” defined as a ”gesture or set of gestures that defines the performance in a synthetic way, turning it into an identification mark.” This kind of humor is defined by juxtapositions or assemblies or freezing action in a frame, generating “short-term” reactions, that are situational or of “little political importance” (Tay, 2012). These are not only more frequent in our collected sample, but also more defining, given their repercussions in traditional media [9]. As Felinto (2008) pointed out, the “parody of what is publicly known” is one of the hallmarks in the production of these memes.

The differences between content related to politics and content related to culture is not adequately explained by the logic of parody and spoof [10] but perhaps better by the logic of kitsch, as defined by Luis Felipe Miguel (2011). According to Miguel [11], political kitsch is “one of the standard-ways of the political discourse repertoire, when directed to common citizens in contemporary representative democracies”, a kind of game between distinction and identity. As a discursive strategy, kitsch provides an audience with “the impression of watching high-level politics” in a clearly populist manner. Kitsch, states Miguel, reveals the challenges of a political strategy with new mass communication media. On one hand, a politician attempts to rectify their positions while at the same time competition forces a political figure to use more intensely marketing and advertising techniques. This oscillation makes a politician vulnerable and futile, with no easy solution.

In the logic of online memes, humor flirts with kitsch. The predominance of inflated language and trivial visuals opens politicians to situational jokes and humor, which contrasts and competes with spontaneous rhetoric-discursive disputes around “morale forms” [12]. Working as elements of criticism and a trivialization of politics, memes spin around themes that are part of the public agenda of national politics. They combine distinction and identity and solve in their own fashion a problem of adequacy in political discourse.



4. Particularities of the Brazilian case

Broadly known as an impressive meme distributor, Brazil has a long history of generating folkloric figures in politics. In the past decade, online memes have gained notoriety as part of campaign rhetoric or as political cartoons created by Internet users.

There are many examples. There were humorous photomontages with the 2010 defeated presidential candidate José Serra starring a ‘Gangnam Style’ parody as well as fictional profiles of ex-president Dilma Rousseff as Dilma Bolada. There was the adoption of the surname “Freixo” by hundreds of Facebook users, as a demonstration of support for candidate Marcelo Freixo in 2012 mayor elections in Rio. Hoax e-mail messages were sent, warning about the risks of electing then candidate Dilma Rousseff, an “ex-terrorist”, to Palácio do Planalto, the official office of the President of Brazil. The #forasarney (Oust Sarney) campaign on Twitter in 2009 against then president of the Senate José Sarney (and former president of Brazil, 1985-1988) can be seen as a kind of precursor of #foratemer (Oust Temer) protests against Michel Temer, who succeeded Rousseff in presidency. Even the expression “coxinha” (snack made of chicken), which became a popular way to refer to conservative supporters, figures as a clear example of Brazilian vernacular creativity. Memes have had a great influence on the political scene of Brazil.

Another important particularity of Brazilian campaigns is free political advertising time, condensing ads from different parties and candidates into a 30-minute program broadcast twice a day during the campaign on all radio and TV channels. Brazilian scholars have long investigated sentiment analysis and strategies invoked in these ads (Figueiredo, et al., 1998). There has been additional research on communication strategies on Web sites of candidates as well as televised electoral debates.

The 2014 elections in Brazil was marked by fierce rivalry. Dilma Rousseff was running for her second term with Aécio Neves as the main opponent and Marina Silva as an alternative candidate. Rousseff and Neves moved onto a second round where Rousseff won with 51.64 percent of the vote compared to 48.36 percent for Neves. After the elections, Neves and his party started a campaign of denunciations and accusations, culminating in a growing climate of dissatisfaction with Rousseff and Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT), resulting later in her impeachment and removal from office in August 2016.

Regulations over political campaigns have changed, reducing televised time while boosting social media. These changes encouraged the development and use of memes as well as other online techniques. One of the most competitive presidential candidates in 2018, ultraconservative populist Jair Bolsonaro, has been described as an Internet phenomenon, mobilizing millions with right-wing memes. Paying attention to online memes helps us identify and track changes in political climate. Based on Brazilian examples, in this paper we focus on developing a taxonomy for political memes, recognizing different functions and strategies.



5. Memes on politics: A taxonomy proposal

Memes have been generally described as shallow and unpretentious content, a simple manifestation of expression (Miltner, 2011). This perception is perhaps mistaken, due to a lack of studies on the universe of online memes and their uses and appropriations in political contexts. Studies that have examined memes — such as Ross and Rivers (2017); Bebić and Volarevic (2018); Martínez-Rolán and Piñeiro-Otero (2016); Heiskanen (2017); and Milner (2013) — are largely concerned with critical discursive analysis, making no attempt at systematizing common patterns and characteristics of political online memes.

Analyses of memes have examined their circulation (Jenkins, et al., 2013) or reception (Miltner, 2011). Some taxonomical proposals were proposed, but limited to characteristics originally outlined by Dawkins’ (1976) [13] conceptualization of memes (cf., Recuero, 2007). However, there are some difficulties with this approach. Dawkins conceived memes as ideas, not media forms. His categories measured the success of memes within a given group of cultural assumptions, not necessarily their subsequent uses and appropriations. When employed to online memes, Dawkins’ categories — fidelity, fecundity and longevity — restricts an observer to a single ontological aspect of an object, concentrating on how a message is diffused, but leaving aside the question of why a message was diffused.

There have been a number of qualitative studies by Shifman and collaborators (Shifman, 2012; Segev, et al., 2015) as well as formal analysis of contents, examining memes in terms of size, resolution, chromaticism and other aspects (Honorato, et al., 2014). These analyses, though enriching from a software studies viewpoint, have little to say in terms of political communication.

In this paper, we develop a taxonomic matrix that aims to treat the discursive framing of memes. Based on former taxonomic proposals, in research on online memes (Shifman, 2013; Tay, 2012) and political communication (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012; Figueiredo, et al., 1998), we attempt to reconcile these approaches.

The taxonomy in this paper examines user-generated content circulating in social media, utilizing in part categories adopted to classify political advertising and rhetorical strategies. Hence, some of the categories developed in this investigation are similar to those that analyze political spots and ads.

Deepening distinctions outlined by Shifman (2013), this taxonomy also takes advantage of contemporary literature on collective actions and social mobilization, anchoring mainly in Bennett and Segerberg (2012). There is some use of a “connective action” model, in which actors dispute and negotiate “personal action frames”. As noted by Shifman (2013), we find parallels between this kind of grassroots action and the online dynamics of memes.

Finally, we are interested in raising the uses of humor frames in political conversations on social media. Much have been discussed on the importance of non-deliberative arenas in political theory (Mansbridge, 1999; Schudson, 1997), but there are few studies concerning humor and political discussion. Further investigations on online memes can certainly fill this gap. As a result, we introduce Tay’s (2012) taxonomy as part of this study.

There are always problems with any classification scheme, as a meme can, at the same time, present itself as humor and imbue itself with a conservative or subversive rhetoric (Huntington, 2015; Bayerl and Stoynov, 2014; Silvestri, 2018; Vickery, 2014). Despite these gray areas, this paper's model has some virtues, providing a more rigorous framework for analysis while utilizing different analytical backgrounds from previous studies.

In this paper, we evaluate (a) performative fluctuations of candidates, with a description of online meme language and the rhetoric of political marketing; (b) the reach of protest and supportive action using memes as well as forms of political play in virtual environments; and (c) the uses of fun and comicality.

A massive amount of data was collected during the first debate during the 2014 Brazilian presidential elections. We monitored nine debates during elections, hosted by five different television stations. For the extraction of images, we used an application called Twicsy, which temporarily stored images shared by Twitter API. Searches were performed through official hashtags related to TV channels: #DebateNaBand, #DebateNoSBT, #DebateAparecida (and exceptionally in this case also #DebateCNBB [14]), #DebateNaRecord and #DebateNaGlobo. As Twicsy only stores images temporarily, in all cases we downloaded manually data up to three days after each debate. Furthermore, the application could recover at a maximum of a thousand images per search [15]. Summing up all debates, around 6,000 images from Twitter were collected.

In this first stage of research, we examined results from a sample of memes spread during the first presidential debate on the Band channel. A total of 599 images were gathered, generating a sample of around 10 percent of all material collected during the electoral period. The images were analyzed, according to a set of 175 variables [16] with some discarded for this preliminary analysis. Amidst the content analyzed, there were series of pictures with subtitles (image macros), photomontages with overlays (exploitables), selfies and others, including a contingent of images that makes us question their status as memes [17]. Some images, at first blush, seem not significant, but further study indicates their political context (Figure 1).


Original and response (look-alike)
Figure 1: Original and response (look-alike) [18].


Memes as cultural constructions that are articulated and spread by human agents and/or organized groups. There is no “mysterious” power in memes per se (as Backmore supposed) that boosts processes of cultural diffusion, but webs of meanings built by people around them. Above all, we reinforce the understanding of Shifman (2013) about the need to evaluate memes not as isolated units of content, but as a semantic set, without which it is not possible to understand their meanings.

As for humor, some content broadens frontiers.

While some political memes are framed in a humorous manner, others are deadly serious. But regardless of their emotional keying, political memes are about making a point — participating in a normative debate about how the world should look and the best way to get there. [19]

With these questions in mind, political memes were distinguished as (1) persuasive memes; (2) grassroots action memes; and (3) public discussion memes. This classification adopts Shifman’s (2013) functions of political memes, based on the 2008 U.S. presidential election and the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Persuasive memes were strategically created to be disseminated, in order to anchor support for specific candidates. These memes were akin to online political posters, or infographics for specific candidates or parties.

Grassroots action memes are characterized by a collective construction of sense, mobilizing the common citizen. Some use catchphrases, such as “I am the 1%” or #metoo, and are related on occasion to specific parties or ideologies. Memes that point to iterated collective behaviors, such as selfies, are characterized as well as grassroots action.

Finally, public discussion memes were created to work in specific situations to invoke certain reactions or expressions (Milner, 2013), generally identified as jokes. Depending on the function attributed to each meme, we have identified:

  1. its rhetoric and appeal, based on an adaptation of categories developed by studies on electoral propaganda in Brazil (cf., Figueiredo, et al., 1998);
  2. its dynamics of collective action in social media as drivers of behavior, from an adaptation of Bennett and Segerberg’s (2012) typology, concerning the dynamics of traditional collective action and those actions performed with new media;
  3. and the type of message presented, examining contents according to the object of humor, cf., Tay’s (2012) categories.

These three main functions present some overlap. But, for simplification, we worked with these categories and subcategories below (for empirical terms, only one classification could be attributed to content), using an experience of coding interpretation from shared decisions [20]. Table 1 presents our system of classification.


Table 1: Types of political memes.
Persuasive memesPropositional rhetoric and/or pragmatic appeal. The content suggests or refers to a candidate’s proposals, raises a discussion that points out to the rational calculus of the voter or touches on matters related to themes discussed in the elections and opinions of the candidates.
Seducing or threatening rhetoric and/or emotional appeal. The content uses explicitly subjective and emotional aspects, such as portraying a candidate as a “father/protector of the poor” or place him besides children or even appealing to emotions like fear, hope etc.
Ethical and moral rhetoric and/or ideological appeal. The content examines scandals, criticizes corruption or bad management of public resources, mentions rivalries between different political factions.
Critical rhetoric and/or appeal to the credibility of the source. Content is anchored in sources, such as statements by third parties or the media, opinion surveys, or others, in order to ensure a greater credibility of a given candidate or content itself.
Grassroots action memesDynamics of collective action and networks curated by organizations. Content is explicitly sponsored by party organizations (and not by supporters), companies, NGOs, professional category or specific syndicate entities. In this classification, memes created by campaign strategists were included.
Dynamics of hybrid connective action and networks catalyzed by organizations. Content is the result of supportive action without connections to party organizations or other entities. In this classification, content created by supporters or for supporters to show their preferences, such as Facebook avatars that use slogans of Dilma’s and Aécios’s campaigns or memes such using Freixo’s surname.
Dynamics of connective action and self-organized networks. Content is created by an informal group, such as the Occupy movement. This content is spontaneously generated with some level of political engagement such as #forasarney, protests against the Guarani Kaiowá (indigenous tribe) massacre etc.
Dynamics of casual connective action. Content is the result of a trend or behavior not necessarily related to a particular political engagement, such as photo fads, selfies etc. In this codification, TV photos during the electoral debate are included.
Public discussion memesPolitical commonplace. Content that present comments, using political commonplaces such as “fight against communism”, “politicians as corrupts” etc.
Literary or cultural allusions. Content that mentions cultural products (series, movies etc) or popular culture in general, including references to popular expressions, Internet slang, famous characters, celebrities and so on.
Jokes about political characters. Content that present comments about specific characters on the political scene.
Situational jokes. Content that present comments about facial, gesture or body reactions of candidates in certain situations such as memes that satirize candidate Eduardo Jorge’s (Green Party) gestures during a debate, becoming a recurrent joke among Internet users.



Typology applied to memes of electoral debates
Figure 2: Typology applied to memes of electoral debates.


Memes were also classified according to content, political signs and their use of particular elements of different online meme formats. References to candidates, TV channels, aspects concerning language, narrativity and others were also identified [21].



6. Results and discussion

Let us take, as an example, typology that relates memes to persuasion strategies. Unlike what we have in products directly related to the campaign, such as the clips on television, here we deal with a fluid and free strand of political commentary. Persuasive memes are created either by marketing strategies of specific candidates or by their supporters, the press or specific members of the public deliberately in order to influence the political process. These memes appear to be spontaneous. Although this type is present in less than 15 percent of the total sample (Table 2), their incidence helps to explain a discursive strategy incorporated by some candidates.


Table 2: Types of memes in the sample.
Persuasive memes8213.7
Grassroots action memes22537.6
Public discussion memes23138.4


In Table 3, we present the results of this typology segmented by candidates. Dilma Rousseff and Aécio Neves most benefited from the production of persuasive memes during the debates. On the other hand, the numbers are a little more balanced when we examine public discussion memes, with an outsider candidate, such as Eduardo Jorge, earning many Internet jokes. Jorge ended the elections known as the “king of memes” due to his performances during the debates, with exaggerated gestures, funny responses and atypical behavior. On the other, though Neves was the second most voted candidate in 2014, he hardly appeared as a target for humorous posts. Neves was not, at that time, a laughable candidate. His supporters believe that he was the main alternative to Rousseff and deserved respect. His detractors, on the contrary, saw him as a serious menace and were not amused.


Table 3: Types of memes by candidate [22].
Note: * Died in a plane accident on 13 August 2014 and replaced by Marina Silva.
 PersuasiveGrassroots actionPublic discussionOtherTotal
Dilma Rousseff3166437147
Aécio Neves383516595
Marina Silva1163449127
Eduardo Campos*10102
Luciana Genro12519449
Pastor Everaldo11812132
Eduardo Jorge03734374
Levy Fidélix13118252
J. M. de Almeida10001
J. M. Eymael00101
Mauro Iasi00000
Rui C. Pimenta00000


If we evaluate subcategories in our typology, we see that right-wing and opposition memes related to candidate Aécio Neves were highlighted by his ethical-morale rhetoric and criticism of Rousseff’s government based on press data. Almost half of the persuasive memes (44.7 percent) figuring Neves were concentrated under ethical-morale rhetoric and another 28.9 percent under critical rhetoric. Persuasive memes with ethical-morale rhetoric represented less than 13 percent of Rousseff’s mentions. For Rousseff, 29 percent of her persuasive memes involved a kind of seducing rhetoric, presenting an appeal for social and economic distributive policies and stirring fear, directed at the neoliberal opposition. Marina Silva’s persuasive memes were also characterized by an ethical-morale rhetoric, as she tried to present herself as an alternative to the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) and the Neve’s Social Democracy Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira or PSDB), both involved in corruption scandals. Her appearance in persuasive memes, however, were far from the two other major competitors. The other candidates figured in no more than one persuasive meme, pointing to their low investment in an official campaign through social media.

Support demonstrations and grassroots action point to some interesting aspects noted during the investigation. A curious fact was the amount of users who shared photos framing their TV devices (N=73), whether to show they were watching the debate or to give an opinion about a certain candidate or a specific situation occurring during the broadcast. These images were classified as “casual connective action” as they did not point to a specific political position. Of the three main candidates, Silva (74.2 percent) and Rousseff (66.7 percent) triggered frequently casual connective action memes among their mentions in grassroots action memes. Minor candidates like Luciana Genro (72 percent), Pastor Everaldo (77.8 percent), Eduardo Jorge (83.8 percent) and Levy Fidélix (80.6 percent) all ranked quite highly with casual connective actions. These high values may be simply the result of a very simple format for online political memes. Lots of ordinary people were discussing politics on Twitter using screen images from the debate in their conversations. Some used captured images to create fictional dialogues, some simply posted selfies or reactions (middle fingers, thumbs up and so on) to the candidates appearing on TV. Rousseff and Neves also were highly triggered (N=11 in both cases, 31.4 percent for the last) in collective action memes, remarkably images of party rallies.

The analyses of public discussion memes highlights the fact that, among the three candidates, Neves was the one who generated fewer comic references (N=17). Even Eduardo Jorge (N=33), Luciana Genro (N=19) and Levy Fidélix (N=17) had similar performances relative to Internet jokes. Jorge and Genro, two candidates from minor parties, were, for distinct reasons, champions of situational jokes. Jorge became a sensation due to his expansive gestures and funny responses, some of which that turned rapidly into catchphrases. Genro was targeted because she passed an entire block of the debate without being questioned by any of her adversaries. Among the leader candidates, Rousseff and Silva starred in some situational jokes (23.2 percent and 20 percent, respectively), but they performed best with jokes about political characters as well as literary or cultural allusions. With political jokes, Rousseff appeared in 34.9 percent of public discussion memes and Silva in 31.1 percent. It should be noted that some of these memes were misogynist. As to cultural allusions, Rousseff appeared in 25.6 percent of her public discussion memes, while Silva appeared in 33.3 percent of hers. Most of them were comparisons with fictional characters (look-alikes). Jorge (33.3 percent) and Fidélix (70.6 percent) also starred in a number of memes featuring popular or grotesque caricatural characters [23]. Neves starred in around a third of Rousseff’s and Silva’s humor pieces.

These results led us to an important conclusion related to political humor generated by users. There are at least two ways in which we laugh at a politician. The first is when he matters a lot. In that case, fans and opponents engage in battles in order to secure the right to satirize. This situation occurred with Silva’s dubious speech in August 2014 on homosexual civil union. The other way a politician converts himself or herself into a target for jokes is by discredit. Treated as an anodyne, unimportant subject, who offers no risks, he is simply ridiculed. Under this category, minor candidates like Jorge or Fidélix, are targets for electoral bullying, due to their outsider status.


Typology applied to memes of electoral debates
Figure 3: Examples of some meme formats [24].


It is worth mentioning that amongst the collected contents, 55.2 percent (N=331) did not feature any humor, being characterized as simply informational or sheer comment. Another curious record is that few memes in the sample contained typical characteristics of different existing formats of online memes (such as image macros, exploitables and others, see Figure 3). Perhaps if we had extracted data from a longer duration we would have found more classical formats, as they usually need more time to be created and circulate.

There were only 86 (14.3 percent of the sample) that could be framed as image macros, 57 exploitables (9.5 percent) and 10 look-alikes (1.7 percent). The image macros are defined by the presence of subtitles with a given image. Exploitables are elements highlighted from an image overlaid to another. Look-alikes are character comparisons in double panels [25]. It is entirely possible that political memes, at least in Brazil in 2014, did not deeply explore the language of the memes.



7. Final observations

The results obtained in this analysis on online memes during the Brazilian 2014 elections allowed us to test a taxonomic proposal, so that we could raise some initial questions for discussion. The categories provide a glimpse of political and strategical motivations for user-generated content.

Depending on which type of online meme was most triggered during a given period of time provides insights into the political climate in a broad sense. Thus, political protests in 2015 and 2016 for and against Rousseff’s impeachment that relied more on party structures, agenda and leaderships were completely distinct from 2013 protests in Brazil, which congregated different specific interest groups and non-partisan individuals. These two scenarios generated different memescapes, with the last closer to other connective actions like #metoo or the #blackout and #blacklivesmatters memes.

This taxonomy helps us identify how politicians formulate their rhetoric and how audiences react. If a given candidate appears in several Internet jokes, there are explanations for these uses. Ultimately, there may be some correlation of an agenda of a given candidate with its online meme choices. For example, in 2014, Rousseff’s team discovered that a rhetoric of fear could be a useful for their ads but there was also a negative campaign targeting Marina Silva’s positions. At this point, it may be difficult to assign exact relationships, but it’s clear that both decisions were aligned with Internet-based, user-generated content. In another example, Eduardo Jorge took clear advantage of jokes about him. He left a positive impression as a candidate that knows how to laugh at himself. His campaign team fed for a while a “hotsite” fanpage on Facebook named “Yes We Quero”, a pun with Obama’s “Yes We Can”, where “Quero” (I want) was one of the catchphrases he coined after responding to a journalist during one of the debates.

Monitoring this content can also be a useful strategy for political campaign teams to respond to specific demands or to detect opinions surrounding their candidates. For researchers, it is an important tool to evaluate candidates’ performances during electoral processes, but also to identify how Internet users are discussing political events in real time.

These initial results naturally point us to several limitations of our investigation. At first, the sample was extracted from Twitter API, but different social media lead to different political arenas. We also have to consider Facebook iterations. Secondly, we need to examine the use of memes over time under different conditions. With more information, we can best test the classification scheme and refine it more precisely. End of article


About the authors

Viktor Chagas is a professor at Media and Cultural Studies Department and Communication Graduate Program at Fluminense Federal University, and associated member of Brazilian National Institute of Science and Technology for Digital Democracy (INCT.DD), Brazil. He holds a Ph.D. in history, politics and cultural assets.
E-mail: viktor [at] midia [dot] uff [dot] br

Fernanda Freire has a Master’s degree in communication at Rio de Janeiro State University, Brazil.
E-mail: fernanda_afreire [at] yahoo [dot] com [dot] br

Daniel Rios is a Master’s degree candidate at Communication Graduate Program at Fluminense Federal University, Brazil.
E-mail: danrios302 [at] hotmail [dot] com

Dandara Magalhães is a Master’s degree candidate in Communication Graduate Program at Fluminense Federal University, Brazil.
E-mail: dandaramagalhaes88 [at] gmail [dot] com



We are in debt with Luciana Veiga Fernandes, Fernando Lattman-Weltman and Rosane Manhães Prado for reviewing a previous version of this paper, and also to anonymous reviewers which gave us great feedback for this work. This research was funded by Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico, CNPq).



1. Goldfarb, 2012, p. 34.

2. Goldfarb, 2012, p. 27.

3. “Although much of the political life is anchored on parties, governmental institutions and other explicitly political organizations, a great part of the political action takes place outside these boundaries” (Goldfarb, 2012, p. 29).

4. Aldé (2011) defines two groups that seek to access political information in the environment of the Internet; one that routinely uses the Internet, which she calls the “casual Internet user”; and the other who makes specialized uses of the Internet (bloggers, journalists. researchers). The casual, hence, is not equivalent to “fortuitous”.

5. Shifman, et al., 2007, p. 3.

6. Börzsei (2013, p. 11) defines a “national web” as a “result of regionalization forces of national political culture”.

7. While reasonably anachronistic, Shifman’s statement (2013) about memes appearing before the digital era making their place in history not only does justice to the concept, originally from the 1970s, but also echoes the role played by folkloric images in political imaginary. Popular re-appropriations indicate that there is much to explore in politics with notions of memes.

8. It is worth remembering that it is also understood as a collective behavior (Blackmore, 2000) what happened amongst Brazilian Facebook users who added the surname Guarani-Kaiowá or Freixo to their names as a way to symbolize their support for specific political causes.

9. See, for example, news from Web sites UOL, G1 and the online version of the tabloid newspaper O Dia, accessed 23 March 2016.

10. “Trash” or “fraud” are terms used by some to designate parodies on the Internet (Felinto, 2008).

11. Miguel, 2011, p. 198.

12. This expression is borrowed from Lattman-Weltman (2009) in his analysis on the mayoral elections in Rio de Janeiro in 2008. In that case, the so-called “Green Wave” boosted candidate Fernando Gabeira to a surprising dispute to the second turn against government candidate (and now former mayor) Eduardo Paes. The appearance of a spontaneous militancy drew the attention of political analysts and highlighted the role of the Internet as a space for disputes.

13. The biologist tries to relate studies about natural selection to genetic determinism and develops, based on Darwin, a list of three characteristics to assess replicators (genes or memes) — fidelity, fertility and longevity — according to which variation of units replicated could indicate success in the process of selection.

14. Two hashtags were used in this case to minimize the effects of the division that users inadvertently caused when they associated their posts to one keyword or another.

15. The limit was only reached for the debate on Globo Network, which generated around 1,200 results. From this total, the first thousand images were recovered.

16. Most of the variables were binary and independent, in order to facilitate coding.

17. This is due to the fact that, at least for the present moment, this research was not concerned about which images, among those obtained, were shared, which were more or less used and encouraged further posts.

18. The image compared runway opposition candidate Marina Silva to a character from the TV series Dinosaurs (1991–1994).

19. Shifman, 2013, p. 120.

20. Summing it all up, two researchers were responsible for codification. At the end of classification, all codes were revised by the research coordinator, in order to eliminate any inconsistency. A reliability test was conducted after the investigation with a sample of contents. All the variables discussed in this paper result in a 92 percent or higher degree of agreement.

21. The codebook used for this research is available in Portuguese at

22. This table takes into consideration only memes that mention candidates, directly or indirectly. Mentions of more than one candidate were also considered.

23. There are references, for example, to the series El Chavo and Dinosaurs, to the cartoon series The Jetsons and to the local TV character Globeleza, among others.

24. Images presented show (a) candidate Aécio Neves with a subtitle stating that his campaign is turning into ashes, jargon for cocaine (Neves was involved in a scandal in 2013 with drugs); (b) candidate Eduardo Jorge, whose gestures were a flawless success during the elections (the bottle he is holding is for an inexpensive and popular soft drink called Dolly, famous for its nonsense ads on TV; (c) candidate Levy Fidélix figuring as a look-alike for Cosmo G. Spacely, a cartoon character on The Jetsons. There is a subtitle reading “Separated by a monorail”, a reference to a visit by Fidélix to São Paulo’s monorail on 8 August 2014.

25. Meme formats do not exclude other elements; it is possible that an exploitable presents features of an image macro.



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Editorial history

Received 18 December 2016; revised 6 September 2018; accepted 23 January 2019.

Este obra est´ licenciado com uma Licença Creative Commons Atribuição-NãoComercial-SemDerivações 4.0 Internacional.

The political memes and the politics of memes: Methodological proposal for a content analysis of online political memes
by Viktor Chagas, Fernanda Freire, Daniel Rios, and Dandara Magalhães.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 2 - 4 February 2019