Dec 31, 2019

How memes shaped the 2010s

Expand chart
Data: Google Trends; Chart: Axios Visuals

The 2010s saw memes spread beyond social media to influence global politics, business and culture.

Why it matters: Memes are now used in politics to both divide and unite. Brands as diverse as Olive Garden and Gucci use them for online marketing. And they're at the center of a widening generational divide as internet users of different ages splinter to their preferred social media networks.

Timeline ... A look at how memes have shaped our society over the past decade:

  • The 2012 presidential race was called the first "meme election," where slip-ups by candidates translated into online mockery.
  • 2013: The "Harlem Shake" took over, with videos of flailing dancers swarming the internet.
    • Images of Shiba dogs became widely known as "doge," inspiring a plethora of online content. The trend propelled the creation of "dogecoin," a cryptocurrency based off the bit.
  • 2014: Slenderman, a mythical creature made mainstream by memes, showed an uglier side of the art when two preteen girls attempted to kill their classmate as a sacrifice to the creature.
    • But the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge showed their benevolent side the same year, with the meme of having a bucket of ice water dumped on your head raising $115 million for the ALS Association that summer.
  • 2015: The once innocent "Pepe the Frog" meme began to fester in nationalist circles, becoming a face of alt-right propaganda.
  • 2016: Memes surpassed Jesus in Google search interest, Gizmodo reported. Jesus had previously been the most-searched subject since 2011.
  • 2018: A report from House lawmakers showed thousands of Facebook ads backed by Russian operatives, many of which were memes, used to pit Americans against one another before and after the 2016 elections.
    • Fringe-right activists also used covert memes to sow division within the Democratic party during the 2018 midterm elections.
  • 2019: A group of Instagram meme account owners sought to unionize.
    • Memes helped political outsider Andrew Yang rise to popularity in the 2020 presidential race, with his supporters, dubbed the #YangGang, plastering his face on memes across platforms.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Trump hits back at Mattis: "I gave him a new life"

President Trump speaks at the White House. Photo: Doug Mills - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump unloaded on his former defense secretary via Twitter on Wednesday, hours after James Mattis condemned him for making a "mockery of our Constitution" in his response to mass protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

What he's saying: "Probably the only thing Barack Obama & I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated General. I asked for his letter of resignation, & felt great about it. His nickname was 'Chaos', which I didn’t like, & changed it to 'Mad Dog'"

Obama praises young protesters, urges mayors to pursue police reforms

Former President Barack Obama called on all mayors to review their use-of-force policies and commit to policing reform in a virtual town hall Wednesday hosted by the Obama Foundation's My Brothers Keepers Alliance.

Why it matters: Obama has addressed the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed on social media and in a Medium post, but this was his first time speaking about the past week's events on camera. His voice will add weight to the growing pressure on local, state and federal officials to pursue policing reforms.

James Mattis condemns Trump as a threat to the Constitution

Mattis on Fox in Septemnber 2019 in New York City. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis condemned President Trump for making a "mockery of our Constitution" in a statement to The Atlantic on Wednesday, saying he was "appalled" at the president's response to mass protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

Why it matters: Trump’s former defense secretary had refrained from publicly criticizing his former boss since resigning in 2018.