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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.

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