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April is Autism Awareness Month

Meme-ifying 2024: how some young organizers are working to get their peers engaged

1,000 "Dark Brandon" signs were placed around Miami ahead of the third Republican Debate in Miami last November.
Jason Koerner
/
Getty Images for DNC
1,000 "Dark Brandon" signs were placed around Miami ahead of the third Republican Debate in Miami last November.

Students enter the Zoom room, class is about to start. But this isn't a regular lecture.

"Welcome to 'Memes 101: from Internet Explorer to meme lord," said a representative from Organizer Memes, an anonymous account run by left-leaning Gen Z and young millennials mostly based on X, formally known as Twitter, with 35,000 followers.

They led the class and spoke to NPR anonymously under the account's name due to concerns over being doxxed, or having personal information leaked.

Organizer Memes regularly posts jokes about politicians and issues youngprogressives care about. They also highlight what it's like working for Democratic campaigns.

Since 2020, they have trained left-leaning groups and organizations on how to meme-ify policy. A timely move as an increasing number of young Americans get their news from social media and do so at a higher rate than older generations.

And this year, as Democrats look to keep Gen Z and millennials engaged, meeting these extremely online generations online may be essential.

NPR sat in on a recent training Organizer Memes held with the South Carolina Young Democrats, an age group and state on the minds of many Democrats ahead of the presidential primary on Feb. 3.

And Organizer Memes has a whole presentation for them on how memes can be used in politics.

"To stand out, you've got to do something different, and memes are something different," the representative from Organizer Memes said. On top of gaining more followers online, they argue memes can be a fast and cheap way to spread information, help fundraise and go on the offensive against political opponents.

It's a brand of digital organizing that has popped up in recent high-profile federal races, including Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman's senate bid in 2022 and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey's reelection campaign four years ago.

While a good campaign meme doesn't magically get young people to stick with a candidate or cause, Organizer Memes thinks it sends an important message.

"The memes signal that you're trying new things. The memes signal that you care about reaching young people," they said. "So much of the time, people don't feel that they're even being reached out to until three months before the election."

Extremely online but not extremely interested

2024 marks a big year for young voters. Gen Z and millennials – Americans under 43 – will make up nearly half the electorate – which presents new territory for digital organizers.

"We know that we are dealing with an audience that is more online and more important than ever before," said Emily Desilva, the founder of the voter training non-profit Reorganized, which works directly with Organizer Memes on their training programs. "We have an opportunity to communicate more creatively and effectively," she added.

As the presidential primary season begins, Democrats, particularly President Biden, may have an uphill battle with getting young millennial and Gen Z voters energized about his campaign again. Despite overwhelmingly supporting him in 2020, voters under 30 are showing lower levels of interest in casting a ballot this year compared to four years ago, according to recent data from the Harvard Youth Poll.

"I think that reaching people online from trusted messengers is the way to address this concern," said Stuart Perelmuter, the founder of the firm AtAdvocacy, which works with political content creators to highlight progressive causes. They cohosted the meme training with Reorganized.

Perelmuter says Democratic campaigns need political influencers as an essential part of campaign strategy.

"Memes has to be a thing. TikTok has to be a thing. Working with content creators absolutely has to be a thing," Perelmuter said. "If you're not communicating in those channels with the electorate, your opponent is," he added.

2024 meme wars

The Biden campaign is working to bridge gaps with young people. They've recently hired a new director of youth engagement and plan to directly collaborate with content creators, beefing up the program they started in 2020.

Plus, they're embracing the "Dark Brandon"meme - a graphic of Biden wearing aviators and shooting lasers out of his eyes can be found on the campaign website and merchandise. It's also shown up on the campaign trail. At the third Republican primary debate last fall, the campaign acknowledged putting up "Dark Brandon" signs around the venue. (The meme originally stems from a viral conservative insult that Democrats reclaimed.)

"If you're a person sitting in my position, a grassroots-driven meme campaign about how effective Joe Biden is, is the kind of thing that you know, a million dollars in ads could never buy," Rob Flaherty, Biden's Deputy Campaign Manager, told NPR in an interview last fall.

Republicans aren't shying away from meme culture, either.

Former President Donald Trump also shares memes on his campaign social media accounts. Plus, according to reporting from The New York Times, the Republican presidential front-runner has connected with a network of controversial meme creators that support him, and members of his campaign staff have shared their memes on social media.

Outside of the Trump campaign, conservative youth groups, like Turning Point Action, consistently post political memes, poking fun at Democratic leaders and voters, to their 375,000 followers on Instagram.

But while both Republican and Democratic-aligned groups work to meet the internet generation where they're at, some political experts argue the messages are different.

"Turning Point is trying to make conservatism look cool to young people," said Dave Karpf, a professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University. "The Biden administration is trying to communicate to young people that... he's accomplished these policy things that aren't showing up on the news, but you should be excited about."

Getting those messages to resonate is the challenge, so back at meme boot camp, it's time for an assignment.

"Let's all take a second and try to make a meme," Organizer Memes tells the class.

They have five minutes. Time flies. The chat floods with different political memes.

After the training ends, Organizer Memes tells NPR they're committed to doing more meme classes this year and helping young people talk politics.

One meme at a time.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.