By Amrit Singh
You have to admit, with all the talk of contested conventions and unprecedented non-establishment politics, the horse race of this year’s presidential election has been some popcorn-worthy watching. But not even the dramatic hubbub over shadowy deals for delegates could prevent this past week’s news cycle from crashing deep into the social media gutter, where Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been waging a war built on Tweets and memes about, essentially, the relative hotness of their wives. In terms of sheer mechanics, the "presidential discourse" is now indistinguishable from the great Kanye-Wiz-Amber Rose debate of 2016.
But of course, the nadir of social media isn’t just a place for the rich and verified. In the trenches of the internet’s meme-factory is a toxic and unforgiving venom which is often deeply gendered. And that hate-spunk nearly claimed an actual life this week, not just political ones, when the rising R&B star Kehlani suffered a deluge of rude memes, generated by the boatload and hurtled her way by Instagram-onlookers, after a post insinuated she may have been cheating on her boyfriend. Kehlani’s next post was from a hospital bed. The caption suggested she had tried to commit suicide in the wake of the hurtful cavalcade.
Whether it's political bickering or cyber-bullying a 20-year-old pop star, the means to the memes seem to be the same: A photo, flattering or no, with quippy white text written above center-frame and below. This is what we talk about when we talk about talking in 2016. Give us the capability to communicate, connect, and share our lives via the unprecedentedly powerful and instantaneous means of social media, and watch it collapse into a firing squad reinforcing the mechanics of the male gaze, which says: Women are more valuable if they look this way, act that way, and are just objects for fault or for lust.
Coded into the plight of Melania, Heidi, and Kehlani this week is an entire set of values reflecting how we as a culture talk to and about women; how we view womens' worth socially and politically; and how we use social media to start fires and amplify rhetoric in new and dangerous ways. The glowing screen of our phones may provide us with images of intimacy, but they don’t provide the actual face-to-face feedback to know when our words go too far. Emojis aren’t emotions. We can mostly just imagine how all of this has made Melania and Heidi feel; unfortunately we know how it sat with Kehlani. If social media is an extension of our collective psyche, what is it about the way we think as political beings that has us gravitate to conversation on this base-level?
Ted Cruz called Trump a "bully" on the Today show. If Trump’s pulling plays from the bullying handbook, then his "pulpit" is Twitter, from where he dispatches his 140-character exclamation-pointed excoriations, from where he retweeted the controversial side-by-side of Heidi and Melania. Historically, the "bully pulpit" is a term coined by President Theodore Roosevelt to describe the White House and its power to force platforms upon the world.
But the bully pulpit has morphed. It now includes an @ and a hashtag. The playing field has been leveled: Whether you’re a presidential nominee, a cowardly cyberbully, or somewhere in between, in 2016 we’re all living the meme. Like the election itself, it’s the path we choose that’s key.
Facts Only is a weekly column on the 2016 presidential election by REVOLT Chief Political Correspondent Amrit Singh. (It's also a Twitter and an Instagram). Last week, we looked at how the Brussels bombings redefined the race. Join the weekly talkback around the column using #REVOLT2Vote on social, and follow its author @amritsingh.