18.11.2020

On Cat Content and Whether the Left can Mobilize Through Humor

An interview with Ethan Zuckerman, a scholar, blogger and internet expert, about the internet phenomenon of cute cats and if the left can use humor for political mobilization

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Anna Steinmeier is an #FESFellow 2020, and works as an assistant for social media and international affairs in a state parliament in Germany. Anna is interested in political communication and digital culture, and hosts the podcast "Politainment for Change". A series of blog posts based on her podcast will appear here on the FES DC blog.

This is the second blog, based on the second episode of the podcast. 

The Biden/ Harris campaign showed a lot of innovation in this election cycle. One cute but not especially innovative video – that still reached over 3.4 million people – was this one. But does this kind of content actually reach outside of the political bubbles and makes politics more accessible? I spoke to Ethan Zuckerman, a scholar, blogger and internet expert, about the internet phenomenon of cute cats and if the left can mobilize through humor in the Politainment for Change Podcast.

An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows here.

 

In today's day and age, do we need entertainment to get political information through to people, to cut through all the other noise that they are confronted with?

We've always used popular entertainment as a form of politics - that's not new. You can look back in American history and look at some of the cartoons that we grew up on. In many cases, they were government propaganda films! These films were trying to get people to buy bombs or participate in the war effort. There has always been some sort of interplay between pop culture and political mobilization. I would argue that it's much stronger now, and I think it's much stronger now because we have culture being created not just by corporations who are trying to make money, but also by individuals who have a number of different motivations for what and why they're creating. So, when an individual is making a meme, we might be doing it for fun. We might be doing it for profit. We might be doing it as a form of political activism. And there are absolutely ways in which capturing people's attention and steering it towards content or capturing people's attention and trying to change their mind or trying to get them to be more visible about a political issue are definitely connected.

 

"...there are absolutely ways in which capturing people's attention and steering it towards content or capturing people's attention and trying to change their mind or trying to get them to be more visible about a political issue are definitely connected."

 

I think that the video that you shared, which has cute cats running around on Joe Biden gear, is sort of funny on a couple of levels. I think people know that cats are sort of meant to be shared on the Internet. We have all sorts of histories of people sharing cat photos with one another. I also think that there is almost this sort of sense of cute cats are one of the most boring and basic forms of online interaction. And it is almost a commentary on what politics in the US felt like two weeks before this presidential election – which is that the election and politics are unavoidable and even the cats are involved. So, I thought it was a very cute video.

 

Yeah, the US election are really everywhere. German interest and coverage has been nearly constant.  But do you feel that political entertainment today is a way of making politics more accessible for people that are not usually politically active or involved?

I think politics as entertainment took a real step, at least on the left, with the rise of The Daily Show on evening television in the US. This was Jon Stewart's show and it brought sort of everyday political commentary into a lot of different households. There'd always been politics in sort of the standard late-night television shows, but The Daily Show was sort of made almost to make fun of cable news. And so, it picked up a lot of the formats of cable news.

But it also turned out to be very effective in doing what cable news claims to do, which is giving you a picture of what's going on over the course of the day. That show continues to be very influential with Trevor Noah now as the host and leading personality. John Oliver, the British-American comedian who took over for Stewart for a while, now hosts Last Week Tonight, a weekly comedy and political commentary show on HBO that's a very strong, very heavily informed show and actually does a very good job of doing deep dives on important subjects. So. I think it's important to realize that this phenomenon sometimes precedes the Web.

What the Web does is it makes this style of political entertainment a really bright medium. People were already experimenting with blending politics and entertainment. And frankly, you can find political cartoons that go back many dozens of years that did this very effectively. But now there has been sort of the invitation for all of us to try to figure out how to put entertainment and politics together. There is something particularly relevant about this moment where not a lot of professional entertainment is being made. The Hollywood film studios are largely shut down. 

 

"...there has been sort of the invitation for all of us to try to figure out how to put entertainment and politics together."

 

We have big celebrities like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, who actually has come down with COVID-19 and had to sort of deal with that political and health issue. There's this sense a little bit in the States that entertainment is a little irrelevant right now. And so, I think there's a funny way in which celebrities are sort of trying to make themselves relevant by participating in politics in a more obvious way. We can kind of all agree that politics is pretty important right now and maybe even more important if the entertainers are also visibly participating. But the way they're participating sometimes is almost the way that you or I would participate in social media. They make something, they post it, they wait to see who reacts to it. And that's another funny dynamic to watch.

 

So, you mentioned for example, The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, which are more on the left side of politics. But when I was researching 2020 US election memes, everything that came up was mostly right-wing. So, do you think that this Internet moment is mostly beneficial for the right and that maybe the left or liberal parties miss out on it? Is it because the left thinks of itself more as intellectual, so memes seem to be a little too easy?

There are certainly people – mostly on the right – who have said the left can't meme, but I think it's worth thinking about this, and understanding what memes are trying to do in many cases. 

What memes are is a way for people to sort of speak back to the media. So, part of what happens on the right in the United States, is that the right firmly believes that they are disenfranchised in the cultural conversation. They believe that Hollywood, that mainstream news, all have a left bias in one way or another. This criticism has a kernel of validity in that most people who work in news, most people who work in entertainment, would identify themselves as being politically on the left. I do not know that there's an explicit industry bias in the way some right-wing commentators consistently claim. I actually think in many, many ways, particularly news, people are quite careful to make sure that they're representing quite a breath of views. But it has almost become a point of pride for the right in the United States to believe that they are not well represented in the media.

 

"...I do not know that there's an explicit industry bias in the way some right-wing commentators consistently claim. I actually think in many, many ways, particularly news, people are quite careful to make sure that they're representing quite a breath of views."

 

What's fascinating is that this is even continued under Trump, who basically had Fox News acting almost as his personal news network. Following his every move, he literally called into the station to talk to them about their coverage and sort of encourage certain things, to discourage other things. The right still feels like they've been shut out of the spaces. And so memes are a way to throw rocks from the outside, while claiming ‘we've been excluded, we want to be taken seriously, we're going to demand from the outside that you listen to us’.

I think in that sense, using humor, sometimes using surrealism, using a kind of magical thinking, there were a lot of people heading into 2016 election who were arguing that what they were doing was itself almost magic, showing the idea of Trump as emperor rather than as president. Maybe that self-fulfilling prophecy would actually bring him to power.

I think it is very hard to evaluate whether or not any of this was actually successful in 2016, but I think that's the belief system that's behind it. People used to argue that the left just was not funny. And I do not think that that is true. I think Trevor Noah is very clearly on the left and it is pretty darn funny. Jon Stewart is pretty funny. Stephen Colbert is funny. So, I think for many years there was an argument in the US that the left wasn't funny and that the right was. I think that has now shifted a little bit. What it really just comes down to is that the right feels excluded. And so they're working to find a way to become represented in pop culture.

 

I was learning more about your work to create content that carries an element of civic engagement. I was wondering, in politics or in political visual communication, how often do content creators think about more about the message, rather than what the person watches, listens, or consumes. In Germany we have a saying that "when you go fishing, you need bait that tastes good to the fish, not to the fisherman". How do you see the relationship of message to consumable in digital content creation and political communication?

First of all, campaigns have always sort of had to wrestle with this question of how you reach different audiences in the United States. Generally, political campaigns are won by the elderly. They are there are most reliable voting bloc. They are more likely to vote. They are more predictable in how they vote. And so, campaigns, to a certain extent, focus on issues that affect the elderly. There are always discussions about retirement benefits in our elections for that reason. But candidates have often thought, well, perhaps I need to go younger, maybe I need to motivate younger people. And so famously, when Bill Clinton ran for president, he appeared on one of the late night talk shows playing saxophone as a way of sort of saying how cool and how young he was and how he was from a different generation.

People always ask questions about this generational issue. On the one hand, it seems pretty wise to be reaching out to multiple different audiences. On the other hand, people worry that at least for somebody like the presidency, does it somehow decrease the dignity of the office? Do you really want your president acting silly or playing a saxophone? Now, that seems farcical to talk about. Now, President Trump has been acting like an escaped lunatic for four years. The dignity of the presidency has become very different conversation. 

 

"...On the one hand, it seems pretty wise to be reaching out to multiple different audiences. On the other hand, people worry that at least for somebody like the presidency, does it somehow decrease the dignity of the office? Do you really want your president acting silly or playing a saxophone? Now, that seems farcical to talk about." 

 

There is something more worrisome, though, which is that it can feel very inauthentic, particularly when you have, you know, a political candidate in his 70s trying to connect with voters in their 20s. That can be painful to watch. Sometimes it really looks like someone is going after an audience in a way that is not thoughtful or not very well done.

I think what people are learning to do, is to build teams and to have people who understand different media reach out through those different channels. When I have worked with social change organizations and I've had an older CEO and she or he will say, ‘well, do you want me to tweet’? My response will be, no, I really don't, because you've never done it before, and you'll be terrible at it. What I want you to do is to find someone on your staff who is in the 20s or 30s, who's already tweeting all the time, and have them tweet on behalf of the organization, preferably in their own words, perhaps preferably in their own identity. I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to reach different audiences through different media and ways of doing things. I am not particularly worried about people losing their dignity by playing around with cats. What I am worried about is that in digital media, authenticity is very important, and people can detect an unauthentic voice very easily. And I think it is critically important that people find ways to put authentic voices in front of audiences.

 

"...When I have worked with social change organizations and I've had an older CEO and she or he will say, ‘well, do you want me to tweet’? My response will be, no, I really don't, because you've never done it before... What I want you to do is to find someone on your staff who is in the 20s or 30s, who's already tweeting all the time, and have them tweet on behalf of the organization, preferably in their own words, perhaps preferably in their own identity."

 

Do you think we have authentic voices in politics right now?

I think we do sometimes. One of the most popular politicians in the United States on the left is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). She is in her 30s. She has worked a number of working-class jobs, like being a bartender. And the Internet was all abuzz when she was on Twitch [a social media network adjacent to gaming online] playing video games and talking with people about politics. Now, if someone had told Joe Biden to go on Twitch to find the young audience, he would have been a disaster. But evidently, AOC spends a decent amount of time playing video games and watching Twitch. She knows the medium and she was able to sort of play to it very quickly.

Now, I think there is a way that people love to criticize her for every aspect of her life. There was a big scandal when she danced in a video because our politicians ostensibly should not dance. And this is ludicrous. It was just absurd. I'm sure that some people will find ways to criticize her for this. But I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was a great way of combining an aspect of who she already is and finding a different way to reach audiences.

 

Yeah, the same can be said about her lipstick tutorial. I am still trying to get the perfect red lip like her, but she understands the medium, obviously. So, where do you see memes and political communication going in the future? Will we see more cat videos, more lipstick tutorials, or is that a trend that is no longer relevant?

No, I think what is going on right now is the lines between what is created by users and what is created by professionals has gotten very, very blurry. I watch my son, who is 10 years old, and he probably does not know who any famous actors are, but he can tell you 40 or 50 YouTube stars that are very important to him, and these are just people who really liked Minecraft or some other computer game and built YouTube channels.

And that's what he wants to do when he grows up. Those are his celebrities. And I look at this and sort of think maybe that is not so bad. I mean, I grew up watching really silly cartoons again and again and again, and at least he is watching stuff around the game that's actually kind of thoughtful and creative, so I'm not sure it's the worst thing in the world.

 

"...what is going on right now is the lines between what is created by users and what is created by professionals has gotten very, very blurry."

 

I think what we're going to see is as you have more politicians who sort of come from this generation in which we were expected to be content creators as well as content consumers, I think they will be more and more thoughtful about how they create these pieces of content and share them out in the world. So, I don't see it going away, I actually see it increasing. Over time, my prediction is that it will become very normal.

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