Bernie Sanders digital

The Digital Cultures Lab (DCL) offers a unique, people-focused analysis of new technologies as they spread across the world. Today we are looking at the presidential election in the USA.

Actually, the new U.S. President Joe Biden was supposed to be the center of attention after his inauguration. But on the web, he didn’t reckon with his party colleague Bernard “Bernie” Sanders – who became a meme star overnight.

It was quite cold in the US capital Washington that day and the celebration took place outside. Bernie Sanders sat huddled and frozen on a folding chair. He had put his hands into brown, knitted mittens.

Fun fact: The hand warmers were knitted for him by a teacher from his adopted home state of Vermont. He’s been wearing them proudly since 2016 – as you can see, on every occasion.

For your meme-making convenience: InaugurationBernie.png

Freezing man with knitted mittens

Many people found this photo very funny, because it did not fit at all to the solemn swearing-in of the new president. They used a computer to cut Bernie Sanders out of the picture and put him in front of lots of other funny backgrounds: for example, the pub, the sea, a Star Wars movie or the moon. Hundreds of thousands of people joined in on the fun on social media.

1.8 million dollars were raised

And Bernie Sanders? He thought the whole thing was funny, too. What’s more, his team has now had the funny picture of him in knitted mittens printed and sold on T-shirts and coffee mugs. Within just five days, 1.8 million dollars have been raised, which will now be donated to a good cause: to organizations that help people in the U.S. state of Vermont, where Bernie Sanders comes from, who don’t have so much money.

Bernie Sanders, Digital Opportunities, and Networked Political Participation

During the 2016 presidential election, Bernie Sanders caught the right moment, amid which he built the right infrastructure and mobilized appropriate groups to target voters on social media and secure victories at the ballot box.

We are talking here about digital opportunity structures that Sanders skillfully used to make his candidacy resonate with the movement and his clear message about the inequality that spans all systems in the country.

The content, and especially the numerous memes and slang, reached people who don’t normally engage with politics. This is how new target groups were reached.

What’s happening shows that an insurgent candidacy is impossible in a world of digital communication without it. Real-time fundraising, online advertising, emails, news articles, and memes spread by supporters or even opponents, and the resulting digital wildfires, are an important part of today’s campaigns and may even ensure better chances than even better-funded opponents.