Why Is Everyone So Obsessed With AOC? Let's Analyze The Memes
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s fans and enemies are inventing a new kind of politics: fandoms and anti-fandoms that drive how we bond over candidates online. Today’s Instagram sticker is the new campaign button.
If you care about American politics, you are probably at least a little bit obsessed with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That’s true whether you live in a city or the country, are old or young, watch Fox or MSNBC. Her appearances at Capitol Hill hearings become instant viral clips and Twitter quote-tweet fodder. There are angry YouTube “takedowns,” fawning and lo-fi Instagram stickers, and GIFs galore. There are comic books bearing her triumphant image; there are memes comparing her to the grotesque Momo.
Oh, the memes. BuzzFeed News has sought to quantify her social media dominance, and here’s one metric: Her most popular GIF has more than 50 million views. On Gab there are roughly 40,000 posts that mention “AOC” or “Ocasio-Cortez.”
All this for her! Until you realize, really, it’s all for us: her fandoms and her anti-fandoms.
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AOC is the brightest political star born fully of the social media age, and how her political image has functioned online is emblematic of how society now experiences politics. A detailed examination of her digital persona offers a glimpse into the new digital partisanship — how Americans cleave to their ideological matches. Her rise and portrayal offer insight into the central qualities of contemporary politics: relatability, authenticity, and communities built around their identity. And the intense enmity toward her shows how those very same qualities can repel people.
“All of our political foundations come from wherever we have our communities,” said Ashley Hinck, an assistant professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where she specializes in political fandom. Where people’s most important relationships with public figures used to be local, or via the one-way communication of mainstream media, the new political communities take root in the two-way connections of social media.
“What has changed is where our community is happening,” she added. And communities are now happening online.
BuzzFeed News examined roughly 40,000 images from Instagram; 4,000 tweets from politicians; more than 500 YouTube videos; and more — about 20GB worth of data and imagery in all — from across the social web to better understand the weird, inspiring, ugly, and utterly contradictory content that people produce about AOC, and to present some new ways at quantifying her memeability. Her memes serve as a case study for what will likely come during the 2020 campaign and, more importantly, as a case study for what our obsessions say about us and how we understand the very politicians we love or hate within the fandom factions to which we choose to adhere.
AOC Is Your New Best Friend
A major source of Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal is her accessibility and familiarity on social media. The way she uses the platforms — especially Twitter and Instagram — makes her feel like that friend who is casually dishing about her new job while she’s also whipping up a meal for you.
It’s the purest embodiment of a growing subject of academic research: how social media platforms allow politicians to “perform authenticity,” and — this is the important thing here — how “the political candidates’ authenticity has become an increasingly important factor in voting decisions,” according to a study about trust, politics, and social media.
It’s not just familiarity; it’s also access. She communicates to her constituents A LOT and is as active on Twitter as President Donald Trump is.
AOC has tweeted an average of 12.0 times a day since the beginning of 2019. Trump tweeted roughly 11.7 times per day in that same time frame.
She also makes sure to strike a familiar tone. You can see this in her Instagram captions. Roughly 60% (148 of 247 posts) of her Instagram posts since 2017 contained emojis, for instance.
She also brings in her audience through humor. In the ninth most popular on Instagram, she writes: “Behind every strong woman... are more strong women 😉 #ittakesavillage.” She has fun while dismissing her critics, creating a space for people to rejoice in defiance. “If Republicans thought women dancing in college is scandalous wait till they find out women dance in Congress, too! 😉,” she wrote in her most popular Instagram post. “I announced that no one who works for me full-time will make less than $52k and Fox News called it communism 🤣,” she wrote in another.
She’s vulnerable, too, and allows for people to feel close to her in that way. In the second-most-liked Instagram post on her feed, she admits, “All this attention gives me a lot of anxiety.”
10 Most Liked @Ocasio2018 Instagram Posts
This sense of familiarity allows people to find themselves and one another in the narratives she creates. In many ways, a lot of the conversation about her has moved away from the concrete day-to-day policies she talks about to what she represents to people. And that translates into collective community building through social sharing and remixing of that same narrative.
And like fans of comics and science fiction, her followers create artwork and creative political expressions based on her policies and persona.
“The fan practices we see — like fan art, fanfiction, cosplay — these same practices are about community. They are partially about the engagement with the text [in this case, AOC and her policies] but are more about community,” said Hinck. This translates into politics and the art created around AOC, she said.
“Fan art is supposed to be circulated among AOC fans. These are things people do together.”
It’s a powerful, contemporary form of political communication — or propaganda, depending on how you look at it. And it’s the younger, digital mirror image of the homemade aesthetic that developed around the Trump campaign: See the raw campaign videos with an iMovie production quality, the quite literal fan art, and of course the genuinely massive turnouts at his rallies.
Here’s what this looks like: BuzzFeed News got the 10 most viewed AOC-related GIFs from Giphy, a database and search engine for GIFs.
They are a mix of random viral moments that seem to bring people joy — clips of her dancing in college, her appearance on Desus & Mero — and defiant images that define her politics, like one GIF showing her sitting in the audience during Trump’s State of the Union address and looking like she’s #NotHavingIt, as one of the hashtags on the GIF put it. These are the kinds of multitudes in which people exist — and they identify with both the joy and the struggle.
You can see the top 10 below, in order:
Notes: View counts represent numbers from March 22, 2019, when Giphy provided the information. They may have increased since then, depending on user activities.
The most popular GIF, for instance, is a sticker that features an illustration of Ocasio-Cortez wearing a blue suit and an American-flag pin while giving a thumbs-up that she robotically waves up and down. (The stickers are a sort of subset of GIFs — they’re the little memes that are often laid over Snapchat and Instagram stories, the latter of which is one of the most popular platforms today.) It’s lo-fi and simple. And it has close to 50 million views.
That may be in part because stickers are easy to remix with the personal — they travel through the social web on top of images and videos that users create themselves. This kind of political expression allows people to remix their own personal experience with Ocasio-Cortez’s story and political messaging. It’s the millennial equivalent of a campaign button.
Tenbeete Solomon — an illustrator based Washington, DC, also known as Trap Bob on Giphy — created the sticker. She believes it’s successful because it’s a clear and easy way for people to express a political opinion.
“She’s like a hero, especially for women of color, someone so outspoken; it’s really just amazing. She’s kind and she doesn’t let the naysayers and haters affect what she does. She’s just such a perfect figure to come in at this time,” Solomon told BuzzFeed News. “I think that really just [speaks] to why she’s so viral, [and to] the importance that social media plays now.
“Most people assume that young and especially creative people aren’t interested in politics. I think they just need their own way to enter,” she said.
Solomon created the AOC art as part of a package of inspiring women of color commissioned by Giphy for Women’s History Month. Solomon’s list included Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Rep. Maxine Waters, and Angela Rye. AOC was “of course on the top of [her] list,” she said.
(Of that pack of stickers, AOC’s traffic was surpassed only by a sticker of Cardi B, which got roughly 59 million views.)
To get a better understanding of what the larger landscape of AOC fan art looks like, BuzzFeed News examined 40,000 Instagram images tagged #AOC and whittled them down to the top 3,000 by number of likes.
Here are a few representative pieces:
First, there’s a lot of art of her as a patriot: A lot of that entails her looking into the distance or in front of American flags. A number of fan-art pieces include a quote from her interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, which now has close to 3.6 million views on YouTube: “In a modern moral and wealthy society, no American should be too poor to live.”
Then there’s the next level: depictions of her as a superhero or fantastical figure. There she is as the Queen of Swords on a tarot card, which “faces the truth, even if unpleasant,” “has a delightful sense of humor,” and “has strength due to life's hard knocks.” There’s even a real-life comic book called “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Freshman Force: New Party, Who Dis?”
The fan art also portrays her as defiant amid her haters. There are tote bags and tank tops of her with the words “Zero Fucks Given.” In an illustration of her as the letter A, she’s raising her fists, ready to take on her enemies. There’s also an image of her walking defiantly in the white suit she wore to the State of the Union address. It’s a rendering of the same photo that took off on Instagram, in which a bunch of young white men gawk at her seemingly in awe, with the meme text, “When you see a Strong Woman in real life for the first time.”
In a way, she represents the interests and identities of many people who felt unseen before her arrival in politics — young women of color. And her fans are ardent in pushing for her popularity and power even if she’s facing the reality of being in the relatively powerless position of a freshman in Congress.
The fourth-most-popular GIF is a sticker that spells out “AOC 2020” in animated font — a plea for AOC to run for president, even though the minimum age for that job is 35, and AOC is 29.
If it’s easy for people to come together over someone they love, it can be just as easy for people to come together through someone they hate. A recent Gallup Poll shows that the image that Americans have of her skews negative.
She’s taken notice.
“I mean, it’s weird. Why are so many grown men just obsessed with this, like, 29-year-old?” Ocasio-Cortez asked during an interview with Seth Meyers in response to his question about Fox News’ obsession with her. “I mean, it’s great,” she said, grimacing.
The way her haters congregate online is not all that different from how fans come together: They exchange memes and screenshots of tweets of hers and make art about her. But the haters do so with very different conventions and language, along with an ironic and often belittling sense of humor. That’s probably why they have been dubbed “anti-fans” in scholarly circles.
In true antithetical fashion, her haters take the exact opposite approach in obsessing over her: While her fans praise her familiarity and relatability, her haters definitely do everything to bully and other her, presenting her as an adversary to be taken out.
BuzzFeed News took a closer look at those conservative videos to get a better understanding of how this kind of othering manifests itself.
We gathered some of the most popular YouTube videos through the platform’s Application Programming Interface (API). Most were from right-leaning YouTube channels, including Fox News and the Daily Caller.
Headlines of some of the most popular conservative videos on YouTube use vocabulary that is clearly combative. Ocasio-Cortez is associated with being aggressive: She “lashes out,” “bashes,” or “denies.” This villain-versus-hero depiction continues in other video headlines that claim she’s being “grilled,” “slammed,” or “hit” or gets “SHREDDED” (all caps) by conservatives.
Below is a list of some of the most popular conservative videos about AOC:
This othering takes yet another step: If she is depicted as the enemy, then those partaking in the othering are definitely the heroes. And the way these heroes like to establish their dominance over her and distance from her is through dunking.
It’s personal, direct, and intended to sting the target and rally those who agree with the ~dunker~.
Conservatives love to dunk on AOC.
Snark and humor play a particularly important part in this, as demonstrated in one video called “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Economic Genius” and another video: “Tomi Lahren: I love seeing Ocasio-Cortez on TV.” In both videos, hosts talk about how unintelligent Ocasio-Cortez comes off.
On Gab, for example, the self-proclaimed “free speech” social network that has become a favorite for the alt-right, this kind of dunking reaches another level. An analysis of the top Gab posts — data collected and published by archivist Jason Baumgartner — shows that her haters try to feel superior to her.
Here are two samples of the kinds of posts that can be found about Ocasio-Cortez on Gab:
The prevailing narrative is that AOC is a far-left socialist or communist. There are repeated attacks on her intelligence and looks. There are frequent stabs at her being a hypocrite. And all of these posts are peppered with expletives — “donkey face Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” being a milder one. “Anti-fandom and misogynoir (combining sexism and racism, a term coined by Moya Bailey)” often go together, academic researcher and journalist Penny Andrews pointed out.
Similarly, negative Instagram posts that feature her are often memes that capture her grimacing. Of the top 3,000 Instagram posts tagged #AOC, many included screenshots of her midsentence, her mouth wide open and looking as if she is angry, clueless, or mean. It’s the ultimate way to visually make her unlikable.
Yet others show her eyes on the faces of historical socialist and communist figures or next to scary creatures — another way to take away her humanity.
All of this screams “She’s not one of us!” in what can seem like the crudest of ways. She’s an other and doesn’t belong in our in-group. It’s exemplary of how hyperpartisan right and leftist factions treat political opponents.
A Factioned Future
All of this started in 2008, when Barack Obama courted young voters on social media. These platforms continued to become a powerful tool for Donald Trump. It has now reached a new apex: Virality, meme culture, and fandom are interwoven with how we view and understand politicians. As politics has crept more and more into our timelines and Instagram feeds, it’s also arguably become more personal than ever. Not everyone is obsessed with #AOC, but media cycles and viral social posts sure make it seem as if we should be.
The internet has turned politics into cliques that mimic a lot of high school dynamics: Each clique comes with its own lingo, its own way of celebrating its heroes or putting down its opponents.
Do we side with the popular girl? Do we demonize her and show the world just how “stupid” she is by bullying her? Or do we sit in the corner of the cafeteria and watch it all silently, unclear as to where we belong?
In some ways, the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election will represent a new testing ground for the US as an electorate. Identity is taking more of a center stage in politics, and relating to a candidate based on identity is placing newfound importance on who we support. And almost all of it is happening online.
“It’s remixing, ... it’s people participating in the creation of this, it’s more than just a copy-paste,” said Hinck.
“Each meme can be used in ethical, productive ways,” she said, “and unethical, unproductive ways.” ●
Peter Aldhous contributed reporting to this story.