Internet memes are trench warfare in an election year

While hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on television ads in the run up to the 2012 Presidential election, the real trench warfare will take place in Internet memes, says Daniel Sinker, who leads the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, and authored the fake, profanity-filled, viral (and hilarious) Rahm Emanuel for Mayor twitter feed. Sinker gave a talk this weekend at the third annual RoFLcon Conference, which focuses on — what else — Internet memes.

Sinker pointed out how the Obama campaign’s latest Internet project The Life of Julia, — which follows a girl as she grows up and shows how Obama’s policies have helped her — is an example of how the campaigns are now attempting to create things that they hope will become Internet memes. The Life of Julia has 33,000 “likes” on Facebook and itself has 26 million “likes” on Facebook — which is a little less than half of the total amount of votes Obama got in the 2008 election, Sinker pointed out.

In addition to attempting to create memes, embracing the meme will be a key to leveraging the Internet in an election year, says Sinker. The Obama campaign was able to start turning “Obamacare” from a negative term that was created by Republicans into a positive one, by reappropriating and embracing the phrase. Hillary Clinton emerged in a positive light when she embraced the viral tumblr Texts from Hillary, which showed images of her sternly texting with catch phrase captions.

If campaigns don’t embrace the meme, they could stumble, and come off looking negative, as well as potentially kill a viral web opportunity. Sinker pointed to less successful moves like the Romney campaign’s interactions with a satirical Romney Pinterest account that featured images like a spoon of caviar with the caption: “Minimum order: 1,000 metric tons. Everything is cheaper when you buy it in bulk!”

Sinker said the Romney campaign immediately sought to have the username of the account changed from MittRomneyGOP to FakeMittRomney, despite the account owner’s protest. After the forced switch the author stopped updating the account and thus a potentially viral meme faded away.

Sinker, of course, has essentially a PhD in viral campaign memes. As the real Rahm Emanuel was campaigning to become the Mayor of Chicago in late 2010 and early 2011, Sinker launched the Rahm Emanuel for Mayor twitter account, which turned into a viral sensation through its raunchy and hilarious tweets about the sad state of Chicago politics, Emanuel’s soaring ambitions and his side kick David Axelrod (and his mustache). The account grew to close to 50,000 followers and was outed by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal in an interview.

Photo courtesy of GigaOM’s Barb Darrow.