The vice presidential debate on Wednesday night between current VP Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris sparked discussion about each candidate’s merits, but what seems to be at the heart of internet conversation is none other than the Pence Fly.
In case you missed the debate, a fly landed on the top of Pence’s head, perfectly contrasted with his white hair, and it stayed there for two minutes and three seconds, on live national television.
Within minutes, Twitter exploded. The hashtags #Fly2020 and #FlyGate were trending and at the time this article was written, the word “Fly” had over 443,000 tweets.
The fly’s popularity skyrocketed when public figures started to join in on the fun.
“The fly knows,” Stephen King tweeted.
“I’m not saying he’s an alien but I’ve never seen a bug sit so comfortably on anyone since Men in Black,” Keke Palmer reacted.
Former VP and current democratic nominee Joe Biden saw this social media trend as an opportunity to raise money for his own campaign. He tweeted a photo of him holding a fly swatter captioned, “Pitch in $5 to help this campaign fly.”
While Biden seized this opportunity for his own benefit, others took it as a way to criticize Pence. Thousands of Twitter users notes that in the Biblical plague of Egypt, flies represented death and decay. One tweet reads, “Mike Pence is so dead inside that he doesn’t feel the fly on his head!!!!”
The fly’s popularity didn’t stop there. A Twitter account for the fly was created, garnering over 120,000 followers in a matter of hours. This insect became an anti-Pence icon, posting tweets that go against his and President Donald Trump’s campaign: “If you can, donate to end conversion therapy,” one tweet reads.
This isn’t the first time a political meme has broken the internet. Politicians themselves have created memes to gain the attention of young audiences. In 2016, Hillary Clinton posted a Snapchat video that invoked widespread laughs and cringes at the same time: “I’m just chillin' in Cedar Rapids.”
And we can’t forget about former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who spent more than a million dollars on Instagram memes for his campaign.
But why are memes so significant to political campaigns?
“Memes become easily consumable and enjoyable vehicles of information and opinion,” according to an article originally published on The Independent. “For political communication, one viral meme can say more about public opinion than a dozen surveys, and at the same time, memes can form the agenda and influence the judgments of the audience.”
This is definitely the case for CC Konikson, a USC student studying Business Administration.
“It’s difficult for me to sit through the debates, but I always look forward to the debate memes after,” Konikson said. “I was kinda bummed when Bloomberg stopped running for the presidency because it was enjoyable for me to see memes being professionally used in politics.”
According to Sprout Social, 70 percent of Twitter users are under the age of 30. With over 62 million users in the U.S., this means that over 43 million users are within the age group most receptive to internet memes.
Additionally, Millennials and some members of Gen Z comprise 37% of eligible voters. That is roughly the same share of the electorate that baby boomers and pre-boomers make up, according to census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution.
While Gen Z traditionally has a reputation for low voter turnout, a Harvard University poll found that more young voters may be participating in the election this November. The poll results show that 63% of respondents indicated they will “definitely be voting,” compared to 47% during this same time before the election in 2016. Additionally, more than 15 million young Americans have turned 18 since the last presidential election.
That means for the next generation of voters, it may be worthwhile for campaigns to pay more attention to how memes shape perceptions of their candidate. Otherwise, their chances of winning may just fly out the door.