The Birth of a Meme, or, Why I love the Internet

As the American electorate went through the motions of choosing a candidate of someone else’s choosing this week, the Internetverse was alive with political commentary, flames, racial epithets, and all the other things that normally accompany an American campaign season.

At the height of the election, Twitter was receiving 15,107 tweets per second…an eyewatering amount of data to handle, especially if you’re a company with little viable revenue stream other than “get venture capital, spend it, get more venture capital.”

Some of those tweets were tagged with the #romneydeathrally hashtag, and for a few days, how the Internet did shine.

If you do a search on Twitter for #romneydeathrally, you’ll find some of the finest group fiction ever written. The Tweets tell a strange, disjointed account of a political rally straight out of Lovecraft, with bizarre rites taking place on stage and eldritch horrors being summoned to feed on the crowd.

The hash tag went on for days, the Internet hive-mind creating an elaborate communal vision of a dark supernatural rally filled with horrors.

I even got in on the action myself:

Eventually, it caught the attention of the media. The Australian Hearld Sun ran an article about the hash tag that painted an interesting narrative of the meme:

In further evidence that Democrats are winning the social media war, hundreds of people have taken to Twitter to “report” on a fictional event where Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has called upon satanic powers in a last ditch effort to swing the election in his favour.

DigitalSpy has their own take on the meme, also saying Twitter users are talking about Mitt Romney calling upon Satanic powers.

When H. P. Lovecraft references get labeled as “Satanic powers,” I weep for the lost literacy of a generation…but I digress.

By far the most bizarre response to the meme was posted by Twitter user @nessdoctor over on Hashtags.org with the title “Twitter Users Threaten Mitt #RomneyDeathRally”. According to Ms. Doctor,

The hasthag #RomneyDeathRally trended after tweets spread placing Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) of the Republican party under the light of resorting dark satanic techniques to win the upcoming US national elections on November 6, 2012.

This is, of course, a nasty hashtag and while its purveyors insist it’s for humor (and sometimes it is), it is done in bad taste. […]

There were also posts that threatened to kill Romney, with some even threatening to join domestic terrorism and attack the White House and the people in it if Romney sits as president.

The article has been rewritten a number of times; at first, it stated that the hashtag was all about threats to kill Romney and his family, then it made the strange claim that the hash tag came about after rumors had spread that the Romney campaign was trying to use Satanism to win the election. For a while, the article had screen captures of threats against Romney with a caption claiming the threats were part of the #romneydeathrally hash tag; that claim has since been dropped. I have no idea what the article will say if you, Gentle Readers, should visit it.

But where did it come from? (I’ll give you a hint: it didn’t start because of rumors of Satanism.)

Like most Internet memes, the #romneydeathrally hashtag craze started small. On November 4, Mitt Romney held a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. For whatever reason, the rally was late getting started, it was cold, and some people who were there complained on Twitter that Romney campaign staffers were refusing to permit them to leave the rally, citing unspecified “security” concerns.

Some of these tweets were picked up by reporters covering the event.

It didn’t take long to turn into a public relations disaster. Some folks started talking about the “death rally” that you could never leave on Twitter, and the #romneydeathrally hashtag was born.

Naturally, the Internet being what it is, it really didn’t take long for some folks to decide they’d ride that train to the last station:

And, inevitably, Lovecraft got involved. Because if there’s one thing you can count on about the Internet, it’s por–okay, if there are two things you can count on about the Internet, one of them is that the Internet will always insert references to Lovecraft and Cthulhu wherever it possibly can.

And thus the meme was born.

It had nothing to do with threats on Romney, nor with rumors that the Romney campaign was dabbling in Satanism. Instead, it was the Internet doing what the Internet does: seizing on something that happened and taking it to an absurd conclusion.

The Romney Death Rally was a PR own-goal for the Romney campaign, sparked by staffers doing something really stupid at a rally.

There are two lessons here. The first is that if you’re a prominent politician and you’re hosting a rally, it’s probably a bad idea to refuse to allow people to leave. People have cell phones, and Twitter, and some of them will complain, and their complaints might be heard.

The second, though, is less about politics than it is about news reporting. For the love of God, if you have a journalism degree, you should be able to recognize a reference to the Cthulhu mythology when you see it.

14 thoughts on “The Birth of a Meme, or, Why I love the Internet

  1. I don’t have a degree, yet they let me do journalism anyway. I hereby appoint myself the designated Lovecraft Spotter for my organization. As Cthulhu is my witness, I will never be duped by hashtags again.

  2. I don’t have a degree, yet they let me do journalism anyway. I hereby appoint myself the designated Lovecraft Spotter for my organization. As Cthulhu is my witness, I will never be duped by hashtags again.

  3. I had previously avoided getting a Twitter account but now see I am missing tons of entertainment. I am not sure which is more disturbing, that the internet devovles things into Cthulhu mythology references, or that journalists consistently connect it to satanism. Then again maybe when the internet gets complex enough it will evolve into a Cthulhu like artificially intelligent being.

  4. I had previously avoided getting a Twitter account but now see I am missing tons of entertainment. I am not sure which is more disturbing, that the internet devovles things into Cthulhu mythology references, or that journalists consistently connect it to satanism. Then again maybe when the internet gets complex enough it will evolve into a Cthulhu like artificially intelligent being.

  5. *nod* I used to do a lot of web development, I’d always get files from clients with names like basic.html or border.gif or whatever, that Windows wanted to copy over one of, was just easier to delete the offending file(s) and then rename it than try to halt a download and re-start it later after I fixed the file names on my end. Especially in the days of dial up.:)

    K.

  6. *nod* I used to do a lot of web development, I’d always get files from clients with names like basic.html or border.gif or whatever, that Windows wanted to copy over one of, was just easier to delete the offending file(s) and then rename it than try to halt a download and re-start it later after I fixed the file names on my end. Especially in the days of dial up.:)

    K.

  7. Death by #hashtag. Could be the name of a really bad novel.

    Death by #Romneyhashtag sounds even better.

    thanks for posting all this – should be useful for teaching social marketing gone wrong. πŸ™‚

  8. Death by #hashtag. Could be the name of a really bad novel.

    Death by #Romneyhashtag sounds even better.

    thanks for posting all this – should be useful for teaching social marketing gone wrong. πŸ™‚

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