Lauren Poe’s Dank Meme Stash grounds community issues in humor, but locals question whether the page has any influence offline.

It’s 2018. Oprah is a rumored contender for the next presidential bid. A reality television star already sits in the White House. Gainesville city commissioner candidates host campaign events at nightclubs. Silly disagreements with state senators escalate into slapping.

The earliest meme. Memes courtesy of Lauren Poe’s Dank Meme Stash.

People process the absurdity of the current political moment in various ways, but humor might be a universal response. The rise of Facebook-based political meme pages sprung from the fervor of the 2016 presidential election. They offered a new form of satirical commentary, crowdsourced from the online public rather than broadcasted by late night comedy writers or political cartoonists.

Gainesville did not escape this trend. In the summer of 2017, a Facebook page by the name of “Lauren Poe’s Dank Meme Stash” appeared. According to the page administrator, its creation was based on two things — the joy of conceptualizing silly ideas with Photoshop and a desire to offer a more liberal public commentary on local issues. The name of the page also acts as an homage to “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash”, a popular page during the 2016 Democratic primary.

The admin, who prefers to remain anonymous, said the page serves to poke fun at local politics and its figures while also introducing this community to people who would otherwise be unaware.

Dating back to May 11, 2017, the earliest meme posted compares four figures relevant to the mayoral office — Lauren Poe, who won the 2016 election; Ed Braddy, the losing incumbent; Craig Lowe, the mayor before Braddy who lost the 2013 race after being arrested for DUI during his campaign, and Donald Shepard, who also lost the 2016 election and was also arrested, but for charges of grand theft auto. Buried under the ironic humor this meme page and many others are known for, none of this context is obvious.

“As I was making it, a week or so in, I had a friend tell me ‘I don’t understand any of these things, so if you’re gonna do this, link to articles about these topics so at least people can learn from it and you’re not just making a page to amuse you and 20 other people,” the admin said.

Sourcing its content from both users and admins, the page’s posts address issues like elections, city commissioner meetings, and the University of Florida’s relationship with local government. According to 23-year-old Wallace Mazon, a UF political science student and activist, the page has more to offer than surface-level humor.

“People see it. Before that, how were they getting information about local politics?” he said. “It’s really hard.”

Mazon, who claimed to be one of the first 20 people to like the page, said that having links to related articles or information posted alongside the memes makes familiarizing oneself with local politics easier and more accessible.

This is particularly helpful to to the millenial and student demographic the page seems to attract; 38 percent of the roughly 2,400 users who like the page are between 18 and 24 years old, and 33 percent are between 25 and 34, according to Facebook analytics.

Mayor Lauren Poe’s favorite post.

“Student voting rates in local elections in Gainesville are really bad. They’re bad for normal elections and worse for local elections,” the admin said. “I’d like to think that people are more likely to at least have passing knowledge of an issue if it’s in a meme form.”

Students aside, voter turnout for local elections is low, falling short of just 12 percent in the March 2017 Gainesville general election, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections’ statistics. Whether the page will have any effects on the voter turnout in upcoming elections is questionable, but the admin said the page at least helps make its users better informed.

“I guess I’m kind of like Jake Fuller for the left,” the page admin said, referring to the local conservative cartoonist whose work is published in the Gainesville Sun.

The admin said the memes operate in a similar way to political cartoons, providing humorous commentary to contextualize local issues, albeit with lower effort and more lowbrow jokes.

“You can’t just publish a political cartoon about, like, how hot Adrian Hayes-Santos is,” the admin said, “Where [on the page], it’s a meme about how hot Adrian Hayes-Santos is, but at least people know who Adrian Hayes-Santos is, maybe know what issues he cares about.”

The admin said the page plays into the unique intimacy of politics in a smaller town like Gainesville.

“I think local politics is this weird, almost high school-like zone where everyone knows each other and everything is really personal and interconnected,” the admin said. “They have a lot of power in what they can do, so inherent in that is a lot of humor and inside jokes I think are really funny.”

The size of Gainesville also allows for an aspect of the page that larger political pages likely miss out on: The subjects of the memes are aware of the page and actively interact with it.

“Probably every Adrian Hayes-Santos meme gets liked and shared by Adrian’s mom, which is just adorable,” the admin said.

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said he can’t remember the first time he saw the page, but it was probably after someone tagged him in a post. Like the admin, he equated the experience of seeing himself portrayed in a meme to that of being featured in a political cartoon.

“There are some that just make me quite literally laugh out and chuckle,” Poe said, “It’s quite weird seeing yourself subjectified in that manner.”

Poe said he finds the page both bizarre and hilarious. An avid “Star Wars” fan, he said one of his favorite posts featured his face pasted onto the body of the latest film’s villain, Kylo Ren, standing in front of the city commissioners at a recent swearing-in ceremony.

“Whoever thought of that was just a little… Their axis is on a slightly different tilt than the rest of the planet,” he said.

According to Mazon, the page sometimes oversteps the boundary between satire and personal attacks.

The city commissioners are all aware of the page as well, Poe said.

While some of the memes are just for laughs, the page also features more critique-based posts that address community issues under a veil of humor. According to Poe, seeing politicians interact with the page can validate discussion. He said when he interacts with the page, he’s usually laughing along with it.

“I don’t go on there and correct the record or chastise people for taking a certain stance,” he said. “It’s more that I’m having fun along with other people, so in that regard I think it’s important that it humanizes elected officials.

Not all of the posts on the page have been well-received, however. According to Mazon, the page sometimes oversteps the boundary between satire and personal attacks.

“This is not really hardbar politics, this isn’t Washington D.C.,” he said. “Bring out the facts, let’s not try to smear anybody’s name or try to make people out to be who they aren’t.”

Poe said he usually interacts with the page to add to the laughs, but he once asked for a particularly harsh meme to be taken down. The meme criticized former Gainesville mayor Ed Braddy around the same time Braddy was experiencing hardship in his family, unbeknownst to the admin at the time of posting.

“I thought [Poe] thought it was too mean,” the admin said, “And then I found out later.”

The admin acknowledged Poe’s complaint and removed the post. He expressed remorse over his decision to post it.

“I think that’s a dangerous path to go down, and it’s just not fair to folks,” Poe said. “If it’s all about the votes and the public policy, the public comments, then that’s fine, but when it gets into the private life, that’s sort of out of bounds for me.”

Stepping too far into public figures’ private lives isn’t the only criticism the page has received either. According to Susan Bottcher, a former Gainesville city commissioner, the jokes are either too obtuse for older demographics to appreciate or too specific for anyone who doesn’t already care to get.

“When I talk to what I call ‘normal people’ . . . who I define as people who don’t eat, sleep, think politics like a lot of us do, just normal everyday people, they probably don’t pay much attention to it,” she said. “So if the question is, will that Facebook page actually influence people? I would say probably not.”

The admin of the page posted this meme about viral “hot cops” after antisemitic Facebook posts from one of the officers surfaced. “That was something where I was annoyed by the topics of conversation that were coming up about policing, and I was trying to shift it to be like, the fact that they’re hot is not the issue,” they said.

According to Bottcher, Facebook meme pages and other political pages as well can leave users with a false sense of contributing to politics.

“I think if people are going to be involved in any meaningful way, then Facebook isn’t exactly the most effective tool if that’s all you’re doing,” she said.

Mazon said he thinks the educational value of the page does contribute in a positively to local political discourse by getting people involved in a way that’s accessible and entertaining.

“But on the other hand, they might just read the meme, laugh or form another page thinking that it’s ok to just make memes about things and not go out and do something,” he said.

The admin expressed similar concerns, saying that the users need to act beyond the page if they want to effect change and also that they should act in ways that contribute to the support and activism already rooted in the community.

“I think there’s a danger of political groups spring up and being like ‘Oh, homelessness is an issue. Let’s start a group to address homelessness rather than trying to find a group that already exists and help them,” they said, “because those groups will have been in Gainesville for 10, 20 years and will have a better understanding, a better infrastructure to address it.”

It is uncertain whether the page motivates people in Gainesville to engage in local politics beyond Facebook, but at its core, it at least makes them laugh about it and learn something they might not have otherwise.

“Memes aren’t gonna change the world, ya know,” Mazon said. “It’s about direct action. But if you’re bringing awareness to something, I think that is a form of activism, so I guess it’s a double edged sword.” •