new media & society
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Seriously funny: The
political work of humor on
Jenny L Davis
The Australian National University, Australia
Tony P Love
University of Kentucky, USA
The Australian National University, Australia
Research shows a clear intersection between humor and political communication online
as “big data” analyses demonstrate humorous content achieving disproportionate
attention across social media platforms. What remains unclear is the degree to which
politics are fodder for “silly” content production vis-à-vis humor as a serious political
tool. To answer this question, we scraped Twitter data from two cases in which humor
and politics converged during the 2016 US presidential election: Hillary Clinton referring
to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” and Donald Trump calling Hillary
Clinton a “nasty woman” during a televised debate. Taking a “small data” approach, we
find funny content enacting meaningful political work including expressions of opposition,
political identification, and displays of civic support. Furthermore, comparing humor
style between partisan cases shows the partial-but incomplete-breakdown of humor’s
notoriously firm boundaries. Partisan patterns reveal that the meeting of humor and
social media leave neither unchanged.
Discourse, humor, politics, small data, Twitter
Jenny L Davis, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.
762602NMS0010.1177/1461444818762602new media & societyDavis et al.
2 new media & society 00(0)
A growing body of work shows a clear intersection between humor and politics online.
(Driscoll et al., 2013; Hartley, 2012; Highfield, 2016a, 2016b; Wells et al., 2016). Using
big data analytics and network analysis, studies show that parody accounts, sarcastic
content, gifs, memes, and clever intertextual remixes garner significant attention during
political media events. This trend intersects three converging forces—the rise of satirical
political commentary (Baumgartner and Morris, 2006; Gray et al., 2009; Webber et al.,
2013), a participatory media environment fostered by digital social technologies
(Barnard, 2016; Prior, 2006; Vaccari et al., 2015; Vis, 2013; Wells et al., 2016), and inter-
net culture in which humor is both expected and rewarded (Leavitt, 2014; Milner, 2013a;
Miltner, 2014; Nooney and Portwood-Stacer, 2014; Phillips and Milner, 2017). Through
this tripartite convergence, humor as a widespread political communication device
emerges as not unique to the internet but distinctly of the internet. Questions remain,
however, about how humor is deployed. Are people using humor to make substantive
political claims or are they simply drawing on political content as source material for
We take the well-documented pattern of humor in digitally mediated political com-
munication as a jumping-off point and dig into how, specifically, political humor oper-
ates. We do so by exploring the use of humor and playfulness as part of political discourse
on Twitter during key moments of the 2016 US presidential election. Specifically, we
scrape and analyze tweets surrounding two political gaffes: Donald Trump calling Hillary
Clinton a “nasty woman” and Hillary Clinton referring to Trump supporters as a “basket
of deplorables.” With these data, we look for how humor works, and the work humor
does, in digitally mediated political communication.
Using an interpretive abductive approach, we build and analyze two unique data
sets—one from each political gaffe—that intersect politics and humor to discern if and
how people utilize humor for meaningful political engagement in the social media con-
text. Analyzing both form and content across data sets, we show that Twitter users rely
on humor to express opposition, establish political subjectivity, and engage in direct and
symbolic civic support. In turn, we show that humor style presents in patterned ways
between data sets, a finding that both resonates with and diverges from cultural studies
of humor as a persistent marker of distinction between groups. Together, these findings
hold relevance for studies of digitally mediated democracy by weighing-in on debates
about social media’s role in civic participation while contributing to humor studies by
examining how humor takes shape between ideologically antagonistic groups on a prom-
inent social media platform.
Political communication in a post-broadcast era
Political discourse has traditionally been dominated by a small number of elite actors
with access to large-scale communication channels such as television, radio, and news-
papers. These actors include journalists, politicians, and carefully selected political rep-
resentatives. However, widespread access to information and communication tools
afforded by emergent technological infrastructures have ushered in a “post-broadcast”
democracy (Prior, 2006) represented by a shift in “communication power” (Castells,
2013). This new era is characterized by a move from bounded and defined news cycles
Davis et al. 3
to 24 hour information flows and from exclusive control of public discourse by powerful
media gatekeepers to a distributed model of communication enabled by social media
platforms and widespread use of personal digital devices (Gal et al., 2016; Shifman,
2007; Tufekci, 2017).
Within the political arena, media events have long played a central role, and these
events are now marked by a strong participatory element. First described by Dayan and
Katz (1994) as “high holidays of mass communication” (p. 1), media events are ritual-
ized, pre-planned programming that monopolize media streams and reach mass audi-
ences. In the United States, the presidential campaign season is characterized by many
small media events, punctuated by periodic mass events, most notably, the scheduled
televised debates. In 2016, the three debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
broke new records for viewership, totaling 292 million viewers, including 84 million in
the first debate alone (Nielsen, 2016). However, television viewership was not the only
way in which people engaged. Rather, these media events were distinctly “hybrid” (Wells
et al., 2016) in their inclusion of vast social media participation. According to Nielsen
(2016) analytics, the first debate drew 17.1 million tweets from 2.7 million separate
accounts, the second debate drew 5.5 million tweets, and the final debate drew 53 million
interactions across social media platforms from over 16 million individual users.
Political media events are thus no longer performed by politicians, analyzed by jour-
nalists and political elites, and then discussed around the pub or the dinner table. Instead,
media events are collaborative efforts in which performance, response, rebuke, and
meaning-making include mass audiences engaging across multiple platforms asynchro-
nously and in real time. In this way, everyday people join the “experts” to have their say.
However, the inclusion of mass publics is not the only change brought forth by social
media; social media have also shaped the tone of political interaction. Specifically, inter-
net culture encourages a distinct playfulness which incorporates into the ways that pub-
lics communicate political messages online (Baumgartner, 2007; Jenkins, 2006; Milner,
2013b; Phillips and Milner, 2017).
Humor, politics, and social media
Silly citizens and the irreverent internet
Social media have fostered new forms of political communication and participation. These
communicative forms take on the conventions of internet culture, which include wit, par-
ody, sarcasm, co-optation, and playful memification as “economies of laughter have
become inextricably entangled with … civic processes” (Henefeld, 2016). Hartley (2010,
2012) calls this style of interaction “silly citizenship,” while Highfield (2016a) positions
“irreverence” as a core element of digitally mediated political engagement. Together, these
theories of politics on the internet point to humor as a widely used and highly valued prac-
tice within political deliberations as they take shape through intersecting social platforms.
To be sure, humorous political engagement is not unique to the internet or social
media. There is a long history of political satire (e.g. political cartoons printed in news-
papers) and an entire broadcast genre that trades in humor while delivering social com-
mentary and analysis (e.g. The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, The Colbert Report,
4 new media & society 00(0)
Adam Hill’s Last Leg) (Baumgartner and Morris, 2006; Gray et al., 2009; Webber et al.,
2013). However, a robust infusion of “irreverent” and “silly” politics is distinctly of the
internet, where humor and parody are woven into the fabric (Vis, 2013).
Existing analyses of major political campaigns and widely circulated news events
show that playfulness looms large among digitally mediated publics, especially on
Twitter. Using data from the 2012 presidential campaigns in France and the United
States, Wells et al. (2016) find that while political and media elites maintained a dispro-
portionate hold on public attention, parody and joke accounts—those depicting humor-
ous versions of public figures and/or accounts that tweet primarily “silly” content—were
highly retweeted and generated substantial interaction. In this vein, the 2012 US presi-
dential debates showed a surge in Twitter activity during “meme worthy” moments, such
as when Mitt Romney described his commitment to gender equity with a reference to
“binders full of women” (Driscoll et al., 2013; Freelon and Karpf, 2015; Shah, 2015).
These patterns persist in recent work showing the widespread following of, and engage-
ment with, parody accounts in general and their central role as commentators on public
events and political issues in particular (Highfield, 2016a).
This move toward “silliness” and “irreverence” in online political communication is
significant, as Hartley (2012) suggests it may be an entry point among persons and
groups who have been politically disempowered. Indeed, both humor (Hariman, 2008)
and social media (Bode, 2016; Harlow, 2012; Mossberger et al., 2017) have been sepa-
rately touted as means of lowering barriers to political participation. While humor “sof-
tens” discursive style, digital social platforms provide an alternative to elite-controlled
broadcast conglomerates. Intersecting digitality and humor thus holds promise for
increased access to political discourse and debate among diverse publics (Highfield,
2016b; Milner, 2013b). However, concerns remain that “silly” and “irreverent” political
engagement online can foment cynicism, apathy, and general distrust in the political
process, undermining digital media’s democratic potentials (Baumgartner, 2007;
Baumgartner and Morris, 2006; Shifman et al., 2007). Moreover, digital inequalities of
access, skill and media literacy threaten to exclude already marginalized populations
(Hargittai and Walejko, 2008).
A tension thus exists between participatory potentials, on one hand, and the dissolu-
tion of silliness into cynicism and exclusion, on the other (Baumgartner, 2007; Phillips
and Milner, 2017; Shifman et al., 2007). This tension leads us to our primary research
question: in the context of Twitter, is humor a vehicle for serious political engagement or
are politics simply fodder for funny content production? While our data are not suited for
addressing related questions of inequality, understanding the work (or lack thereof) that
political humor does will clarify the stakes for issues of access and inclusion.
Beyond this primary research question, examining politics and humor as they intersect
on Twitter also illuminates key issues in cultural studies of humor. Specifically, the par-
tisan nature of political communication lends itself to analyses of the role of humor in
negotiating symbolic boundaries. Across social class, demographic markers, and ideol-
ogy, cultural theorists have shown increasingly weak boundaries tied to taste preferences
Davis et al. 5
and practices, evoking an “omnivorous” metaphor to describe contemporary cultural
consumption habits (DiMaggio and Mukhtar, 2004; Featherstone, 2007; Lamont and
Fournier, 1992; Peterson and Kern, 1996). Yet, humor scholars find that comedy is an
exception to the omnivorous trend, with humor style preferences maintaining clear status
markers and moral meanings that draw hard lines between “us” and “them” (Friedman
and Kuipers, 2013; Kuipers, 2009, 2015).
From internet studies, however, it seems that the relationship between humor and
symbolic boundaries may shift as humor moves online. Indeed, social media scholars
have demonstrated a shared vernacular in which users across and within platforms com-
municate through collective syntax, language, and grammar, with humor playing a sig-
nificant communicative role (Burgess, 2006; Leavitt, 2014; Milner, 2013b). Thus
emerges something of a contradiction in which humor itself has remained squarely
within distinct cultural bounds, while digitally mediated communication practices—for
which humor is an integral feature—rely on shared styles of speech. Resolving this con-
tradiction helps answer questions about the mutual shaping effects of humor, on one
hand, and digital vernacular on the other.
Research question 2 thus asks: how does humor style compare and contrast across
ideological bounds in political communication on Twitter? Meyer’s (2000) origins and
effects schematic is useful in this regard. Synthesizing empirical and theoretical litera-
tures, Meyer thematizes humor’s origins (i.e. what makes something funny) and its
effects. According to Meyer, humor is derived from three sources: relief, incongruity,
and superiority. Relief cuts through an otherwise heavy moment, incongruity makes the
familiar strange, and superiority is an expression of triumph through pointed deprecation
of an “other.” These humor origins can serve two broad ends—division and unification
(Meyer, 2000). Meyer argues that no single origin nor single effect can fully explain a
humorous act. Rather, each act of humor includes multiple origins and effects with vary-
ing degrees of emphasis.
Our two cases, with their sharp partisan orientations, let us analyze not only how poli-
tics and humor intersect on social media but also how humor and social media converge
into distinct cultural products and communicative forms. By paying attention to stylistic
patterns employed across data sets, we can explore how humor practices reinforce and/
or transcend ideological bounds. In doing so, our analyses answer key questions at the
nexus of humor, politics, and digital culture.
Basket of deplorables and nasty woman: the events
We derive material for our analyses from two moments: the leak of Hillary Clinton refer-
ring to half of Donald Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” and Donald Trump’s
reference to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman,” during the third presidential debate.
Clinton’s political misstep came on 9 September 2016 while speaking at a fundraiser for
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) supporters. Then candidate
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into
what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic,
6 new media & society 00(0)
Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted
Although Clinton went on to empathize with Trump supporters who feel that “the
government has let them down” and who are “desperate for change,” the Trump camp—
both supporters and the official Trump team—pounced on the “deplorable” comment.
Via senior communications adviser Jason Miller, the campaign put out the following
Just when Hillary Clinton said she was going to start running a positive campaign, she ripped
off her mask and revealed her true contempt for everyday Americans.
“Basket of deplorables” became a rallying cry for Trump supporters and continued to
crop up formally and informally throughout the campaign. Clinton apologized for gener-
alizing to “half” but never retracted the statement entirely.
Donald Trump’s “nasty woman” comment took place during the third and final presi-
dential debate on 19 October 2016. Nearing the end of the debate, Clinton made a dispar-
aging reference to Trump’s personal tax record. Trump leaned forward and, interrupting
Clinton, muttered quietly into the microphone “such a nasty woman.” Clinton continued
her line of thought but within moments, “nasty woman” emerged as a Twitter hashtag, a
pro-Clinton website, merchandizing logo, and an activist feminist refrain. During post-
debate interviews, Clinton dismissed the comment as unworthy of attention while her
daughter, Chelsea, described the incident as a “sad” moment for women. Shortly there-
after, the comment was parodied in a widely viewed and shared sketch on the comedy
series Saturday Night Live.
These incidents are ideal for studying political humor on social media for two rea-
sons: first, they went viral and were quickly memeified while tapping into serious politi-
cal contentions leveraged against each candidate—elitism for Clinton and misogyny for
Trump—rendering them at once playful and politically relevant. Second, the sharp polit-
ical divisions built into the “deplorable” and “nasty woman” incidents generated data
from ideologically distinct groups. Thus, these moments were both funny and politically
serious while illuminating questions about digitally mediated humor as it distributes
along ideological lines.
Data for this study come from scraping a sample of Twitter content in the 24 hours fol-
lowing each key event—Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment and Donald
Trump’s “nasty woman” reference in the third debate. Web scraping is the process of
collecting data from the displayed information generated by a website. We employed
Web Scraper (http://webscraper.io/), a free extension for Google’s Chrome web browser
to collect the information contained in individual tweets that were listed as results by
Twitter’s advanced search page (https://twitter.com/search-advanced). This information
was saved into a spreadsheet. We searched the terms “deplorable” and “nasty woman”
for the specified dates and scraped the resulting tweet text. Because Twitter’s advance
Davis et al. 7
search engine loads and displays tweets as a user scrolls down the list of results, we
employed Web Scraper’s scroll feature to scroll down and load all results while scraping
the information in an automated fashion. This process generated 6402 tweets for “deplor-
able” and 8854 tweets for “nasty woman.” We removed tweets that were not in English
and those that used “deplorable” and/or “nasty woman” but were not referring to the
candidates or election. This latter group of tweets was simply “caught up” in our scraping
process but had no relevance to the research questions. In the end, our sample consisted
of 14,324 total tweets (5708 from “deplorable” and 8616 from “nasty woman,” see Table
1).1 These represent all publicly available tweets generated during the designated time
period including retweets, those that use the terms as part of tweet text and those that use
the terms in hashtags.
Drawing on advances in computations methods, existing research has used “big data”
to determine the prevalence of humor as a form of political engagement on social media,
showing distinct patterns in which silly irreverence is both widespread and rewarded
with attention and engagement (Driscoll et al., 2013; Hartley, 2012; Highfield, 2016a;
Wilson, 2011). Building on existing work, our research questions address what people
are doing with humorous political content on Twitter. This is a “small data” question, one
that entails careful analyses of individual tweets and their specific contents. We thus take
an interpretive approach to Twitter data, going beneath the top layer to answer questions
about “what’s going on here?” (see Davis and Love, 2017; Love et al., 2018a, 2018b;
Moloney and Love, 2017).
Our approach to the data was guided by abductive analysis which merges deductive
theoretical insights with careful inductive techniques such as iterative analysis, de-famil-
iarization, triangulation, and adjustment through review, critique, and debate (Tavory
and Timmermans, 2014; Timmermans and Tavory, 2012). Concretely, we hand-coded
each tweet identifying cases that were humorous, and of those cases, which ones pro-
jected a political message. Jokes, sarcasm, wordplay, irony, and mockery were all counted
as humorous, as well as content the authors agreed had a humorous “feel.” Notably, we
did not tie designations of humor to our personal comedic tastes. Thus, we coded tweets
as “funny,” regardless of whether or not they made us laugh. We identified political
tweets as those that expressed any sort of political messaging and/or revealed any kind
of political agenda. The bar for inclusion as “political” was that the content had to meet
at least one of the following criteria: conveys preference for a political candidate; articu-
lates a position on one or more social issues; presents commentary on the political pro-
cess; and/or indicates intention to, or evidence of, participation through voting,
Table 1. Tweet breakdown summary.
Deplorable Nasty woman Total
Humorous tweets 1147 3793 4940
Humor with politics/percentage of
humorous tweets that make serious
870/76 2468/65 3338/68
Total tweets 5708 8616 14,324
8 new media & society 00(0)
fundraising, and/or collective action. The authors first coded a segment of tweets inde-
pendently and then conferred and conversed until clear criteria and examples were estab-
lished. At that point, the third author (G.K.) completed the initial coding process.
Answering our research questions required data at the intersection of politics and
humor. “Basket of deplorables” and “nasty woman” each represent political events. To
ensure that their use on social media was, in fact, funny, we counted the proportion of
tweets that used humor. In line with expectations, a substantial proportion of tweets
incorporated some form of playfulness (N = 4940; ~35%), validating our use of these
data to understand how humor and politics relate on social media.
Next, we focused on those tweets that both employ humor and enact political engage-
ment. There were 3338 tweets that fell into the funny and political category. We con-
structed broad and narrow themes to help identify patterns of “silly” political participation.
Themes were refined and reworked until all data fit into at least one thematic. Notably,
many pieces of data (i.e. tweets) spanned across themes, demonstrating multiple forms
of political work. Therefore, the themes we present are not discrete but maintain porous
and intersecting boundaries. In addition to combing through the tweets themselves, we
also followed all links and read tweet-threads to gather context.
Coding humorous content means engaging with the various forms that communica-
tion takes through the Twitter platform and the varied ways that humor and political
messaging can manifest in this space. Although Twitter places a strict character limit on
text (140 characters at the time of data collection but 280 characters at the time of this
writing), messages can be deeply layered, derivative, and polysemic. In turn, the content
of a tweet may be straightforward, subtextual, intertextual, use only words, use only
images, or rely on multimedia through gifs, videos, screenshots, and sound bites. These
concise communications, then, are often tightly packed with meaning. Our coding pro-
cess hinged on unpacking these texts and arranging them in meaningful ways. The exem-
plar tweets we display in the analysis are selected for their representativeness of content
in a given category.
While our data present a neat case study at the intersection of politics and humor on
social media, our “small data” approach and use of Twitter as a data collection site does
entail limitations. Without network maps, we cannot identify key players driving content
trends. We are also limited to our specific search terms and limited to those who use
Twitter, thus excluding social media users who may contribute content on other plat-
forms. We also have no way of verifying that accounts are connected to real people, and
we therefore assume that at least parts of our data are bot generated. Results should be
read with these limitations in mind.
Generally, we are interested in what Twitter users do with their political humor. Our
analytic strategy began by identifying data at the intersection of politics and humor.
As shown in Table 1, out of 4940 humorous tweets (1147 from “deplorable” and 3793
from “nasty woman”), we identified meaningful political messaging in 3338. This means
that ~ 68% of humorous tweets maintained a political agenda. These data answer our
initial research question by presenting evidence that humor on social media is indeed a
Davis et al. 9
vehicle for serious political engagement. This finding resonates with existing work that
shows an infusion of serious politics into the seemingly mundane practices of digitally
mediated life (Highfield, 2016b) and mitigates concern that political humor breeds only
apathy and cynicism (Baumgartner, 2007).
As elucidated below, humorous political content on Twitter works in three key ways—
expressing opposition, establishing political subjectivity, and bolstering civic support.
Fleshing out these forms of political engagement brings deeper understanding to how
humor operates in political communication online. In turn, by mapping these categories
across the two data sets and paying attention to the political leanings of tweet content, we
can start to address the place of symbolic boundaries in digitally mediated humor.
Meyer’s schematic of humor origins (relief, incongruity, and superiority) and effects
(unity and division) provides a useful framework for distinguishing between our three
categories of political work and making sense of their distribution across the data sets.
Specifically, we see incongruity and relief as humor mechanisms throughout, with a
sharp emphasis on superiority in expressions of opposition. In turn, opposition empha-
sizes divisive effects, while identification and civic support emphasize unity (though
maintain divisive elements). Because each data set is highly partisan, patterns and dis-
tinctions that emerge speak to humor style across ideological boundaries.
What does the humorous content do?
Although we find a substantial proportion of tweets that do some form of political work,
there are also those that do not seem to have any discernible political agenda and, instead,
use political source material to generate humorous content (N = 1602; 32% of all funny
tweets). In these tweets, politics offer fodder for jokes, but jokes remain politically indif-
ferent. For example,
Wish I had majored in deplorable basket weaving in college
“Basket of Deplorables” would be a good name for a rock group
I mean, it DOES sound like an 80’s superhero battle flick. Nasty Woman vs Bad Hombre: This
time … it’s bigly serious
Alright who’s making the nasty woman and bad hombre Halloween costumes because I know
somebody did …
Tweets such as these do not make a political argument, and one would have a difficult
time discerning the political leanings of the tweeters. These exemplify instances in which
political content serves playfulness, rather than instances of political messaging deliv-
The remaining tweets in the data set (3338; 68% of all funny tweets) also use humor
and, in some cases, appear quite similar to the previous examples. These remaining
tweets, however, use humor to deliver political messages. That is, they do some form of
political work and thus represent a form of political participation.
10 new media & society 00(0)
Discrediting the opposition
Twitter users employ humor to discredit the opposition through mocking, parody, and
talking back. “Deplorable” and “nasty woman” threads are sites on which the merits of
each candidate are hotly debated, and fitness for leadership aggressively questioned.
While the data sets mostly follow partisan lines (i.e. “deplorable” tweets mock Clinton
and support Trump; “nasty woman” tweets mock Trump and support Clinton), “opposi-
tion” is the one category in which discourses crisscross the political spectrum, at least to
a small degree. Here, detractors issue harsh accusations while a contingent of supporters
of each candidate push back and flip accusations in the alternate direction. Superiority
features most prominently in this category as a humor mechanism, while expressions of
opposition emphasize division vis-à-vis unity as humor’s main effect.
About two-thirds of all funny-political tweets contain elements of opposition, by far
our most heavily populated category. Equally represented in “deplorable” and “nasty
woman” data sets, both Trump and Clinton supporters utilize mockery and denigration to
discredit the opposing candidate and that candidate’s agenda while often ridiculing the
opposition’s voter base.
For many Trump supporters, “basket of deplorables” is evidence of Clinton’s elitism
and disconnection from everyday Americans. With her well-documented personal
wealth, the revelation of highly paid corporate speaking engagements, and her status as
a “career politician,” Clinton was often cast as a member of the ruling class, thus calling
into question her capacity to govern the general populace. Below, detractors reference
expensive vacation spots and historical figures of royalty to highlight Clinton’s socialite
Someone help me out. Was Hillary in the Hamptons, on Martha’s Vineyard, or in Hollywood
when she called working class Americans deplorable?
Marie Antoinette “Let them eat cake.” Hillary “Deplorable.” She just lost. Keep the fire
burning! Trump 2016. (https://twitter.com/seanhannity/status/774742748985454592) (link to a
statement by conservative TV personality Sean Hannity, accusing Clinton of waging a “Holy
War” against Donald Trump and listing key issues on which the candidates differ: immigration,
supreme court nomination, and energy)
For Clinton supporters, Trump calling Clinton a “nasty woman” further entrenched
concerns over Trump’s misogyny. Questions about Trump’s treatment of women have
long plagued the candidate due to a public history of attacking the physical appearance
of women who leverage critiques against him. Trump’s troublesome gender relations
came to a head during the campaign with the release of old audio and video in which
Trump brags about grabbing women’s genitals. Tweeters, like the one below, connect
key lines from that released tape (i.e. “grabbing women by the pussy”) with Trump’s
nasty woman comment during the third debate. They also replace “nasty woman” with
“bitch,” unveiling the supposed real meaning behind Trump’s words:
“Such a Nasty Woman,GRAB THEM BY P*SSY, Nobody has more respect for women than
Davis et al. 11
Clinton “bitch slapped” him last night; I mean “nasty woman slapped” him … Pretty sure
that’s the euphemism Trump implied.
While elitism and misogyny feature prominently in “deplorable” and “nasty woman”
tweets, respectively, additional issues come to the fore as well. For instance, Trump sup-
porters reference a scandal with Hillary Clinton’s emails, her supposed failures as
Secretary of State (and the resulting deaths of American operatives in Benghazi), her
physical appearance, supposed character flaws, and alleged bodily weakness. In turn,
Clinton supporters make claims that Donald Trump is racist, lacking intelligence, imma-
ture, and unprepared for the duties of president. We sample some of this content below:
Mrs Deplorable will have to take a few days off from parties in Hollywood, she’s in the bed,
deplorabley tired. #LockHerUp #TrumpTrain
It’s a Great Honor to be called “Deplorable” by this Lying Degenerate Criminal Racist Bigot!
#BasketOfDeplorablespic.twitter.com/Vey3SyrqyY (unflattering image of Clinton overlaid with
text: “she belongs in prison, not the Whitehouse” [referencing investigations into her email
server and possible mishandling of national security issues])
I guess if I say he’s a misogynistic bigot, that makes me a Nasty Woman? Huh … @
RepBrianBabinhttps://twitter.com/tpm/status/789573733656715264 … (link to story about
Republicans defending Trump’s comment)
@HillaryClinton “Nasty Woman” takes care of business including a whining old baby Trump.
Finally, opposition tweets are unique among the data for their cross-partisanship.
While the candidates’ gaffes were primarily used against them, about 10% of tweets in
each data set show Clinton and Trump supporters doubling down on their candidates’
claims. The following are examples of Clinton supporters defending the characterization
of Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables,” and Trump supporters claiming that calling
Clinton a “nasty woman” is an accurate (or even kind) description:
What half of #LoserDonald Trump supporters are REALLY pissed off about is that they had to
look up what “deplorable” means
White racists, birthers & Trump supporters must feel betrayed by Hillary. “Since when is white
supremacy deplorable??” they gasp in unison.
This CRAP is what kills me. MSM [mainstream media] luvs 2 lick this end of the turd. #TRUMP
says ‘sucha nasty woman.’OMG world! THE BITCH IS A VERY NASTY WOMAN!
She IS a nasty woman! pic.twitter.com/lEiBw7Jj7i (image of Clinton giving a speech behind a
podium overlaid with text: “Listen, we’ve got to ban guns to save the toddlers, and we’ve got
to have late term abortions to kill the babies”)
In short, Clinton and Trump supporters use humor—subtle, explicit, text-based, and
multimedia—to discredit the opposition. This includes claims about elitism and
12 new media & society 00(0)
misogyny, representing ongoing threads of critique leveraged against Clinton and Trump,
respectively. These claims intermix with general and specific contentions about each
candidate’s fitness for the office of president. In turn, supporters of each candidate also
populate the data sets, doubling down, talking back, and reasserting their preferred can-
didate’s legitimacy. Stylistically, superiority is a chief driver of the tweets in the opposi-
tion category. While they do employ incongruity and offer comic relief, the opposition
tweets play a primarily divisive function of denigrating political figures and political
A second way that Twitter users wield humor for political ends is through identification.
Identification includes constructing the self as a political subject by “reclaiming” derog-
atory labels, connecting one’s political preferences with other valued statuses, and
establishing oneself as part of a political bloc. We read identification as the flip side of
opposition. While oppositional humor relies heavily on superiority with a strong divi-
sive effect, identification pushes back on denigration and maintains an in-group unify-
About one-third of all funny-political tweets contain an element of identification, with
relatively even proportions of this category across data sets. Within each data set, the use
of identification distributes cleanly along partisan lines, with all identification tweets in
the “deplorable” data set leaning toward Trump and/or the conservative platform and all
identification tweets in the “nasty woman” data set leaning toward Clinton and/or the
Reclaiming represents a key form of identification in both data sets. Just as “queer,”
“bitch,” and “crip” have been reclaimed by sex–gender minorities, feminists, and people
with disabilities, respectively, “deplorable” and “nasty woman” emerge as monikers of
pride. Contradicting the devaluation entailed in each candidates’ gaffe, “deplorable” is
reconfigured into patriotic and hardworking American, while “nasty woman” comes to
signal strength and intelligence with a feminist bent:
So now if you love ur country, ur a #deplorablesinabasket.
#BasketOfDeplorables we are a beautiful bunch of deplorables!!
I was going to be a nasty woman for Halloween, but I am already sexy, smart and generous
In addition, tweeters connect the (reclaimed) label to additional positively valued
identities, infusing those identities with political relevance. For example,
Folks I’m not a Major.’Major Lee D Plorable’ read fast is Majorly Deplorable. I was only
corporal in USMC #BasketOfDeplorables lol
Mother of 2 strong girls, business owner, feminist, caring, does for others, stays informed,
leader, voter, proud “NASTY WOMAN” #imwithher
Davis et al. 13
Finally, Twitter users identify themselves as part of a political bloc by drawing con-
nections between themselves and other supporters through text, images, videos, and tag-
ging. For example,
Hi #Hillary from a #Deplorable friend. Just one of the 10K+ at the FL event
smash that like if ur a nasty woman who supports other nasty women #NastyWomanForPresidentpic.
twitter.com/dWZkNBo0ZK. (image of pop singer Rihanna wearing a Hillary Clinton shirt with
images of Clinton’s face in the background superimposed over clouds)
In addition, Trump supporters on Twitter often reference the need for a “bigger bas-
ket” alongside images of packed rallies, while Clinton supporters sarcastically “thank”
Trump for bringing them together, often with links to rallies and fundraising efforts.2
By reclaiming “deplorable” and “nasty woman” as markers of pride, connecting
these labels to other valued identities, and establishing the self as part of a political
bloc through images, links, and social affordances of the Twitter platform,3 the data
show humor as a mechanism of identification. Unlike opposition, identification deem-
phasizes superiority and division and instead, places primary focus on unity and in-
Discourse itself is an important form of political participation but in a democratic sys-
tem, what matters most is who gets elected and which policies go into effect. “Basket of
deplorables” and “nasty woman” worked to not only discredit oppositional candidates
and identify the self as a political subject but also became forces of individual participa-
tion and collective action, fostering the broad category we call civic support. Civic sup-
port takes the form of voting (intention to and evidence of), fundraising, rallying, and
Civic support makes up the smallest category of political action found in the data,
featuring in about 20% of all funny-political tweets. In addition, civic support is unique
among our three categories for its uneven split between data sets. While about a quarter
of “nasty woman” tweets contain an element of civic support, less than 10% of “deplor-
able” tweets are grouped in this category. Like identification, civic support distributes
along clear partisan lines between the data sets, with “deplorable” tweets showing sup-
port for Trump and/or the conservative platform and “nasty woman” tweets showing
support for Clinton and/or the progressive platform. Civic support emphasizes superior-
ity to a moderate degree (less than it is emphasized in “opposition” tweets but more than
it is emphasized in “identification” tweets). Civic support maintains both unifying and
divisive effects as tweets ubiquitously proclaim who stands together, but also, take shape
through articulations of who supporters stand against.
Voting is the most straightforward way to participate in the democratic political pro-
cess. Both data sets feature ballot box declarations, ballot box selfies, and calls on others
to vote for a particular candidate. For example,
14 new media & society 00(0)
How’s Go “F” yourself, from a deplorable Independent who just changed her vote from Her to
#BasketOfDeplorables #Deplorable lives matter canvassing in Florida today! pic.twitter.com/
HPYrbMWwvU (image of two women wearing Trump gear at a campaign center)
This nasty woman is taking my pussy to a voting booth to vote for @HillaryClinton Too bad we
both can’t vote. #ImWithHer #NastyWomen
This nasty woman voted today. From a swing state. #ImWithHerpic.twitter.com/pO8uNwpl4.z
(image of filled-in absentee voting ballot)
We also see advertisements and displays of merchandise that benefit politically rele-
vant groups. Notably, while merchandise ads are present in both data sets, connections
between the products and monetary donations to politically relevant organizations are
unique to the “nasty woman” data set. These derive primarily from a viral campaign
promoting shirts, hats, mugs, and even a fragrance with proceeds benefiting Planned
Parenthood—a women’s health organization that conservatives (including Trump) con-
tinuously threaten to defund—and Emily’s list—a political action committee supporting
There’s now a Nasty Woman perfume that the proceeds benefit Planned Parenthood. I love the
Just ordered a Nasty Woman shirt because of course I did. (https://googleghost.com/collections/
all/nasty-woman … [half of the proceeds goes to Planned Parenthood! (link to product)])
Civic support from both camps, though tied to the presidential candidates, also spread
down ballots and over to related conservative and progressive issues and affiliations. For
example, Trump supporters called for a boycott of Hollywood films due to a perceived
progressive orientation in the entertainment industry, and a boycott of the National
Football League (NFL) due to players’ conscientious objections to standing during the
National Anthem. In this vein, Clinton supporters rallied for down ballot Democrats and
distributed information about organizations that specifically benefit girls and women.
Civic support is the smallest and most partisan category of the three. Its relatively
minor role vis-à-vis opposition and identification indicates that perhaps Twitter is most
widely used for expressions of self rather than forms of concrete mobilization. Yet, the
presence of mobilizing behaviors (voting, rallying, fundraising, etc.), however small,
show the potential use of Twitter as a medium not just for political speech but also politi-
cal action (Tufekci 2017). At the same time, it is curious that while civic support features
about two-and-a-half times more often in Clinton/“nasty woman” tweets than
Trump/“deplorable” tweets, the final election results fell in favor of Trump. Of course,
Twitter is not representative of the voting public, civic support makes up only a small
proportion of our content overall, and the category includes participatory acts other than
voting (e.g. fundraising and rallying). However, the discrepancy between shows of civic
Davis et al. 15
support in our data and ultimate election outcomes presents a puzzle that should be
teased out in future research.
The clear partisan lines along which civic support distributes also speaks to questions
about humor and symbolic boundaries. The gap between Trump and Clinton supporters
in this category exemplify those hard cultural boundaries long-documented by humor
scholars in which ideological differences foster distinctions in humor sensibilities. This
boundary distinction in civic support is notable, as humor style in the other two catego-
ries show no partisan patterns. Thus, while opposition and identification indicate that the
internet’s shared vernacular may have boundary breaching effects upon humor, the par-
tisan split of civic support tweets shows that symbolic boundaries remain at least some-
Discussion and conclusion
Through analyses at the intersection of politics and humor on Twitter, we posed two
research questions. First, we examined the degree to which humor is a vehicle for serious
political engagement vis-à-vis politics as fodder for humorous content. Next, we explored
how humor styles distribute along ideological lines.
To the first question, our data show that nearly 70% of funny-political tweets demon-
strate some form of political work, advancing clear evidence that humor acts as a vehicle
for meaningful political participation. This is relevant to debates about the effects of
humor and emergent technologies on the democratic process. While both humor and
digital media may lower barriers to political participation (Bode, 2016; Hariman, 2008;
Harlow, 2012; Hartley, 2010), they can also foster cynicism and apathy (Baumgartner,
2007). Although not all political engagement is humorous and not all humorous content
does political work, we show a substantial proportion of funny tweets that engage politi-
cally through various forms of opposition, identification, and civic support. Not only
does this finding answer our research question but also clarifies the stakes for issues of
digital inequality. If social media are increasingly relevant to political action and if
humor is central to social media communication practice, then exclusion from either due
to access, skill, or media literacy will be increasingly detrimental to already marginalized
voices. While we do not interrogate this latter issue in the present work, it is an important
avenue for future research.
Our data illustrate three ways in which humor is used to engage the political sphere.
We show tweeters discrediting the opposition, identifying as political subjects, and exer-
cising civic support through voting, fundraising, and collective action. Because the data
sets are so tightly partisan, analyzing the distribution of categories across cases gives us
insight into the place of symbolic boundaries as humor is enacted online. While scholars
have shown humor withstanding the general move toward cultural omnivorousness
(Friedman and Kuipers, 2013; Kuipers, 2009, 2015), social media has been touted as the
greater leveler, with a shared vernacular converged upon by diverse networks (Jenkins,
2006; Milner, 2013b). We therefore examined how antagonistic groups utilize humor in
similar and dissimilar ways.
Using Meyer’s (2000) schematic, we show that humor style looks similar across par-
tisan lines for both opposition and identification. However, civic support distributes
16 new media & society 00(0)
unevenly between the two data sets, suggesting the kind of boundary distinction that
resonates with traditional humor studies. Thus, in answering our second research ques-
tion, this article shows humor on social media as a distinct cultural form. Humor remains
tied to cultural bounds, but those bounds are perhaps loosened through articulation on the
Twitter platform. At the same time, social media’s shared vernacular and convergence
culture may emerge more bounded when articulated through humor, politics, and/or their
Establishing the serious political work of humor on Twitter is an important first step
toward understanding a participatory political environment. In this way, our study contrib-
utes to studies of both politics and media. At the same time, our use of partisan cases illumi-
nates the place of cultural boundaries as humor is enacted online. Together, these findings
set the stage for additional work at the intersection of politics, digital media, and humor.
For example, in comparing data sets, we noticed that “nasty woman” contained vastly
more content than “deplorable.” There are several possible reasons for this—the public
nature of the debate, its parody on Saturday Night Live, proximity to election day—but
another possible reason is of theoretical interest. It may be that Clinton supporters/pro-
gressives are more invested in social media participation, more vigorous in their use of
humor, or some combination of these factors. The disproportionate use of humor among
the progressive faction in our data resonates with the progressive bent of US comedians
in both stand-up comedy and political commentary shows. While the data do not offer
clear answers in this regard, future work would do well to examine not only how people
engage in digitally mediated political humor, but also how political affiliation affects
one’s relationship to humor. In other words, for whom is humor considered a viable and
likely form of political participation?
Future work would also benefit from tracing the effects of political humor as enacted
on social media. Our data indicate that Twitter is an important forum for political partici-
pation, but it remains unclear how Twitter engagement translates into votes. Our findings
highlight the complexity of this question, as we saw a disproportionate show of civic
support in favor of Clinton, yet Clinton ultimately lost the election. So, while the pres-
ence of civic support in our data along with meaningful political claims-making in the
other two categories counter concerns about humor causing apathy, the disconnect
between expressions of civic support and the outcome of the election underscores the
need to understand the relationship between humor on social media and concrete politi-
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. Although we only accessed publicly available Twitter accounts and content, it is likely that
those who generated this content did not expect their communications to become part of an
academic manuscript. To minimize violations of “contextual integrity” (Nissenbaum, 2011),
we refrain from displaying user handles in the analysis. We understand, however, that readers
Davis et al. 17
can find the authors of each tweet if the accounts still exist and the content is still set to public.
2. Efforts to organize and participate in rallies and fundraisers were double-coded as both iden-
tification and civic support.
3. For a full discussion of technological affordances and their political relevance, see Davis and
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Jenny L. Davis is a Lecturer/Assistant Professor in the School of Sociology at the Australian
National University and co-editor of the Cyborgology blog. She studies the interplay of emergent
technologies and social dynamics.
Tony P. Love is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky. A social psy-
chologist and a criminologist, he has expertise in digital data methods and is interested in juvenile
delinquency, intimate partner victimization, and the relationships between power, gender, and the
ability to accurately take the role of the other.
Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in the Research School of Social Sciences at The Australian
National University. Her research focuses on intersections of gender and sexuality in the contem-
porary West and her current work explores the ways in which internet technologies are taken up as
tools of community building, particularly for young queer people.