The NUMTOTs have endorsed Bernie Sanders. Here’s why that matters

Senator Bernie Sanders, and a train. Image: Getty.

On 19 January, the New York Times editorial board made history when it endorsed two candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, for president, concluding, “May the best woman win.”

This came on the heels on another key endorsement, one that got far less media coverage. On 15 January, New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, a private Facebook meme group, endorsed U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Within hours, Bernie personally thanked the group’s nearly 180,000 “NUMTOTs,” as they affectionately call themselves.

Why would a leading contender for the Democratic nomination so eagerly patronize a niche group on a social media site?

In 2020, it’s simply smart politics – and a sign of how campaigning and political messaging strategies are rapidly changing. Bernie’s post on the Facebook group’s page now has over 16,000 reactions and nearly 3,000 comments.

A meme posted on NUMTOT highlights why many of issues important to group members are compatible with Sanders’ platform. Image: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens/Facebook.com.

As experts on political memes, we’re well aware of the ways memes and meme groups can influence politics on the sly.

Though they might seem like humorous, pithy or even nonsensical digital artifacts, memes, as our research has shown, wield the power to unite, divide, persuade and provoke voters. They’ve become an increasingly important – even indispensable – communication tool in politics, helping ordinary voters shape political debates and hone arguments from their phones.

It’s a radical departure from just a decade ago, when donors and legacy media outlets largely set the tone, defined the parameters and dictated the topics of debate.

With social media now a battleground for political debate, memes have become a key way for regular supporters of a candidate or party to unite around certain issues, generate talking points and crystallise policy platforms – regardless of what The New York Times, Fox News or The Washington Post have to say about it.

New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens is a large, diverse meme group on Facebook. Created in 2017, the page attracts those who share an interest in urban planning, housing justice, transportation infrastructure and climate change.

Public transit and climate are two issues of primary importance to the group’s members. Image: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens/Facebook.com.

On Facebook, thousands of NUMTOTs engage in robust democratic debate; it just so happens that much of this debate often comes in the form of Pokemon or Winnie the Pooh memes. In the past few days, NUMTOTs have debated renters’ rights, fair housing policies, flood management for densely populated areas, public transit, income inequality and shelters for LGBTQ+ youth.

But with the 2020 presidential race well underway, the group has also been discussing the candidates and their policies.

The page has an outsized ability – on Facebook, at least – to communicate members’ political positions. Endorsing Bernie could prove particularly effective for mobilizing young voters, since 90 per cent of NUMTOT’s members are under 34 years old.

A meme highlights differences in Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s political styles to explain the group’s endorsement of Sanders. Image: New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens/Facebook.com.

One NUMTOT member pointed out recently that this group boasts the size – and, more importantly, people power – of a small city.

Research has already demonstrated how memes shaped the 2016 election. As we note in our book, memes from far-right Trump supporters effectively framed media conversations about the election, with ethno-nationalist talking points taking center stage in traditional media outlets. That may not have been the Trump campaign’s plan, but there’s no doubt that these memes funneled attention in Trump’s direction.

For his part, Trump – perhaps intuitively understanding their power – retweeted some of these viral memes, even though the meme’s creators had little or no connection to his official campaign.


Four years later, the politics of memes have evolved. NUMTOT’s endorsement actually represents an organised political decision that, in turn, has been acknowledged and celebrated by a candidate.

Not only can memes seed talking points to campaigns, but they also give candidates a window into the issues that are important to subsets of voters. Memes have become a way for political groups to coordinate and act collectively, and guerrilla imagery has become a key component of electioneering.

May the best memers win.

Heather Woods, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Technology, Kansas State University and Leslie Hahner, Associate Professor of Communication, Baylor University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.