This month, students at the University of California at Berkeley voted a squirrel to hold one of the school's open Senate seats. The candidate went by Furry Boi, and the man behind the mask, sophomore Stephen Boyle, largely credits his win to the endorsement of a meme page on Facebook.
Boyle is a moderator on the UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens Facebook group, which has over 160,000 members to date. After seeing his Facebook News Feed "flooded" with posts about people running for the Associated Students of the University of California Senate, he and a friend came up with the idea for Furry Boi, a character inspired by the prevalence of squirrels on campus. "We tossed out this kind of funny idea that, there's a lot of squirrels on campus, they're a pretty prevalent species at Berkeley, the idea got brought up that, oh it would be really funny if a squirrel would run for ASUC Senate," he tells Gizmodo.
Furry Boi's victory may seem unlikely, some college-kid shenanigans that went too far. But in the age of social media, of Donald Trump, of deeply pessimistic politics, it may be something far more terrifying — it may have been inevitable.
Boyle pitched the idea of having the meme page endorse Furry Boi to other admins in the moderator group, dangling the potential to grow the page. It worked. "Given my influence on the meme page, I pitched the idea of the [Berkeley] meme page endorsing this candidate. ... And basically, once I had that, I knew that I had enough cyber influence and outreach to promote this meme and make it kind of take off and allow me to actually secure a position in the office," Boyle says. "I knew that once I had the backing of the meme page, I was basically just gonna waltz in."
In the run-up to the election, which took place in mid-April, Boyle largely kept his identity hidden under Furry Boi's giant squirrel head — at least for a while. As the election neared, it became an open secret. "I definitely was known," Boyle says, "I just wasn't known on a school-wide scale."
While Furry Boi was largely a joke, the candidate's popularity grew for serious political reasons — namely, ASUC's ineffectiveness and the cynicism it inspired among the student body. "The ASUC gained a reputation for itself. The reason why I was able to do this was because the ASUC has such a bad reputation amongst every student at Cal," Boyle says. "Everyone was like, 'Oh a squirrel is running for ASUC? The ASUC is basically a joke, let's put a joke into the ASUC.'"
Of course, not everyone was joking. With 37 students running for the 20 available Senate seats, the backlash against a candidate in a $US60 ($79) squirrel suit was inevitable. "It's a shocking display of privilege to vote for a squirrel over candidates who have actual plans to help students who need it," the Daily Californian wrote, pointing out that more than 500 people voted for Furry Boi.
Using memes as a means of political influence is not unique to Furry Boi. Russian trolls bought ads on Facebook and Instagram during the 2016 US presidential election, spreading memes related to issues of race, immigration, and religion. And in a shameless act of attempted voter suppression, Trump supporters on 4chan inundated Twitter and Facebook with memes trying to trick Clinton supporters into casting their votes via text or social media. Boyle said that people have likened his campaign to Trump's, "which kind of hurts my feelings, but I definitely see their claims are a little bit substantiated."
After Furry Boi's win, Boyle unveiled his identity in a lengthy Facebook post. He also dropped the rodent charade and embraced the responsibilities he first took on as a gag. In the post, he details where he stands on issues like sustainability, mental health, and community development. Boyle says that he had these ideas before deciding to run and that he's glad he'll now have the influence to see them through.
As to whether he thinks it's ok to use a meme page to wield political influence, Boyle says "it depends." If someone has that type of power, "sure let em flex," he says. Ultimately, however, Boyle wants to use his position to make the ASUC Senate work for students and "make it so that no one can ever really do anything like what I did again."
I asked Boyle if he thought it was easy to game the system. "Sadly, yes." He compared his campaign to "The Waldo Moment" episode of Black Mirror's first season, in which a blue cartoon bear runs for British Parliament - and gains some traction. "When I started doing this, I was like, 'Woah, dude, I'm Waldo," Boyle says. "And a lot of people were like, 'Yo, Steve, you're Waldo."