In the wake of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, one of Twitter’s trending hashtags was #WarrenIsASnake. Angry social media users have been tweeting the hashtag, along with its partner hashtag #NeverWarren, and flooding Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s replies with snake emojis.
The trend seems to have begun with some Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters, who were angry with Warren for maintaining that Sanders told her privately that he didn’t believe a woman could win the 2020 presidential election, even after Sanders denied saying any such thing. After a while, though, the hashtags continued trending not only because of anti-Warren Twitter users denouncing her, but also because Warren fans were using the hashtags to denounce Sanders and proclaim their support for Warren. (And possibly because of some bots, too. Twitter in 2020!)
But it’s notable that this ostensibly political argument is centered on the idea of Warren being a “snake” — because using the snake emoji to troll an opponent is not an idea that arose out of politics. It’s an idea that arose out of fandom. Specifically, it arose out of celebrity stan culture.
Which means that this political debate is looking less and less like a discussion about the electability of the candidates and more and more like stan trolling.
The history of the snake emoji starts with Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian
The first and most famous person to be snaked was Taylor Swift four years ago. Swift went through a series of scandals in the summer of 2016, and all of them revolved around the idea that she is a sneaky, calculating, manipulative person. So as each scandal unfolded, Swift haters started to play with the idea that she was a “snake.” After Swift’s ex Calvin Harris publicly accused her of being manipulative — and Katy Perry appeared to nod along — Swift haters began to post snake emoji in the comments of Swift’s social media accounts.
But the snake really became a Taylor thing after Kim Kardashian got involved. Swift was enmeshed in her endless feud with Kanye West at the time, and on this particular occasion in 2016, West’s wife Kim Kardashian caught Swift in a lie about West. She posted videos to Snapchat to prove her point, and then took victoriously to Twitter.
“Wait it’s legit National Snake Day?!?!?” Kardashian tweeted, along with a string of snake emoji. “They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days!”
Wait it's legit National Snake Day?!?!?They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days!— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) July 17, 2016
Spectators took their cues from Kardashian. The comments on Swift’s social media posts became wallpapered with snake emoji.
Swift decided that she would reclaim the snake. When she released her album Reputation in 2017, she made the snake her mascot, and she began bringing out a giant inflatable snake to perform with during concerts. And when she decided to leave behind the bad girl image of Reputation as she launched the Lover era in 2019, she pointedly began the video for “ME!” with the image of a pretty pastel snake transforming into a cloud of butterflies.
That’s the context in which the idea of trolling with the snake emoji was born: It’s about fandom, about people who form a community and identity around the idea of loving or hating one specific famous person. It’s a blunt instrument of discourse, designed to signal your overwhelming loathing of a celebrity who you believe to be sneaky, slimy, and manipulative, so that others who also hate that celebrity can see your hatred and join with you in an outpouring of emotion. Snake emoji trolling is only truly coherent within a fandom.
That the emoji has now been adopted as a rhetorical tool among certain Bernie Sanders supporters suggests that, for some participants, politics right now is not really about issues and policy. It’s about stanning for a celebrity, which is to say building your identity around your love for that celebrity and what they represent. It’s about defining yourself through the community you find with fellow fans — and through your deep, profound, and performative hatred for those you see as their enemies. The politics of the snake emoji are the politics of standom.