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Election memes: a political blessing rather than a curse

Election messaging was once quite stiff and formal, and whilst we now can’t imagine a world in which leaflets and serious political broadcasts make up the entirety of a party’s campaign, up until recently this was the reality. Political parties weren’t allowed to buy more screen time with slick or humorous TV adverts – they still aren’t – but now with the internet, level playing fields have become a thing of the past. Whilst politicians and party members still knock on British people’s doors, in the last five years the vast majority of campaigning has indisputably been taking place online transforming political dynamics across the world. There are, of course, the dangers of fake news and the moral issues surrounding targeted political advertising, both of which reduce people’s ability to make a well-rounded judgement. These issues cannot be ignored, but in this article, I am choosing to take a positive outlook on the more organic content there is to be found on the internet: memes. 

So, what is a meme? It can probably most effectively be described as a virally-transmitted photograph or video that is embellished with text that pokes fun at a cultural symbol or social idea. In the last three years or so however, memes have become heavily intertwined with politics, with voters, activists and politicians all using them to campaign online. 

In 2017 the Conservatives thoroughly underestimated the importance of the organic shares pro-Labour memes about Theresa May running through fields of wheat or hunting foxes received, and their losses, as well as Labour’s gains came as a great shock. This time round they’re not holding back. The Conservative Party have hired two Kiwis called Sean Topham and Ben Guerin to run their 2019 digital campaign to avoid being outgunned online by Labour once again. The pair’s arrival comes after their success helping Australia’s right-wing coalition unexpectedly win the country’s general election through the deliberate use of purposefully low-quality memes based around popular shows. 

Besides memes are not a new phenomenon – are they not simply modern-day satirical cartoons?

Conservative HQ have already released a track entitled ‘lo-fi beats to get Brexit done’ and have mimicked Vogue’s classic 73 Questions YouTube video set-up. Filmed in a single shot, we follow Boris Johnson for 4 minutes and 40 seconds as he answers quick-fire questions about Brexit, the economy and marmite. Labour are following suit. The left-wing political party’s Twitter page recreated a Conservative version of Spotify’s annual personalised “Wrapped”, which gives users an insight into their listening history from the last year.

Instead of seeing the Conservatives’ top 5 songs of the year, we see Boris Johnson’s top 5 worst quotes. Jeremy Corbyn also recently used the classic meme format “zoom in on my …” on his own Twitter feed to remind Brits to vote. His tweet received almost 100, 000 likes and over 19,000 shares.

The principal concern surrounding the emergence of political memes is that they are becoming people’s sole source of political news, which has the potential to facilitate the circulation of Fake News. Whilst I understand this concern, I am less inclined to believe that memes are replacing journalism or manifestos as sources of credible political information. In fact, most political memes emerge out of these two reliable sources, whether they are created by political parties themselves or members of the public. Memes are simply becoming a part of political campaigns and contemporary election messaging, not taking over. 

Besides memes are not a new phenomenon – are they not simply modern-day satirical cartoons? These drawings aren’t created by politicians or journalists, but by professional, often politically biased, artists. Perhaps it is because these illustrations are found in newspapers and not on Twitter, or because they require artistic talent, that society does not question their accuracy or validity. Contrary to popular belief, I would also like to argue that behind the creation of a meme lies a certain amount of effort and skill.

The lines between memes, fake news and targeted advertising are nevertheless becoming increasingly blurred

Firstly, a good meme requires wit. If something isn’t funny or relatable you can wave goodbye to it ever going viral. Secondly, memes require genuine political knowledge from their creators. The materialisation of memes relies on ordinary people or political parties homing in on the details of interviews, debates, speeches or party manifestos and finding content to make fun of. 

Most importantly however, I truly believe that as opposed to making us lazier, memes encourage further political engagement from their audiences. Whilst it may not change people’s minds, if the meme is funny enough or smart enough it could incite us to go and maybe check out that ludicrous policy in the manifesto for ourselves or watch the whole leader’s debate just to catch that one clip of a politician messing up and see if there was more where that came from. If you don’t understand the meme and it has thousands of likes, share or retweets, you’re more likely to check out the news to see what the fuss is all about. Memes also has the potential to reach a demographic of young Brits who wouldn’t necessarily perceive voting as a top priority. 

The lines between memes, fake news and targeted advertising are nevertheless becoming increasingly blurred. For example, the Conservative Party’s decision to change the appearance of the CCHQ twitter account so that it resembled a fact-checking account during the Leader’s debate in late November raised eyebrows across the nation. We must be cautious, calling out the content that could be exploiting the label of a meme and passing Fake News off as “just a joke.”

We must also not abandon our traditional campaigning methods, but overall, I feel that we should embrace this new form of election messaging. I truly believe that memes are injecting new life into politics and have the potential to engage more young people than ever before. Besides, I think we can all agree that our Twitter timelines would be significantly more boring if it didn’t have wittily captioned pictures of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich or Boris Johnson stuck on a zip-wire. 

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