How Memes Warped Modern Politics

Who knew silly jokes could make such an impact on the world.

by Hussein Kesvani
06 April 2017, 6:00am

When Theresa May triggered Article 50, plunging the UK into uncharted territory and accidentally sparking a diplomatic crisis with Spain, all we could do was tweet.

Click on any Brexit-related hashtag and you'll find a stream of people – mostly journalists and commentators – tweeting the same kind of memes: about how the clocks have been turned back 44 years, or how half the country fell for a big lie on the side of a big bus. Similar things are happening on the pro-Brexit side, only their memes largely consist of Union flags, photos of Nigel Farage drinking or missives about how hate crimes aren't real.

It's a strange form of theatrics – one that's not simply a "reaction" to the news, nor anything resembling actual resistance. Instead, sharing memes seems to have become an almost cathartic release as we enter an even more uncertain future.

It's the reason why, in the run-up to Trump's inauguration – as a demagogue was about to take the most powerful office in the world – all the left could do was post memes. It's why parts of Twitter continue talking about alternative universes where Ed Miliband is Prime Minister, or discuss British politics like it's a Harry Potter book ("Tell me Twitter, is Corybn a Hufflepuff or a Ravenclaw? Time to pop on the sorting hat methinks! :p").

WATCH: "We memed the alt-right into existence" – Richard Spencer on white nationalism.

When the word "meme" was popularised by the evolutionary biologist/Twitter personality Richard Dawkins, he was referring to genetic "ideas, behaviours or styles that spread from person to person within a culture" – a definition that still applied when the internet first co-opted the term to mean "cat jokes". For that reason, memes had little cultural resonance back then. Academic papers of the time downplayed their direct relevance to politics, suggesting they were just a form of light entertainment that political parties could utilise to get younger voters more engaged in the existing political process.

Today, the opposite seems to be true. Trust and participation in political systems across the world is at an all time low, despite – or perhaps because of – the ability to engage with them online. Governments, traditional party strategists, think-tanks and web consultants have largely been unable to harness the web to their advantage – excluding right-wing populists, of course, who have had the upper hand over the past year. However, even their momentum has slowed as the fringe internet subcultures that ardently promoted Trump and Brexit are now more focused on trolling left-wing groups than they are on real world politics.

All this has created a climate in which the only way many of us engage with politics is by throwing memes at each other, whether they're intended to "trigger lefties", patronise right-wingers or just anger absolutely everyone. I like a good meme; there's no denying that. And some still have a place and a purpose: to provide respite from the seemingly unending bedlam going on around us. But we're at a point now where they might be actively harming political conversation, rather than just being a fun complement to more conventionally staid discussion.

Explore any social media platform and you'll find these sort of lightweight political posts being liked and shared by hundreds of like-minded people. Memes, it would seem, now play a dominant role in political discourse.

Thing is, rather than challenging our preconceptions, making legitimate arguments or even fighting against the political status quo, memes have instead become a vehicle for taking cheap shots against people we don't like in exchange for likes and retweets. It's why broad, anti-austerity memes don't do so well online, but very specific anti-Corbyn memes do. Because of this, rather than expanding political conversation – just like social media generally – memes have helped to further polarise those in each already-blinkered pocket of the political landscape.

An anti-refugee meme purporting to show men entering the UK in 2015, when the photo was actually taken in Australia in 2013

This is before we even get to memes that consist of totally fabricated information, most of which originate on the more nonsensical fringes of the right. Take, for example, the anti-refugee memes that began flooding the internet in late 2015, at the beginning of what would become the "migrant crisis". Almost all of the messages in these were false or greatly exaggerated, but packaged in an inherently shareable form they made their way around online for thousands of people to believe at face value, reinforcing pre-existing prejudices, or sparking anger in people who were previously on the fence. This, obviously, is a bad thing. And it's hard to argue that the messages would have reached the same amount of people had they been part of some Breitbart op-ed. 

How did we get to this point? Some say it's the inevitable result of decades of technocratic, managerial politics and political classes that relied more on data than mass political engagement. Others blame the digital media boom, where publishers actively encourage social media users to tweet absolutely anything remotely funny in response to the news, the hope being that tweet will end up embedded in a listicle. Whatever the cause, it's resulted in a political atmosphere in which many of us vent our thoughts and frustrations into memes, rather than engaging with the issue beyond the surface level, in the hope they will receive some positive attention from people we don't even know.

"Memes aren't just a means to make news more authentic; they also prop up alternate views of the world, some of which have no grounding in reality whatsoever."

This might all seem fairly insignificant – a redundant conversation to be having when the real world is going through such upheaval, making real victims out of real people. But that's exactly why it's important. Yes, there are more protests and demonstrations taking place. But for the most part, how we consume news is still overwhelmingly via digital media – and it's hard to incentivise people to demand change when they automatically relegate meaningful political events to pithy photo captions. 

TV broadcasters still produce entire packages on tweets, publishers continue to look at Twitter and Facebook as places to "gauge" national political opinion when reporting on news stories, and we still have a tendency to overplay online debates – a huge waste of time and energy often fuelled by memes and viral tweets. It's created an environment in which chaos and contrarianism for the sake of it reigns, and only furthers the divide between right and left online, meaning – ultimately – it doesn't really help anyone. 

In 2013, Nathan Jurgenson wrote in The New Inquiry that the use of memes was a reaction to the orchestrated aesthetics of TV-dominated politics and that "memes inject some authenticity into a political process seen as problematically overperformed". 

If anything, a more extreme version of this is now true: memes aren't just a means to make news more authentic; they also prop up alternate views of the world, some of which have no grounding in reality whatsoever. Rather than internet culture helping us understand politics, it's simply driving us further away.