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What's Happened to Britain's Alt-Right Meme Machine?

If there's nothing to fight for then there's nothing to meme for.

by Ben Sullivan
May 25 2017, 11:00am

Leo Reynolds/Flickr

An internet army marches on its memes.

In 2016, Pepe became the war flag for the alt-right, galvanising support for The Donald. In France earlier this year, Pepe and the alt-right's meme warriors leapt across the Atlantic to provide ground support for-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. But in the United Kingdom, no such pied piper has arrived, and just a few weeks out from the snap general election, it appears Britain's right wing, along with the pockets of alt-right groups that still cling to this green and pleasant land, are wholly memeless.

To understand why this is the case, we must first understand what conditions need to be present for fertile meme production. According to Ben Nimmo, a UK-based analyst of online disinformation and online campaigns, those conditions are synonymous with the rise of the alt-right. Where you'll find anti-establishmentarianism, you'll find the memes.

"The image that the alt-right have of themselves is passionate rebels with special knowledge," Nimmo told Motherboard. "That makes you an outsider, and if you look at the alt-right messaging, so much of it is about portraying themselves as passionate fighters against the establishment."

Trump's success in America was largely in part down to his anti-establishment aroma. He promised to drain the swamp, among other things—sentiments that proved hugely successful with meme production because they were short, quickfire slogans. But if we apply this framework to the current UK political context, you can see how it'd be difficult for anti-establishment meme makers to back Britain's choice of the right, the Conservative Party and its leader Theresa May—the very epitome of a Great British establishment.

Britain's left doesn't have this problem. Poster comrade of the new socialist revolution, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is a meme sensation. One of the leading Corbyn meme Facebook pages, Cool Corbyn Memes, has some 20,000 fans, and is pumping out memes daily. Another Facebook group, June 8 Shitposting Social Club (June 8 being the day of the general election), is also churning out anti-Tory memes at a startling rate, many of them unequivocally savage. Depressed Vegetarians For Corbyn is another admired meme maker, and Corbyn memes have even attracted the attention on national press.

"If you think about Jeremy Corbyn, and if you think about the meme makers that back him, Corbyn himself has always been a very anti-establishment character. That fits much more into the mentality as seeing yourself as an anti-establishment crusader," Nimmo said.

Finding a similar political meme source for Theresa May on Facebook proves difficult. There is but a smattering of small-scale meme factories, many largely abandoned since the Brexit referendum last year. That divisive, black and white issue laid the solid groundwork for meme deployments. But with Britain leaving the EU, and many far-right voters pacified, meme production slowed. One large Conservative meme house, Reem Memes With a Right Wing Theme, has around 30,000 fans—but the page's popularity pales beside the sheer volume of pro-Corbyn memes online.

Des Freedman, professor of media and communications at London's Goldsmiths University, agreed with Nimmo. Freedman told Motherboard in an email that Corbyn "has been able to rely on a growing network of supporters together with rising frustration at an unequal globalisation process to foster a series of memes around redistribution and defence of public services."

But not convinced Britain's Tory party is entirely memeless, I took my search to Reddit.

"Corbyn or May meme – a new opportunity?" asks one Redditor on r/MemeEconomy right after the election was announced. The hugely popular Meme Economy subreddit is essentially the stock market for memes. Buy low, sell high. Surely, the subreddit thought, a British general election would be fertile grounds for a booming Corbyn/May meme market. But it hasn't happened. "Its just the Bernie vs. Hillary meme, but with different politicians, correct?" asked one, presumably American, meme trader. "Too regional for the national or international market, but may do well in the local meme economy," said another.

There are some, however, pushing to raise the prominence of British political memes on Reddit. Reddit user and self-proclaimed leftist ComradeSquidward1917, a moderator on new Reddit sub r/MinistryofMemes, told Motherboard that Corbyn "has the best memes because he's an odd and unusual character for this election".

"Corbyn also seems to be embracing the meme, much like Trump did with his respective memes. May is a boring candidate. You can make fun of her for being old or evil but that doesn't provide as much material. She's not a good meme like Corbyn," they said.

Read more: It's Not Just Pepe, The Russian Embassy Has Been Trolling on Twitter For Months

Meanwhile, whatever mildly popular May memes that are in existence over on Reddit (and the same goes for Facebook) are typically mocking the Tory leader, rather than acting as a rallying call for support ahead of June 8.

But there's got to be some memetic support from the right, surely. Time to dive deeper into Britain's right wing.

Anti-establishment politics, at least in any viable, electable form in the UK, was dominated by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) up until last year's EU referendum. The single-issue party grew popular with anti-EU campaigners, extreme Conservatives, and nationalists. The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, is now a good friend with Trump himself, which speaks volumes, but he's all but abandoned British politics while his UKIP remains in tatters following the extinction of its raison-d'etre post-EU.

King Nigel I of UKIP, one of the most popular pro-Farage meme Facebook pages, is still in meme production, however. The page has around 20,000 fans, and is producing memes regularly, but it's an exception to the rule. Many UKIP meme production houses are abandoned; while they had a rallying cause for Brexit, the general election provides no such opportunity for a waning UKIP.

"The far-right in the UK are disoriented and discombobulated," Freedman told Motherboard. "They are very small in number and unable to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the challenge to centrist politics."

In terms of the upcoming general election, there just isn't a focal point for anti-establishment rhetoric from the far-right. "The general election is just not hitting those buttons, apart from Corbyn," Nimmo said. "In terms of Europe, it's done. Article 50 has been declared."

One defining trait of the British far-right sentiment still remains however; anti-Islam. If there's one emotion that galvanises the far-right and the alt-right in Britain, it's that of fearing Muslims and spreading fear about Muslims. Figureheads like Infowars' Paul Joseph Watson, British export Milo Yiannopoulos and English Defence League co-founder Tommy Robinson have a following in the UK that is probably the closest to what can be defined as 'alt-right'. Another British far-right institution, Britain First, is one of the most popular destinations for Britain's nationalist anti-establishmentarianism, self-proclaimed counterjihadism, and outright racism.

"Memes, after all, don't grow on trees"

In the wake of last month's Westminster terror attack and this week's Manchester attack, all of these groups have acted quickly to frame the incidents as the fault of a too-tolerant Britain and the incumbent government. The only problem? None of these people or groups are electorally viable in their current positions. Britain First's Facebook page has been popular for years, spitting out memes typically attacking British politics and Muslims, but these memes are trapped in their own echo chambers of extremism and cannot break free to muster the support of a wider memetic movement. Britain's multicultural electorate is largely not comfortable with accepting anti-Muslim rhetoric, therefore the memes only find limited traction.

David Miller, professor of Sociology at the University of Bath, told Motherboard that the alt-right in the UK is either "bought and paid for by the US lot" such as Breitbart, and thus not organic, or "a bunch of new kids on the counterjihad block".

Unlike Trump in the US, and mainland Europe's young, far-right voters, the UK just hasn't got the right conditions in 2017 for a large-scale political meme deployment ahead of the general election next month.

"Memes, after all, don't grow on trees but need some soil if they are to grow and flourish," concluded Freedman.

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