Internet memes, more than traditional media, became a crucial political space for young voters on the leftby / June 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Did you spot it on last Thursday night’s election coverage? It was the moment that Andrew Marr mentioned this funny little thing that had helped the Labour party gain a surge in constituencies with young voters. Right there, in between the talk of swing votes and marginal seats, was the millennial buzzword: “memes.”
Yes, you heard correctly. A political commentator on the BBC referenced memes as a genuine contributor to Labour gains and, in particular, the young vote. Although the exact numbers are still under dispute, there is clear evidence that higher turnout in areas with a larger proportion of young voters contributed to Labour’s (far) better than expected result.
With the 18-25 turnout in the last General Election at only 43 per cent, it is apparent that something about this general election, in particular, was able to mobilise thousands of reluctant voters, particularly in Labour marginals, and re-established politics as something that the previously disenfranchised can have a say in.
How did it happen? God bless the mighty internet.
Online campaigning’s efficacy has often come into question, especially when it comes to the Left and its “echo chamber” (insert scoffing noise). The idea of a Facebook post having any real influence seemed preposterous. Swing voters wouldn’t have seen it—and if they did, what good would a trite status update and an emoji do?
Despite this skepticism, the memers gonna meme. These viral images and inside jokes travelled around the internet faster than any official sponsored post, and also cost nothing (compared to the £1 million war chest that the Tories amassed for social media, including huge numbers of Facebook ads attacking Corbyn). This was the election where a new brand of campaigning emerged, one that centred around a shareable, authentic identity that you could relate to. Bitesize chunks of politics that you could consume on your lunch break, that spoke to you more than a leaflet through your door. It might seem stupid to talk about authenticity when it comes down what is essentially a joke, but at the core of these memes is a genuinely liking for Corbyn and Labour’s policies—as well as a feeling of being part of something, even if it’s just a joke.
There was the “Absolute Boy” meme, which gained traction after Novara Media commentator Aaron Bastani popularised the term, even though its exact origins are unknown. The “Corbyn eating Pringles” meme, after Corbyn took a Pringle off an activist following a viral tweet mocking Jeremy Paxman’s combative interview style by suggesting he’d not even let anyone say they liked crisps without pulling up past evidence of crisps declined. Variations on the what is now the young Labour mantra, “Here we go! Here we go! Here we fucking go!”, taken from a Tweet posted after Corbyn’s account was hacked.
Days before the election, Lena Dunham, creator of Girls, shared an Instagram post endorsing Corbyn, picturing a little badge that read “get on board with the ABSOLUTE BOY #VOTELABOUR.” Dunham’s Instagram account has 3.3 million followers—many of whom would have been young and British.
me: i really like pringles
[jeremy paxman crashes through the window]
JP: IN 2014 WHEN OFFERED A CRISP BY A FRIEND YOU REFUSED
— jack scully (@JackMScully) May 29, 2017
At its core, skepticism towards online campaigning is deeply rooted in snobbery towards the young. Whether it’s the technological scaremongers huffing at the idea a Snapchat filter could make any difference to a campaign, or the old (sometimes left-wing) person secretly worrying that the world they once knew is slipping away into some terrifying and confusing techno-omnishambles, the snark towards the young has been rife.
corbyn ate a pringle tonight pic.twitter.com/MA5pnBJi0M
— melancholy egg yolk (@ggeordiebore) May 31, 2017
If you’re skeptical about the form, let me say this: the memeification of politics is just a new lexicon for the young. It is a language and a rhetorical tool that gets the message across. You don’t need to look further than the last Labour leadership election, that saw the beginning of the meme culture around Corbyn, to see how effective it was in gaining him the young’s hearts. And if you’re a Labour voter, you’ve now got those young people you ridiculed, and rolled your eyes at, to thank for the party’s surprising result.
Appreciating that Corbyn is the absolute boy is the key to understanding this election.
— Adamy Clatbyn (@A_Trollworthy) June 9, 2017
Of course, there are many problems with a total reliance with online campaigning. It’s not easy to calculate the sway online rhetoric can have, and the data isn’t watertight. Facebook algorithms can mean posts get lost, or shared at the wrong time. You can measure reach, clicks and shares—but the conversion rate of clicks to votes is ambiguous.
And while talk of “echo chambers” is unduly dismissive, there are questions to be asked about reach: after all, it may be that the only people who follow you on Twitter are just be your mum, your mum’s friend, and seven Labour voters.
Just took 93yr Mum to vote, she’s registered blind. In a very loud voice she said, “Which box for the Absolute Boy?” A cheer went up
— ibrahim salha (@ibzo) June 8, 2017
Saying that, it’s clear that online spaces have now become a new battleground for politics. Look, for instance, at Cambridge Analytica—the enigmatic data-mining company behind Trump and Brexit, that allegedly used strategic Facebook advertising and data collection to sway votes and is now subject to an extensive Guardian investigation. After the 2015, general election, the Tory party’s digital team credited their online campaign with helping defeat Labour. If these tools are effective, memes are the grassroots version: created by anyone on Photoshop, the best ones are viewed by thousands of young people.
Whatever your worry, online campaigning is here and a valuable resource to tap into. It’s easy enough to be snide about something you’re unfamiliar with that a ton of young people love, but be wary of this kind of thinking. It could cost you an election.