Politics through the eyes of the meme

Josh Stevens discusses the rising role of memes in politics, and how meme culture can greatly affect public opinions.

Photo: "Srdja for Rector" Campaign

Each of us has an outlook on the concept of meme culture in our accelerating online society. For some it’s an art form, for others it’s a silly distraction, but for most of us it’s just our way of expressing ourselves and communicating our feelings to our friends. It is not unexpected then that when campaign teams across the world decided that they could spin this for political gain, there was a great divide amongst the younger generations. How did this controversy arise from the innocent likes of cat photos, and what are student’s opinions on this?

The entire concept of memes is, undeniably, one of the foundations of society for this generation of teenagers and young adults. But people of this age are usually also united by a common frustration at the state of politics and policy with few powers to alter it themselves. For decades, the youth of the modern world has used its pop culture to speak out and make themselves known. The counterculture of the 60s and 70s inspired years of music which attacked the establishment and gave a voice to those being disadvantaged by social problems. Now, when communication is mostly free and instant, it should not be surprising that this social commentary has found a new medium.

This is the common theme when looking at any memes which concern politics or current affairs: a clear majority of them exist as an argument. They highlight what people in power have done wrong, who is suffering, and what doesn’t work, all with a comedic spin. But consider what cartoons in newspapers have been doing for years: they have been scrutinising the work of public officials, exposing public idiocy and telling a story with humour for decades. A lot of people imagine satire to be a subtle, nuanced art form, but even just comparing a cartoon with its Twitter counterpart shows just how blunt they could be.

That’s the key to understanding why our generation appears to be so obsessed with memes. It’s not that satirical humour has only just taken off, it’s been around for years, but thanks to the internet, everyone now has a platform. Cracking a joke at the expense of an elected official for the world to see is no now longer the privilege of a paid cartoonist for The New Yorker. The style and type of humour may have changed, but it’s the same skeleton underneath, which means the same formula which made satire a hit has allowed memes to boom.

Of course, the best place to see this in action is to look across the pond at the United States of America, where the politics over the past couple of years has been so unpredictable that the comedy writes itself. The most infamous case is that of Pepe the Frog, a victim in the late stages of the vicious presidential campaign. As most memes have their origin, Pepe was originally just a web comic character back from 2005, slowly being converted into a meme in various social media circles. Then in September 2016, after various Pepe the Frog renditions had been retweeted and shared by then presidential nominee Donald Trump and his son, Hillary Clinton’s blog featured the character as a symbol of the ‘alt-right.’ This escalated such that Pepe was added to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) list of recognised hate symbols. The entire campaign was surrounded by internet mockery, both sides embracing the new form of pop-culture just to entice the youth vote, but revealed to have little influence on the result.

Even if the memes can be initially seen to be harmless, many politicians suffer significant losses due to dedicated exposure online. Ted Cruz featured prominently for many weeks before he was eliminated from the Republican nominations, jokingly titled by many as the identity of the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer from the 1960s. Considering that his successful opponent has built a significant persona on Twitter (to the point where he can tweet his official presidential actions), there is a real argument to say that this internet culture is damaging to their careers.

Photo: tedcruz-zodiackiller.tumblr.com and Twitter

However, there is a lot of evidence to show how the opposite is also true. When discussing Trump’s rise from unexpected outsider to President, William Cusworth, a third-year student, pointed out, “Memes gave him his platform.” Without the internet culture in the electorate the result may or may not have been different, but as Mr Cusworth said, “Not taking [Trump] seriously got his foot in the door.”

Even the UK is pushing itself forward with a wave of meme culture, with our political sphere embroiled in its own race to embrace. It’s gone so far that Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, has performed the dab in the middle of Prime Minister’s Questions. Whilst very few other British politicians have acknowledged meme culture in their campaigns, recent elections have certainly been influenced by it. A lot of the youth generations today have built up a distrust of the tabloid newspapers due to biases against certain parties, and very few young voters either buy physical papers or read their online equivalent. The campaign teams quickly diverted money into social media advertising instead, hoping to get their message to the youth vote.

But it wasn’t these campaigns that went viral, that title belongs to the memes that flooded Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. Phrases like “Strong and Stable,” “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” and “running through wheat fields” would be utterly meaningless if it weren’t for the way the internet took the concept and ran with it. The left leaning nature of most voters with an online presence meant that most of the content was there to attack the Conservatives and build faith in Labour. For instance, Theresa May is commonly portrayed as the evil tyrant, whilst Corbyn is embraced as the shining comrade in arms.

Photo: Josh Stevens

The effect of meme culture in the UK has done what many people never expected: it united the Labour Party around Jeremy Corbyn. Despite losing the most recent election, the party clawed back 30 seats and took 40% of the popular vote. They can’t even get rid of their leader, as normally happens when they lose an election, because of the personality cult that has been built around him. If Corbyn were to go then many voters would go with him; there just aren’t many figures left in the party who can build up a stage presence like he can. Even Ed Miliband had internet fame thrust upon him instead of seeking to build it himself.

Meme culture has even been added to the St Andrews bubble campaigning ground. The recent rectorial election was a showcase of the effect of memes on voters. Srdja Popovic’s campaign team pushed on making their candidate known to students by flooding Facebook with memes, and it worked. Srdja’s campaign had a much bigger presence amongst the students than Willie Rennie’s did. The power of the memes was that they became a talking point in groups as they brought humour and embraced the new language of the internet. The other campaign lost out on this as just focusing on the manifesto prevented it from being talked about within social circles. As people are generally more likely to vote for people they know more, the exposure may have been one of the big factors for Srdja’s 62% victory.

Photo: “Srdja for Rector” Campaign

In the current state, it seems like the young adult view on politics will be embedded in a fog of memes and satire. This element of our pop culture is here to stay, and we will continue to use it to express our discontent with the system, the same way pop culture has been used for decades since. Granted, the news organisations will continue to come alive for some time whenever a politician retweets a meme, but eventually this meme culture will be fully integrated into politics as if it always has. Smart politicians have and will always pander to the youth culture, and memes are ours.


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