The Libs may have won the federal election, but the clear winner of the meme election is Labor.
Throughout the cold, miserable, eight week shitfight that returned Malcolm to the Lodge, the ALP Spicy Meme Stash shone a light through the darkness. Their memery was a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak election campaign. Their closest competitors were the Liberal Party’s Agile and Innovative Memes, who tried really hard, but came across as very stale. In a baffling strategic choice, the Greens didn’t even make any memes.
There’s something strangely comforting about people with similar political views to you laughing about politics in this country in a post-post irony internet. The images and short videos that were produced were really funny.
I never thought Bill Shorten could undergo an Ed Millibandesque transformation into a sex symbol; never have I been so glad to be proven wrong. As much as I enjoyed all of the golden material that this election produced, is the proliferation of (supa hot) fiyah election memes good for our political discourse?
My initial response to that question was: of course it is. Swathes of people across the country are disengaged with politics, particularly young people, and part of that is feeling excluded from the elite institutions of politics. Most people don’t sit down and read Guardian op-eds, or listen to the interviews on 7:30, because they simply don’t care.
In such a context, isn’t it good that politics is spreading back into the mainstream through memes appearing on people’s newsfeeds? Someone who might not have even known who the Labor leader was could have a picture of Shorten painted for them by ALP Spicy Meme Stash taking the piss out of him. Someone who didn’t understand the debate around Liberal cuts to Medicare could have the issue pop up on their feed. At first glance, the memes seem like a great thing.
But when you look at it more closely, meme politics is very much a circlejerk, even more so than regular politics. When pages like ALP Spicy Meme Stash post something, hundreds of people will tag their friends. The people that like the page are generally going to be leftie types, who will lap up the content. While some people will see the memes appear on their newsfeed because one of their friends liked or commented, the majority of people that engage are believers.
The result of this is an echo chamber. The Labor-Greens types that like these pages have certain preconceptions about the world, and constantly seeing these reinforced is unhealthy. We become convinced we are morally superior without ever having to confront alternative arguments, or defend our positions. This echo-chamber is true of most media, but memes are particularly susceptible.
This culture also creates an insular ‘us and them’ mentality. There is no debate, or dialogue, but simply “the Libs are stupid, let’s laugh at them”. As much as I think Liberals are stupid and we should laugh at them, it’s not always the most productive way to do politics. You’re not going to win the vote of a swinging young person whose parents are rusted on Liberal voters by insulting the beliefs they grew up with, with no productive dialogue accompanying it.
These things might not seem particularly bad when you think about them in the context of left-wing meme pages. But what happens when you flip it, and look at right-wing meme pages? Take God Save Our Gracious Meme, a UKIP-supporting nationalist page from the UK. They are often genuinely funny, but also mock and degrade immigrants, people of colour, women, and other minorities. God Save Our Gracious Meme has a base that is made up of young nationalists from England, some of whom have some pretty radical views. In the comments section you will regularly see more of the same bigotry, and people tagging their mates in memes that reinforce their values.
Take one of those UKIP, or United Patriot Front, or Trump supporting pages run by old people, making unintentionally shit memes. Imagine them posting a crude image denigrating immigrants. Imagine the comments section:
‘you can’t even see any white faces in london any more!!! We need to put our foot down and stop all immigration now’
‘OMG so true Barbara, so many brown people, they’re taking over MY country!! hope you are well love from me susan and the kids’
The circlejerk doesn’t look so good from the other side of the fence.
The ALP Spicy Meme Stash is really funny, because I subscribe to most of their values. But what it can’t do is replace conversations and dialogue about politics.