Political memes: y u no work?

Australia’s political parties have been dipping cautious toes in online culture of late. In addition to the Palmer United Party’s retro ‘leave Clive alone’ attempt the other week, Labor released a pamphlet that made valid points about the federal government’s attacks on students and the young but awkwardly used the ‘one does not simply…’ meme in doing so. In any event, they’re rather late to the party – google ‘Tony Abbott memes’ and you’re hit with a flood.

In a challenging article last October, Richard Cooke observed that the ‘belief that Tony Abbott is unelectable has even survived his election’, commenting: ‘For much of the Left, there’s been a retreat to a kind of Fantasy Island, a world where the Australian people are only one gaffe or austerity cut or Turnbull leadership challenge away from realising their mistake’.

Cooke’s conclusions can now be countered with the federal Coalition’s deep unpopularity, born of a mean-spirited and widely loathed budget, and in any case generalisations about ‘the Left’ are always problematic. Nevertheless, his analysis merits a re-read. Fantasy Island’s inhabitants are still licking their wounds, consoling themselves by giving the Prime Minister silly nicknames. Some even seem to hope that signing a petition might compel the Governor-General to sack the government, a belief that is apt to induce a certain despair.

One thing that is very popular on the Island is seeking solace in political memes, an unremarkable spectacle which provokes ambivalence. It at least demonstrates that lefties have a sense of humour, and the powerful are certainly welcome targets for mockery. Simplistic slogans are of limited use, but an idea to unite behind is a powerful thing: Guy Rundle has proposed ‘Public Good’ as ‘a logo, a symbol, a meme, an evolving set of simple principles’, and the concept of equality seems to be slipping into this role, to the consternation of, among others, the Treasurer. If the danger of inequality becomes a meme of sorts (Miranda Devine has already dismissed it as such), isn’t this all to the good?

On the other hand, online lulz are a poor consolation prize: as Jeff Sparrow commented recently, in contemporary Australia ‘the Right has the power – and the Left has the internet memes’. Sharing memes is also a manifestation of a wider, arguably counterproductive tendency: group bonding through vociferous agreement. A recent article by Chris Rodley in the Guardian argued that far from constituting empty symbolism or frivolity, memes were a useful tool. Rodley posited: ‘Memes and hashtags let us knit together disparate events, creating a cohesive narrative that resonates deeply with us’. This conclusion demonstrates precisely the problem with memes, however: the narrative might well resonate with us, but how will it go beyond the circle of people who would never dream of voting Liberal anyway?

Rodley quoted Ariadne Vromen, a political scientist from the University of Sydney, who noted that social media facilitates political participation by people who might ordinarily shun traditional protests, and commented that ‘finding these other ways to communicate with one another, with people who think in the same way as you, is really important’. That’s true, of course: a sense of unity and purpose is nothing to sneer at, particularly in bleak times. What, though, do memes communicate? Sharing them is performance as well as conversation: akin to declaring ‘I am a nice, right-thinking person, just like you’. (The same charge could of course be made of social media more generally, which at times evokes the Young Ones episode in which the late and lamented Rik said ‘hands up who likes me!’ before looking around expectantly).

At base, memes are a way of talking to people who already agree with you: every time someone attempts to make a serious political point by triumphantly sharing a photoshopped witticism, Orwell’s ghost cries. There is nothing wrong with open political conflict, but the crucial need is surely to open up lines of communication with people who don’t necessarily think the same way as you, so that opposition to the government’s policies can grow instead of merely intensifying. Although Rodley suggests that memes ‘can … potentially, help to change minds’, it’s as well to be sceptical about the ability  of heavy-handed humour to sway others to your point of view. The power of ordinary human stories would seem more likely to change hearts and minds than pictures of Tony Abbott captioned with ‘SAYS X DOES Y’. Similarly, memes that proceed from the assumption that Abbott is self-evidently stupid, malicious or mendacious will tend to have a limited audience. It’s as well to entertain the possibility that there are people who, although they might disagree with aspects of the budget, don’t automatically recoil in horror when they see pictures of the Prime Minister.

I’m currently galloping towards some rather glib conclusions, and there’s an important caveat to add. Memes may be a distraction from the need to build the good society, but they are hardly alone in this regard. Bemoaning this distraction (or, admittedly, other phenomena such as Fuck Abbott t-shirts) is equally a way of evading the complicated task that faces us. It’s customary in this sort of piece to conclude that we need a clearly articulated vision of the kind of country we want to live in, and some arguments about how we get there. It’s true, but easier said than done, and requires both some agreement about goals and the ability to foster human connection in an increasingly atomised society. Further, I’ve spoken above in an airy sort of way about changing hearts and minds, but the dismal state of electoral politics at present is such as to leave no obvious answer to the question of what happens next.

Certainly, one does not simply meme one’s way to the good society (and it’s unfortunately unlikely one can op-ed there either): we need to move beyond circular choruses of agreement. The difficulties involved should not be underestimated, though, and we’ll need some laughs along the way. In the background, the question hovers: when the laughter dies down and we look around in the ensuing silence, what will be left?

Sarah Burnside

Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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  1. “Memes” is a term that still makes me shudder, but it’s hard to say that they don’t work. As far as communicating goes, they are what people absorb and pass on more readily than anything else via social media. In my experience on These Machines Cut Razor Wire, they have reached hundreds of times the number of people than simply sharing links or regular posts. Massive anti-Abbott/Budget rallies have been taking off largely as a result of sharing around visual “propaganda”, in the old fashioned sense. Memes are never going to be a solution in and of themselves and getting organised and developing ideas is essential, but this way of spreading messages a part of the terrain we’re working in. It makes sense to me to take advantage of them as one strategy among many.

  2. Thanks for this excellent – you’ve articulated some thoughts I’ve had for a while now. In the fashion of the moment, I will post your article to my facebook page in the hope that those who practice photoshop politics quit buggin me.

  3. a good stab at the meme thingo here – it can’t have been easy – what isn’t a meme in these social media days, anyway – nd didn’t memes pre-exist the rise of social media, but weren’t called such? – also, linking memes to politics needs to mean more than party politics, voting liberal or labor or whatever – rather, who is included in and who is excluded from all forms of social representation – and who knows if memes are up to the latter – an unclaimed political ground yet to captured by the figure of the meme, as with the more traditional party political platforms

  4. Yep, You’ve obviously been reading my facebook feed. Those bracelets from a few years ago brandishing something about ‘end 3rd world debt’were another example of how the zeitgeist has spawned SLACKTIVISM more than ACTIVISM.

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