Centre for Democratic Engagement: Memes, online reactions and social media. A new emerging logic in formal political campaigns?

Dr Rosalynd Southern from Liverpool University will present the findings from her recent article about the use of memes at the 2017 general election.

After every major political announcement or event, there is likely to be a plethora of jokey online reaction and the sharing of memes on the subject. Even the most mundane political announcements or outcomes can elicit such a reaction. These reactions are popular, to the extent that there are now thousands of dedicated political meme pages and accounts who exist to gain online clout from such reactions. Due to this, memes, which were once a near-incomprehensible form of communication on niche message boards, have become mainstream in political discussion. Furthermore, as social media has become more central to political communication, a portion of political commentary online is now conducted via humorous online reaction and memes.

However, until recently there was little evidence that politicians were even aware of this new and extensive online discourse. Some incidences of late however suggest politicians may be starting to not only notice memes about themselves, but also incorporate them into their campaigns and online presences. Whilst running for Senate in 2018, Ted Cruz acknowledged and played upon the ‘Zodiac Killer’ meme about himself, to mixed reception. Democratic Congress Member Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has also responded to memes about herself posted by her detractors with a series of ‘clap-backs’ on her Twitter feed.  In the UK context, last year then-Prime Minister Theresa May entered the stage to give her flagship Conference speech to the song ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA, while dancing. This was almost certainly in response to online reactions that had circulated when a clip of her awkward movements on a Kenyan state visit went viral. Reports suggested this had helped soften her image and furthermore provided a good distraction from her political woes at the time. This shows that awareness of memes and incorporation of them into campaigning may have political benefits.

This talk explores whether, and to what extent, candidates and their campaign teams a) are aware of online reactions about themselves or their candidate b) have sought to change or amend campaign behaviour, image or strategy in response to them and c) have sought to stimulate online reactions or incorporate them into their campaigns. There will be a discussion of instances where politicians have responded publicly to memes or online reactions about themselves and secondly I will present the findings of in-depth interviews with candidates or their campaign staff to assess these questions in detail.

Findings from the interviews suggest that there may be an emerging ‘social media logic’ in the way certain elements of campaigns and candidate communications are run. This emerges in four ways. One, some campaigns aim to produce online reaction and discussion, even if it might be satirical or unserious. Two, campaign staff now seem inherently aware of the potential of being ‘memed’ and so will ‘Twitter proof’ all of their communications in an attempt to avoid derision. Three, some of the respondents here that I spoke to suggested that offline elements of the campaign are now designed in a way to appeal to social media shares and reaction, suggesting that this type of communication may be influencing campaign communication outside of social media.

Dr Rosalynd Southern’s recent article.

This event will take place within the CDE MS Team. Link details below.

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