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Do The Memes Maketh The Man - Or Woman - In Modern Politics?

21/07/2017 11:52

It's just over a month since the UK's General Election, and people are still talking about it. But it's not the policies, or the working of government which is capturing the attention; the theme of most conversations is still 'how could she get it so wrong?' Theresa May threw away a comfortable majority to bask in the glory of public humiliation. Clinging to power by her fingertips she admitted in an interview with the BBC this week that the election result had come as a shock, causing her to 'shed a little tear' before facing the music and the trial of forming an unlikely - and unpopular - coalition with the DUP. So where did it all go so wrong for the Conservatives? Could social media really be to blame?

Quite probably yes, actually.

I've written previously about the ways in which Donald Trump's campaign successes were partly driven by clever social media management, but what about election failures? Is the Tories' inability to grasp the social media nettle to blame for the tricky situation the party finds itself in today?

As one social media user put it (bagging themselves a not so insignificant 8,790 retweets and 19,635 Likes): "Tories spent £1,200,000 on negative anti-Jeremy Corbyn social media adverts ... And the internet came up with anti-Theresa May memes for free."

You see, the thing is, that although the Conservative Party acknowledged social media by spending an absolute fortune on paid for adverts (enough to cover the wages of around 50 teachers for an entire year), the content that they were generating simply did not float the public's boat.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to predict just what is likely to go viral, but humour tends to do it faster than hate, which is why throwaway in-jokes can reach unintended millions, while calculated campaigns generate very low waves.

Take Mrs May's now infamous 'naughty' confession about running through fields of wheat. It generated literally hundreds of social media memes, including one by 21 year old Jennifer Agnew, which was instantly retweeted by thousands of Twitter users and has since been seen by more than 2.9m people. Agnew wasn't making a political statement; she had no intention of influencing the election, and no thought that her two minute creation would be seen by so many; she was merely enjoying a moment that so many of us found ridiculous. And yet she caught the public's attention in ways that the Tories' PR team could only dream of.

While the anti-May memes - inadvertent or otherwise - were doing the rounds the grass roots campaigners for the other side were making social media work for them. The Jeremy Corbyn social coverage was immense, but rather than spending millions on the traditional advertising route, the Labour party relied on its supporters to generate its content. The 'Corbynistas' were - and are - loyal, ardent and creative, but they have one other thing which made them successful: an understanding of what their peers would appreciate. Yes, they made fun of May far more successfully than the Tories did of Corbyn, but they also generated positivity. A 2015 snap of his purchasing The Big Issue reappeared and went viral, featuring in so many social posts it is near impossible to calculate its overall coverage.

It was Barack Obama's first presidential campaign which first embraced social media as the tool it has the potential to be. For some reason it's taking UK politicians some time to switch on to the enormous power behind a clever - and most crucially - socially engaging tweet.

Shaz Memon is creative director at Digimax.

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