Social media and politics: a bittersweet relationship?
A YouTube video published by The Sun named “Boris’ best moments” has been viewed over 4.1 million times; videos like these frequently appear on my timeline. Other titles which show our Prime Minister acting in bizarre ways include “Top 10 WTF Boris Johnson Moments” and “Boris Johnson’s BEST Bloopers 2021”. The content of these range from him making reference to Kermit the Frog at the U.N., to mentioning Peppa Pig world and losing his notes at an address to the Confederation of British Industry, to getting stuck on an Olympic Games zip line in 2012 while holding Union Jacks. The memeification of the Prime Minister has certainly created a cult of personality around
him, with common nicknames including Bumbling Boris and Bojo the Clown. These videos present Johnson as a silly, fun, patriotic British man, therefore appealing to large parts of the electorate. He and his party know this, and they pander to it. A 2019 video published by the Conservative party YouTube channel is titled “Boris Johnson’s hilarious election advert: 12 Questions to Boris Johnson”.
Whilst these humorous videos on YouTube and memes on Twitter may provide laughter in the tense political landscape we live in, they have a threatening capacity to desensitise politics and make us forget about the severe issues happening today and the responsibility of our politicians. Such videos and pet-names make the Prime Minister appear as a clown, not a politician running our country. It seems dangerous that playful nicknames and slapstick videos shared on social media are attached to a man who has described Muslim women as “letterboxes” and gay men as “tank topped bum boys”, along with a plethora of similar sexist, homophobic, classist and racist rhetoric. This is the same man who is currently the first ever British Prime Minister to be put under investigation by the police. Furthermore, his mismanagement of the pandemic has resulted in over 150,000 deaths.
A similar portrayal is given to ex leader of UKIP and the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage. Photos and memes online show the politician posing with cigars and pints of British Ale presenting himself as an ordinary bloke: a man of the people. Comedian Russel Brand however claimed on BBC’s Question Time in 2014, despite these photos, “this man is not a cartoon character”. He’s right. Over his career Farage has made outlandish and bigoted claims: he has denounced climate change to be a scam, has suggested those with HIV should be banned from entering the country, and has argued that Muslim migrants have the potential to “take us over”. Nigel Farage is not a fun figure. It’s a lot more sinister than that and parts of social media culture may hide this.
However, the relationship between politics and social media isn’t all bad. Various social media accounts have used memes and videos to scrutinise those in power. At the beginning of the year, the online satirical political campaign Led By Donkeys spoofed BBC drama Line Of Duty, showing the PM being questioned about Downing Street parties and lockdown breaches. Social media publisher Joe.co.uk also are known to scrutinise politicians through creating song mashups, created from compilations of clips from speeches. These songs are effective in highlighting the error of such politicians agenda and actions, such as the video “(I’m Gonna Tell) 500 Lies”, a parody of the Proclaimers beloved Scottish anthem, highlighting the lies and flaws of Nigel Farage surrounding his anti-immigration stance and his claims from the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. These cleverly edited videos are incredibly useful; whilst they are comedic and satirical, the clips also act as a vital political tool which can scrutinise the actions of our politicians.
I remember how significant social media was to me in becoming interested in politics. It was an accessible point of entry. Over the run up of both the 2017 and 2019 general elections, celebrities, politicians, sportspeople, and influencers using the tag #RegisterToVote spread the message of the importance of getting involved in politics. There has been a rise in e-petitions in the latest decade on our timelines – the petitions website run by Parliament, set up in 2015, allows users to set up and share petitions to address a broad number of concerns. Notable petitions include one which called on parliament to remain in the EU, which received over 6 million signatures, as well as one which hoped to prevent Donald Trump from making a state visit, which received almost 2 million. Such petitions can allow people like myself to engage in politics and call the government to discuss matters simply from our phones.
The increased presence of politics on social media should be celebrated. Social media can be used as a powerful political tool, which has the potential to hold our politicians to account, as well as having the amazing capacity to get anyone involved. It is important, however, that we do not desensitise the seriousness of politics. It may be time for schools to teach students media literacy so they learn to not take everything posted on social media as genuine, and to see beyond the funny photos and the eye-catching tweets or headlines. We must be careful to not allow memes and videos online to create a false façade of politicians and serious issues today.