OPINIONPoliticsMarch 3, 2020

Here comes the political meme blizzard


From the US primaries to the New Zealand election campaign, the battle of the memes is something to take very seriously, writes Sarah Austen-Smith.

Simon Bridges is single-handedly killing every last Māui dolphin. Jacinda Ardern is personally stealing from you to pay for her promises. In the wild west of political memes, almost nothing is off-limits.

From the official output of party accounts (most recently in National’s “What to do with criminals” social media post) to the non-endorsed support accounts and everything in between, the unstoppable meme machine has become a staple part of the political contest. The fight for relevance might still be fought with photo ops, media statements and gotcha politics, but much of the campaign will play out – even perhaps be won or lost – online.

Meme generation has become the latest cash cow in political consulting. Creative and digital agency Topham Guerin, led by former Young Nats Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, is our homegrown example. The pair got their start on John Key’s flag campaign back in 2016 and went on to work on Bill English’s election bid in 2017.

See also: An illustrated guide to New Zealand politics meme pages 

In neither of this campaigns did they taste victory, but they’ve smashed it internationally, running meme campaigns for Scott Morrison’s Australian Liberal Party and the British Conservative Party of Boris Johnson. Their approach, which involves schooling party hierarchies on the power of boomer memes, disciplined social strategy and campaigning at pace, has become so acclaimed that it would hardly be a surprise to see them landing an audience with the Trump campaign this year.

In the US there’s stiff competition: they’d be up against outfits like Meme 2020 of Jerry Media fame, the Class-A bullshitters behind the Fyre Festival. Most recently you might have seen Meme 2020 in the news as the agency behind Democratic presidential wannabe Michael Bloomberg’s Instagram meme blitz, which helped propel him into the democratic debates.

And while, as the US heads into Super Tuesday, we’ll likely be reminded that there is an ocean between a meme strategy that rivals Donald Trump and a performance at a podium that would do the same, the lesson is the same: Politicians will live and die by their paid digital campaigns this election season.

Ben Guerin generously spilled the beans, espousing the virtues of his agency’s social strategies in this video in July last year. And while our political parties can’t quite afford the hourly rates these meme makers charge, the Topham Guerin formula is still playing out here and is worth interrogating.

We know political meme pages aren’t run by a bunch of larrikins. They’re an organised and essential part of every party’s political strategy. That’s not outrageous in and of itself, but it says a lot about where political communication is headed and why we should give a damn.

At essence, boomer memes, and all the regressive, sometimes sexist shit that comes with them, is nothing new. It’s just weaponising that weird uncle who used to email lame jokes to your entire family.

An important part of it is targeting. Where in the past you would be exposed to messages not intended for you, online you’ll never see them. That makes it harder to get a handle on the size of a campaign, on its conditioning of specific audiences, and at worst it makes it close to impossible to have conversations and debate that challenge, moderate and correct bullshit.

So raise a miserable glass to Marshall McLuhan because he nailed it. The medium is the message. And the medium is a cashed-up meme machine, designed to proliferate a message it deems worthy of our attention.

We caught a glimpse of what’s to come last year, when Julie Anne Genter announced a plan to make clean cars cheaper. The National Party had been meme attacking everything, but by rehashing the paid strategy Topham Guerin used to decisively undermine Australian Labor’s policy for new vehicle emissions standards, it struck a chord with the (targeted) public.

Sure, the National Party was taken to task by the Advertising Standards Authority for misleading people – but who cares? Certainly not National. So what if it’s not true – the targeted campaign has done its work.

The ASA has upheld a number of complaints against the National Party’s paid social media posts, to little fanfare.

So how do you make a case for something as important as climate change in the face of a tsunami of shit like this? If you’re me, you leave politics, weep for a couple of months, and then start writing.

If memes are a kind of cultural inheritance, passed through the hands of hacks and delivered to private Facebook groups everywhere, we have to start asking: what the hell are we inheriting?

Supporter-run pages like the National Party Meme Working Group and Backing the Kiwi Meme are churning out often identical content in a smug race to the bottom.

None of this is to say that memes are intrinsically bad. They can engage more people in debate, give people a voice in the face of censorship and punch up with savvy political satire. But as a weapon in democratic elections, memes can be a vehicle for misinformation, breaking down trust in our institutions, in information and in each other. For all that their ostensible intent might be jokey, in 2020 we need to take them seriously.

Sarah Austen-Smith is a Beehive escapee, having most recently worked as a communications adviser in the office of the prime minister.

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