Why British conservatives are making awful memes

On purpose this time.

“Inch by inch, the Conservatives are understanding how to communicate on social media.”

So went a gloriously clueless, now-notorious December 2017 tweet by Financial Times columnist Seb Payne, a man whose physical appearance and general affect can be best described with the image “hard-right Milhouse.”

Payne’s tribute to Tory social media prowess has since been widely memed: gloatingly screengrabbed by the British left whenever — and this is, as you might imagine, fairly often — the Tories do something stupid either on, or somehow otherwise in relation to, social media.

For instance, a few months after Payne’s tweet first toadied its way into the world, the Tory MP Ben Bradley — a man who had literally just been appointed as the Conservatives’ head of youth engagement — posted a tweet that in the space of just a week, got more retweets (55,000) than all of the rest of the Tory party’s (including every individual MP’s) tweets for the year combined. The only problem was that it was a tweet apologizing for accusing Jeremy Corbyn of being a Czechoslovakian spy, which the Labour leader’s lawyers had somehow (brilliantly, saltily, hilariously) obliged Bradley to end with the Jeb Bush-style pathos of the words: “Please retweet.”

Meanwhile, a couple of months ago, shortly after Boris Johnson’s ascension as Prime Minister, the Tories attempted to start a social media campaign portraying Corbyn as a “chicken” for not immediately capitulating to all of the Tory right’s demands. And so the party @-ed KFC with words that implied they believe that the fried chicken franchise is itself a sort of big chicken, and posted a photoshopped image of Corbyn in a chicken costume looking gloweringly tough and ready to fight.

But perhaps now something, for the Tories, is finally beginning to shift. Last week, the Tories were seen posting memes from the party’s official twitter account about Brexit. These memes, it is fair to say, were bad. One featured a poorly clipped photo of Johnson in front of a garish yellow background, with purple impact font declaring: “It’s time to get Brexit done.” Another, still more offensive Conservative shitpost, just said “MPs Must Come Together And Get Brexit Done” in poorly-arranged Comic Sans.

So far, normal Tory social media usage. But this time, apparently, it’s different. Because this time, as people quickly realized, the Tories were using social media badly on purpose. And with this simple shift in intention, the whole enterprise could seem transformed.

It’s no secret that the Tories have been preparing for a general election. Indeed, by the time you’re reading this column, the date of the next British general election may very well have already been announced — although we should never bet against my homeland’s moribund parliament turning down the opportunity to disrupt an apparently unsustainable status quo. As part of these preparations, Johnson hired the people widely credited with helping a different terrible, necrotic right-wing party with nothing to offer even most of its own voters soar to election victory against the odds earlier this year: social media agency Topham Guerin, two Kiwi twentysomethings apparently responsible for helping re-elect Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Sean Topham, 28, and Ben Guerin, 24, are protégés of Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist with long-standing connections to both the British Tories and their antipodean counterparts, the Liberals. In this year’s Australian election campaign, Topham Guerin apparently helped Morrison’s party achieve “almost double” the interactions on some major social media platforms compared to their leading challenger, the Australian Labor party and their leader Bill Shorten.

In part, Topham Guerin (who do have some previous involvement with UK politics, having cut their teeth as part of David Cameron’s successful 2015 general election campaign) achieved this through shareable, relatable videos portraying Morrison (who as Immigration Minister, used to oversee the running of concentration camps in Nauru) as a modestly good-natured family man. But they also achieved it by doing things which seemed to be wilfully artless.

Every Monday evening the agency would put out a new anti-Shorten Game of Thrones meme to coincide with the airing of the show’s final season: clownishly formatted, with a joke that barely makes any sense within the parameters either of Australian politics, or the show itself (thus: “Spot the Difference. One is a huge risk to the property market. The other is Daenerys.”). “We'd make them really basic and deliberately lame,” one staffer is on record as saying, “because they'd get shares and lift our reach — that made our reach for the harder political messages higher.”

Even if most social media users think your party’s output is really truly, laughably bad, this doesn’t matter.

The agency appears to have realized at least two crucial things that are, on reflection, so obvious that you begin to wonder why no social media agency thought to build a political campaign around them before. Firstly, that while their voter base — which, like that of any right-wing party, skews old — uses social media, these voters do not use social media in anything like the same way that young people do. Memes, like any art, disclose a shared form of life, and Tory and Liberal voters are people who post Minion memes where the subtext is pretty much always that they hate their friends.

When the right’s voter base sees memes built around garish colors and Comic Sans, they do not see something straightforwardly bad: they see something which seems aimed at them. In Australia, at least, this helped complement their candidate’s public image — Morrison has thrived by portraying himself as a sort of bumbling sitcom dad, everyman type figure who, like most Australians, once shat himself in a surbuban McDonald’s. “Bad design,” as Cally Gatehouse, a graphic designer and lecturer at Northumbria University has noted, “can often be a way of tapping into a… grass roots voice.”

Secondly, that even if most social media users think your party’s output is really truly, laughably bad, this doesn’t matter. In fact, if most people think your content is bad, that’s a good thing: because on social media, negative engagement (shares that mock, criticize, etc.) is not only still engagement — it is possibly, if anything, the best kind of engagement. On social media, the hardest people to shake — the accounts you end up constantly seeing posts from, despite every effort you might make to avoid them — are not people with anything productive to add. They are people who spend all their time spewing out absolutely awful, bewildering takes, which the rest of us can’t help but screengrab to gawp at.

One cannot even speak of the Tories’ bad memes without disseminating them — and thus somehow helping them to work. (Of course, this analysis might well be crediting the likes of Topham Guerin with a power they simply don’t have: after all, their success was also the failure of the Australian Labor party, whose leader for this year’s election was the underwhelming careerist moderate Shorten — the leader of the British Labour party, by contrast, has a very different profile of strengths and weaknesses.)

Tories know that people hate them. Every now and then, young Tories will come out with a story about how they’re being discriminated against at school or college for their political beliefs; about how no-one will date them because they’re not “woke” enough. They know their policies are often actively harmful; they know that people are thus quite justified in thinking that support for them is simply beyond the ethical pale. But then they must also realize that on social media, this can be a huge advantage — so long as you’re prepared to lean into it. Part of the issue here is that, while the right may be despised, the left is also not especially popular. In fact, no politician in Britain has a reliable net positive approval rating.

The great unsystematic master of all this is of course Donald Trump, who — it really is worth reminding ourselves, from time to time — has the Twitter handle “@RealDonaldTrump”. There is a strange, giddy horror to the knowledge that the President of the United States, whose corrupt administration has pursued border policies so harsh, and environmental policies so destructive, that they can only rightly be described as genocidal, regularly uses social media to do things like declare that the Moon is part of Mars — and this fact is obviously also part of why he appeals to his base. Indeed, one natural way to think of the work of Topham Guerin is that they’re just replicating what Trump already happened to be doing, with no particular forethought or calculation, on his own steam.

Johnson has a long history of doing things deliberately badly in order to get ahead politically. Even before the advent of social media, he rose to prominence as a sort of upper-class clown they’d roll out for lols on the satirical BBC panel show Have I Got News For You? (it’s just that this particular upper-class clown also liked to threaten to have unfavorably disposed journalists beaten up).

The Tories’ deliberately bad memes are thus the product of a political right-wing that really — throughout the English-speaking world — has nothing to offer anyone outside of the ruling class whose parasitic interests they defend. Even the “Conservative” label has become anachronistic: in the age of climate change what exactly (beyond perhaps the super-rich’s bank balances) can Conservatives be said to keep safely, securely The Same?

All the right has going for it is the ability to perform a certain as it were alchemical trick: what they are very good at, is turning other peoples’ spite, suspicion, and hatred of anything different into money and power for themselves. The right’s deliberately bad memes are symptomatic of a political tendency which has not only forsaken any pretense that they might be attempting to do things that are good, true, or conducive to human flourishing — it has abandoned normativity altogether. They cannot build a beautiful world any more than they can make a beautiful meme, but they can help you use a Minion to tell Karen in accounting she sucks shit.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.