Scott_Nicholson_photo_400x400Scott Nicholson is a PhD student at UWS, and a member of Scottish Labour’s governing body the SEC. He sees an opportunity for Scottish Labour to embrace social media to help us have better, more persuasive conversations with voters.

 

We often see our elected representatives excited about a column in a newspaper. However, the reality is that few people ever read these. I agree, front pages in the newspapers do set the agenda for the television news in the evening, but lots of potential voters do not even watch the evening news.

During the independence referendum campaign a lot of wildly inaccurate pro-independence “facts” were presented to me by voters. It was often difficult to establish a source of specific “facts”, but in conversation, internet memes shared on social media networks were frequently mentioned. How many activists reading this found memes on their social media timelines linking a No vote with £10 GP appointment charges, or conspiracy theories to inhibit the Scottish economy by not exploiting the vast quantities of oil under the Firth of Clyde?

For those unaware of internet memes, the word meme was first used in this context by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to explain the way cultural information spreads. Dictionary definitions centre around an idea, behavior or style that spreading within a culture but in everyday use the noun “a meme” is used to describe an image containing a sentence of text that is shared on the internet. These often involve a photograph being hijacked from its original purpose and used for satire.

Sharing political images on social media is now a feature of many people’s lives. MSPs and MPs may be on TV and half way through an episode of Question Time, and Twitter and Facebook can already be full of memes based on the debate. Political memes are not new but they have come to prominence in Scotland with the change in the way we as a country approached politics during the referendum.

Technically, one could say non-internet memes regarding despotism and corruption swept through the non-internet social networks of Paris before the French revolution. However, I expect the Scottish Labour Party are more popular than the aristocracy in pre-revolutionary France, so what is our problem?

Problem

The internet is the greatest source of information for lots of people in Scotland. However, the sheer quantity of information is both liberating and asphyxiating. There is certainly niche expertise, trustworthy journalism and accurate facts but also mistakes, half-truths and nonsense.

Yes voters I spoke to regarding shared information on the web were, on the whole, not careful and discerning users of social media. When challenged they had not applied fact checks to the assertions they put to me. They had not considered bias or gained data from other sources. As a result I felt that they were vulnerable to online misinformation, and discussion around shared internet material often led to them telling me about conspiracy theories from the BBC to the death of Osama bin Laden. Knowing how to discriminate the true and trustworthy or from the fictitious and false is therefore of tremendous importance.

The ability to judge the merits of data is not new, and troubled even the classical philosophers. In a meeting held at the STUC during the referendum campaign I heard Neil Findlay MSP bravely question the critical faculties of a room full of radical, socialist independence supporters, with regard to the Scottish Government’s White Paper. If information written by civil servants in the Scottish government is not completely trustworthy, the task of sorting the wheat from the chaff is harder when factoring in the architecture and functionality of the internet.

It is almost as if existing critical thinking skills need to be combined with new source verification methods. We need voters to ask who made a meme and why? We need to know why people share these memes so uncritically? It seems unusual to me that people who are so suspicious and untrusting of politicians, “London” and “Westminster” can be so unsuspicious and trusting of internet memes.

Perhaps we are entering a post-pundit era where expertise and accuracy are valued less than entertainment? However, I think it is more likely that potential voters have busy lives and while they are not willing to make time to regularly read a newspaper or watch the news, they do have the time to scan an internet meme.

Possibility

I believe internet memes have a lot of resonance with voters and are successful in branding things, even if it is mostly in a negative way. The information we consume on the internet is vital in forming and confirming our attitudes, beliefs and views about the world. I believe swapping political memes online can be a useful building block of a much wider campaign by Scottish Labour.

I feel that memes can be used to build a shared sense of emotion. Memes and Twitter hashtags could allow Scottish Labour to knit together disparate events, creating a cohesive narrative that resonates deeply with the Scottish people. To that end I feel they are an indispensable tool when trying to hold conversations with millions of people.

The sharing of internet memes permits political participation by potential voters who would never dream of attending a meeting or a protest, or joining a political party. Using tools like these to communicate with one another – with people who think the same as you – is really important both personally for individuals but also to allow Scottish Labour to be a movement again, rather than just a monument.

I believe that simple memes can provide an entry point into understanding complex ideas and systemic problems. Internet memes are well suited to conveying the range of implications that something like the budget has for different interest groups within our society. The more complex politics becomes, the greater the ability of internet memes to be used to create multiple framings that can be easily understood.

In addition to this, memes can also potentially be used to help to change minds. Social judgement theory hypothesises that when trying to persuade those with opposing views, it is best to build common ground rather than accentuate our differences. Platforms such as Facebook provide individuals with the ability to share ideas among acquaintances or distant relatives that we already possess common ground with, yet who are outside our immediate social circle.

Most excitingly, while television, newspaper and web adverts are expensive and require professionals, memes can be created by normal people and are virtually cost free.

Solution

I do not want to begin a debate regarding the content of the school curriculum. However, I do think we in the Scottish Labour party have not addressed the way internet memes are picked up and used by the general public.

I believe that we in Scottish Labour need to run a smart campaign with a staff member focused on social media. This staffer would seek to gain control of the message, and react to negative messages going viral. This member of staff could do this alone but I do not feel they could have as many ideas and so capture attention as well as memes created by hundreds of members at the grassroots level. I believe it should be the staff member’s role to keep an eye on the social media landscape and communicate situations or policy with grassroots members to inspire their creation of memes. In this way I feel this could tie into Kezia Dugdale’s ideas regarding utilising the skills and talents of ordinary Labour Party members.

Barack Obama has a non-profit, community organising project called Organising for Action. They organise a team who are a grassroots network dedicated to debunking myths and spreading accurate information about healthcare and immigration reform. Could we in Scottish Labour emulate Barack Obama and create our own Organising for Action?

I believe memes can be Scottish Labour’s new participatory form of campaigning. I am not saying that memes can change the world; but I think they could help prevent Scottish Labour going the way of the French aristocracy.