Winning the Online War

Viral online campaigning - from videos to memes - is likely to play a larger role in this election than any other. That could be to Labour's benefit.

How do you win an election against opponents who plaster lies on the side of buses and drive them around bringing the ‘truth’ to the masses? Apparently, you just need to plaster the actual truth on the other side of the bus and tweet about it.

Labour’s latest advert – released last week and humorously reported on their official website – shows Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg standing in front of a blue bus with “we’ll send Trump £500 million a week, let’s fund US drugs firms, not our NHS” emblazoned on the side. It comes after Channel 4’s Dispatches revealed secret negotiations between the Conservative party and Trump’s government, who wanted to secure “full market access” to the NHS for US drug companies.

The image moved virally through the Twittersphere, mocking the infamous bus stunt in which a double-decker plastered with propaganda promising to fund the NHS with money saved from the European Union was used to sell the Leave campaign in the run up to the Brexit referendum. Labour’s ironic joke points out how the exact reverse has in fact happened, with Boris’s Brexit deal set to sell off Britain’s health service to US corporations.

If this UK election marks something historically then, it could be the moment at which digital strategies of humourist edgelord canvassing and viral information dissemination have moved from the domain of online propagandists and into the mainstream of political tactics. If so, the Left are ahead of the Right – who might have benefitted from the 4Chan subculture in the US but whose political figures in the UK still don’t really know what a meme is. 

It’s been well-documented that both meme humour and viral graphics played a role in the movement that propelled Donald Trump from 2015 onwards. As well as in Pepe, the iconic far-Right meme of that year, Trump’s supporters coalesced around infamous Reddit threads such as the ‘God Emperor Trump’ page and on various chan boards. Importantly, Trump had little or no awareness of how this information moved around these communities, even if the communities looked (often tongue-in-cheek) for clues in Trump’s own speeches and statements that he was in on it with them. There was a significant gap between the movement and the politicians themselves. 

In the UK election of 2017, Corbyn activist group Momentum reduced this distance between grassroots digital activism – though of a different kind to that found on the chan boards – and politicians. Momentum operated separately from official Labour UK, much like a wave of external meme communities which emerge to back Labour such Facebook groups June 9th (now December 12th) Shitposting Social Club, LabourBall and the Labour Left Rapid Meme Response Unit, as well as increasingly UK-focused sects of the more edgy meme communities on 8chan’s /leftypol/ and the image board Bunkerchan. The idea that “the left can’t meme” – popularised by Trumpists in 2016 – seemed to hold little weight in Britain.

With the hostile of the mainstream press, the Corbyn project has become increasingly reliant on viral online strategies to communicate its information – first through Momentum and now officially through Labour Party channels. These are ultimately underpinned by a closer connection between the party and its base than any other political movement can boast.

One of the concerns with this approach is its reliance on a youth demographic. Given the failure of 2017’s much-heralded youthquake to materialise, this criticism may yet have validity. 2019’s general election is likely to be more divided by age than any in living memory. Memes specifically attacking the “baby boomer” generation for instance – a very common theme in recent months – could serve to divide the electorate in age terms and distract from the shared economic interests that should unite the working-class base Labour aims to bring together.

But viral online communication tactics aren’t necessarily skewed towards younger voters. In this election, the Labour Party is showing an understanding of how its supporters create, share and compute information in 2019. It isn’t just young people who share information in this way, and by making the meme a party political tool Labour are not so much siding with the younger elements of its supporter base but ensuring that they control a portion of the highly influential viral content stream of information, perhaps explaining why their successes have not been as much based on age as mainstream media often assume.


In recent elections, the internet has served the rise of the political right more than the left. As well as the interference of data-driven companies like Cambridge Analytica, this has been due to a subcultural online movement that was able to share its information – and its disinformation – in effective digital ways that the actual campaign strategists could not.

But, in the UK, the mainstream right has been slow to incorporate this phenomenon. Turning Point UK, the right-wing youth group imported from America and backed by Tory MPs was essentially memed into failure, while Activate – the Tory attempt at Momentum – was shut down after being utterly out of touch with young people.

The BBC revealed this kind of obliviousness in their own thinking last week when Laura Kuenssberg totally messed up a description of ‘shitposting’ on their new podcast. There is some evidence that the Boris Johnson team might be looking at more innovative (and dangerous) online strategies. But, while so many involved officially are operating at such a distance from how people share and relate to information, Labour stands out as a party that is trying to learn from its base.