Internet memes (Twitter hashtags, image macros, viral videos, joke websites) appear to have failed to significantly influence the 2013 Election because they did not target a policy issue for a marginal demographic.
I have updated my “Electio-meme-ing” collection of 2013 Election memes at the bottom of this article. As you look through them knowing the result of the election, you may wonder at how such an obvious anti-LNP trend lacked obvious influence. To answer this question, put aside the argument that social media users are an unrepresentative sample of the population. That is true but not really the point of this piece given that traditional media report significant social media trends.
The better argument, in one sense, is that memes failed because they are mere trivialities, a form of people’s comment about crisis but ultimately just “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. That might be a tempting conclusion, but as I have also pointed out before, memes were regarded as having made a difference in the 2012 US Presidential Election. My interest is in unpacking why might they have made a difference there/then but not now?
Why “Binders full of women” mattered to the 2012 US Presidential Election
Looking again at the 2012 US Presidential Election, it would appear that the meme that had the most traction in that election was Mitt Romney’s “Binders Full of Women” comment during the second debate. This comment - and the meme that publicised it - was produced in a different context that any of the Australian election memes.
The US election was, at that time, on a knife-edge between the two major candidates. While many US citizens were angry with Barack Obama’s policies such as ‘Obamacare’, they did not regard him with the same ‘punish the incumbent’ mentality faced by Kevin Rudd and Labor. Nevertheless, the right was determined to remove Obama, even if it meant settling for the ‘boring’ choice of Mitt Romney. Romney, at least, was proposed to have reasonable economic credentials and some traction with the centre-left.
As the election drew close, it was clear that women’s issues were very important to the public’s perception of the candidates. A number of gaffes by Republican presidential candidates, along with Romney’s own very conservative beliefs (linked to his Mormon faith), had lead to polls showing women across the US to be hesitant to vote Republican.
It was in this context that Romney produced his well-meaning but poorly phrased response to a question about workplace equality. Romney told the story of rejecting a first-round set of candidates for a job because the pool did not contain women. He claims to have said: “And I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t we – can’t we find some – some women that are also qualified? I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The ironic reading of this phrase as connoting the social bondage of women led to a huge response from women, especially the single women who at the time formed one of the largest groups of undecided voters. It turns at that women were indeed the key to Obama’s electoral victory.
Australia’s 2013 election memes lacked the US contextual combination
In the 2013 Australian Federal election many of the anti-right-wing memes were based on one-off accidents (e.g. ‘Islam as a country’, ‘suppository of all wisdom’) that had a limited connection to policy and an even more limited connection to a swinging demographic that would care.
Some of my journalism students have opined that Australians forgive mistakes. So no matter how funny left-wing snarky critiques of gaffes might also be ‘many a true word spoken in jest’, they have little general traction. This is an interesting argument, because it points out that the mere variety and volume of memes is not an accurate indicator of electoral sentiment.
There were anti-LNP memes stemming from long-running issues, especially Abbott’s consistently problematic attitude towards women. Three issues that lead to ongoing memes were ‘Fiona Scott has sex appeal’; ‘Body contact’ is okay said to young netball players; and ‘I’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters’ said to the Big Brother household.
However, while these issues and the memes that spread about them clearly reflected some aspects of the electorate’s perceptions about Abbott, they did not clearly link to a policy issue problem. The Paid Parental Leave scheme might have been linked to Abbott’s attitude to women as child-bearers, but this connection was not strong in the memes. Even the election day and post election day #1950herewecome memes proposing Abbott as a reactionary do not make such a link very strong. This is perhaps because while it may have economic problems, it is at heart a surprisingly compassionate social policy, and thus hard to critique in the snarky mode that memes tend to employ. Indeed, the snarkiest comment about Abbott investing in “pretty little lawyers on the North Shore” was a flash in the pan.
The closest the LNP came to a gaffe linked to a policy issue that might have made a difference was the Internet Filter stumble. This certainly generated a lot of social media heat and may have had some traction with one marginal demographic - the young male voters in Western Sydney - but it was unlikely to have such power with the demographic that appears to have decided the election: Queensland regional voters.
If one may join in the snark for a moment, it might be surprising that this issue did not have traction with Queensland regional voters given the apparent success of an activity that might have (should have?) been filtered: Clive Palmer’s twerking.
However, the LNP quickly hosed down the filter gaffe, even turning it around upon the Rudd campaign for having been the only party to have actually attempted to legislate a filter. The damage control was so effective that despite ongoing memes linking the slowness of filtering to the widely-criticised LNP FTTN NBN alternative, the issue appears to have had little influence.
I’ll get you next time (maybe)
Despite their limited influence in this election, as you look through my collection of the 2013 Election memes below, pity the strategists who will always need to be on the lookout for the one meme to bind them all…