The meme-ification of Canadian politics

Matt Gurney: Just when it seemed our political discourse could not get worse, the parties have unleashed a new form of superficial messaging

We all understand why political parties use memes. Even if you don’t recognize the term, you’ve certainly seen them. A meme is a simple image, sometimes a short video clip, that is easily absorbed, punchy and intended to be shared widely. Some memes are simple jokes or shared bits of pop culture wit. Increasingly, we see them used as tools of political persuasion.

And this is terrible.

The meme is the latest manifestation of our diminishing attention to actual news. We used to bemoan the 24-hour newscycle, and how its constant demand for simple, endlessly repeated and then quickly forgotten segments was killing our attention for longer, meatier news stories. Then came Twitter, of course, which began crushing messages down into a few sentences.

Now it’s whatever can be squeezed into a flashy image. I’m too cynical to say that the dumbing down of the discourse is complete—worse is always possible. But this is certainly dumber than it was even just a few years ago, when things were plenty dumb enough already.

The Conservatives this week were criticized for a meme of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The photo showed Trudeau turning off a valve on some heavy pipes, and was overlaid with text that read, “Justin Trudeau has made it clear he wants to ‘phase out’ Canada’s oil & gas sector.”

The meme was tweeted by the Conservative Party of Canada’s main account.

It’s not a bad meme, as they go. Certainly Trudeau is vulnerable to criticism on his government’s record of developing our energy resources. It’s a natural issue for the Tories to hammer him on. But it didn’t take long for people to note that the Prime Minister’s skin tone was way off—much darker than it naturally is. The party was soon being accused of appealing to the baser instincts of bigoted voters.

I’m not convinced that’s what they were doing. The entire image, which was a combination of some generic photo of Trudeau and a stock image of a Texas oil worker, is cast in dark tones and shadows—as befits an ominous, grim ad. That would plausibly explain the darkened skin tone. But at the very least, it wasn’t a great look for a political party that has become so beset by allegations of racism that its leader, Andrew Scheer, just weeks ago took pains to declare that prejudice has no place in his party.

“I find the notion that one’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation would make anyone in any way superior or inferior to anybody else absolutely repugnant,” he said. “And if there’s anyone who disagrees with that, there’s the door.”

It was a good line! Mind the memes, though, Andrew Scheer. It doesn’t have to be racist to be unhelpful.

But picking on this particular meme misses the point. Memes, in general, are a sign of our eroding political debate. Not all of them are controversial. Some of them are even cheerful—smiling photos of Scheer or Trudeau shaking hands with citizens or appearing at events or thanking soldiers. Go to the Twitter feed of any Canadian political party and just start scrolling down. They’re relentless.

The meme-ification of our broader politics is spreading, too. It’s bad enough when it’s just images or short videos. Increasingly, parties are taking them into some form of weird live-action overdrive.

In recent months the Ontario Progressive Conservatives were widely mocked for sending out their caucus to take videos or photos of themselves pumping gas (to protest the carbon tax) or staring in despair into convenience store refrigerators tragically bereft of beer (which the PCs will soon rectify).

The federal Liberals, for their part, have a habit of using their cabinet ministers and MPs as Twitter-based talking-point delivery systems. Nearly identical messages and hashtags come suddenly rushing out all at the same time and are duly shared, equally robotically, by the party’s partisan supporters.

These are just examples, not specific criticisms of these parties. Because this sort of thing is now endemic. Picking on the Tories or the Liberals misses the point. This is just how politics is done now.

Yes, of course, parties still engage in the traditional kind of heavy lifting. They deliver speeches, show up at events, consult with stakeholders, hold town halls, and so on and so on. They knock on doors to directly talk with voters. They write opeds to magazines and newspapers and publish policy papers.

But the meme still feels like some kind of final surrender, or at least the latest incremental one. I’m sure political advertising experts could easily rattle off a dozen reasons why the meme is political dynamite. They’re easily produced, easily shared, dirt cheap, fast, responsive, and in many cases, memorable. Memes work. I claim no moral high ground. I’ve laughed at memes, or agreed with them, and I’ve probably shared more than a few in my time. But they can’t be good for us. How many of us would say that what our politics really needs more of is quick, glib superficial takes?

The real shame of it is that social media can be used for so much better, and we already know how. Just a few weeks ago, while travelling through eastern Canada for a series of meetings with provincial counterparts, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stopped at the side of the road and delivered a history lesson on early immigration to Canada. Production values were minimal, it was mostly just Kenney talking into a smartphone camera. But it was fascinating. Not only was the historical content interesting, but it was hard to miss the underlying theme of national unity. In the midst of a tense standoff between Alberta and Ottawa, Kenney was standing in Quebec talking about Canadian history.

It was a nice moment—and as easily shared as any meme. Let’s have more of that and less of all this other clutter.