This week is the Conservative Party Conference, where amongst the Brexit promises and leadership speculation some unusual headlines are appearing. Theresa May shimmying on stage to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, or claims that Boris Johnson was supposedly trolling the PM by running through a field of wheat. Both incidents are references to viral videos featuring May, firstly of her awkward dance moves on tour in Kenya (seen by over 5 million), and the second her pre-election interview where she confessed that running through wheat was the ‘naughtiest thing’ she’d ever done.
Why are we devoting time and energy to engaging with this shallowness? And what should we do with this wave of frivolity—laugh it off as ‘good fun’, or reprove the self-referential, 'meme-ification' of our political leaders?
In the first instance, there is a reminder (particularly to Christians who have experienced their formative years in digital culture) that Christian living is a call to maturity (1 Cor 13:11, Eph 5:4). It is right to be critical of the trivialisation of politics and the tactics of distraction at a time when political discourse is divisive and shallow. We must understand that the propensity towards ‘foolish jokes’ as the way to capture political attention creates a gravitation towards the trivial or irrelevant and deepens the cult of personality. Is your meme enjoyment warm and good-humoured? Are you careful not to share memes as a quick substitute for more considered political conversation?
However, this is only one thread of the issue. Social media is not simply the place for flippant viral jokes but, as the likely Russian involvement in the 2016 US election has shown us, there is an increasing manipulation of internet culture for propaganda and misinformation. Just this week, a new study has been published indicating (rather bizarrely) that similar tactics are no longer solely targeting political debate, but rather attempting to sow division through pop culture, with a small number of bots and Russian trolls involved in politicisation of the fan debate around the recent film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (purportedly with the aim of 'further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society'). This new angle on political manipulation through 'light', pop culture items is another reminder to be wary of the use of recreational subcultures to affect political thinking. Whether it's the impact on political discourse of an often shallow, joke-fuelled social media, or the intentional manipulation of digital response to pop culture, there's little doubt that the way we communicate online is changing the political debate in strange ways.
Is it, perhaps, time to ask whether we can continue to rely on political debate in the online world? Although Jesus lived in a pre-digital age, he was no stranger to the attention (and fickleness) of crowds. In the midst of the increasingly large audiences (did Jesus 'go viral'?) who came to hear his message, we continue to see the example of leader who was unhurried, committed to real world action and invested deeply in close relationships. When we argue today that we can only change the world through the buzz of online attention, or that we can only be relevant by adopting new forms, we do well to remember both that the online world is not the only (or most important) world and that the gospel changed everything with the Spirit of God, and the power of a gathered people. We may have had a love affair with the social web, but perhaps it is time to take a step back, recognise that it has not always been built in our best interests, and to re-emphasise the value of face-to-face relationships in offline communities as the place for discourse (political and otherwise). Perhaps then, attempts to create politically-charged shouting matches over pieces of pop culture would fall apart, whilst political leadership might regain some gravitas.