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Sorted for Memes and Gifs: Visual Media and Everyday Digital Politics

01 Aug 2019-Political Studies Review (SAGE Publications)-Vol. 17, Iss: 3, pp 255-266

AbstractThis article identifies an unease, or even squeamishness, in the way in which political science addresses social media and digital politics, and argues that we urgently need to avoid such squeamish...

Topics: Social media (54%), Visual culture (53%)

Summary (2 min read)

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Political Science and the Problem of Social Media

  • While few political scientists would doubt the importance of social media, their discipline's capacity to capture the feel and character of socially mediated forms of political participation is hindered, I argue, by three sets of assumptions about the nature, scope and purpose of political science research, as well as an implicit self-representation of the figure of the political scientist.
  • Social media is seen as a medium through which political campaigns are directed, or as something that may have consequences for politics, but it is tacitly framed as not, in and of itself, constitutive of the texture and practice of politics.
  • The third problem is to do with a certain squeamishness towards the affective and emotional dynamics of politics.
  • This is mostly manifest as an absence, i.e. a discussion of politics in terms of public opinion, party policy programmes etc. without consideration of the feelings and affects that underpin them (see Hayton, 2018) .
  • None of this is to say that political scientists have not made valuable contributions to the study of digital politics, also known as To reiterate.

Visual Culture and the 'Memeification' of Politics

  • My answer here is indicative rather then exhaustive.
  • Memes, a portmanteau of mimesis and genes, originally coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, refer to 'digital objects that riff on a given visual, textual or auditory form and are then appropriated, re-coded, and slotted back into the internet infrastructures they came from' (Nooney and Portwood-Stacer, 2014: 249) .
  • Finally, perhaps the most widely-shared Corbyn tweet of the election season consisted of a short video of Corbyn walking down a flight of steps towards the House of Commons a few days after the election, during which he claps his hands and says "we're back and we're ready for it all over again".

Re-Orienting the Study of Digital Politics

  • But if the authors accepted that the "memeification" of politics is a development that requires scholarly attention, the question arises of what kinds of conceptual and methodological tools they can turn to in order to capture these processes.
  • That being said, media and communication studies is of course not a homogenous field.
  • While wide ranging, this literature is concerned with mapping the changing character of political and civic information, focussing on interactions between "traditional" and digital media, and the impact of these interactions on political discourses and institutions.
  • Citizens are breathing new life into the party form, remaking parties in their own changed participatory image, and doing so via digital means' (Chadwick and Stromer-Galley, 2016, p. 285) .
  • While the politicised online spaces that Beyer and, especially, Massanri analyse are in many respects deeply concerning, their analyses are nonetheless highly instructive.

The Pleasures and Passions of Socially Mediated Politics: Towards a Research Agenda

  • My argument so far has been that we, as political analysts, would benefit from a thicker, more textured sense of the ways in which politically engaged citizens inhabit a range of online spaces, and engage in, for instance, the everyday production and exchange of forms of visual media such as memes and gifs.
  • This is not because larger scale analyses of the dynamics of online networks are unimportant.
  • A further avenue of enquiry relates to the relationship between online and offline participation.
  • Finally, I want to respond to a possible objection, namely that in stressing the pleasure and humour of digitally-mediated engagement I am might 'naively advancing a dubious kind of populism', as Leisbet van Zoonen (2005: 147) put it in her description of the sceptical responses that greeted her affirmative account of the politics/pop culture relation.
  • Whether the authors "like" them or not, political scientists can thus ill afford to bypass these kinds of everyday citizen engagements if they are serious about properly coming to terms with the texture and character of political participation in a digital age.

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Article:
Dean, J orcid.org/0000-0002-1028-0566 (2019) Sorted for Memes and Gifs: Visual Media
and Everyday Digital Politics. Political Studies Review, 17 (3). pp. 255-266. ISSN
1478-9299
https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807483
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1
Sorted for Memes and Gifs:
Visual Media and Everyday Digital Politics
Jonathan Dean
A few days after the 2017 UK General Election, the Metro newspaper published a feature
entitled ‘The Memes that Decided the Outcome of the General Election’ (White, 2017),
reflecting the widely held view that Labour’s better than anticipated performance was in part
explainable by Labour activists’ astute use of social media (Norris, 2017; Goes, 2018). While
pulling pack from some of the hyperbole about social media in the Metro piece, the aftermath
of the 2017 General Election nonetheless provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the
current state of existing political science scholarship on digital politics.
In this paper, I argue that there is a certain unease, or even squeamishness, in the way in
which political scientists (particularly in the UK) tackle social media and digital politics.
This, in turn, results in a number of key developments in digital politics falling under our
discipline’s radar. To flesh out these claims, part one of the paper highlights some of the
methodological assumptions that underpin this squeamishness. Part two, drawing on a recent
research project on the changing shape of the British left, highlights a number of key trends
in digitally mediated political participation which the political science community has
hitherto downplayed, or overlooked altogether. In particular, I stress the role of the visual: for
many politically engaged citizens, politics is enacted in and through visual media cultures
such as gifs, memes and other forms of shareable visual content. More broadly, the turn to the
visual what we might call the “memeification” of politics – directs attention both to the
affective dynamics of politics, and to the protean, everyday nature of digitally-mediated
political engagement. Rather than seeing this turn to the visual as something unusual or
exceptional it is, I suggest, part of the constitutive fabric of everyday political engagement.

2
Against this backdrop, the third section mines recent literature in media and communication
studies to articulate a less “squeamish” approach to the analysis of digitally mediated politics.
While acknowledging the multiplicity of conceptual and methodological approaches to the
study of politicised digital media, I suggest that the recent turn to virtual immersive
ethnographies pursued by the likes of Jessica Beyer and Adrienne Masanari could provide
useful methodological insights. In the final section, I articulate a possible research agenda.
More broadly, I encourage political scientists to see socially mediated cultural production and
exchange not as some frivolous activity on the margins of politics, but as increasingly central
to how large numbers of predominantly young citizens experience politics.
Political Science and the Problem of Social Media
While few political scientists would doubt the importance of social media, our discipline’s
capacity to capture the feel and character of socially mediated forms of political participation
is hindered, I argue, by three sets of assumptions about the nature, scope and purpose of
political science research, as well as an implicit self-representation of the figure of the
political scientist.
The first problem concerns the priority afforded to broad-brush diagnostic analyses of
aggregate citizen opinions, values, voting preferences and election results. This was evident
in political scientists’ responses to the 2017 UK General Election (see, for example, Goodwin
and Heath, 2017; Jennings and Stoker, 2017; Denver, 2018; Dorey, 2017) and Brexit.
Consider, for example, a recent special issue of British Politics on the politics of Brexit.
Despite the importance of social media in shaping the wider discursive and affective contours
of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, the articles tend to either totally forego any
mention of the role of social media (see, for example, Marsh, 2018) or mention it in passing
without subjecting it to sustained analysis (see, for instance, Copus, 2018). My point here is
not to churlishly dispute the value of such analyses, as all these pieces are insightful and
valuable on their own terms. My point is, rather, that the disproportionate dominance and
visibility of aggregate analyses of public opinion, election results etc. reflecting the
tendency to equate political science with what Stuart Hall called ‘the psephological equation’

3
(Hall, [1966] 2016, p.88) has a number of consequences for how the object of political
science is constructed, and the role of social media therein. Such work produces an implicit
self-representation of the political scientist as above the fray of political engagement, looking
down from a raised vantage point. As a result, the specific texture, feel and character of
digitally-mediated participation recedes from view, becoming subsumed into broad
aggregations of votes, values, opinions etc.
Second, when social media is taken seriously, it tends to be framed in consequentialist terms.
By this, I mean that social media is interrogated not because it is seen as constitutive of
politics, but because it is seen to impact upon politics. As Brassett and Sutton (2017) have
argued, this is a more general tendency for the political analysis of satire, comedy and
popular culture to be ‘reduced to an instrumental logic of ‘impact’’ (2017, p. 246). This tacit
framing of the politics/social media relation is present in, for example, Helen Margetts’s post-
election observation that ‘2017 may be remembered as the first election where it seems to
have been the social media campaigns that really made the difference to the relative fortunes
of the parties, rather than traditional media’ (Margetts, 2017, p. 386). Similarly, Dommett and
Temple’s (2018) study of digital campaigning in the 2017 election examines whether and
how campaign material disseminated via social media impacted on the results. Again, while
such work is of course extremely valuable, it still tends to cast social media as distinct from
“proper” politics. Social media is seen as a medium through which political campaigns are
directed, or as something that may have consequences for (electoral) politics, but it is tacitly
framed as not, in and of itself, constitutive of the texture and practice of politics.
The third problem is to do with a certain squeamishness towards the affective and emotional
dynamics of politics. This is mostly manifest as an absence, i.e. a discussion of politics in
terms of public opinion, party policy programmes etc. without consideration of the feelings
and affects that underpin them (see Hayton, 2018). As Foster et al found in a widely cited
analysis of politics and IR undergraduate degree programmes in the UK, ‘there is
considerable bias towards institutionalised forms of power located within and through
institutions, government and governance’, which comes at the expense of a consideration of
the role of the private sphere and the affective dynamics of political life (Foster et al, 2013,
p.568). Occasionally, however, a more explicit defence of politics as (relatively) unemotional
is made, such as in Gerry Stoker oft-cited remark that politics ‘is not the most edifying
human experience. It is rarely an experience of self-actualization and more often an

4
experience of accepting second-best’ (Stoker 2006, p. 72). While Stoker is making a specific
point, it reflects a wider sensibility in political scholarship in which, as Laura Jenkins argues
in a discussion of the work of Stoker (alongside Colin Hay and Matthew Flinders) there is ‘a
tendency to prioritise thought over emotion and to imply…. that emotions cloud reasoning
capacities’ (Jenkins, 2018, p.195). This unease that surrounds political scientists’ discussions
of social media is, therefore, symptomatic of a more general wariness of digging into the
feelings and affective dynamics that underpin everyday forms of political participation and
engagement.
To reiterate: none of this is to say that political scientists have not made valuable
contributions to the study of digital politics. Consider, for example, Usherwood and Wright
(2017) on the role of twitter during the 2016 EU Referndum campaign, Ohme (2018) on the
changing relationship between citizenship and digitally-mediated participation, or Leston-
Bandeira and Bender (2013) on parliamentary engagement with social media. However, I do
want to suggest that deep, sustained analysis of digitally-mediated engagement tends to be
viewed with a certain squeamishness from political scientists, and as such there are important
features of citizen engagement in a digital age which we tend to overlook. Consequently, if
we are serious about capturing the character of contemporary forms of (digital) political
participation, we require a diversification of our conceptual and methodological tools.
Visual Culture and the ‘Memeification’ of Politics
This preliminary analysis of our discipline’s nervousness towards digital politics invites a
further more empirical question, namely, what are we missing? What kinds of developments
in the practice of digital politics are falling under our radar? My answer here is indicative
rather then exhaustive. However, one particularly significant development concerns the
increasing prevalence of visual digital media in everyday political engagement. This emerged
as a key theme during a recent research project on the changing character of British left
politics, in which we were struck by the centrality afforded to social media in general, and
visual media such as memes and gifs in particular, in left activists’ practices and sensibilities
in the context of the resurgence of the Labour left following Jeremy Corbyn’s securing of the
Labour leadership (see author, 2017). Memes, a portmanteau of mimesis and genes,

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References
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"Sorted for Memes and Gifs: Visual M..." refers background in this paper

  • ...Such approaches can include, for example, the application of the sociological traditional of social network analysis to online networks (Scott, 2017), semantic analysis of large volumes of social media content (Bontcheva and Rout, 2014; Maynard et al., 2017), and/or sentiment analysis of online…...

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Abstract: Acknowledgments Prelude Chapter One: The Present Affect Chapter Two: Affective News and Networked Publics Chapter Three: Affective Demands and the New Political Chapter Four: The Personal as Political: Everyday Disruptions of the Political Mainstream Chapter Five: Affective Publics Notes References Index

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TL;DR: The ways in which Reddit’s karma point system, aggregation of material across subreddits, ease of subreddit and user account creation, governance structure, and policies around offensive content serve to provide fertile ground for anti-feminist and misogynistic activism are considered.
Abstract: This article considers how the social-news and community site Reddit.com has become a hub for anti-feminist activism. Examining two recent cases of what are defined as “toxic technocultures” (#Gamergate and The Fappening), this work describes how Reddit’s design, algorithm, and platform politics implicitly support these kinds of cultures. In particular, this piece focuses on the ways in which Reddit’s karma point system, aggregation of material across subreddits, ease of subreddit and user account creation, governance structure, and policies around offensive content serve to provide fertile ground for anti-feminist and misogynistic activism. The ways in which these events and communities reflect certain problematic aspects of geek masculinity are also considered. This research is informed by the results of a long-term participant-observation and ethnographic study into Reddit’s culture and community and is grounded in actor-network theory.

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  • ...Indeed, this toxicity is even more apparent in the work of Adrienne Massanari (2015, 2017) who, like Beyer, conducted an immersive ethnographic study of Reddit (a large, open-sourced news and discussion site); drawing on actor-network theory, Massanari’s analysis offers an extremely rich, textured account of the ways in which the Reddit’s cultural norms interact with its algorithms to sustained particular kinds of political and affective sensibilities....

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  • ...Indeed, this toxicity is even more apparent in the work of Adrienne Massanari (2015, 2017) who, like Beyer, conducted an immersive ethnographic study of Reddit (a large, open-sourced news and discussion site); drawing on actor-network theory, Massanari’s analysis offers an extremely rich, textured…...

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  • ...While acknowledging the multiplicity of conceptual and methodological approaches to the study of politicised digital media, I suggest that the recent turn to virtual immersive ethnographies pursued by the likes of Jessica Beyer and Adrienne Massanari could provide useful methodological insights....

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  • ...In particular, she discusses how Reddit plays host to a range of what she calls ‘toxic technocultures’, in which certain kinds of ‘geek’ masculinity feed into broader cultural and political mobilisations against feminism and anti-racism (Massanari, 2017)....

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TL;DR: The blog form has matured to resemble traditional journalism in form and practice and top independent political bloggers have played an influential role in holding public officials accountable from Trent Lott to Dan Rather.
Abstract: According to several 2008 reports, blogging continues to attract writers and readers (Comscore Media Matrix, 2008; eMarketer, 2008; Sifry, 2008; Universal McCann, 2008). This form of Web content creation has matured beyond public personal journaling to support citizen journalism or journalism produced by independent bloggers unaffiliated with professional newsrooms (Lenhart & Fox, 2006). The popularity of blogs is in part fueled by its interactive format: The blog tool is popularly believed to be a vehicle of democracy because it fosters decentralized citizen control as opposed to hierarchical, elite control (Crumlish, 2004; Levine, Locke, Searls, & Weinberger, 2001; Rosen, 2006; Scoble & Israel, 2006; Suroweicki, 2005; Weinberger, 2003, 2008). This inversion of elite control is the social outcome of a more interactive format. Blogs are popularly viewed as a form of social media, or media that is architected by design to readily support participation, peer-to-peer conversation, collaboration, and community (O’Reilly, 2004). Social media tools such as blogs enable Web content creators to circumvent the high transaction costs that once characterized usage of earlier media technologies (Gillmor, 2004; Benkler, 2006; Bowman & Willis, 2003; Shirky, 2008). Independent political bloggers that comment on day-to-day news command a readership rivaling that of traditional media entities (Armstrong & Moulitsas Zuniga, 2006). The initial public derision heaped by traditional media entities on these independent bloggers unaffiliated with traditional, professional newsrooms (Rosen, 2005) continues to wane as these bloggers gain respect among Web readers (Johnson & Kaye, 2004). Top independent political bloggers have played an influential role in holding public officials accountable from Trent Lott to Dan Rather (Meraz, 2008). The blog form has matured to resemble traditional journalism in form and practice: Top, independent bloggers now hire editors, blog full-time, and engage in investigative journalism acts (Stoller, 2007; Strupp, 2008). The growth in the independent political blogger’s credibility has taken place against the backdrop of traditional media’s loss

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"Sorted for Memes and Gifs: Visual M..." refers background in this paper

  • ...…hold of political elites (Stomer and-Galley, 2014), and some highlights the capacity of new media to weaken traditional media’s grip on political agenda-setting (Meraz, 2009, 2011); most of this literature stresses the hybrid, intertwined character of traditional and new media (Chadwick, 2017)....

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