Political memes and polemical discourse: the rise of #usepens


Mary Mitchell

PhD candidate in Media Arts at Royal Holloway University and Campaign Manager at Breakthrough Media, a communications agency specialising in conflict resolution, society building and countering violent extremism.

Email: mary@marymitchell.co.uk

Twitter: @mary_mitch


EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 7

Section 7: Social Media

Memes are a useful site for understanding audiences and the relationships between politics and popular culture. Analysis of the #usepens meme unveils a microcosm of partisan politics and the impact of the divisive and antagonistic campaigning in the run-up to the referendum. It also underscores the emerging polemicisation of internet discourse.

#usepens reveals a polemical mode of discourse, enabled and necessitated by social media’s short attention span

The #usepens hashtag first surfaced in a political context in reference to the Scottish referendum in 2014 reflecting a suspicion of vote tampering. The conspiracy theory involved the Conservative government using MI5 to rub out penciled in ballot papers to change the vote, thereby rigging the referendum, with the support and cover-up of mainstream media outlets like the BBC. The meme emerged again on Twitter amid claims ofelection rigging in Nigel Farage’s constituency of South Thanet, the Eurovision Song Contest (with Russia as the conspirator), and the London Mayoral Election, and became synonymous with distrust of the ruling elite.

It was unsurprising then to see the meme re-emerging before the EU referendum alongside the now common election day meme #dogsatpollingstations. There were three common ways in which the meme was used. Firstly, and the least frequent, was by promoters of the conspiracy encouraging those voting leave to use pens. @danchamberlainx reminded voters: ‘Don’t forget your black pens tmoro people #usepens #voteleave’ followed by the strong arm and union jack emoticons.

Secondly, the meme was used to tag those who were supporting the conspiracy theory online to alert others to their tweets and to bring them in to the wider conversation. This was initiated on May 4th during the London Mayoral election by Twitter user @trewloy in response to a now removed tweet from UKIP activist @AnishUKIP: ‘if you see an advocate of using pens who believes the vote will otherwise be rigged please use the #usepens hashtag’.

The third, most common way in which the meme was used and spread, was as a way of satirising sympathisers of the conspiracy theory. Some uses of #usepens focused on the nationalism of those voting leave, such as @hrtbs tweeting: ‘Most of our pens are made in the EU. No thanks I’m taking my own pen to the ballot box. #usepens’ accompanied with photo of a Union Jack pen, while others implied racism, such as @cosmic_serf to @trewloy, ‘black pen’? for absolute certainty, use a Caucasian pen #usepens.’ A majority hinted at a lack of intelligence of those who believed in the conspiracy and were voting to leave: ‘@yakhunt, ‘Never mind #usepens, to be completely certain that your vote to leave counts, use blood, arterial blood, your own, thank me later.’ , @shewolfmanc ‘I don’t think #usepens goes far enough. I’ve tattooed my vote to my arm & will be presenting myself at the count tonight #inyourfaceMI5’, @claire-phipps, ‘Baffled by #usepens. What if evil returning officers burn your papers instead? Or eat them? #UseFlameRetardantInediblePaper

The widespread nature of the belief in a conspiracy was revealed in the run up to the referendum by a YouGov poll commissioned by LBC radio. The poll, based on field work between 15th and 16th June 2016, found that 46% of leave voters thought it was likely that the EU referendum would be rigged, while 28% thought that MI5 is working with the UK government to try and stop Britain leaving the EU. A third of those surveyed (36%) believed that the BBC and ITN are also connected to the conspiracy. Yet the main narrative at play in the use of the meme reveals a polemical mode of discourse which overstates its opposition (nobody actually thinks voters will use inedible paper or tattoo their vote to their arm) and satirises Brexit voters, undermining their real concerns of the establishment and refusing to truly listen to them.

Amid Project Hate and Project Fear, it has been all too easy for voters from either camp to caricature the concerns and opinions of the other rather than to engage in meaningful active listening and discussion (Bickford, 1996). An analysis of #usepens reveals a polemical mode of discourse, enabled and necessitated by social media’s short attention span, which sits uneasily alongside the moderate, reasoned discussion of principles and values that we have come to accept as a foundation of democracy.