3 Jan 2023
How meme culture is engaging Gen Z in politics

As meme culture has blossomed online, so too has the political meme become a significant aspect of online political debate and a vehicle for irreverent reaction to political events. Looking at which memes are widely circulated or adapted helps to offer a ‘temperature check’ to gauge popular opinion.


Dr. Jamie Woodcock is a senior lecturer at the Open University. His research is inspired by workers' inquiry and focuses on labour, work, the gig economy, platforms, resistance, organising, and videogames. He's author of The Fight Against Platform Capitalism, The Gig Economy, and Marx at the Arcade.

Dr. Rosalynd Southern is senior lecturer in political communication at Liverpool University. She’s the co-author of By Any Memes Necessary? Small Political Acts, Incidental Exposure And Memes During The 2017 UK General Election and is currently researching reactions to the Partygate scandal on TikTok.

Alex King is a journalist and former staff writer at Huck, a youth culture magazine and website in London. Now based in Athens, he writes about creative subcultures, human rights and activism around the world.

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The clownish characters and colossal catastrophes that dominate UK politics today have helped usher in a golden age for political memes. While it’s impossible to accurately measure the volume of memes in circulation, the chaotic political theatre that has engulfed the UK in recent years – from Brexit intrigue to the Partygate scandal and the disastrous premiership of Liz Truss (who became a meme as she failed to outlast a lettuce) – has kept the meme space fuelled with events to ridicule. An anonymous 21-year-old student created @PoliticsMoments in March this year to chronicle ‘insane moments in British politics’ and the account has already hit over 100,000 followers, thanks to Boris Johnson hiding in a fridge to avoid questions from journalists and a wealth of other tragicomic moments.

The enduring myth that young people in the UK don’t care about politics has been shattered by Gen Yers and Zers. Unsurprisingly, living through an era of poly-crisis – the global financial crisis, the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, housing crisis, and climate crisis – has politicised these generations in a way unlike their predecessors. Gen Yers and Zers are both far more political and far more left-wing than generations which came before. During the 1983 general election, the Tories had a nine-point lead among young voters, while in 2019 that had flipped to a 43 point lead for Labour among the under-25s. [1] In fact, 67% of UK 16- to 34-year-olds would like to live in a socialist economic system and a majority blame capitalism for the crises that most affect their futures: 75% for the climate crisis and 78% for the housing crisis. [2]

As ‘dig­i­tal pio­neers’ and ‘digital natives’ respectively, it should also come as no surprise that Gen Yers and Zers express their political opinions online – across a wide variety of platforms and in new and evolving ways, unfamiliar to older generations. [3] Memes and shitposting are a fundamental part of the language of the internet – a language that younger users are fluent in, while older users flounder. In the US and UK, 54% of Gen Zers and 41% of Gen Yers enjoy memes and look for new ones every day. There’s a stark generational divide here with just 21% of Gen Xers and 9% of Boomers doing the same. [4]

Young people in the UK have usually been worst affected by each successive crisis, are increasingly struggling to get by, and most can only dream of ever owning a house. Nearly half of Gen Zers and Yers spend their entire monthly income on living costs and two in five have taken on additional work to make ends meet. [5] The sense of powerlessness, frustration, and anxieties about their futures explains a large part of the energy that drives the angry, irreverent, and often surreal tone of meme culture in the UK. “Using humour and non-longform literary engagement has always been part of how people interact with politics,” says Dr. Jamie Woodcock, a senior lecturer at the Open University. “But there’s also something about the coming of age of this generation. They’ve been given an incredibly rough deal by the generations who are in political power now, so it’s no surprise that they’re going to spend a lot of their political engagement ridiculing or making memes about these failed politicians who are ruining their futures and burning the planet.” [6]

Meme is the language of the unheard

In the UK, politics and mainstream media frequently sideline Gen Yers and Zers. The UK’s chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s 2022 autumn statement announced the biggest hit to living standards on record but made no mention of renters and offered little to nothing for younger people – except cuts to public services, which they’ve already endured for the best part of their adult lives. The BBC and mainstream media generally don’t platform younger voices and don’t give issues that Gen Yers and Zers care about sufficient time or respect. Consequently, they’ve turned away from mainstream media and 80% of 18- to 24-year-olds use the internet as their main source of news. [7]

Excluded from other avenues to have their voices heard, Gen Yers and Zers have sought out other spaces where they can talk and be listened to – and now exist in an almost totally different information space to previous generations. The unique language of memes and shitposting that exists online is often impenetrable to older users – almost like a code. There is still a lot of political commentary that exists in this space – reactions to Liz Truss’ disastrous 45-day reign generated hundreds of millions of views on TikTok, for example – but the satirical, humorous, and punching-up tone is rooted in a sense of powerlessness and exclusion.

“One of the big problems we have in the UK is a lack of intergenerational conversations,” Dr. Woodcock says. “Ask most young people when was the last time an older person had a serious conversation about politics with you – I bet it would have been a long time ago, if ever. Most people I know only know other people in the same generation as them, other than family. A big challenge we have in the UK is that people end up siloed in conversations where they’re just talking in echo chambers. Stories about young people and memes are usually dismissive: ‘Stupid young people, all they do is make images about politics and they’re not really thinking’. But we can see that young people are thinking about politics – actually in quite complicated ways. It’s just the mode of expression coming out in formats that are easily shareable.” [6]

How can brands engage Gen Zers to truly create a dialogue with this generation?@PoliticsMoments | Twitter (2022)

Political engagement begins with a meme

In many ways, the political meme is a modern evolution of the traditional political cartoon but differs significantly in the sense that it allows anyone to create, adapt, and share in a horizontal relationship with one another. “Political memes can be considered an extension of earlier satirical commentary, such as political cartoons or panel shows,” says Dr. Rosalynd Southern, senior lecturer in political communication at Liverpool University. “Social media has really democratised satire – or as I call it in my research ‘online topical humorous commentary’. Platforms like Twitter allow people to talk back to politicians, they can joke about them, they can make memes about them – all without needing money, access to power, or even a big public profile, as in previous eras.” [8]

An important function of memes is that they can provide an entry point for young people into the news and politics – which many often find boring, confusing, or anxiety-inducing. [9] Memeification allows young people to engage with politics among their peers in a language familiar to them and without the usual power asymmetries of conventional political analysis. Dr. Southern co-authored the paper By Any Memes Necessary? Small Political Acts, Incidental Exposure And Memes During The 2017 UK General Election (2020) and one of its key findings was that political memes received high levels of interaction on non-political meme pages and often crossed over to reach young people not engaged with politics. “Funny topical stories do provide an entry point into more political discussion,” says Dr. Southern. “From the academic literature, we know that even a small amount of political content for people who aren’t very politically engaged can be very important in raising their awareness of and engagement with issues. For example, young people reacted to Partygate with a lot of humour on social media but over time that did develop into critiques of the government, particularly around their hypocrisy.” [8]

Memes can provide an entry point for young people into politics and news@PoliticsMoments | Twitter (2022)

Memes and misinformation go hand in hand?

Young people in the UK have low levels of trust in government and traditional news outlets, so are much more likely to take their information from social media. [9] This raises fears that young people may be more prone to absorbing or sharing misinformation online, due to the less regulated nature of social media. One in three internet users fail to question misinformation. Worryingly, 6% or around one in 20 internet users believe everything they see online. [10]

However, when we look at the generational breakdown, there’s little evidence that we need to be particularly worried about younger people. Both adults and children aged 12 to 17 were overly confident they could identify misinformation (69% and 74% respectively) but few were in fact able to identify fake social media profiles (24% and 27%). [10] Misinformation abounds on Twitter and Facebook and has been rocked by numerous fake news scandals which have allegedly impacted elections around the world, forcing it to finally ditch its news feed this year. [11]

Meme and shitposting culture may help circulate ridiculous untruths on a superficial level but most young people are more than able to identify the line between jokes and reality – something older internet users have shown themselves less able to do, Dr. Southern says. During the 2019 General Election campaign, a fake story was created that claimed then Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson loved killing squirrels and had been reprimanded by animal charities. “Everyone understood the joke on Twitter but when it got onto Facebook and older people started to believe it, that’s when Swinson had to come out publicly to deny the story,” Dr. Southern says. “This needs more systematic research but it seems there’s a lot of credulity among older people, particularly on Facebook, while there’s a lot more cynicism on Twitter and Tumblr. Memes may contain completely fake information but they’re not meant to be believed by anyone. It’s not created as misinformation or disinformation but can sometimes become that when people don’t understand jokes, context, and the vernacular of the platform.” [8]

In April 2022, the European Union passed the Digital Services Act, which will ‘force Facebook, YouTube, and other internet services to combat misinformation, disclose how their services amplify divisive content, and stop targeting online ads based on a person’s ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation’, according to the New York Times. [12] Yet, Elon Musk’s decision to fire outsourced content moderators who track hate and harmful posts on Twitter and the predictable rise in hate speech that followed raises doubts about how committed social media platforms are to combating misinformation. [13] If the EU can’t force platforms to take moderation seriously, then the internet’s meme warriors will do their best to keep Musk in check.

Memes give younger generations more of a voice in the political arena@zei_squirrel | Twitter (2021)

Insights and opportunities

Empower peer-to-peer expression and creativity in a top-down world

As young people struggle to make their voices heard in the politics, mainstream media, or elsewhere in British society, there is an opportunity for brands to open up conversations to empower young people to express themselves and engage with important topics as peers. “There’s a risk people write off the younger generations and the type of online activities they engage in,” Dr. Woodcock says. “As young people have been forced to find other ways to connect during the lockdown, the rise of online communities should come as no surprise. Young people have created new social spaces on TikTok, other social media platforms, or playing video games together. Inevitably, when people find new social spaces, those spaces become where they begin to do politics and all of the other things you would expect when a community is talking among itself. Taking that culture and the people involved in it seriously is the way to encourage the kinds of organic engagement and creativity that makes those communities so successful in the first place.” [6] Netflix has proven it understands meme culture and viral fandom around popular culture with its @Netflixisajoke Instagram account, which shares meme content, often amplifying memes created by fans and helping them go viral.

Speak the language of the internet authentically

Examples of brand social media failures are too numerous to count, particularly when they move out of their lane and take a stand on social issues they have no grounding in. “It has to come from an authentic place or [brands] will get ratioed into the sun, as people say,” Dr. Southern says, a reference to posts that receive vastly more negative than positive responses. “Brands will get taken down instantly if they’re seen to be queerwashing, greenwashing, or anything like that. Sometimes brands post stuff that is obviously going to get really savagely memed – and not in a good way. They often use certain phrases, taglines, images, or logos that anyone who spends time on the internet would know immediately is going to be torn apart. A lot of brands do need something like a meme consultant. I would say to brands you do need people who live on the internet to work in your branding and marketing departments to check your social media before it goes out. Otherwise your whole campaign risks being ridiculed for days and days.” [8] Most of the memes that helped swing the 2017 election in Corbyn’s favour were created by ordinary people but Dr. Southern says the Labour party had a successful social media strategy which involved posting favourable news coverage as shareable social media clips and leaning into meme trends. Post-Corbyn, the Labour party’s new social media team clearly don’t understand the internet and their stale posts usually only generate trolling. [8]

Bring young people fully into the conversation

Dr. Woodcock argues that brands, political groups, or any other organisation that want to engage Gen Zers need to think beyond memes and consider how to truly create a dialogue with younger people. Merely learning the language of a meme so that organisations can talk (down) to young people replicates the same old top-down approach which has fuelled anger and distrust, while failing to bridge generational divides or solve issues. Younger generations need more of a voice, a seat at the table, and to be an active part of finding solutions. Whether it’s a brand or political campaign, young people can contribute valuable insights and paths to success. In the US, Gen-Z for Change is a coalition of about 500 progressive social media influencers that collectively boasts upward of 500 million followers, and in March 2022, the Biden administration invited them to help organise a briefing about the war in Ukraine with senior administration officials and social media influencers. [14]