Your anti-UK Independence Party memes aren’t as clever as you think

It sure is a perfect meme template.
It sure is a perfect meme template.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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With less than a month to go before the elections to the European Parliament, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is ramping up an election campaign that many have called crude, racist, and alarmist.

In addition to local UK factors, UKIP is also riding on a wave of anti-EU sentiment that is rippling across the continent. (According to one think tank anti-EU parties across the European Union are projected to corner around 30% of the votes, and win as many as 218 of the 751 seats. In the UK, UKIP is expected to not only do well but also overtake the incumbent Conservatives in England, and finish even with the Labour Party.)

Part of the UKIP’s most recent barrage of messaging, at an estimated expenditure of 1.5 million British pounds, is a series of billboards. Two of them have run into controversy. The first shows a deadbeat construction worker in a hardhat begging on the street. The captions read, “EU policy at work: British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour.”

Later it turned out that the actor in the anti-immigrant poster was an immigrant himself: Irishman Dave O’Rourke. Cue social media lampooning.

Another poster, perhaps, has garnered more serious and widespread criticism. Next to an ominous finger pointed at the reader is the text: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?”

One Labour politician, Barbara Roche, said that the UKIP was practicing “Euracism.” She said: “They are deploying the same language and tactics used by openly racist parties like the BNP, but instead of targeting migrants from Africa and Asia they are targeting migrants from within the EU.”

One of the more popular responses to this billboard was a parody poster on Twitter. It took the same layout as the UKIP effort but with new text: “Immigrants set up 1 in 7 UK companies. And whose jobs are they creating?” The image has since been retweeted thousands of times. And has inspired several other parody responses.

At first glance the parody poster seems like a sharp, satisfying riposte to the UKIP’s exclusionist, anti-immigrant posture. And, indeed, there is a study to back up the claim. It is based on a March 2014 report by the Centre for Entrepreneurs (pdf).

There are, however, a number of problems in taking this Twitter parody poster at face value. In fact it could extend interpretations that some of those eager anti-UKIP tweeters may find troublesome.

First, it doesn’t really explain how many immigrants need to be let into the UK to generate those 1 in 7 UK companies. Secondly, it is not clear how many jobs those businesses create, and of those created jobs how many go to locals. Third, the study also doesn’t explain how old these companies are. Are recent immigrants still creating companies at a similar rate? Has this rate speeded up or slowed down?

Also this line of thinking poses problems for those who favor open immigration policies. Does this mean that the UK should have a labor policy that explicitly favours entrepreneurs but not workers? Should the UK have a more liberal immigration policy for countries that send immigrants more prone to creating companies and jobs? To the detriment of other, less entrepreneurial countries?

There are similar issues with many other meme-like responses to the UKIP campaign.

But most of all these responses do nothing to assuage the problems of those voters who are currently most drawn to the UKIP message. According to authors Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, they are “financially struggling, disadvantaged, low skilled and low educated, and intensely concerned about the economic and social effects of immigration. These “left-behind” Britons were the first to be hit by Britain’s embrace of the global market, and then hit the hardest by the crisis and austerity.”

Responding to the UKIP’s reductionist message with seemingly clever reductionist ripostes ignores the concerns of many such voters. It also does little to advance a more broad-based understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of immigration in the short, medium, and long terms.—precisely the state of disinformation and misinformation in which racist, alarmist rhetoric wins elections.