How Question Time became a platform for Facebook memes

The BBC’s flagship debate show now regularly surfaces the most emotive ideas to be found on social media.

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In last week’s episode of Question Time, an audience member lamented what he perceived as a double standard in the media coverage of Caroline Flack’s death by suicide and the hundreds of servicemen who kill themselves every year. It appeared to be an earnest and original question but, as journalist Rachael Krishna pointed out, it bore unmistakable similarities to a series of viral Facebook posts that had circulated earlier in the week.

“Caroline Flack was a very, very sad case, and the fact she has taken her own life is appalling. But we have hundreds and hundreds of veterans who are dying of their own hand every single year – where’s the outcry? Where’s the support?” the Question Time panel was asked. The question echoed a post on Unofficial Info, a Facebook page that describes itself as a “non-profit media company”.

“I can't say whether that man’s response was due to my page,” says Darren Jones, who runs Unofficial Info. Jones describes himself as a working-class man from the Midlands. He has a young child and runs a small business. He does not provide any personal information on Unofficial Info as he says he is concerned about “trolls” who disagree with the Unofficial Info editorial line.

Jones says he is an ex-serviceman himself and that his post, which was shared with the page’s more than 2,000 fans and shared hundreds of times, reflected “how many veterans feel... there are so many others ignored with mental health issues”.

The Unofficial Info post on Flack read: “Some celebrity commits suicide and the whole country knows about it. We lose veterans to suicide every damn day but no one cares about their lives!” Jones, however, says he “did not wish to belittle Caroline or her issues... I guess I was more angry with the way corporate media companies conduct themselves”.

How does the language of controversial Facebook memes make its way onto prime-time TV?

Steven Buckley is an associate lecturer at the University of the West of England, where he studies politics, language and digital culture. He describes it as “yet another example where the talking points that reverb around online echo chambers manifest themselves on TV”. The need for debatable opinions and engagement has resulted, he says, in a predictability in the types of things that are broadcast.

“These days it is relatively easy to know what the talking points of each side of a TV debate are going to be,” Buckley says. “Simply browse a couple of left- and right-wing Facebook groups and see what phrases are being repeated in all the memes being used.”

Delia Dumitrescu, a lecturer in media and cultural politics at the University of East Anglia, explains the mechanism in more detail. “Information environments are based on selective exposure, and messages from one's network are deemed to be more credible,” she says. The method and medium through which they’re broadcast also helps. “These messages use visuals quite effectively to draw attention to the phenomenon of ‘compassion fade’, where we care more about an identifiable victim than about a large number of unidentifiable victims.”

Increasingly, social media is a reflection of our society – and society is a reflection of social media. “There’s a saying that 'Twitter, or social media, is not real life’,” says Buckley. “However, for many people who get most of their news and information from it, it is.”

There are parallels to the way in which politics has evolved to focus on the talking points that are most useful to the speaker. The regime of media management and briefing that has been commonplace since the Blair era has created an information environment in which certain messages are endlessly reinforced, and social media has brought this into the discussions had by everyday people.

It’s often said we get the politicians we deserve. But we also get the politics we vote for: there’s a vicious circle in which we start to mimic the way our politicians act. “Picking up cues from one's social media feed is likely to happen for any media topic,” says Dumitrescu, “and I'm not surprised that there will be posts trying to take advantage of an exemplar of a larger pattern of behaviour, to push a point about the behaviour more generally”. We are now at the point at which angry, inaccurate, odd and unattributed ideas, shared with small audiences on the internet, can regularly be found on BBC1.