By Lori Hughes
As the one of the first generations to be digital natives, we expect young people to be internet trailblazers, shaping the way we use our online tools. Internet “trends” often provide an interesting insight into how young people feel (or to be honest, sometimes they’re just a laugh so let’s not always look into things too deeply).
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One of the funniest, and strangest things we’ve seen has been the bizarre comeback of “the Facebook Group”. Facebook groups feel more a part of the internet hey-day of millennials; you’d probably spend a significant amount of your time online chatting, interacting with and exchanging information in your various groups. It’s even probably how some of us met the first people we would go to university, or school with. Facebook groups continue to be a handy place to build a sense of community- but honestly I assumed most young people, especially Gen Z would be devoting their time to Instagram at least, if not mostly the video sharing phenomenon Tik Tok. Organising big group outings (if you can actually remember what that feels like) seems to be done now in huge whatsapp groups instead.
But, in recent months younger people have been using Facebook groups in a way that feels reflective of our times. Some are joining Facebook groups, where they all pretend to be from a particular political viewpoint, becoming an over exaggerated hyperbolised version of that political leaning.
One of the biggest Facebook groups of this type is “A Group Where We All Pretend To Be Tories” which pretty much is what it says on the tin. People post memes, or just prose, normally connected to something happening at the moment (like the Greensill scandal, or Prince Andrew) and respond as how they think a Conservative would, often over the top and exaggerated hugely for extra laughs. The group has a following of just over 30,000.
We’ve been laughing at stuff, and making memes for a long time on the internet (and arguably even before the internet existed, memes in some form have been around). But the dedication particularly young people are showing to “playing the character” of someone who does not represent their politics, feels reflective of political youth culture right now.
I spoke to one of the group’s creators, 27 year old Brian who lives in Scotland, to find out why from his perspective groups like his have become so popular. “I set up the Facebook page last May, at the height of the pandemic. Before that, I was a regular user of the Facebook page Nicola Sturgeon’s Dank Memes stash. They had a very informal campaign on the page, which was actually to infiltrate other genuine Tory and brexiteer pages, pretending you shared their politics and writing stuff like “I really hate Boris Johnson” on one of these pages, which people would obviously react negatively to. You’d then edit the post to say “I really love Boris Johnson”, and then people would complain or get confused. Fights would then ensue; you felt like you were sowing the seeds of chaos, essentially”.
From this chaos, Brian felt there was a genuine want for people to take on the persona of someone else’s politics, especially at what’s been quite a fraught and politically polarised time. “It was great pretending to be your rivals and others enjoyed it as well. It tends to be people who are frustrated with who’s in power, who then get a therapeutic kick out of it. People perform this exaggerated form of what they deem to be a Tory, it’s the whole surrealistic exaggerated humour.” I ask if it’s almost like a coping mechanism, a way to stick a finger up to the current establishment. “We can’t beat these people electorally at the moment, so the best way for us to get over that is just to show that we can be them, and show them how stupid they’re being. It’s a good way for us to share amongst each other. It’s a good escape.”
24 year old Liv is a member of the Facebook group. She says “I think young people (including myself) a lot of the time are more drawn to things that are funny/humorous or have an instant impact. It’s more engaging and enjoyable- and a lot of the time reaches and engages more people regarding political topics than something that’s more dry or serious.” Unsurprisingly, young people like to laugh and particularly at the moment with the pandemic we could all use a bit of extra joy. She adds: “I think as well with this specific group- it’s a bit of a release for people who are quite fed up with the current government (which is more right wing) and their policies and supporters. Obviously the stuff in the group is very tongue in cheek and we’re all just trying to make each other laugh, but it’s also a bit of a release of pent up frustration with current right wing policies/supporters.”
The collectivist nature of it is not lost on me either. Though at times some of the jokes might be a bit cruel or on the edge, it feels very much like a community action, where you live out your political antithesis and have the approval and chiming in of others, who add further to the portrayal, and the ridiculousness of it. Though many young people of course do this on Twitter, or Tik Tok, doing it within a Facebook group does have a slightly more communitarian feel about it- it’s a humour contained within the group that they all take part in, rather than viewing contributors as all people on separate accounts on their own platforms.
Digital studies professor Richard Clay has noted before the power of meme culture generally, as a way of traditionally speaking truth to power. “With internet memes, they can spread and go viral at an incredible speed. They have the power to represent what we think and, in turn, to shape what we think too. Often they’re funny but sometimes they can be offering serious truths about ourselves or the world we live in – even if it’s wrapped up in a humorous way.” It feels very much the same with the rise of role-playing Facebook groups too.
Is it a coincidence that we’re seeing this during a pandemic, where we are spending crazy amounts of time locked up in our houses? Brian isn’t that convinced, saying “I don’t think the pandemic helped a lot, except that people are on social media a bit more now. I think it’s been set in motion since Boris Johnson won the UK election in 2019. There’s been an empowerment of a certain kind of politics”. Clearly, his group is providing some kind of a response or retort to how things currently are, even if it’s mostly humorous or deeply ironic.
Interestingly, scientists think role play is actually integral to our learning growing up. It helps us to think creatively and imaginatively, to exist in the realm of possibility. Seeing that things could be different, or that we have alternative pathways as a society is integral to hope- a kind of radical imagination. It also helps us to form language, a mode of expressing ourselves. ]
Whilst these Facebook groups are a bit of a laugh, perhaps for young people vocalising a political language they completely oppose, it can also help them to shape a politics they do want. So humour aside, perhaps this is another small indication that young people are far more politically potent than we give them credit for.
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