Big chickens, dumbfakes, squirrel killers: was 2019 the election where ‘shitposing’ went mainstream?

On the second official day of the 2019 election campaign, the BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg appeared on the BBC’s Brexitcast podcast and was asked what ‘shitposting’ was. She said “Political parties or campaign groups make an advert that looks really rubbish and then people share it online saying, ‘Oh I can’t believe how shit this is’ and then it gets shared and shared and shared and shared and they go, ‘Ha ha ha, job done’” (Brexitcast, 2019). Although Kuenssberg was correct that some of the Conservative adverts had been shitposts, she did not understand the phenomenon more broadly and this attracted much opprobrium from online commenters due to her inaccurate description. As Alex Hern, the Guardian’s tech editor explained, shitposting is ‘the act of throwing out huge amounts of content, most of it ironic, low-quality trolling, for the purpose of provoking an emotional reaction in less Internet-savvy viewers’ (New Statesman, 2019). Sarah Manavis, digital expert for the New Statesman, wrote that shitposting would likely play a part in the election and it was important for the BBC Political Editor to understand it (ibid).

Manavis proved correct, and shitposting did indeed play a part in this campaign, even being incorporated into formal party communications and causing a party leader to have to deny information contained in one. In the run up to the election, the official Conservative Twitter account tweeted a picture of Jeremy Corbyn’s head Photoshopped onto a man in a chicken costume with the caption ‘Hey @KFC_UKI we found an even bigger chicken than you’. The assertion was that Corbyn was running scared from an election that the Conservatives were attempting to call at that time. However, the post was very much out of the shitposter playbook, with a low quality stock image, poor Photoshop, absurd tagging of KFC and a caption that did not make sense.

In a follow up to this, around a week into the campaign, the official Conservative account uploaded a video of Kier Starmer on Good Morning Britain. However, instead of the original footage, they had edited the video to add pauses after questions to make it seem as though Starmer did not have a ready answer, and added wacky music (The Guardian, 2019). Again, this is a common shitposter technique or ‘dumbfake’. It is generally not meant to be taken seriously and when viewed by people who understand the language of shitposting would not be mistaken for the real thing. However, stripped of the context of coming from a known shitposter account, the video merely looked misleading, and this was how it was taken by many people (and possibly how it was intended). Instead of a joke, it was labelled ‘fake news’, perhaps highlighting the perils of attempting to incorporate this type of communication into more mainstream campaigns.

The Liberal Democrats also felt the effects of shitposting going mainstream, but as a victim of it rather than a deployer. A well-known shitposting account @groovyguyzone (now permanently banned from Twitter) posted a clearly-faked newspaper article which purported to have uncovered old Facebook posts from Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson declaring how much she loved killing squirrels, and referring to them as ‘pleb bunnies’. Again, for the intended audience this was an obvious joke and a riff on her blasé attitude to pressing the Trident nuclear button in an interview earlier that week. However, a few days later the post made its way onto Facebook, where there tends to be less social media-savvy and more credulous audiences. It spread to such a degree that Swinson was forced to deny on a radio interview that she enjoys killing squirrels and she furthermore decried the spread of ‘fake news’ (Buzzfeed, 2019).

All of this tells us that despite social media having been a common political tool for over 10 years now, for many users of these platforms, there is still a lack of understanding about some of the more niche communication cultures online. Shitposts are not fake news in the same way that satire sites such as The Onion are not fake news. However, if less critical audiences believe them, as happened with the squirrel-killer post, the line between jokes and disinformation does become blurred in this digital context, and could have an impact during events such as election campaigns. A quick Google of the headline of these shitposts would tell people that the stories are not real. As there is a real push presently to ensure a higher level of digital and social media literacy, it would likely be valuable to incorporate an increased awareness of shitposting and shitposting techniques into this education too.