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Remoaners, 2019 Conservative Voters and Kippers – Caricaturing political identities tied to Brexit on Reddit

Nicolas Sigoillot
p. 191-215

Résumé

This study investigates the dynamics of political discourse and the perception of political caricatures within online communities hosted on Reddit.com, focusing on the subreddit r/PoliticalCompassMemes and its engagement with Brexit-related content. Drawing from social psychology and previous research on online interactions, the roles of various structural processes in shaping the cultural habits within these communities and how they shape political caricatures of Brexit identities are going to be examined. The political relevance of these caricatures is further explored via a comparison between field observations and surveys conducted within the communities.

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Introduction

1The political union with the rest of Europe has been a contentious question in the United Kingdom since the end of the Second World War. It has structured British politics to the point of leading to counter-intuitive passive alliances such as, when in 1974, Enoch Powell a figure of the radical right advised his followers that a vote for Labour could be a possibility rather than a vote for the Conservatives at the next general election because of Labour’s more Eurosceptic stance at the time. The political cleavages around the question of membership of the Common Market and then of the European union have been salient in British politics and if the history of the cleavage has been well examined by scientists over the past decades – even more so with the Brexit decision – it still could be interesting to see how the political identities organised around it are represented online. This article offers to study the representation of Brexit-tied political identities on the most popular forum on the internet : Reddit.

2Reddit is an online social media platform that enables users to engage in communities known as subreddits, which are dedicated to various topics. It functions as a forum-style website where users can submit posts, share links, participate in discussions, and vote on content. Users can subscribe to subreddits that align with their interests, personalise their experience through user flairs, and participate in conversations via comments. The platform encompasses a diverse range of subjects, including news, entertainment, niche hobbies, and specialised interests.

  • 1 Numbers corresponding to the membership of those subreddits as of 12th June 2023.
  • 2 Data obtained from https://Subredditstats.com/r/Politics on 12th June 2023.
  • 3 Numbers from 2022 according to Reddit itself : https://www.Redditinc.com/ (last accessed 12th June (...)
  • 4 Some of those Subreddits are going to be describes in more details below, but as an example, r/UKPo (...)

3Some of the subreddits are specifically dedicated to discussions on various forms of politics. Notable political subreddits include r/politics (8.3 million members), r/conservative (1 million members), r/workreform (700,000 members), and r/SandersForPresident (516,000 members). These subreddits are among the most popular forums on Reddit.1 Some of these political subreddits host highly active communities, such as r/politics, which receives an average of 12,255 comments per day. It ranks as the 11th most active subreddit based on this metric, with a peak of over 400,000 comments in a single day on 4th November, 2020.2 These numbers become even more remarkable when considering that Reddit has over 3 million subreddits, with approximately 100,000 of them being classified as “active”, thus making the political communities of Reddit worth examining for academic observers.3 Subreddits dedicated to British politics also show relevant numbers, with subreddits affiliated to the main political parties or of political comedies counting their users in the tens of thousands.4

4A significant portion of humour and commentary on Reddit revolves around memes, which are humorous or meaningful images, videos, or texts that spread rapidly on the internet, often reflecting cultural ideas or behaviours. Since memes are a form of cultural expression that frequently captures the values, beliefs, and identities of specific groups, studying political memes allows researchers to gain insights into how individuals construct and convey their political identities through humour and satire. Given Reddit’s popularity as a social platform with diverse communities, it serves as a valuable resource for political memes representing various perspectives.

5Brexit has not been overlooked within the political communities on Reddit. Therefore, it is worth investigating the portrayal of Brexit-related political identities within these communities. This article aims to accomplish that by analysing a corpus of political subreddits that address British politics.

6For this analysis, I have chosen a corpus of five subreddits that are still very active at the time of publication of this article in 2023: r/PoliticalCompassMemes, r/UKPoliticalComedy, r/okmatewanker, r/Tories, and r/LabourUK, due to the reasons outlined below. All the numbers given below corresponds to the membership of those subreddits as of 12th June 2023.

7This corpus comprises the largest political comedy subreddit, r/PoliticalCompassMemes, which, in practice, does not focus on one single national context, but includes numerous posts related to the British political situation. With over 575,000 members, r/PoliticalCompassMemes is one of Reddit’s most popular forums and provides a highly active platform for our study. Brexit often becomes a subject of political banter and memes on this subreddit, allowing us to observe how non-UK citizens who are users of Reddit perceive the new political identities associated with Brexit. Additionally, studying r/PoliticalCompassMemes is ideal for examining online representations of political identities since the subreddit’s entire concept revolves around labelling content based on a political chart similar to Herbert Kitschelt’s or David Nolan’s systems of political categorisation5. This categorisation system, centred around two dimensions (economic left/right and social authoritarian/libertarian), seems to have been adopted by the community due to its easy-to-understand, almost pedagogical nature, offering a balance between simplicity and complexity in political categorisation.6

8To provide a localised comparison to r/PoliticalCompassMemes, the two largest political humour forums in the UK, r/UKPoliticalComedy and r/okmatewanker, have been included in the corpus. These two forums have their own specificities. r/UKPoliticalComedy, with its 59,800 members, is a forum where users are technically restricted to posting humorous pictures. However, it appears that links to articles discussing political matters are tolerated by the subreddit moderators despite being officially prohibited according to the subreddit’s rules. On a different note, r/okmatewanker, boasting 311,000 members, is considered a "shitpost" subreddit where the norm is to be as outrageous as possible. Nonetheless, it is worth examining, as it showcases the most extreme caricatures, enabling researchers to observe stereotypes in the process of formation.

9Lastly, two local and more serious political subreddits have been included in the corpus: r/LabourUK (63,700 members) and r/Tories (12,100 members). I selected these two subreddits to confirm or disprove my observations and determine whether they were replicated in non-humorous environments. However, r/Tories’s moderation prevented me from conducting a survey on their subreddit by removing my posts advertising my study, so they only served as a reference for observation.

10This study is divided into three main parts. The first part focuses on examining caricatures and memes related to Brexit, analysing the narrative they construct surrounding Brexit. In the second part, it delves into the endogenous nature of these practices within online forums. Its objective is to uncover the inherent tendencies of online communities to engage in categorisation, labelling, and the formation of political identities. By exploring the role of user flairs, the upvoting/downvoting systems, and the impact of these practices on the overall dynamics of online political discourse, this article aims at providing insights into the self-perpetuating nature of these behaviours in the digital realm. In the third part, the study assesses the extent to which these representations actually contribute to the polarisation of perspectives and the reinforcement, or lack thereof, of existing biases and identities. This analysis is conducted through the examination of a survey that I conducted on the subreddits within the corpus. By integrating survey responses, I aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of the impact and relevance of these online memetic representations of Brexit-tied identities. These three parts collectively address the question of the longevity and contemporary relevance of these online memetic representations of Brexit-associated political identities.

Memeing, labelling and representing the Brexit debate

11r/PoliticalCompassMemes stands as one of the most popular political forums on Reddit (see above). This subreddit combines the political compass framework with humorous memes. The political compass is a two-dimensional graph that categorises political ideologies according to their positions on social and economic issues. It consists of four quadrants: authoritarian-left, authoritarian-right, libertarian-left, and libertarian-right. This political compass is based on the one used on the site of the same name.7

12Within r/PoliticalCompassMemes, users can actively engage in sharing and generating memes that satirise and poke fun at various political ideologies and figures, all within the framework of the political compass. These memes often involve placing politicians, public figures, or ideologies within the four quadrants of the political compass, thereby highlighting contradictions or absurdities in their beliefs or actions. The subreddit has gained substantial popularity owing to its unique blend of humour and political commentary.

13However, it is important to note that r/PoliticalCompassMemes tends to lack nuance. The nature of memes prioritises simplicity and brevity over in-depth analysis. As a result, the satirical nature of these memes often leads to oversimplified representations and a lack of contextual understanding. Nevertheless, this satirical nature provides an excellent foundation for studying representations of political fringes and identities, especially considering that the culture of the subreddit revolves around labelling and categorising almost everything. In fact, the political compass is frequently subdivided into more quadrants, as exemplified in a post titled “The Political Compass but it’s the UK” by user u/Woodstovia on 1st May 2020: 8

Image 1: Picture of the post "The Political Compass but it’s the UK", 01 May 2020 (source: Reddit).

14Each quadrant within the political compass is associated with a thematic colour: red represents authoritarian-left (referred to as authleft on the forum), blue represents authoritarian-right (authright), yellow represents libertarian-right (libright), and green represents libertarian-left (libleft). It is worth noting that these categories often feature characters who serve as allegories. For instance, “authright” is not merely a collection of values but could also serve to refer to a distinct character named “authright” (this will be detailed further in the third part of the article).

15The image provided above showcases 36 political identities, with each identity represented by a shade of their respective quadrant colour (with greater saturation indicating a more radical stance). As such, in the example provided in image 1, “The Tankie” is thus more “authoritarian” than “The Bennite” and more to the left than “The Brownite”. Additionally, each identity is depicted using a thematic wojak, a popular internet meme featuring a simplified and emotionally expressive character commonly used to convey various emotions or situations. Each identity is accompanied by a name/label and a short accompanying text. The text can either be a sentence spoken by the wojak, as it is the case in Image 1, or a commentary/description of the label. The creation of such memes, compasses and labels are the product of any users and as such have no legitimacy besides the credit the community attributes it through its system of “upvoting” and “downvoting”. However, within r/PoliticalCompassMemes, certain recurring and stereotypical features have emerged. One such example is the character “Emily,” who represents the typical US campus liberal. Emily is often portrayed as a white individual who becomes excessively invested in identity politics and culture wars, to the extent that it becomes subject to ridicule. A British equivalent figure would be the “Norfener” or “Norf FC” character who is an overweight person, ugly and bald and who is presented as the satirical stereotype of the English working-class northerner who is a football-fan.9

16Due to the collaborative nature of Reddit, it is not uncommon to find the same political elements situated on different sides of the political compass within r/PoliticalCompassMemes. In the case of the UK, this can be observed with the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dems), who are consistently positioned near the centre of the compass but can appear in any quadrant except the authleft (authoritarian-left) quadrant. Similarly, Keir Starmer and his followers exhibit a similar crossing of quadrants, often leaning towards the centre-left but occasionally appearing on either the authoritarian or libertarian side. Consequently, it can be argued that the collective representation of the Labour Party under Starmer and the Liberal Democrats on r/PoliticalCompassMemes is more ambiguous to label compared to, for example, the representation of the Labour Party under Corbyn.

17Furthermore, while representations associated with the Labour Party are consistently situated in the authleft section, those associated with the Conservative Party are dispersed throughout the right side of the compass.

  • 10 “It’s time to self-ID” posted on r/tories by u/brexitday, “The Political Compass but it’s the UK” p (...)

18To focus on the Brexit debate, we have made the choice to focus on five political compasses,10 out of these we could build the following list characters with Brexit-related titles, images, or flavour texts:

Table 1: A list of the Brexit-related wojaks found in political compass based-memes. (source: author via date manually collected from Reddit in memes on r/PoliticalCompassMemes from 2020 to 2023)

19There is a noticeable absence of Eurosceptic characters on the left side of the political compass within r/PoliticalCompassMemes, aside from a couple of instances. One example is the Lexiteer, who supports left-wing politics but also advocates for leaving the European Union. Another representation, albeit more offensive, is the “Norfener” character, described as someone who voted for Labour, then UKIP, then Conservative, and then back to Labour. This representation can be found in a post titled “The Political Compass, but it’s the current chaos of UK politics”11 by user u/ed_balls_ballpit, who self-identifies as “left”, posted on 18th October 2022.

20It is worth mentioning that regardless of the topic, whether it be Brexit or others, the northerner character is consistently depicted as an overweight individual, often portrayed as dirty and unshaven. The name is intentionally spelled as “norf...” instead of “north...” to emphasise a stereotypical accent and represent an uneducated person, as depicted in “The Political Compass, but it’s the UK” post by user u/woodstovia, who self-identifies as a “centrist”, and which was posted on 1st May 2020. Coincidentally, the wojak character representing the northerner can also be found in the “Bolton” character in the post titled “A Political Compass of UK Places (10x10)” 12by user u/chellog123, who self-identifies as “centre”, posted on 30th November 2022, entrenching further the identity of this wojak.

Image 2: Examples of the "norferner" wojak, pictures taken from various memes collected from Reddit on r/PoliticalCompassMemes from 2020 to 2023.

21Eurosceptic characters within r/PoliticalCompassMemes are predominantly found on the right side of the political compass, encompassing both the authoritarian and liberal sections, with a notable concentration in the Libright quadrant. These characters include “the Brexiteer”, “the Kipper” (representing a member of UKIP), “the English Nationalist”, and “the Johnsonite” (who “unironically still supports Boris Johnson”). Additionally, characters representing "the 2019 Tory voter" can also be associated with Euroscepticism, as the label implies a one-time event (and probably referring to the traditional Labour voters who voted Conservative at the 2019 election).

Image 3: Examples of various pro-Brexit wojaks, pictures taken from various memes memes collected from Reddit from 2020 to 2023.

22Within the Brexit debate, the “Remainer” side primarily occupies the liberal section of the political compass, spanning across both the left and right sides, with a focus around the centre, although not exclusively so. They often picture the European Union flag or markers that associate them immediately to Europhiles such as other countries’ flags or the hashtag #FBPE (meaning “Follow Back, Pro-European Union which was a popular hashtag employed on Twitter besides usernames inviting other Europhiles to follow the account).13

Image 4: Two examples of liberal-side anti-Brexit wojaks, pictures taken from various memes collected from Reddit from 2020 to 2023.

23Following the tradition of political quadrants, when portraying remainers in the centre of the left/right axis, their quadrant colour is often toned down to represent the grey zone and supposed neutrality of the centre.

Image 5: Examples of various centrist anti-Brexit wojaks, pictures taken from various memes collected from Reddit from 2020 to 2023.

24It is worth noting that both sides of the Brexit debate are predominantly depicted as sad or depressed individuals. The use of the “crying/frustrated wojak” meme, which is usually assimilated to the catchphrase “it’s not faiiiiiir”, further emphasises the portrayal of remainers as “losers” or pitiful figures.14

  • 15 Adrienne Massanari, “#Gamergate and the Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture (...)

25The sense of mockery found in characters like the “Europhile” portrayed with the sad wojak, the overweight/dirty wojak “norferner”, or the “brainless wojak” who “unironically still supports Boris” is directly connected to the ongoing culture war dynamics present within Reddit in general15 and particularly in political subreddits. This collective mindset of constant confrontation is not just a thematic element but is also reinforced by various mechanics that theoretically encourage users to align with specific groups, engage in self-identification, and foster an “us versus them” mentality of othering.

The mechanics of polarisation on Reddit

26Exploring the insights offered by social psychology regarding online political interactions and applying them to our main focus of study, r/PoliticalCompassMemes, would provide an interesting perspective on the dynamics of online culture wars.

  • 16 Brady ROBARDS, “Belonging and neo-tribalism on social media site Reddit”, Chapter in Neo-tribes: Co (...)

27Indeed, research has indicated that platforms such as Reddit can be viewed as a conglomeration of neo-tribes.16 These online communities function in a similar manner to physical gyms or clubs, bringing together like-minded individuals who share common interests, ideologies, or identities. Through the medium of digital media, these connections become visible, creating a unique and ritualised environment within virtual spaces. Despite the absence of physical presence, these digital communities operate as cohesive units, fostering a strong sense of belonging and connection.

  • 17 Ashwin RAJADESINGAN, Paul RESNICK & Ceren BUDAK, “Quick, Community-Specific Learning: How Distincti (...)

28A study conducted by Rajadesingan et al. sheds light on three key processes that contribute to the cultural habits within these online communities, particularly in political subreddits. Firstly, there is a process of self-selection, where individuals actively choose to join and participate in specific subreddits that align with their own personal political beliefs and preferences. This self-selection plays a pivotal role in shaping the ideological composition and discourse within these communities. Secondly, newcomers undergo a process of pre-entry learning, wherein they absorb the prevailing norms, values, and expectations of the subreddit before actively engaging in discussions. This learning process enables individuals to navigate the cultural dynamics and understand the unwritten rules of the community. Lastly, selective retention comes into play, as members internalise and reinforce the cultural habits of the subreddit through continued exposure and participation. This process of selective retention solidifies the cultural norms and practices within the community. The research conducted by Rajadesingan et al. offers valuable insights into the mechanisms that contribute to the formation and maintenance of cultural habits within political subreddits. It highlights the intricate interplay between self-selection, learning, and retention processes, shedding light on the complex dynamics at play in these online spaces.17

  • 18 Steve REICHER, Russel SPEARS, Tom POSTMES, “A Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Phenomena”, (...)

29Furthermore, researchers specialising in the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effect (SIDE) have significantly contributed to our understanding of the influence of visual anonymity on group behaviour. Studies conducted by Reicher et al. have demonstrated that when individuals have visual anonymity within a community, as is the case on Reddit, they tend to conform more strongly to group normative behaviours. Visual anonymity removes the constraints of personal accountability and intensifies the significance of group social identities.18 This phenomenon emphasises the profound impact of social context on individual behaviour, where the perceived connection to a specific group becomes more prominent than personal attributes or values.

  • 19 Jin Woo KIM, Andrew GUESS, Brendan NYHAN & Jason REIFLER, “The distorting prism of social media: Ho (...)

30In the context of political subreddits, research conducted by Kim et al. has revealed that individuals who participate in political discussions online tend to display stronger partisan affiliations than the average citizen.19 Furthermore, their study reveals that these heightened partisan attachments are reflected in more polarised comments within online political discourse. This indicates that online political discussions serve as a platform for individuals to express and reinforce their partisan identities, thus contributing to the escalation of polarisation in online spheres.

  • 20 Nahema MARCHAL, “’Be nice or leave me alone’: An intergroup perspective on affective polarisation i (...)

31Therefore, the chosen field, r/PoliticalCompassMemes, appears to be conducive to increased polarisation and a lack of consensus, possibly leading to heightened toxicity. It is not solely individual behaviours, but also the structural aspects of Reddit itself that contribute to this polarisation. Research by Marchal has shed light on the existence of affective polarisation within the realm of online political discourse. Her study demonstrates the significant role emotional expression plays in shaping and defining these discussions.20 Notably, the upvoting system on Reddit, a core feature of the platform, further amplifies emotional reactions within these political exchanges.

32While Reddit is a free platform, allowing its members to post and express their opinion, there is a passive selection through an algorithmic selection of content of what is immediately visible or not (for example, the default setting on the frontpage of a subreddit are popular posts, which does not make all contributions equally represented. Moreover, the content is curated by the users themselves through the aforementioned system of upvoting/downvoting: when a user finds a post or comment they like, find informative, entertaining, or valuable, they can click the “upvote” button. This action increases the post’s score by one point and contributes to its visibility. Posts with higher scores appear higher on the page or subreddit, making them more likely to be seen by other users. Conversely, if a user finds a post or comment irrelevant, offensive, spammy, or otherwise unhelpful, they can click the “downvote” button. This action decreases the post’s score by one point and reduces its visibility. Posts with lower scores are pushed down in the ranking and may be hidden from view, especially if they receive a significant number of downvotes.

33The system allows users to express their approval or agreement with a particular post or comment by upvoting it, thereby increasing its visibility. This mechanism creates a feedback loop where emotionally charged content (in our case, political) is more likely to receive higher engagement, thereby fostering a climate conducive to affective polarisation. This engagement is itself fostered by a point system attributed to each user: Karma. Karma is a numerical representation of a user’s overall contribution to the global Reddit community, across all subreddits. It is calculated based on the upvotes and downvotes received on the user’s posts and comments. When a user’s post or comment receives an upvote, the user’s karma increases, and when it receives a downvote, their karma decreases. Higher karma is supposed to indicate a user who contributes positively to their communities, and some subreddits may have specific rules or requirements based on a user’s karma.

34A second system leading to this state of permanent political identification is the flair system. Reddit employs a user flair system to allow users to add a small piece of customizable text or icons beside their usernames within specific subreddits. These flairs serve various purposes and can provide information, represent affiliations, or add a touch of personal expression. When someone joins a subreddit, they have the option to select a user flair which will appear next to their usernames whenever they participate in that particular subreddit. The availability and usage of user flairs depend on the rules and settings established by each subreddit’s moderators. User flairs can serve different functions. Originally, flairs are meant to provide relevant information about the users. In a subreddit dedicated to a particular profession or hobby, users may find flairs that showcase their expertise or area of interest. In some subreddits, flairs can also indicate specific roles within the community. These roles might include subreddit moderators, verified experts, or contributors recognized for their helpfulness or contributions to the community.

35What is interesting for this present study is that flairs can also be used for personal expression, allowing a user to add a touch of personality or humour to their username. Some users may choose flairs that reflect their sense of humour, showcase a favourite quote, or, and this is the most interesting for the study: to showcase their political affiliation or identity. It is important to note that subreddit moderators have the authority to enforce rules regarding the usage of flairs, including restrictions on offensive or inappropriate content. Users are typically encouraged to adhere to the guidelines provided by the subreddit community when selecting and using their flairs. But in some communities, such as r/PoliticalCompassMemes, r/Tories or r/LabourUK, showcasing affiliation or a political identity is actually encouraged.

36Indeed, when a non-self-identified user posts anything on r/PoliticalCompassMemes, even just a comment, they will get an automatic response to their post as well as a notification for it. Image 6 shows the automated response posted by the bot, which reads “Flair up for more respect :D”. Once the user has selected a user-flair, the bot message is edited to mention “User has flaired up!”:

Image 6: Screenshot of the updated answer of the automated response of the flair bot on r/PoliticalCompassMemes (source: Reddit).

37This bot pressure reinforces the fact that any user has to feel the obligation to self-identify. This, in turn contributes to othering, as it is traditional for users to address each other not by their usernames but by their political identities:

Image 7: A comment under a post entitled “Look like Ted is getting ready for his 2024 run” by user u/Level-Tradition-557 on r/PoliticalCompassMemes, comment and post both from 31st May 2023 (source: Reddit).

38This behaviour is reproduced on other political subreddits which are not meant as comedy subreddits. Here is an example taken from r/LabourUK.

Image 8: Screenshot of a conversation in the comment section under a post entitled “Our future is outside EU': Keir Starmer rules out return of free movement” by user u/Audioboxer87/ on r/LabourUK, comments and post from 31st May 2023.

39This picture is taken from a conversation under a post entitled “‘Our future is outside EU’: Keir Starmer rules out return of free movement” which is linking to an article on the website express.co.uk.21 As one can observe, both users in this interaction have humorous flairs, “Extremely Sensible Moderate” and “Pro Pragmatism Pragmatic Pragmatist”. The humoristic nature of these flairs is tied to the culture of the subreddit. It is common for people on the left to “overly” define their political ideology. You are not just a Communist, but you are a “Marxist-Leninist”, a “Trotskyist”, a “Cliffite Trotskyist” but on those forums, this applies in proportions that have nothing in common with real life : the user flairs in r/LabourUK or r/Tories are often parodic and are not meant to be taken seriously, up to the point that one of the many default (i.e. already suggested) labels you can attach to your username on r/Tories is “EnochWasRight”. It is worth contrasting this practice of having not so serious flairs on more serious subreddits to the rigid system of flairs based on the quadrants political compass on r/PoliticalCompassMemes. In the exchange above we see that user u/Th3-Seaward uses FBPE as a way of personifying a political ideology. FBPE is used as an identity, nearly a character, rather than just a value and this, in turn, creates a category in which people can be sorted out, resulting in a process of othering.

  • 22 Ashwin RAJADESINGAN, Paul RESNICK & Ceren BUDAK, … op.cit.
  • 23 Aarti IYER, Colin Wayne LEACH, “Emotion in inter-group relations”, European Review of Social Psycho (...)

40This system should favour further polarisation and political confrontation on political subreddits, especially if we take into account that the individuals have a tendency to associate with like-minded individuals, whether it be around a common idea or a common adversary, and to actively seek out content that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs.22 In practice, this behaviour contributes to the formation of ideological echo chambers online, where individuals primarily interact with others who share similar perspectives. Furthermore, social psychology suggests that interactions with ideological rivals tend to be affectively biased, with individuals experiencing stronger emotional reactions towards those with opposing beliefs compared to like-minded individuals. This aligns with the principles of the Intergroup Emotional Theory (IET), which posits that individuals tend to experience emotions on behalf of their in-group.23

41Everything on a subreddit such a r/PoliticalCompassMemes would seem in favour of the development of a strong echo chamber, in which one political camp would, in the end achieve dominance by downvoting en masse the other side’s posts.

  • 24 Interviews with moderators Nightlily and a_demon_ninja from the moderation team of r/pcm on 5th Jun (...)

42We conducted a series of interviews with moderators from r/PoliticalCompassMemes to understand how those principles could apply to their subreddit. They explained that “there is definitely a degree of people who are toxic” but that offensive (racist, antisemitic or transphobic for example) behaviours and content are heavily moderated. Overall the moderators confided us that they feel that there, indeed is an echo chamber phenomenon that is structural, since most of the subreddit is leaning right, content showing negativity towards the left tends to be more upvoted and features more often on the default page of the subreddit.24

43However, out of the discussions we had with some of the moderators it seems that the community is more united around the idea of caricaturing than around the promotion of any ideology. If they all recognised the right-wing bias of the community, they all underlined their attachment to the place being neutral and that caricatures from all sides were encouraged.

44One can thus question the issues raised by social psychology online in the matters of political representation when the purpose of a community is caricature.

The truth behind the memes: a more nuanced vision of Brexit-tied political identities

45In order to examine the association between users of the r/PoliticalCompassMemes subreddit and their engagement with political caricatures, a survey was conducted during the months of May and June 2023 involving more than 500 respondents who were divided into two groups: citizens of the United Kingdom and non-citizens of the United Kingdom. The latter group was further divided, based on the self-proclaimed familiarity of the users with the Brexit debate and their ability to comprehend most Brexit-related jokes regarding the parties involved. The goal was to investigate participants’ ideological positioning and their perceptions of various political caricatures commonly found in the subreddit. Participants were asked to indicate their own political ideology on a left-right scale and an authoritarian-libertarian scale, both ranging from 1 to 9. A rating of 1 represented “left” on the first scale and “libertarian” on the second scale, while a rating of 9 represented “right” and “authoritarian” respectively. The midpoint of 5 was considered as the centre for each scale. Minimal details on the labels of the wojaks were provided to elicit intuitive responses, aligning with the subreddit approach. It needs to be underlined that this survey was conducted online, on the forum itself and as such was open to respondents that tried to “troll” and influence the result in a nonsensical way, as it is part of the culture in such spaces, however, the high number of respondents, in perspective to the active population of the forum, was high enough to mitigate efficiently the results.

46After the self-identification question, participants were presented with a list of recurring wojaks without additional details apart from their names. These wojaks were categorised as either pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit, enabling us to analyse the associations and perceptions of the respondents. The list of wojaks tested appears in table 2:

Pro-Brexit

Anti-Brexit

The Brexiteer

The Kipper

The Brexit Party Voter

The Lexiteer

The 2019 Conservative Voter

The Eurosceptic

The Labour Eurosceptic

The Remainer

The #FBPE

The Europhile

The Leftie Remainer

The Remoaner

The LibDem

Table 2: List of wojaks tested in the study (source : author).

47Respondents demonstrated distinct clusters of associations with either pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit wojaks. Despite the lack of explicit details, participants drew connections based on their familiarity with the caricatures. These associations provide valuable insights into the ideological leanings and preferences of r/PoliticalCompassMemes users and their engagement with political caricature.

48Out of the 530 respondents, 25.1% identified themselves as citizens of the United Kingdom, while 79.9% were from various other countries, with the majority of the group being from the United States of America.

49The UK group, on average, positioned themselves at 5.31 on the left-right axis and 4.58 on the libertarian to authoritarian axis. The distribution of scores for the UK group is as follows (percentages indicate the proportion of respondents falling within each score):

Table 3: Self Political Identification of UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source : author)

50As evident from the distribution presented above, it becomes clear that the averages need to be nuanced. A majority of the group falls within the 6 to 9 bracket on the left-right indicator, with 20.3% scoring 6 and 21.1% scoring 7. This suggests that the group leans more towards the right-wing spectrum than what the average indicates.

51Here is the breakdown for the classification of the wojaks on the left-right axis:

Table 4: Classification of Wojaks on a Left-Right axis by UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)

52And on the libertarian-authoritarian axis:

Table 5: Classification of Wojaks on a Libertarian-Authoritarian axis by UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)

53Some findings emerge when examining the left-right chart. It becomes evident that, with the exception of the Lexiteer and the Labour Eurosceptic, Pro-Brexit wojaks consistently align themselves with the right of the political spectrum. On the other hand, Anti-Brexit wojaks tend to be positioned on the left.

  • 25 Maria SOBOLEWSKA, Robert FORD, Brexitland, Cambridge University Press, 2020, pp.186 – 188.

54The Kipper, symbolising a UKIP voter, is generally perceived by users as the most right-wing among all the wojaks. They are positioned further to the right than their counterpart from the Brexit Party. This difference in perception can be attributed to UKIP’s significant media attention, strong opposition propaganda from the left, and its identification as a successful right-wing political force.25 In contrast, the Brexit Party, having had less impact on recent UK political history and lacking clear achievements, is perceived as less radical and therefore positioned as less extreme on the right side of the spectrum. The 2019 Conservative voter leans towards the centre-right, while the Eurosceptic is even closer to the centre while still being on the right. This can be explained by the opportunistic nature of these positions, which have attracted a portion of the traditional left-wing vote. It is interesting to note that both the Labour Eurosceptic and the Lexiteer exhibit a more balanced distribution on the left side of the spectrum, with a slight tendency towards the centre.

55From the tables above, it is noticeable that the perception of Pro-Brexit “characters” by the UK citizens who use r/PoliticalCompassMemes, while generally located on the right of the political spectrum, tends to gravitate towards the centre. Only the “Kipper” wojak is consistently positioned closer to one end of the spectrum compared to the other wojaks.

56On the anti-Brexit side, two wojaks, namely #FBPE and the LibDem, are situated closer to the centre. #FBPE exhibits a more even distribution on the left, while the LibDem wojak clearly leans towards the centre-left orientation. The #FBPE wojak’s ability to reach the centre more effectively than other pro-Brexit wojaks may be attributed to its association with the Twitter community, as the social network is often perceived as being dominated by educated and middle-class individuals, usually caricatured as centrists.26

  • 27 Paula SURRIDGE, “Brexit, British Politics, and the Left-Right Divide”, Political Insight, 9(4), 201 (...)

57Regarding the libertarian-authoritarian question, it appears that there are no significant differences between the pro and anti-Brexit groups. Both camps show a slight authoritarian tendency, with a somewhat more pronounced inclination observed among the anti-Brexit side. This finding contrasts with the research conducted by Paula Surridge, which demonstrated that the Pro-Brexit side of the debate displayed a clear leaning towards authoritarian values.27

58The results from the non-UK citizens group also exhibit a right-wing bias, aligning with the findings from the UK citizens group. These findings confirm that the representations of Brexit-related stereotypical identities are prominent and extend beyond the borders of the United Kingdom.

Table 6: Self Political Identification of non-UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)

Table 7: Classification of Wojaks on a Left-Right axis by non-UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)

Table 8: Classification of Wojaks on a Libertarian-Authoritarian axis by non-UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)

59A final comparison was attempted with users from other subreddits, namely r/Tories and r/LabourUK, which are serious political subreddits focused on UK politics. Unfortunately, the moderation of r/Tories did not permit the survey to be conducted on their subreddit, so the study proceeded without any input from the main conservative subreddit.

60To ensure understanding among users who were not familiar with the customs of r/PoliticalCompassMemes, slight modifications were made to the survey questions. This adjustment proved to be a wise decision, as the survey revealed that 93% of the respondents were not users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. Consequently, participants were asked to politically locate “characters nicknamed X” rather than “wojaks X”.

61The first notable difference between this group and the r/PoliticalCompassMemes group is their strong liberal, left-wing bias, which was expected considering that the respondents originated from the r/LabourUK subreddit.

Table 9: Self Political Identification of users of r/LabourUK. (source: author)

62The results of the survey are to be found in tables 10 and 11:

Table 10: Classification of Brexit characters on a Left-Right axis by users of r/LabourUK. (source: author)

Table 11: Classification of Brexit characters on a libertarian-authoritarian axis by users of r/LabourUK. (source: author)

63Slight differences can be observed between the r/PoliticalCompassMemes group and the r/LabourUK group. The Brexiteer character is perceived as less right-wing and more moderate by the respondents from r/LabourUK. Furthermore, the distinctions between the Kipper and the Brexit Party Voter are less pronounced, to the extent that they fall under the same indicator. This could be attributed to the fact that users of r/LabourUK are more likely to be politically trained to their environment and capable of recognising the ideological continuity between two of their concurrent organisations. However, further research is necessary to confirm this hypothesis.

64The anti-Brexit characters are positioned clearly in the centre rather than on the left. This may be due to the bias of the users of r/LabourUK, who tend to perceive themselves as closely aligned with the left of the political spectrum. Consequently, they may view the rest of the political spectrum as right-leaning, which in their perception falls within the centre. It is important to approach this interpretation cautiously and conduct further research, as it assumes that the users of r/LabourUK are not disproportionately anti-Brexit themselves compared with the overall bias observed in our survey. Moreover, this study focused solely on perception through a quantitative approach, indicating the need for a more nuanced and qualitative investigation.

Conclusion

65In conclusion, this discussion has shed light on the dynamics of political discourse within online communities, particularly focusing on the subreddit r/PoliticalCompassMemes and its engagement with political caricatures related to Brexit. This study has explored the influence of self-selection, pre-entry learning, and selective retention processes in shaping the cultural habits within its surveyed communities. The research highlighted the impact of visual anonymity on group behaviour, emphasising the role of social context in shaping individual behaviour and the salience of group identities.

66Through a survey conducted among users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes, I examined the ideological positioning and perceptions of various political caricatures. The findings revealed that while there was a right-wing bias overall, nuanced variations existed within the group. The Pro-Brexit wojaks tended to gravitate towards the centre, contrary to common findings on the Brexit vote, suggesting a more diverse range of perspectives within the subreddit. The Anti-Brexit wojaks displayed a clear left-leaning tendency, with some situated closer to the centre.

67Comparisons were drawn with users of r/LabourUK. The differences in perception and ideological positioning were evident, with the r/LabourUK group displaying a strong liberal, left-wing bias. These variations could be attributed to the different user bases and their political affiliations.

68It is important to note that the survey-based approach provided quantitative insights into perception but lacked the depth of qualitative analysis. Future research should consider incorporating qualitative methods to gain a more nuanced understanding of the factors influencing users’ perceptions and their interactions within these online communities.

69The biggest lesson in this research is the following: when studying a political subreddit it is important to keep in mind that the caricatures and portrayals that are shown are the product of one single user and that this post happens to be promoted or not through the system of upvoting/downvoting, but it does not necessarily reflect the perception of the political item by the whole community. The survey on r/PoliticalCompassMemes has shown that only 13.4% of the users think the political compass they use is “very convenient to classify political ideology” and 66% think “it is convenient but insufficient”. As such it is important for researchers focusing on political representation and caricature online to pay close attention to the nature of the communities they are investigating as there is a deforming effect which can be due to many factors (structure of the site, self-selection of users, customary practices, specific culture of the support) that can affect their findings.

70Overall, this discussion has highlighted the complexity of online political discourse and the potential for these virtual spaces to foster polarisation or reinforce existing ideological positions. Understanding the dynamics within these communities contributes to our broader comprehension of the role of digital platforms in shaping political conversations and identities. The Brexit debate did not escape those logics and the caricatural identities that were created or amplified on r/PoliticalCompassMemes proved to be salient and align mostly with the common perception of “offline” Brexit-identities. As such, online political forums can still prove very useful to understand nascent political identities.

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Bibliographie

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Notes

1 Numbers corresponding to the membership of those subreddits as of 12th June 2023.

2 Data obtained from https://Subredditstats.com/r/Politics on 12th June 2023.

3 Numbers from 2022 according to Reddit itself : https://www.Redditinc.com/ (last accessed 12th June 2023).

4 Some of those Subreddits are going to be describes in more details below, but as an example, r/UKPoliticalComedy had 59,800 members and r/Brexit had 55 400 as of 12th June 2023

5 See https://www.Reddit.com/r/PoliticalCompassMemes/wiki/index/ (last accessed 24th August 2023) for a detail of how r/PoliticalCompassMemes defines its political categories.

6 Andres PETRIK, “Core concept ‘Political Compass’. How Kitschelt’s model of liberal, socialist, libertarian and conservative orientations can fill the ideology gap in civic education”, JSSE-Journal of Social Science Education, 9(10), 2010, pp. 45 – 62.

7 https://www.politicalcompass.org/ (last accessed 4th April 2023).

8  https://www.Reddit.com/r/PoliticalCompassMemes/comments/gbg1o3/the_political_compass_but_its_the_uk/ (last accessed 4th April 2023).

9 https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/norf-fc-simple-as (last accessed 24th August 2023).

10 “It’s time to self-ID” posted on r/tories by u/brexitday, “The Political Compass but it’s the UK” posted on r/PCM by u/woodstovia, “Political Compas, but it’s the current chaos of UK politics” on r/PCM by u/ed_balls_ballpit, “A UK Political Compass” on r/okmatewanker by u/No-Access606 and “The Political Compass : UK edition” on r/PCM by u/Techgeekout.

11  https://www.Reddit.com/r/PoliticalCompassMemes/comments/y7cxhz/political_compass_but_its_the_current_chaos_of_uk/ (last accessed 10th June 2023).

12  https://www.Reddit.com/r/PoliticalCompassMemes/comments/z8yya6/political_compass_of_uk_places_10x10/ (last accessed 10th June 2023).

13 https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jan/17/fbpe-what-is-pro-eu-hashtag-spreading-across-social-media (last accessed 24th August 2023).

14 https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/crying-wojak (last accessed 15.06.2023)

15 Adrienne Massanari, “#Gamergate and the Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures”, New Media & Society, 19(3), 2017, pp. 329 – 346.

16 Brady ROBARDS, “Belonging and neo-tribalism on social media site Reddit”, Chapter in Neo-tribes: Consumption, leisure and tourism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 187 – 206.

17 Ashwin RAJADESINGAN, Paul RESNICK & Ceren BUDAK, “Quick, Community-Specific Learning: How Distinctive Toxicity Norms Are Maintained in Political Subreddits”, Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, 14(1), 2020, pp. 557 – 68.

18 Steve REICHER, Russel SPEARS, Tom POSTMES, “A Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Phenomena”, European Review of Social Psychology, 6(1), 1995, 161 – 198

19 Jin Woo KIM, Andrew GUESS, Brendan NYHAN & Jason REIFLER, “The distorting prism of social media: How self-selection and exposure to incivility fuel online comment toxicity”, Journal of Communication, 71(6), 2021, pp. 922 – 946.

20 Nahema MARCHAL, “’Be nice or leave me alone’: An intergroup perspective on affective polarisation in online political discussions”, Communication Research, 49(3), 2022, pp. 376 – 398.

21  https://www.Reddit.com/r/LabourUK/comments/13whggu/our_future_is_outside_eu_keir_starmer_rules_out/ (last accessed 22.06.2023)

22 Ashwin RAJADESINGAN, Paul RESNICK & Ceren BUDAK, … op.cit.

23 Aarti IYER, Colin Wayne LEACH, “Emotion in inter-group relations”, European Review of Social Psychology, 19(1), 2008, pp. 86 – 125

24 Interviews with moderators Nightlily and a_demon_ninja from the moderation team of r/pcm on 5th June 2023

25 Maria SOBOLEWSKA, Robert FORD, Brexitland, Cambridge University Press, 2020, pp.186 – 188.

26 https://revisesociology.com/2016/02/12/twitter-users-by-occupation-and-social-class/(last accessed 25.08.2023).

27 Paula SURRIDGE, “Brexit, British Politics, and the Left-Right Divide”, Political Insight, 9(4), 2018, pp. 4 – 7.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Image 1: Picture of the post "The Political Compass but it’s the UK", 01 May 2020 (source: Reddit).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 477k
Légende Table 1: A list of the Brexit-related wojaks found in political compass based-memes. (source: author via date manually collected from Reddit in memes on r/PoliticalCompassMemes from 2020 to 2023)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Légende Image 2: Examples of the "norferner" wojak, pictures taken from various memes collected from Reddit on r/PoliticalCompassMemes from 2020 to 2023.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 149k
Légende Image 3: Examples of various pro-Brexit wojaks, pictures taken from various memes memes collected from Reddit from 2020 to 2023.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 159k
Légende Image 4: Two examples of liberal-side anti-Brexit wojaks, pictures taken from various memes collected from Reddit from 2020 to 2023.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-5.png
Fichier image/png, 114k
Légende Image 5: Examples of various centrist anti-Brexit wojaks, pictures taken from various memes collected from Reddit from 2020 to 2023.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-6.png
Fichier image/png, 133k
Légende Image 6: Screenshot of the updated answer of the automated response of the flair bot on r/PoliticalCompassMemes (source: Reddit).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-7.png
Fichier image/png, 15k
Légende Image 7: A comment under a post entitled “Look like Ted is getting ready for his 2024 run” by user u/Level-Tradition-557 on r/PoliticalCompassMemes, comment and post both from 31st May 2023 (source: Reddit).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-8.png
Fichier image/png, 26k
Légende Image 8: Screenshot of a conversation in the comment section under a post entitled “Our future is outside EU': Keir Starmer rules out return of free movement” by user u/Audioboxer87/ on r/LabourUK, comments and post from 31st May 2023.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-9.png
Fichier image/png, 61k
Légende Table 3: Self Political Identification of UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source : author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-11.png
Fichier image/png, 10k
Légende Table 4: Classification of Wojaks on a Left-Right axis by UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-13.png
Fichier image/png, 57k
Légende Table 5: Classification of Wojaks on a Libertarian-Authoritarian axis by UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-15.png
Fichier image/png, 69k
Légende Table 6: Self Political Identification of non-UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-17.png
Fichier image/png, 12k
Légende Table 7: Classification of Wojaks on a Left-Right axis by non-UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-19.png
Fichier image/png, 57k
Légende Table 8: Classification of Wojaks on a Libertarian-Authoritarian axis by non-UK Citizens users of r/PoliticalCompassMemes. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-21.png
Fichier image/png, 69k
Légende Table 9: Self Political Identification of users of r/LabourUK. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-23.png
Fichier image/png, 10k
Légende Table 10: Classification of Brexit characters on a Left-Right axis by users of r/LabourUK. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-25.png
Fichier image/png, 53k
Légende Table 11: Classification of Brexit characters on a libertarian-authoritarian axis by users of r/LabourUK. (source: author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/osb/docannexe/image/6127/img-27.png
Fichier image/png, 51k
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Nicolas Sigoillot, « Remoaners, 2019 Conservative Voters and Kippers – Caricaturing political identities tied to Brexit on Reddit »Observatoire de la société britannique, 30 | 2023, 191-215.

Référence électronique

Nicolas Sigoillot, « Remoaners, 2019 Conservative Voters and Kippers – Caricaturing political identities tied to Brexit on Reddit »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/6127 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.6127

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Auteur

Nicolas Sigoillot

Professeur Agrégé à Sciences Po Lyon

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Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés), sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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