It’s been a bad week for UKIP, as an outbreak of social media spoofery has left many people puzzled and confused as to who genuinely speaks for the Party. But while the noble art of satire may have a long and distinguished history in UK politics, some are now wondering whether we haven’t achieved peak spoof – and arguing that the time has come for a return to “real politics”.
Will the real UKIP please stand up?
As far as “getting its message across” is concerned, last week did not go well for UKIP. It began with Twitter storms over tweets from accounts apparently set up by UKIP East London and UKIP Yeovil, that stripped aside the carefully crafted facade, and revealed the true sexist, homophobic core beneath.
But no: these were fake accounts, created, it was claimed, by a notorious anti-UKIP spoofster.
Then we had similar outpourings from a Cheltenham UKIP account. No, not us, claimed Cheltenham UKIP, from the safety of their Facebook account. Another spoof! Or at least, we think it was another spoof. For although the Cheltenham Facebook account strenuously asserted its own genuineness, a direct question to the UKIP national press office failed to elicit from that august body a similar endorsement.
Oh, dear! The icing on the cake, however, came a couple of days later, when David Coburn, UKIP’s sole Scottish MEP demanded that Twitter ban a rather more obvious fake account, based on the fictional town of Trumpton.
Embarrassingly for Coburn, his efforts have had quite the reverse effect: alerting a much wider audience to the existence of Trumpton UKIP, and creating a membership boost for Trumpton which saw their account overtake his own in the popularity stakes by a landslide. As of today, @Trumpton_UKIP boasts over 19,000 followers, compared to Coburn’s paltry 9,000!.
For connoisseurs of the meme, there are also now Trumpton accounts for those wishing to lend their vote to Trumpton branches of Labour, Conservatives or Britain First.
Of course, an inevitable rule of social media seems to be that no sooner does an individual or a cause become famous, then a spoof account is set up to take them down a peg or two. Pope Francis, Stephen Fry David Cameron: for every official account, there exists spoof doppelganger, some witty, some not. The famouser the person, the more spoof accounts they seem to attract.
How we love it when people actually fall for them! What more delicious irony than David Cameron last year, fresh from warning the nation of the dangers of social media, himself falling for a spoof Ian Duncan-Smith account. Ignoring the rather obvious clue in the account’s profile – a cod latin tag, “parodia spucatum tauri”, which translates roughly as “spoof, bullshit” – Cameron tweeted out an endorsement of Duncan-Smith’s work on the benefits cap.
Spoofs, though, can have a much more serious point – and on occasion evoke a much harder response. Arguably, the ultimate spoof is the hoax bomb warning, of the sort that the UK courts pondered for several years in the twitter joke trial. Though others might consider bomb threats, even joke ones, over-step a certain line.
Government guidelines on spoofing
Recently, the Department for Work and Pensions went to some lengths to try and shut down a spoof JobCentre account. According to a spokesperson for the DWP: “The @UKJCP account has been set up with deliberate and malicious intent to devalue and criticise the work of Jobcentre Plus”.
However, after initially closing down the account, Twitter bowed to a petition arguing that to close it amounted to official government censorship.
Despite their rebuff from Twitter, the DWP were still trying hard earlier this year, with a tweet explaining to all and sundry what was and what was not satire. It seems that @UKJCP have not yet got the guidelines on this exceedingly important matter.
The politics of spoof?
Having said ALL of that, the question remains as to whether so much spoofery is helpful to political debate. It is, it may be argued, one up from the descent of allegedly satirical programmes such as “Have I got News for You?” into mocking Ed Milliband for how his physical appearance: his alleged ressemblance to Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame, or his difficulties with eating a bacon sandwich.
Of course, such comparisons elicit a brief snigger, as they are intended. But do we really want a politics in which influential commentators point their fingers and go “ooo! Doesn’t he look weird?”
Let us discount the ultimate conspiracy theory to emerge on the back of last week’s UKIP spoofery: the various arguments that the spoof accounts are actually real UKIP accounts in disguise, deliberately put out there as a means to associate UKIP in the public consciousness with policies they no longer dare to speak openly.
Listening to Farage’s various pronouncements on breastfeeding, traffic congestion and, oddly, equal marriage, it is clear that the man has no sense of self-censorship, and is quite capable of parodying his own party positions with little help from anyone else.
Let us also reject an equally insidious, quite dangerous argument that has emerged in some quarters: that these are precisely the “sort of things” one expects from UKIP – so it makes no odds whether these accounts are genuine or not. The smae argument applies – in spades – back at lefties, communists, liberals, tree-huggers. You name it: the list is endless; and that way lies a politics based no longer on listening to and challenging your opponent’s views…but on shouting down those you disagree with based solely on what YOU say they believe.
No. In the end, spoofing is fun, amusing and, done well, can shed light on those nooks and crannies of the body politic where our serious commentators are reluctant to go. But spoofing is not real politics: and we should never mistake it for such.