Two seemingly very different stories have been dominating the left-wing UK political scene on Twitter over the last week or two. The first is the remarkable success of the #CameronMustGo hashtag, the second the Trumpton UKIP saga. They’re very, very different things – and on the surface seem not to have very much in common – but there are strong connections between the two, connections that suggest some interesting things about how social media, and Twitter in particular, can work.
The #CameronMustGo hashtag is still trending (as I type this) after two weeks and more than a million tweets, in the face of a whole series of derogatory articles in the mainstream media (as I discussed here), and reactions from disdain to rage. To get a hashtag to trend isn’t easy at the best of times, and to get it to trend for this long is nothing short of remarkable – indeed, the disappointment last night when (seemingly briefly) the hashtag dropped off the trending list almost made me laugh, but had a serious point. Getting the hashtag to trend has given groups of people a sense of power – a sense that they can have at least some impact, albeit only in the virtual world of Twitter, when they otherwise feel so powerless in the face of a seemingly overwhelming establishment.
The UKIP Trumpton phenomenon seems very different. The initial UKIP Trumpton account was a parody account, one of many such accounts on Twitter – I run a parody account myself, @KipperNick – but until a few days ago it had just a small following. It was funny, particularly for people of a certain generation (including myself) who grew up watching programmes like Trumpton, Camberwick Green and so forth – but it wasn’t earth-shattering, until it started to be attacked by UKIP MEP David Coburn for being ‘fake’. That started a twitter storm, one that has raged ever since. @Trumpton_UKIP now has 18.9 thousand followers, more than twice David Coburn’s number, and has spawned a whole range of related Trumpton accounts, as well as a wide range of attacks from UKIP supporters, some suggesting that it shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘UKIP’ in its name, others invoking (more than a touch dubiously) intellectual property law. The more the attacks come, the more the parody thrives – and the more attention it gets, from the mainstream press, and even from TV and radio.
So what’s the connection between the two, apart from being attacks on right wing politicians? Well, first of all, they both emerged from small, humble roots – the people behind the initial #CameronMustGo hashtag and the @Trumpton_UKIP account are ordinary Twitter users, not part of political parties or backed by the mainstream media. Both took root through the grassroots of twitter – yes, the #CameronMustGo hashtag was taken up by official Labour Party people, but the mainstay was (and remains) much more ordinary twitter users. Both thrive in the face of (at least partial) mainstream attacks – indeed, the attacks seem to make them stronger. Both use humour – even a brief look at the #CameronMustGo stream shows that a fair proportion of the tweets either are or use jokes as their basis, while the Trumpton accounts are based almost entirely on humour. And they’re funny. Very funny at times.
Both, too, seem to have caught the ‘establishment’ on the hop – and for all its protestations, UKIP is very much part of the establishment. Whether it’s UKIP or the Tories, the BBC or the mainstream press, the social media is something that they can’t quite get on top of. It’s not as controllable as they want it to be – and it challenges their control over the ‘message’. The Labour Party shouldn’t get complacent either – the wrath of Twitter is as likely to turn upon them as it has on the Tories and UKIP. If they try to use the people of Twitter as their political tools, they can expect a backlash. If there’s one thing #CameronMustGo and Trumpton has shown, it’s that it’s the people that count, not the parties. And long may that last.