Over the last few years, memes have played an increasingly important part in online political discussion: in 2016, the Washington Post dubbed the 2016 presidential election “the most-memed election in U.S. history”, and CNN has already christened the 2020 race “the meme election”.
But politicians may want to pause for thought before they hit send on that jokey tweet. New research in Communication Research Reports, from Ohio State University’s Olivia Bullock and Austin Huber, suggests that humour doesn’t always go down well online — and that this can impact what voters think of particular candidates and potentially how they vote.
The researchers showed 407 participants the Twitter profile of a fictional politician, Alex Smith, displayed as either male or female and either young or old. Smith was not given a political affiliation. The profile contained five tweets related to various hot-button issues including education, healthcare and voting and campaign issues.
Half of participants saw formal, serious tweets on the topic (“we’re tired of getting bad healthcare! It’s time to fix our broken system”) while the other half saw informal tweets containing puns or plays on words (we’re sick of getting bad health care! It’s time to heal our broken system”).
After viewing the profile, participants completed a questionnaire about their perceptions of Smith. First, they indicated how humorous they found the messages, before rating how appropriate they felt the tweets were for someone running for office and how surprised they were by them (that is, how much the tweets violated expectations about a candidate’s behaviour). They also answered questions on perceived credibility and how knowledgeable, trustworthy and likeable they found the candidate. Finally, participants were asked how likely they would be to vote, campaign or donate to the candidate were they running in their area.
Participants did find the punny tweets more humorous compared to the more formal ones — but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Those in the informal condition felt the tweets they saw violated their expectations about how a candidate should behave far more than those in the formal condition. This, in turn, led to feelings that the candidate was less credible, and to reduced levels of support. These findings held across sex and age, neither of which had a significant impact on how participants responded to the tweets.
The study suggests that informal or jokey tweets could have a tangible impact on a politician’s success in the polls. But none of this is to say that well-executed jokes might not have a positive impact sometimes. Other work has suggested that Trump and his supporters were actively boosted during the 2016 election by their successful memeing, and it’s a strategy his camp continues to use in the run-up to the next one. And in some cases, humour clearly is working — Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been widely lauded for her often humorous social media presence. This could relate to a lack of expectancy violation: politicians like Trump and Ocasio-Cortez have built their brands on more informal (though very different) communication styles, meaning voters are not surprised by jokes online.
Puns, the “informal” form of communication used in this study, are not a particularly sophisticated form of humour, so future work might look at different types: irony, sarcasm or surrealism, for example. The relationship between jokes and political affiliation would also be interesting to look at: what impact humour has on floating voters, for example, or whether partisan voters have different interpretations of jokes that come from their own party or a rival party.
It’s unlikely that political campaigns will become any less “online” — if anything, the influence of the internet is only set to increase. But caution is probably needed for political candidates looking to get a laugh — otherwise, they may find themselves the butt of the joke.