It's safe to say that the internet got a lot of mileage out of the first parliamentary vote of Boris Johnson's premiership. It was a spectacular failure for the new prime minister, but of all the scenes of questionable leadership, no image invited more ridicule than that of Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging across the front bench with his eyes closed, exhibiting all the body language of a bored teenager.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this instance, a picture is worth, well, a thousand more pictures. Within hours, #JacobReesSmug had gone viral along with countless memes of the horizontal leader of the house superimposed into all sorts of weird and wonderful places. We saw him reclining across Homer Simpson's living room sofa, drifting down the river in place of Ophelia in the iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting, and standing in for Kate Winslet as Leonardo DiCaprio's life model in Titanic
They look deceptively frivolous, but these images will haunt the Conservative party for years. The next time someone wants to depict the Tories as out of touch and unfit for leadership, they need only share an image of the leader of the house lying down in the Simpsons' living room. Memes are the propaganda posters of the 21st century. They have as much influence and reach as their pre-digital counterparts and play as significant a role in influencing people and shaping history.
People feel increasingly alienated from the political system, but memes have become a powerful tool for expression. As the disillusioned artists of the 20th-century Dada movement used absurdist humour to criticise the world around them, online audiences use memes as a form of satirical political commentary. It's a way of protesting a broken system while still participating in it, and thanks to the accessibility of the internet, virtually everyone is invited.
The leader of the house was instructed to sit up and pay attention by his colleagues, but from the way he shrugged off their complaints it doesn't seem that Jacob Rees-Mogg is too affected by how people perceive him. For a public figure, this attitude isn't cool, it's careless.
Memes can ruin careers. Don't believe me? Ask Ed Miliband. When Ed sat down for breakfast during his 2014 election campaign, he had no idea that it would effectively derail his career. The images that emerged from that fateful day of the former Labour leader struggling with a mouthful of bacon roll made him look farcical and out of touch with the working classes. It was the inspiration for some legendary memes, not least of which placed Ed alongside Jesus in Leonardo da Vinci's mural of the Last Supper
. The joke did nothing for his credibility or reputation and he later resigned.
In the 2016 American presidential election, memes were weaponised by both sides of the aisle to undermine one another. On the right, they were deployed as a way of calling Hillary Clinton's health into question after a coughing fit at a Cleveland rally gave rise to speculation from Conservative media that she didn't have the mental and physical stamina for the job. In one particularly famous meme, an unusually animated talking Hillary Clinton is captioned with: 'Why can you people not understand? The medical problems I don't have are the reason I can't remember the criminal acts I didn't commit'. Meanwhile, #RobotHillary paved the way for a series of doctored images which suggested she lacked the charisma and magnetic personality of a presidential candidate.
In memetic warfare, winning is about ridiculing your opponent until it subverts their ability to do the same. While Trump voters were undermining Hillary's leadership, Democratic supporters were wielding memes to attack everything about Donald Trump from his moral fibre to his appearance. His face has been juxtaposed alongside Darth Sidious from Star Wars
, superimposed over an Oompa Loompa from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
, and even compared to an ear of corn.
For Republicans and Democrats alike, memes were an opportunity to construct truth about the other side from the bottom-up, an increasingly important concept given that truth, and the public's access to it, has been so long decided by those at the top.
Memes are the fast food of politics. They're accessible, they're everywhere, and they're not necessarily good for us, but they're not going anywhere. Just look at your iOS keyboard and you'll notice the expansive archive of looping imagery available to you. Memes and language have become intertwined, and as technology continues to evolve, it won't be long before memetic warfare will move on from images to doctored video and audio content. The distinction between truth and propaganda is only going to grow more difficult to discern, so it's time to sit up, pay attention, and recognise the power of the meme.