Can activism be funny?

By Hannah Jones and Kirsten Forkert

Do jokes and parodies change anything?

Is protest-by-Photoshop just ‘clicktivism’ or does it connect with real change?

Parody of Home Office van

A parody of the Home Office van found on

As part of ‘“Go Home”: Mapping the unfolding controversy of Home Office immigration campaigns’, we have been examining some of the online and social media elements of the Home Office’s publicity on migration, and the responses to them. We’re interested in how the government used Twitter to draw attention to their campaign and how responses to it – both political and playful – bloomed online, and particularly in how these online interactions are connected to in-person activities by both the Home Office and protesters.

Something that has really struck us is how much satirical play there has been, particularly with the image of the Government’s ‘Go Home van’. Reworkings ranged from the satirical to the silly to the straightforwardly political. In fact the human rights group Liberty’s response was a van-mounted bill-board displayed in ‘real life’ (like the original van) as well as being pictured online. Although both the original ‘Go Home’ van and the Liberty response only physically drove around a limited route for a few hours, their images circulating through digital networks have had a much longer life and wider resonances.

Liberty response to Home Office van

Liberty’s response to Home Office van

Indeed, the speed with which the van became a meme can make the Home Office’s intervention seem ridiculous and laughable in itself – unless you are alive to the very real personal and political consequences of having an echo of a National Front taunt driven around your neighbourhood on a government-sponsored van while raids and arrests are tweeted out with the slogan ‘no hiding place’.

Some responses highlighted the absurdity of the Government campaign by taking it at its word. On Twitter, Pukkah Punjabi wrote about how she had called the Freephone number advertised and asked for the advertised help to go home – to her home in Willesden Green, North London. Hundreds of people followed suit, and the Home Office’s own evaluation of the van initiative (Operation Vaken) found that 1034 (66%) of the texts and 13 (14%) of the calls received in response to the van were classified as ‘hoax’; added to this, 123 (8%) of the texts and 21 (23%) of the calls they received were complaints.


So some civil servants’ time was wasted – but the Home Office still judged the initiative a success as 18 people received assisted voluntarily deportation apparently as a result of the van (or seeing it indirectly through media coverage), and 42 people as the result of other Operation Vaken communications. And the message of Government hostility to ‘illegal immigrants’ was clearly received. What difference, then, does a campaign of satirical tweets and humorous disobedience make, particularly beyond those who already ‘get it’? Is it activism, or ‘just a joke’?

Another eye-catching response to the Home Office initiatives of high-profile immigration raids was the action by Southall Black Sisters where a group of women intercepted and disrupted an immigration raid near their office, filming the results and putting the video online to inform and inspire others. This was street action interacting with social media, but it wasn’t *funny*. Anger, resistance and solidarity are in the video, but not a lot of laughs.

The SBS action did the rounds on social media but did it have the reach that jokier protests have? Do activists need both jokes or stunts and social movement building, humour and collective outrage? Is this something new to ‘social media times’ or simply a different format for the political cartoons, satirists and stand-up comedians of previous centuries?

We’re now looking in detail not just at Twitter responses but at a selection of news coverage of Home Office communications on migration, and the ‘below the line’ comments accompanying these stories. A notable case is the number of raids on suspected ‘sham marriages’ which immigration officers conduct at wedding venues, in the company of local journalists. Coverage of these raids are appearing from Blackburn to Maidstone, but one that really attracted our attention was a case in Camden last year where despite raiding the wedding, officers concluded the relationship in question was not ‘a sham’. The Camden New Journal reporter wrote it up nonetheless, noting how she had been invited along by the immigration enforcement officers; how they raided the ceremony dressed in flak jackets, dragging the couple apart to be questioned separately; how one reason the officers had been convinced of the genuine nature of the relationship was because the pair were ‘extremely good-looking’. This incident, like the van, easily lent itself to parody and many (though not all) of the online comments from readers of the coverage were sympathetic to the couple, and either joking or outraged (or both) about the incompetence or insensitivity of the immigration officials. But is it possible to joke in the same way about any of the other stories gleaned by local reporters accompanying Home Office staff on raids that lead to arrest and deportation? What does it mean that it was the Camden story – with a happy ending – that provoked mirth?

Parody, satire and jokes, including photoshopped memes mirroring the Go Home examples, have been reappearing in the run-up to the European Elections, especially aimed at UKIP. As they do the rounds on social media, do they act to convince people to change their mind about the issues and which way they will vote, or do they act more to reinforce bonds between people who already agree with one another, a phenomenon that Eli Pariser has termed the “filter bubble”? Thinking about the parodies of Government communications, do they convince anyone to look at the world differently, or again are they about solidifying bonds between people who already share political viewpoints? Do they work to confirm stereotypes that critics of government immigration policies are a sophisticated, media-savvy, but out-of-touch metropolitan elite? Do these jokes encourage further social activism, or are they a release valve that defuses anger?

George Orwell said every joke is a tiny revolution. Do you think jokes are revolutionary?

Part of our research involves taking part in social media debates and we would love to hear what you think about the questions raised in this blog. Please join us to debate on Twitter – we will be active on @MICresearch all day on Tuesday 27th May 2014 and we would love to hear your views about the role of humour in social protest #joketivism

MP expenses van spoof

A spoof of the Home Office van from campaign group BritCits

Falafel, flat bread and fingerprinting: The spectacle of immigration raids and protest

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

no hiding place

Tuesday 29th April. It’s around 2pm in swanky SW1. In a Middle Eastern restaurant the air is thick with spices, convivial chatter and the clinking of plates and cutlery. Two gleaming white vans park in a nearby lane. Ten men and women of varied ethnicities and age make their way to the restaurant, equipped with a strange assortment of mundane and exotic paraphernalia. Smart phones. Clipboards. Black biros. Walkie-talkies. Mobile fingerprint scanners.

Over their short-sleeved navy-blue shirts they are wearing padded bulletproof vests.

This is an immigration raid.

Some customers leave the restaurant. The Immigration Enforcement officers go about their business. “When did you get your British passport?” a young woman officer with a vibrant pink wristwatch asks a restaurant worker, as two of her colleagues gather around her, encircling a small table.

All the paperwork seems to be in order this time. No one from the restaurant is detained.

This is my first close-up view of an immigration raid. It’s a surreal experience, simultaneously menacing and business like.

I was nowhere near the restaurant on Tuesday but I was able to see and hear some of what happened because allies of the Anti-Raids Network intervened in the raid and posted a short film of the events on YouTube. As well as informing the restaurant staff about their right not to answer questions or to show their passports, the vocal protesters followed the Immigration Enforcement officers back to their vans, chanting ‘Racist scum off our streets’. They continued filming while one of the officers filmed them on his mobile phone, walking backwards at times and panning the camera from side- to-side to ensure full coverage of the protestors.

The Anti-Raids Network is one of an increasing number of pro-immigrant activist groups that have developed in Europe and across the globe over the past ten years. The Network is a coalition of London based groups. According to its website, the Network

‘…believes in free movement, and does not differentiate according to nationality, race, or immigration status. We therefore aim to make people aware of their rights in the context of an immigration check, and to support those who are being questioned, raided or arrested by the authorities purely because of the colour of their skin.’

The methods and tactics used by the Network and similar protest groups are varied. Its activities include workshops and ‘bust cards’ that inform people of their rights during an immigration raid. Their use of photographs, film and social media is something more recent, mimicking and subverting the strategies used by UK immigration enforcement that last year included tweeting images of those detained as part of last year’s high profile publicity campaign. One image tweeted from the UK Home Office was of a man being led into the back of a van where another detainee was already seated. The photograph was accompanied by the message “There will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new #ImmigrationBill


In a recent editorial, for a special issue of the journal Citizenship Studies on immigrant protest, Imogen Tyler and Katarzyna Marciniak suggest that:

New media, such as the Internet, 3G mobile video phones, weblogs, social media, and instant messaging, have inordinately strengthened migrant politics. These technologies are employed to co-ordinate the swarming of bodies on the streets, to capture and upload videos of protests and police violence, and to generate publicity for struggles. The advent of these digital communication systems means that protests staged in one physical place are now transmitted across borders so that even smaller scale protests, such as riots, fires, and hunger strikes by immigration detainees, and individual anti-deportation campaigns have the potential to resonate internationally.’ (p.143-44)

The audio-visual recording and archiving of immigration raids by protesters in the UK marks a new visual economy and aesthetics of global immigration politics that is producing rather than simply preserving history. For years immigration raids have been brought into the public eye through stories based upon competing and fallible memories. Many have been forgotten or lie hidden in the folds of bureaucratic files or feelings of shame. These newer practices may hold greater potential for eliciting transnational connections and coverage but they are by no means free of their own challenging questions and paradoxes. Does the reassurance of a virtual online archive help us to forget rather than remember? Or more prosaically, what is the layered geo-social politics and potential that inheres in the calling of immigration officers of colour ‘racist scum’?

There is another important facet of the interventions that these online activist archives make that is more challenging to name and to research. This stems from the ways in which audio-visual media create and evoke something of the sensory drama of the reconfiguring of our ordinary spaces during immigration raids. They gesture towards what the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart sees as the emotional ephemera of ‘atmospheres’ that can open up new ‘small worlds’ (p.511).

Later the restaurant returns to some appearance of normality. The kitchen will resume its temporal rhythms. Customers will dither over which delicacies to choose from the menu. Friends and families will exchange intimacies. Few, if any, will have a sense of what happened earlier. For those of us who witnessed the raid and who might see similar events caught on camera in the future, I wonder how the experience of eating out might change. If only fleetingly.

“Swamped” by anti-immigrant communications? – new article in Discover Society

This piece was published in Discover Society, Issue 8 on 6th May 2014. By Hannah JonesGargi Bhattacharyya, Kirsten Forkert, Will Davies, Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Yasmin Gunaratnam, Emma Jackson and Roiyah Saltus.

In July 2013, the UK Home Office launched an advertising campaign with the slogan ‘In the UK illegally? Go Home or face arrest,’ mounted on a billboard and driven around ethnically and nationally diverse areas of London. A few weeks later, the @ukhomeoffice Twitter account began to publish tweets about arrests at locations around London, with the hashtag #immigrationoffenders  and with some photographs of arrests, drawing attention to increasingly visible stop-and-check operations by immigration officers at tube stations and elsewhere in the capital. Later in August, further posters were displayed inside immigration reporting centres in Glasgow and Hounslow, where asylum seekers were faced with images of aeroplanes with the slogan ‘This plane can take you home. We can book the tickets’.

What are the effects of this kind of intervention? Home Office ministers insisted that the van campaign had been a pilot project, and that, in terms of their evaluation, it had been a success since it cost only £9,740 and appeared to have directly or indirectly encouraged 60 people to leave the country through voluntary repatriatio]. But what of the other costs, less easily accounted for financially?

Reactions to these interventions were notable, producing national newspaper headlines, local street protests, and a wave of online outrage, debate, and satire. After legal action by clients of Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), the Home Office conceded that it had not met its duties under the Equality Act 2010 in planning the advertising vans, and undertook to consult more broadly with those who may be affected before any similar activities in future. The Advertising Standards Authority received 224 complaintsabout the advertising van, and upheld the complaints that the number of arrests stated was misleading, though they disregarded complaints that the van was distressing and harmful.

It is worth noting that each of the examples given above are of government communications on migration; that is, not party political electioneering, but paid for through public taxation and carried out through the auspices of public employees. What this set of actions and more  seem to indicate is a shift towards an overtly hostile communications campaign by publicly funded institutions, which, in the words of the Commons Home Affairs Committee commenting on the failure to provide research on migration flows from Bulgaria and Romania, increased anti-immigrant prejudice.

But just as there appears to be a hardening of government tone on migration, and an engagement with new tools of communication to get this across through social media and viral advertising, the activists mobilising in opposition to these messages are also engaging in ways that bring together old and new forms of organising and protest that counter official narratives and policy.

Southall Black Sisters, for example, an organisation with a long and proud history of anti-racist and feminist organising, conducted a street protest at a series of Immigration Enforcement actions in Southall. They filmed the altercation on mobile phones and posted the footage on YouTube, from where it circulated on social media alerting others to the Home Office actions and to the possibilities of protest.

Others took the ‘Go Home’ posters at their word, and called the helpline number with requests for help getting back to neighbourhoods in London, pointing to the absurdity as well as the threat of the message. This form of protest grew through Twitter, reaching hundreds of thousands of people by engaging humour as well as anger. A different form of public engagement to the physical street interventions of Southall Black Sisters, this nonetheless was something to which the Home Office was forced to pay at least some attention – noting in their evaluation of ‘Operation Vaken’ (the van advertising) that 1034 of the calls to the helpline number – 66% of the total calls – were classified as ‘hoax’. A further 123 calls were ‘complaint’ and 161 ‘curiousity’ (rather than ‘genuine’). This means that at least 74%, and perhaps as many of 84%, of the calls to the helpline were, in effect, in protest.

Real-time social research

Alarmed by the events in summer 2013 and wary that expressing outrage in publications and on social media might do little other than amplify the ‘Go Home’ message, a group of academics and activists came together primarily through interactions on Twitter, and decided to put our social research skills to some use in the debate. We organised ourselves quickly, informally – and, looking back on it, rather impressively! – to conduct a series of street surveys that would gather the views of people living in the areas affected by the Go Home van and high profile spot checks, on those interventions and the immigration debate more broadly.

This was a direct challenge to a series of YouGov surveys commissioned by The Sun and which purported to find that there was broad support for these interventions, but which interviewed people from across the whole of the UK who may not have seen, heard of, or been affected by the interventions. The YouGov surveys framed their questions around Yes/No answers, or asking respondents to either agree or disagree with a statement about the campaign. Our hypothesis was that responses to this type of government advertising, and to wider issues of immigration and immigration control, might be more nuanced than a yes/no answer, and so within a few days we organised volunteers in London, Birmingham and Leeds to go out on the street with a questionnaire and gather public views.

What we found, from an admittedly small sample of 200, was that 74% of our respondents said the ‘Go home’ phrase was not acceptable, and 63% did not agree with the van campaign. 79% believed that it was wrong to carry out immigration checks on the basis of skin colour, while 75% thought the spot checks had an impact on community relations.

By giving respondents the chance to go beyond simple Yes/No answers and record more complex comments if they wished, we found something quite striking. For example, in response to the question ‘Do you think immigration should be reduced?’, respondents tended to say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’ (28% said no; 30% were undecided; and 42% said yes). However, a large proportion of the people who said ‘yes’ went on to qualify that answer with additional comments indicating either that they thought immigration should be controlled, but that current policies were too harsh; or that they held more nuanced views about particular groups of migrants (refugees vs workers, or skilled vs unskilled migrants, for example). Breaking the ‘yes’ answers down further then, in our sample we had:

  • a ‘strongly yes’ group with comments like ‘yes, they take our jobs, NHS, housing, benefits’ (5% of the total sample);
  • a ‘simple yes’ group either without any additional comment, or comments like ‘there needs to be controls’ (23% of the total sample); and
  • a ‘yes, but’ group with comments like ‘yes, but not when reasons are genuine’ or ‘Once they are here, not send them back because this breaks families. They should not be allowed to come in the first place but once they are here should be allowed to stay’ (14% of the total sample).

Taking this into account makes it clear that views about immigration go beyond what can be captured by a choice between Yes and No; one interpretation of the results would be that 28% expressed themselves as definitely wanting to reduce immigration, 28% as definitely not wanting to reduce it, while 44% (‘undecided’ and ‘yes, but’) expressed more complex and nuanced views.

That quick turnaround was unlike the slow pace of much academic research, and while it was inspiring and exciting to work in that way it didn’t seem like it could be sustained long-term alongside all the other pressures on community organisations and academic workers. However, that flash research happened at the same time as a call for the Economic and Social Research Council’s pilot scheme for ‘urgent’ research. Alongside the survey work, a few of us were able to put together a detailed bid for a project to investigate these unfolding. We were successful and the resulting research project is now up and running.

Unlike much other research, the grant enables us to follow Home Office initiatives around immigration control (and in anticipation of the General Election) as they emerge. Most social research of this kind is limited necessarily to the analysis of events in the past. We have the luxury of following these events as they unfold before us – allowing a much fuller collection of contemporary commentary and a consideration of how public opinion and government campaigns interact, as each stage of our research informs the next, including engaging publics in an ongoing way, both face-to-face and online.

We understand that the formulation of policy around immigration may be experienced as a distant and unchangeable event for many migrants – and part of this project also seeks to register and map the odd gaps and connections between the world of policy-formation and the worlds where the impacts of policy are lived – but we also want to document the extensive manner in which those subject to the vagaries of immigration policy are political agents in their own right, participating and commenting or withdrawing and expressing cynicism in ways that echo the engagement of other political actors.

Public debates about migration continue – as do Home Office interventions. We will be attempting to map, analyse and engage in these debates as the project progresses. Watch this space.

Acknowledgements: The broader coalition of activists and academics who conducted the original street survey in the guise of AARX (Action Against Racism and Xenophobia) included Paolo Cardullo, Rita Chadha, Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg, Terese Jonsson, Elly Kilroy, Hannah Lewis, Jon Owen, Naaz Rashid, Ala Sirriyeh, Anne Marie Stewart, Walthamstow Migrants’ Action Group, and others, as well as the authors of this article.