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


3 thoughts on “Can activism be funny?

  1. Nice review of an intriguing campaign. For my money the main effect of the Twitter campaign was to increase the sense of solidarity amongst detractors to what the Home Office was attempting to do and encourage them with the fact that they were not alone. I don’t if anyone, at this point in time at least, changed their view, but the emergence of a cohort of people who are self-consciously dissident when it comes to ‘get tough’ messages is a positive step. May be it fed into the very popular ‘What I vote UKIP’ parody of the last few weeks. May be it is the early sign of something that looks like a social justice movement in support of migrants is the months to come…..

  2. Thanks Don for these thoughtful comments – a strand coming out of the debate on Twitter seems to be the power of humour to build solidarity as you mention. Is it okay with you if we refer to your comments in our Twitter conversation?

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