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The menace of memes: how pictures can paint a thousand lies

29 November 2014

12:14 PM

29 November 2014

12:14 PM

It’s very fashionable these days to be despondent about the quality of our politicians. They’re all lazy liars who look only to their interests and neglect their duties to their constituents because they’d rather be grunting and snorting around a trough before sticking their snouts in it. And while the expenses scandal, resignations and court cases show that a lot of anti-politics sentiment has been provoked by the politicians themselves, it’s worth remembering that not every accusation levelled at Westminster is fair.

Over the past couple of years, a trend for internet memes about politicians has grown. Those graphics tend to juxtapose two images from Parliament, one showing lots of MPs apparently very interested in something, another with a handful of sleepy politicians loafing about on the Commons benches. Naturally, the first image bears a caption suggesting that MPs are debating something that benefits them personally, while the second claims they’re voting on something that affects very vulnerable people. Here’s one example.


Shocking, isn’t it? But mostly shocking that so many people have been taken in by what is a big fat lie. The bottom image claims to be from 11 July 2013. There was no debate on pay that day, which was a Thursday. There are often fewer MPs in the House on a Thursday. So this image is from the wrong day. I’ve combed the PA images archive and, surprise, surprise, it’s not from a debate about pay in 2013. It’s from Prime Minister’s Questions on 5 September 2012. Here’s that picture in slightly better quality.

Prime Minister's Questions,  5 September 2012. Picture: PA

Prime Minister’s Questions, 5 September 2012. Picture: PA

The top image is from a backbench debate in which a Labour MP called for a review into the impact of welfare reforms after a petition. It is poorly-attended because the debate had, by this point, been going on for a while. A screen grab from the start and close of the debate would have shown a more packed chamber. When debates go on for several hours, MPs often pop in and out as they have other business going on at the same time. They may be in a select committee, meeting constituents, taking part in a Westminster Hall debate, running an all-party parliamentary group meeting, briefing journalists, plotting a rebellion with colleagues or working in their office. They were all whipped by their respective parties to vote on this motion. But even though speaking in the debate gave MPs an opportunity to put their point of view across, it changed nothing because the type of debate meant the result of the vote was in no way binding on the government.

Here’s another image, from something called the ‘Coalition of Resistance: Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’, which a very intelligent friend of mine shared on Facebook this morning:



Good, grief, look at how many MPs are debating their expenses! That image on the bottom left struck me as a bit strange when I zoomed in. When you’re used to looking down on the tops of MPs’ heads from the Commons press gallery, you get quite used to what Parliament looks like from above. And I didn’t recognise that Parliament. The hair looked different, frankly. I was right not to recognise it: when this debate took place, I was preparing to take my A-levels. It was 27 January 2004, when MPs voted on the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill to introduce top-up fees. Here’s that picture in better quality from the Press Association archive.

Voting takes place in the House of Commons during the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill on 27 January 2004 which introduces controversial university tuition fees. Picture: PA

Voting takes place in the House of Commons during the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill on 27 January 2004 which introduces controversial university tuition fees. Picture: PA

Given university fees are still a big debate a decade later, surely even the Coalition of Resistance acolytes might be quite grateful parliamentarians bothered to turn up for that.

The next image claims to be a debate on MPs’ pay. Well, I suppose if you count MPs coming into the House of Commons on the first day of the new Parliament after the 2010 election a debate on MPs’ pay then maybe. But you can read the Hansard here, just to be sure.

A general view of the House of Commons, London, as MPs gather for the first time since the General Election on 18 May 2010. Picture: PA

A general view of the House of Commons, London, as MPs gather for the first time since the General Election on 18 May 2010. Picture: PA

The screenshots at the top of that graphic may well be more accurate. For instance, here is the video of that vote to recognise Palestine. It doesn’t show a particularly packed Chamber.

But even here it is worth remembering that this was a non-binding vote that caused a great deal of debate outside the Chamber.

I do have some sympathy for some of the frustration that people feel when they flick on BBC Parliament and do see only five sleepy MPs sitting in the Chamber apparently debating ‘the impact of welfare reform on disabled people’ or something with a very serious title like that. It immediately appears as though the politicians do not care about this very serious subject – when the reality is that this is an Opposition Day debate that makes no difference to the way the government runs its affairs or sets policy.

You might argue that, for many MPs, it is more constructive to be outside the Chamber during those sessions if they can influence government policy by scrutinising it in other ways. A select committee, for example, or writing parliamentary questions, briefing journalists on the failure of a certain policy or taking a delegation of MPs to lobby the Prime Minister. But very few people understand the different sorts of Commons business and assume that everything that takes place in the Chamber has the same import. It doesn’t.

Journalists (like me) who cover parliament don’t help if we assume that everyone knows the difference between an opposition debate and a vote on a Government bill. Or if we suggest that a Labour vote on housing benefit is a ‘crunch vote.’ Such votes can be talked up, in an effort to encourage readers to view Parliament with the same excitement and sense of drama that us strange Westminster Village hermits do.

And perhaps if trust in politicians were higher, these memes wouldn’t be shared so uncritically as people would think there was something rum about them. But I suspect that the lack of suspicion about what the graphics purport to show doesn’t just arise because MPs have let us down. It’s also because of a failure to read the internet critically (read this fascinating Demos report on trust in the internet) and a lack of knowledge about what Parliament does and how it works. These memes certainly aren’t doing any explaining, they are deceitfully spreading lies.

It is quite easy to end up writing about the problems with parliament and the failings of politicians. Our assumption tends to be that the problems with politics today lie solely in Westminster. But these memes show that mendacity is found outside SW1 as well as in it. If we must hold our politicians in revulsion – rather than recognising that they’re no more (or less) flawed than the rest of us  – then we should at least also hold those who create these totally inaccurate graphics in even lower esteem.

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Show comments
  • Morseman

    Well done, Ms. Hardman.
    There are websites purporting to be informative that misuse precisely this technique to fool the gullible. I have challenged articles accompanied by photos on Breitbart and others, clearly run by and for supporters of Brexit.
    In some case the deliberate disinformation is worthy of the nefarious Dr. Goebbels and his department.
    Oh, I’ve just seen the date of the original article!
    Never mind, it is still valid.

  • Authoritarian “liberal”

    America is way better than the UK by every possible metric.

  • D Cripps

    Excellent article. Fauxtography is such a useful (and sometimes lethal) disinformation tool for blaming someone or some people for something they did not do.

  • wibbling

    Yet when expenses were discussed the chamber was full. Same for MPs pay. Most of the rest of the time it’s empty – because the majority of the work isn’t done there, but in meeting rooms between MPs across parties.

    The pictures might show the wrong day but the information – the selfish interests of the vast majority of MPs – remains evident.

  • Tom Farrow

    High quality journalism, now that’s the kind of article I want to read. Factual and without the kind of slant that’d have a mountain climber worried.

  • Woman In White
  • Sue Smith

    One can easily see how shockingly overcrowded the House of Commons now is; that picture tells a thousand words. Time for a new parliament building.

    • Valentino

      Or some system that sends fewer representatives into the Commons, while still minimizing the number of people voting for a single member. Perhaps two tiers of selection, rather than only one. Constituents vote for mid-tier representatives, and the mid-tier rep’s vote for MPs.

    • wibbling

      Rather ‘time for fewer MPs’. We have parish councils, city councils, county councils, mayors, MPs, lords and the whole edifice of clerks, bureaucrats and assorted hangers on. We just don’t needthem. They add to the tax bill and return no value.

      We need less government that is more accountable to the people. True democracy.

      • Sue Smith

        True democracy!! Ah, but what’s that? We don’t have it at present.

  • mshelike

    Not a very convincing argument, attacking what is in principle, a valid viewpoint. The house only bothers to turn up for PMQT because there’s a chance their Constituents might be watching. I watch BBC parliament frequently and the meme is more accurate than this article.

    • Duke_Bouvier

      More accurate? That MPs are more concerned to vote on their pay and benefits that on issues of national importance?

  • FrankS2

    Why has the Speccie stopped dating articles? Never mind complaining about dishonest pictures… this article – tagged as most read! – is two months old!

    • Valentino

      The best that I can tell from the interface that I get is that the article is a year old. I have no idea now.

      There is a very simple standard for this — put the article date beside the author name, either right above or right below the title. My preference is to also list there the location or locations of authorship. I’m not sure why people have decided that this is a bad idea.

      • Mary Ann

        It’s even older now.

        • theresa louise

          Strange how an article from 2014 is now one of the ‘most popular’ articles, isn’t it?

    • Mary Ann

      So it must now be 4 months old.

      • Todd Unctious

        Nearly Isabel’s mental age.

  • trace9

    & – That ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’/Meme..?

  • David Britten

    These memes may be deceptive, but they make a valid point. There are many videos showing Jeremy Corbyn addressing the house on very important matters, to almost empty benches, and not just for a few moments. There are other videos showing other MPs trying to put valid arguments across to a few MPs lolling about, seemingly taking a break from their constituencies, and not especially interested in what they were hearing.

    • lard

      Ah, that old chestnut!

      People lie about something I disagree with: “Outrage! Scandal! We must stop these lies!”

      People lie about something I agree with: “Weeeeeell, it’s the SENTIMENT that’s important.”

      Next time the Daily Mail print a load of lies or sensationalised, racist gubbins, we can perhaps just say that it’s “deceptive, but make a valid point”, can we?!

      • David Britten

        No we can’t. A picture can make a point to expose the behaviour of our representatives, which can be confirmed by live broadcasts from Parliament, but a published statement that is not true is a lie, and there is nothing sentimental about a lie.

        • scully1888

          If the picture is illustrating something different to what is claimed then it isn’t “exposing” anything any more than a written lie would be.

          • David Britten

            A picture does not claim anything. It merely illustrates a point. And who is to say that the point it makes is wrong?

            • osseocarnisan

              Anyone, if the picture is not of what it is claimed to be.

    • TrT

      Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn was less of a hectoring lecturing bore, he would have people willing to listen to him….
      I wouldnt turn up to a Corbyn lecture, I wouldnt expect an MP who represented me to either.

      • David Britten

        I’m pretty sure you would be rather unwelcome at a Corbyn rally (not a lecture) as you would be taking the place of the many who might be unable to get in due to the numbers who do not find him a bore and do not regard his message as lecturing but more an expression of hope, as opposed to creation of despair in the electorate, which is the technique of right wing governments to create apathy that maintains their power.

  • mikewaller

    “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
    C. H. Spurgeon, Gems from Spurgeon (1859). An earlier version appears in thePortland (Me.) Gazette, Sept. 5, 1820: “Falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on.” Still earlier, Jonathan Swift wrote in The Examiner, Nov. 9, 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

    I dug out the above because it is highly pertinent. Dear old Robert Scruton was on “A point of view” just over a week ago dishing out his usual simplistic laissez faire sophistries about the desirability of everybody being allowed to say exactly what they like with reliance being placed on counter-arguments or better information to squash lies and nonsense. This piece shows what rubbish that is. My guess is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will view the false pictures whilst those reading this thoughtful article will be numbered in the thousands at best. At the very least, the leading political parties should each chip in a few of their political broadcast minutes to “out” this disgusting travesty of freedom of expression.

    • King Kibbutz

      I take it you refer to Roger Scruton.
      I highly recommend his latest book: ‘Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.

      Simplistic laissez-faire sophistry it ain’t.

  • Teacher

    Interesting research into how the media manipulates us. It’s hardly surprising that credulous teenagers are radicalised online in a matter of weeks though everyone who sits a GCSE in English has necessarily to do some media analysis which involves considering sources and the difference between fact and opinion.

  • Joe Allen – Welsh Derek Smith

    Not interested when they attend. Interested in how they vote. And of they are listening.

  • Stephen Spawls

    I read The Spectator for articles like this. Sensible discussion, based on some decent research, debunking some of the sensationalist garbage posted on social media.

    • King Kibbutz

      I read it for Fraser’s bar charts; they’re so lovely.

      • Todd Unctious

        Despite being largely inaccurate.

  • Richard Eldritch

    I think it’s terrible to post such horrid images when our good and noble MPs have done so much for us. Narf.

  • Clive

    I believe you are right, Ms Hardman – for what it’s worth. MPs are underrated.

    The internet has supplied a vehicle for being noticed. It does not matter how you are noticed, only that you are. It never fails to astonish me the lengths people will go to to get their faces on television. The internet is second best.

    Ms Hardman may be too young to remember the ‘chain letter’ which became chain email before the social media existed. It would say something like ‘my child has cancer and if you just pass this email on to 10 people you will help her’. The only purpose of these emails was for the sender to feel some ego inflation at having impacted large numbers of people with the hoax. They were repulsive.

    The same is almost certainly true of these Houses of Parliament hoaxes. The hoaxers just want to put something ‘believable’ into social media which will have more chance of being passed on because of the emotion – in this case anger – raised by the issue. Hopefully, users of social media will become inured to it as users of any email did to the chain emails. Publicising the issue can only help with that.

    Personally, I think the MPs’ expenses scandal has also been inflated. I don’t think many MPs acted badly – they were given bad advice. Above all I go by the maxim, what would I have done if I had been him/her ? In many cases, it may well have been the same as they did.

    On another point, I just watched PMQs and I noticed that Steve Double who is an MP for a constituency in Cornwall was wearing a badge which looked like a poppy on a Cornish flag. I also noticed on the last ‘This Week’ that Alex Salmond was wearing a poppy on a Scottish flag although I did not notice any among SNP MPs at PMQs today.

    I hope that is not a trend that will continue.

    Surely the UK can be united on its respect for dead service people.

    • David Britten

      The anger that inspires the hoaxes is derived from the behaviour of MPs, their corruption, greed and self-interest, and I think much of it is earned and deserved….

      • Todd Unctious

        MPs are by and large narcissists. They hold a too high opinion of themselves . This is not healthy.

    • wibbling

      Write to your Mp and instruct him how to vote on a specific issue – one where your views disagree with his.

      He is your employee. He is paid to serve you and represent your views. Watch when he votes along party lines and not how to command him to. Now are MPs underrated? They are disobedient, ineffectual, expensive, overpaid wasters who refuse the basics of referism, recall and basic democratic accountability.

      • Duke_Bouvier

        Bizarre. You think one letter from one activist should be a binding instruction to an MP. Maybe he got two letters for the opposite view.

        Anyway, our MPs are representatives not delegates. He or she is not your employee – they are not even our collective employee.

  • Rupert Williams

    Clear signs of journalistic capture here.

    Credit to Miss Hardman for doing some research, which is rare these days. And compared to the quality of politicians in most other countries I dare say ours are marginally less venal, lazy and incompetent.

    Why is it therefore that they have dedicated themselves for 50 years to handing soveriegnty away to an unelected body in Brussels which is widely known to be the most vennal lazy and incompetent body of legislators in what passes for the civilized world? and when confronted by an angry electorate on this, they refuse to allow a free and fair referendum, instead trying (and failing dismally of course) to string us along with nonsense about a wholly fatuous and invented renogotiation??

    Government spending is higher than ever which means by definition that waste is also higher than ever as the two are inseparable.

    Intrusion into and regulation of individuals’ private lives is continuing at an ever increasing pace.

    The government has quite visibly lost control of, and interest in, its core functions of protecting our borders, our people and preventing crime.

    And, and and… this is a very smug piece and does not reflect in the slightest the anger that any dispassionate observer must feel at seeing our affairs so grossly mismanaged.

    • Clive

      …this is a very smug piece…

      I got no such sense from it. Indeed, I thought it a little desperate in its endeavour to combat a very widespread prejudice.

      • Rupert Williams

        It is smug in the sense that it seems to want to say that MPs are jolly decent much maligned chaps, whereas the truth to anybody who cares to look, is that the country is actually rather badly governed, and MPs have failed on every level to hold the government to account, a situation that has been going on for decades.

        It is a miracle that things are not worse than they are, which owes more to the decency and efforts of the general populace than being any credit to parliament.

    • osseocarnisan

      Do dispassionate observers feel anger?

  • 98abaile

    This is the kind of journalism I want to read. Forgoing a sensationalist story and researching to find and deliver the truth. Bravo Ms. Hardman.

  • amicus

    I agree with the article. However “us strange Westminster Village hermits” grated somewhat. For “us” read “we”.

    • Clive

      You int dahn wiv der kids pal

  • PaulOnBooks

    A rather long-winded way of saying that people lie about politicians – which is ironic when you think about it.

  • Jeffreyoore

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  • Paul Wilson

    Yes but when they were in the chamber did they at any time think that they would rather not be there because according to the nonsense that was claimed by the media about Nicola Sturgeon it therefore must be true.

  • Don

    Just because the illustrative graphic is fictional doesn’t mean that they aren’t a bunch of expense fiddling wastrels. Point taken, though. Memes are mostly about the nonsensical prejudices of the creators and have less than nothing to do with facts.