In unsure political times, one has to cling to particular certainties. Mark Francois’s face will grow redder and angrier the longer we delay Brexit. By January 2020, he should be visible from space. Chuka Umunna will, at some point, leave the Lib Dems to create a party called Alternative Change Politics, which he will leave within 45 minutes of registering it. Jeremy Corbyn will keep finding new and exciting ways to disappoint you. And regardless of who the new prime minister is, the government will continue to be absolutely rubbish at social media.
Last week the government announced it was setting up the adorably pathetic Office for Tackling Injustices, a new department that will use data and statistics to combat inequality across the country. It should be able to do a great deal of good in the four weeks it exists before Boris Johnson duly scraps it. To accompany the launch, Downing Street’s official Twitter account (a set of words that feel as incongruous and nauseating together as “fizzy cheese” and “Andrew Neil’s muscular thighs”) showed it was down with the kids by releasing a bafflingly crummy video.
It’s no coincidence that the most popular politicians on social media are furthest away from government
What conveys how hi-tech the government’s new Injustice Tacklers are better than a Clipart image of a laptop and Matrix-style graphics (possibly a reference to the way that the Tories have successfully managed to red-pill the entire country)? In some ways it’s an absolutely perfect video for the department – a tired idea quickly slapped together in an attempt to look vaguely relevant. Using statistics to inform government policy – it boasts. What a concept. I mean the idea has only been around for at least 900 years, since the creation of the Domesday Book, but still, good effort.
It might seem churlish to attack the government for a rubbish 10-second video – especially when there are so many other good reasons to attack it. It’s just an eye-wateringly bland attempt at PR, and maybe for this government’s purposes, that’s fine: given that Theresa May’s sole contribution to the internet has been a video of her dancing that’s so cringeworthy it can reset broken toes, perhaps bland is the least bad option. Will a new prime minister change the government’s attitude to social media? Probably not – even if @10DowningStreet did allow for more of a PM’s personality to come through, Boris Johnson’s recent attempt at showing that he was a regular human man – by claiming to enjoy making models of buses out of wineboxes – made him sound like Hannibal Lecter had taken up an arts and crafts course, so his handlers probably won’t cede too much control. Compared to his rival, Jeremy Hunt is good on social media – but that’s a low bar.
To me, however, the personality of the prime minister isn’t the definitive reason as to why the government is terrible at social media. You could elect veritable Twitter legends, such as Lewis Capaldi, or that account that just posts the best bits from The Simpsons, and they’d still come up against an inherent contradiction. The UK government – and all governments – needs its PR to be positive, clear and authoritative, but the internet is an anarchic place of parody, chaos and concepts taken to extremes. It thrives on conflict – where innocent questions about whether one should put peanut butter on buttered toast can descend into screaming matches – while government is (traditionally) based on compromise and nuance in private, and then putting on a brave face in public. It’s no coincidence that the most popular politicians on social media are furthest away from government – and when they do get into government, their inability to compromise makes it impossible for them to actually govern, slowing everything to a standstill. To mangle a Mario Cuomo quote, modern politicians campaign in memes, but govern in 15,000-word Medium posts.
What’s the answer to this dichotomy? Does the government change itself, or does it try to change the internet? My new BBC Radio 4 sitcom British Troll Farm imagines a world where they go for the second option, by setting up a new secret military unit dedicated to fighting misinformation on the internet, called the Department of Social Media Trend Orchestration. Do they succeed in carefully massaging the zeitgeist to their own ends, or do they fail miserably? You’ll have to listen on Friday to find out, but it’s obviously the latter. Ultimately the show is about the futility of trying to control chaos. Given the unpredictability of social media, the way that stories can snowball and take on lives of their own, maybe on this occasion the UK government have got it right – maybe being bland is the safest option.
• Jack Bernhardt is a comedy writer and occasional performer. British Troll Farm is on BBC Radio 4 on Friday