How the power of the meme brought down Bronwyn Bishop

By Charles Purcell

I knew the exact moment that Bronwyn Bishop was not destined to survive as Speaker of the House. It was when I spotted the first Bronwyn Bishop “helicopter meme” on the net.
It started simply enough: a picture of a flying helicopter with the words “Bronwyn Bishop: giving a mate a lift to the shops”. The “Choppergate” meme made me laugh. And the number of “likes” and “shares” on social media told me other people thought it funny, too.

Like any clever meme, from Grumpy Cat and Keanu Reeves to Game of Thrones, I wanted to see more. And so did everyone else.
Soon it became the meme that just kept on giving. Then there was “Bronwyn Bishop walking her dog”, complete with helicopter and dog on a leash – “Bronwyn Bishop saves Mick Fanning”, featuring a copter and a shark – proof that this was a living meme that could adapt to circumstances – “Bronwyn Bishop doing her washing” (copter and clotheslines, naturally) – Bronnie as Arnie uttering his immortal line from Predator, “Get to the choppa!” – and more.

Social media seized Bishop’s scandal and refused to let it go, giving it precious oxygen beyond the usual day-or-two scandal cycle. An old-school politician was facing down a new-school social media phenomenon … and it was 50-50 which one would break first.

There was something perfect about the Choppergate memes that everyone could understand. It was a simple formula: add Bishop plus helicopter and a third element, stir, and presto – instant satire. The chopper was a visual indicator that would become as famous as John Howard’s hair and eyebrows or Peter Garrett’s baldness.
And it was funny. Perhaps if the scandal had been purely po-faced and serious – an argument about some inscrutable issue that the public could barely understand – it would have withered away.

But a pollie taking a $5000 helicopter ride for a trip she could have easily taken by car? A political fat cat flying in the face of public opinion with an act of ridiculous extravagance? That was something everyone on the interwebs could easily get behind. Its humour stoked the fire until it grew to the point where it threatened to burn the government.

Bishop’s pillorying on social media continued even after she quit her speaker, with the #putoutyourwallets hashtag quickly trending on Twitter. Many took to the site to post photos of their wallets outside of doors in faux sympathy for Bronwyn. “Twitter at its finest” commented more than one wag.



So, if you don’t know, what is a meme?

To quote, a meme is “a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable”.

You could argue about whether a meme really is a parasitic code. But what we saw with the Bishop memes was indeed a “pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means”. In this case, funny photos with amusing captions underneath as mentioned above. Like a picture, a meme can be worth 1000 words. And anyone can make and share one if they have some basic program knowledge.

It’s a very democratic art form.
Talk to anyone Generation X or younger and they’ll know all about memes: hell, they probably share dozens of them with friends each week.

They are a form of short, sharp humour where the gag hits you in a second. They are the successor to the amusing newspaper caption or the stand-up one-liner, a pithy expression of the visual paired with often devastating wit.
And what’s more, because they’re shared on the internet, they never go away. Bishop was never going to escape the snowballing effect of her meme: the number of people who were going to see and laugh at them was only going to grow and grow. Choppergate is over, but those memes can now be Googled forever.

There are few truly successful Australian political memes, but Choppergate was a true cracker, a real “virus of the mind” and a litmus test for Bishop’s fate in the real world.
I wonder if younger folk on both sides of the political spectrum were warning their elders about the meme: the Labor side pointing out how effective and funny the meme was, and the Liberal side despairing that the meme proved to be an online poll about how interested the public was in Choppergate.
I’ll leave the arguing about the finer details of Choppergate to the newspaper pundits and TV talking heads. All I can report on is what I witnessed as a meme lover.

But the ultimate lesson for any politician must be this – make sure anything you do can’t be turned into a funny meme.
Otherwise it might be your face being shared mockingly on social media.

Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99). He is also the author of the unpublished book The Last Newspaper on Earth, which he’s considering rewriting as a zombie thriller entitled Zombies Ate My Newspaper.