On Friday afternoon, Boris Johnson’s social media accounts published this video to mark his one-year anniversary as UK Prime Minister. In it, he accepts the challenge of listing as many of his achievements as possible within two minutes.
Let’s set aside for a moment both political allegiances [this is a social media blog, not Guido Fawkes – Ed] and an analysis of the truthfulness of what Johnson says [we’re not a fact-checking service either – Ed]. On the face of it, this looks like an innovative piece of content, doesn’t it? Big on detail. High on entertainment. Full of Johnson’s quirky verbal and physical mannerisms.
It ticks all the boxes, right?
It does. I would even go so far as to say it’s one of the best pieces of original political content we have ever seen.
At least, I would if it was actually original. But it isn’t.
Here is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in November 2019. This video was produced to mark the end of her second year in office. In it, she accepts the challenge of listing as many of her achievements as possible within two minutes.
Hmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Imitation or plagiarism?
Ardern’s video went viral around the world. Nonetheless, I’d bet that only a tiny proportion of people who watched Johnson’s copycat version have seen it. He doesn’t acknowledge the all too obvious inspiration for his video at all. Of course, this means the vast majority will simply assume this is 100% original content.
Is that plagiarism? Actually, no, not really. While the video format and style is obviously the same as Ardern’s, the main content is, of course, about the achievements of Johnson’s government rather than Ardern’s.
Is it imitation? Yes, of course. You would have a hard time convincing anyone that the similarity between the two is an innocent coincidence. Particularly once you know that the two men behind Johnson’s social media strategy are also Kiwis.
What Johnson’s team has done here is what many social media users do whenever they see something go viral. They copy it, produce their own version and hope the same gold-dust rubs off on them. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as the saying goes.
However, what’s different here is that Johnson has a ready-made fan-base – 2.9 million followers on Twitter, 1.8 million on Facebook. He knows they will see and amplify his message. Content like this is virtually guaranteed to go viral.
Does the end justify the means?
You might ask: it’s inevitable someone will call Johnson out for copying, which will only cause outrage. So why do it?
Here’s why: outrage is a guaranteed winner on social media.
Let’s consider the reaction to the video’s publication. Initially, it’s viewed by Johnson’s social media followers. The majority of these are fans who will support his messages. Cue a flurry of likes, comments and shares, extending the post’s reach. High engagement also promotes the post’s status in social media algorithms, again amplifying reach.
Not all reaction was positive, of course. Johnson’s opponents were quick to highlight dubious claims. Others even called out the similarity to Ardern’s video. Cue a wave of negatively-driven comments and shares.
Here’s the thing, though. The algorithms don’t care whether comments or shares are positive or negative. To them, all engagement is good engagement. Even a negative comment has a positive effect.
Which means that Johnson’s social media team don’t care if they offend people. In fact, they actively want to provoke an emotional response. Such is the nature of politics that there will always be a mix of support and opposition. So the angrier people to the left of the political spectrum get, the more they comment and share, the better the content performs. It’s far more effective than posting bland, middle-of-the-road content that people shrug their shoulders at. In the same way that sex sells, so does provocation.
As an aside, even pointing out that this is a copycat video doesn’t really hurt. Johnson’s core fan-base will support him faithfully. His haters were never going to like it either way. And for those in between – is anyone really in that middle ground any more? – the benefit of getting more views far outweighs any negative impact.
The only real way to defeat this kind of content is to ignore it and accept that some people will take it at face value. The fire still burns, but at least you’re not throwing oil on it. Essentially, it’s a damage limitation exercise. It requires people to accept that they can’t rescue everyone from a burning building, in order to avoid even more casualties.
That, of course, is easier said than done.
With my professional social media hat on, I have to concede that this kind of emotive, red-rag-to-a-bull type content is hugely effective. Personally, I consider it to be unethical. But it is not illegal. From a pure performance perspective, the end justifies the means.
It doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.
Written by Tim Liew.