When Theresa May called the 8 June snap general election, she hoped to frame it around a national debate on Brexit. Instead, for a large chunk of people reading the new breed of online left-wing news outlets, it became a debate about how the Conservatives treat animals.
Michael Gove's announcement that the government will consult on a near-complete ban on the trade in antique ivory – which activists say is used as a cover for the illegal ivory trade – can be seen as one of the first times that the new breed of pro-Corbyn online news have managed to force an issue on to the national political agenda with little help from established media.
No news editor at a mainstream news outlet noticed – or, if they did, considered it especially noteworthy – that the Conservative manifesto did not renew an explicit 2015 manifesto pledge to ban the trade on ivory. With a prime minister under fire during a faltering campaign and facing a rebellion over her dementia tax policy, it was considered small fry.
The British public, who have their own news values, felt otherwise.
Data collated during the election campaign by BuzzFeed News shows that in the final week of May, more people shared stories on social media about the Tories' ivory policy than about the prime minister's U-turn on the dementia tax.
YouGov polling after the election found that 14% of the public said they recalled the ivory ban, despite the story only gaining traction online in the final fortnight of the campaign. The figure rose to 30% among those aged 18 to 24 years old.
The story emerged after a minor report in the trade magazine Antiques Trade Gazette reported that the Tories' original pledge had been watered down "following lobbying of politicians and civil servants by antiques industry trade bodies". The 2015 Tory manifesto pledged "a total ban on ivory sales", while the 2017 made a vague reference to protecting endangered species.
This trade report was picked up by the left-wing blogger Tom Pride, who linked it to an alleged lobbying campaign by the then Conservative Kensington MP Victoria Borwick, who is president of the British Antique Dealers’ Association.
This really cut through to the general public thanks to an incredibly viral story on the Evolve Politics website that featured a thumbnail picture of a laughing Theresa May standing next to Borwick as a baby elephant mourned its dead mother. The message, shared 70,000 times and seen by substantially more sets of eyeballs, was not exactly subtle: Tories kill elephants.
The internet loved it. In the supposedly real world of political debate – of talking heads on TV and a cohesive national news agenda – it was an irrelevant minor aside. In the fractured world of online political news, it was swamping people's Facebook timelines.
Days later, more mainstream outlets such as The Independent, having spotted the story go viral and reach hundreds of thousands of readers, joined in with their own takes – but it was Tom Pride and Evolve who had pushed it mainstream, where it sat alongside other stories about the Conservatives allowing a free vote on the return of fox hunting.
"We were one of the first outlets to report on it, we had that mix of animal rights and the lobbying efforts," Evolve Politics' Matt Turner, who says the story worked because it combined affection for elephants with a suspicion of Tory motives, told BuzzFeed News. "The Conservatives are beholden to corporate interests and big business and that was why the story cut through so much."
Crucially, it plays into the standard online news tactic, which sees niche symbolic issues go more viral than broad conceptual stories about, say, the state of the economy.
"This is a niche issue which not many people spoke about prior to our story. It’s nice to see us having a tangible influence on the British public," added Turner. "There’s a lot of stuff out there the British public would be more incensed about than the ivory. It’s all about us coming up with the headlines and moulding a narrative.”
A week after the initial wave of ivory stories during the election campaign, Andrea Leadsom used a column on the activist website ConservativeHome to reaffirm her commitment to restricting the ivory trade.
It's hard to directly connect Gove's policy announcement to the viral stories; many celebrities, politicians, and royals had already called for a total ban, and former environment secretary Leadsom had already announced a partial review of UK ivory trading legislation before the general election, which currently allows the trade in ivory objects carved before 1947.
One anti-ivory activist said Gove was "perplexed" by the lack of a total ban when he took over the portfolio, and praised his decision to act swiftly and implement a more complete ban. They pointed out that the US and China had recently adopted similar policies, and with Britain hosting a conference on illegal wildlife trading next year, it could be embarrassing if there's no movement on the issue.
What's clear is that political awareness of the issue in Conservative circles increased rapidly during the election as a result of viral stories from left-wing news sites: Mark Wallace, writing on the activist ConservativeHome website, mentioned ivory as one of the topics that blindsided Tory HQ during the campaign.
"Considering they removed it from the manifesto and there was no consultation, we thought it wasn’t going to happen," Maria Mossman of the Action for Elephants group told BuzzFeed News. "And then they’ve done this massive U-turn. It’s a very welcome move.”
The potential electoral damage of the policy was driven home when Borwick, the MP with links to the antiques industry pictured in the incredibly viral stories next to the dying elephant, lost the safe Tory seat of Kensington to Labour's Emma Dent Coad by 20 votes.
Mossmand has one theory: "We think that had something to do with the ivory trade."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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