Of Milk and Clowns – What an emoji might say about a London mayoral candidate

On 30th March 2021 Laurence Fox launched his bid to become the new Mayor of London. Taking notes from the finest political minds of this generation, he has decided to do it by writing on a bus. However, with Labour’s Sadiq Khan already polling at above 50 percent against Fox’s less than 1 percent, Fox doesn’t seem to have much of a fighting chance. Especially as he’s running as a candidate for his own political party. With his new “Reclaim Party” Fox appears to be trying to shake things up with policy proposals that are attempting to court the vote of the right of Britain. As of today, Fox’s twitter profile now has an emoji beside his name, the glass of milk. If you aren’t familiar with this emoji, while innocuous to most people, it is one also used by white supremacists and the alt-right. Appearing to first gain traction in 2018 #milktwitter, carrying milk to rallies and events, and the emoji all became part of the secret code, known as dog whistles, used by the alt-right to identify each other. A combination of an oblique reference to how Caucasian people are less likely to be lactose intolerant than other ethnic groups and a simpler imagery of whiteness, the glass of milk was added to the ever-growing plethora of right-wing signals. Gone are the days of secret handshakes and the weather in Jerusalem this time of year, emojis are now all the rage when it comes to meeting the right people.

But why have emojis become so popular as dog whistles that they are in a London Mayoral race?

Well, to investigate this we must first look back at why dog whistles have been used in the past. The alt-right certainly isn’t the first group to use them and they have been a mainstay of politics for a while.  The Southern Strategy developed by the USA’s GOP is a great example of how a dog whistle can go from secret code to key political strategy. ‘States’ Rights’ was used to appeal to right wing voters whilst simultaneously being impossible to prove by the Democrats as having racist undertones and links to the American Civil War. Reagan pushed this strategy further with speeches about “welfare queens”, drawing specific images in the mind of voters of black mothers who supposedly lived great lives on state welfare and had no intention of contributing to society. It didn’t matter if this was accurate, it sparked outrage that brought more media coverage and attention to his campaign. As people dissected his dog whistles, more right leaning people became aware of them and were drawn to Reagan’s messaging and right-wing views that aligned with their own. Dog whistles helped drive the “Shy Tory Factor” in the United States as right-wing views could be discussed more openly without appearing to be right wing.

Dog whistles continued to develop and be employed by groups to help communicate with each other and garner more attention. In the bowels of 4chan and other image boards, the trolls of the alt-right began employing two key trends of dog whistles – pre-existing and absurdist. The pre-existing dog whistles were adopted by the trolls to turn ordinary things from everyday life, such as the OK hand gesture, to symbols of white supremacy. This wasn’t just random however; the trolls deconstructed the hand gesture to show how it could represent “white power”. If you look “carefully” at it, the three upright fingers form a W and the finger and thumb form a P.  The absurdist dog whistles were symbols co-opted that supposedly had a deeper meaning. Two stand-out absurdist dog whistles are milk and clowns. The clown emoji and the word “honk” are used to describe people who had supposedly allowed “western culture” to be torn down and we are living in a “clown world” where everything has become a farce. Even within this dog whistle, another traditional dog whistle appears with “western culture” used by white supremacists and right wing extremists when trying to skirt around saying white people and white culture. Emojis have now come to form a new language in the alt-right. They are easy to identify, simple to use and present on smartphone device, and innocuous enough to fade into the background unless you are specifically looking for them.

This brings us back to Laurence Fox, and what his use of the milk emoji means for the polarisation of political culture in the UK. It certainly isn’t the first time that politicians have appear to have courted dangerous far right(-wing) views through their use of dog whistles. Donald Trump tweeted an image of himself as Pepe the Frog whilst he was on the campaign trail in 2015. This was later identified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. His relationship to the alt-right provided a strong power base that would do anything for him. Eventually this culminated in the Capitol riots on January 6th, 2021. Trump was able to legitimise the views of the alt-right and allow them to start entering mainstream discussion and politics. Laurence Fox appears to be attempting to follow in Trump’s footsteps. He has similar talking points on criticising left-wing groups such as BLM, a libertarian anti-lockdown stance, and trans-exclusionary language. Perhaps Fox believes that he will be able defy the pollsters and ride on a wave of “shy Tories”, who are further right on the spectrum that the mainstream Conservative party, and who will rally around his campaign. Perhaps he knows he will lose and is using this as a springboard to wider political aspirations and is using the mayoral election to create an support base for future campaigns. Perhaps he just likes milk. Regardless, the language of the alt-right has firmly entered British politics and has become the focal point of a campaign receiving a lot of media attention. Will this draw more alt-right views out into public, or create a strong left-wing backlash, or even both? Only time will tell.

Conor Keir, 12 April 2021