I’m in Hastings researching the campaign to stop raw sewage pollution, and the digital content and data it generates. One of the things that has struck me most is the high level of activity and engagement on the community Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Links and images are shared almost daily. A main source of content is news stories. And in among the depressing headlines, there are a lot of memes.

Since I arrived in Hastings in early May, the sewage crisis, or issues relating it, has been in the news every day. From the mains water outage (I had no running water for my first 3 days), contaminated drinking water, regulatory malpractice to straightforward raw sewage pollution, the UK’s water infrastructure is constantly under scrutiny.

But while the water companies have been the subject of negative news stories for many years now, problems with our water supply, and water contamination in general, seem only to be getting worse.

The purpose of memes

The level of public frustration is clear in the memes that are being circulated. A meme is a piece of media, often humorous, that spreads rapidly online, typically in the form of an image or video, and often carrying cultural or social commentary.

The raw sewage crisis is a prime example of how memes can play a role in public discourse, bringing attention to environmental issues while providing a collective outlet for political hopelessness, creating a community-level coping strategy.

I guess raw sewage pollution is a perfect topic for the great British sense of humour – bawdy seaside postcard combined with good old fashioned toilet humour mixed with despairing political sarcasm.

The memes I’ve seen have fallen broadly into three categories:

1. Political satire

Satirical cartoons and edited images create some of the best memes. The UK’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was soaked with rain as he stood outside 10 Downing Street in mid-May to announce the General Election. It didn’t take long before this news image was edited to depict him wading away from the podium, knee-deep in sewage. This image juxtaposed the Prime Minister’s assurance that he has a good plan with the grim reality swimmers, paddle-boarders and surfers feel they’re facing every day (let alone the marine life)!

Raw sewage memes - Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street, edited to appear as if he is wading through sewage

Meanwhile in Brixham this month, Devon, people were being told they should boil their water before drinking, after an outbreak of vomiting and diarrhea caused by the Cryptosporidium virus. South West Water sent a notice to affected residents after the UK’s Health Security Agency confirmed 22 known cases of people being infected by the bug. Soon a pretty image of Brixham was circulating online, overlaid with a Wateraid logo and a mock campaign tagline: “Just £2 a month can provide clean drinking water for the people of Brixham”. Not just a reference to the lack of clean drinking water, but also throwing shade at the water companies’ request to raise household bills across the UK.

 

A mock campaign for WaterAid asking for money to help the people of Brixham

2. Pop culture mashups

Another prevalent meme style is the mashup of the sewage crisis with iconic scenes from adverts, TV shows, or other pop culture phenomena. These memes often use recognizable characters or scenarios to make the situation more relatable and highlight the absurdity of the crisis.

As the situation in Brixham continued, with some residents saying that South West Water was sending out conflicting information, a screenshot of an old TV ad was shared on one of my WhatsApp chats, with the caption “Do you have a copy of ‘It’s probably safer to just drink your own p**s,’ by South West Water?”

This particular shot is from the classic 1980s TV ad for Yellow Pages (for those who don’t remember – Yellow Pages was a printed directory of local businesses, with a bright yellow cover and pages), where an elderly author contacts booksellers to try to find a copy of his out-of-print book.

Raw sewage memes - classic 1980s TV ad

Image referencing the classic 1980s TV ad for Yellow Pages

3. Pure slapstick

The final category for memes has been those with pure silly or slapstick humour. There were many photographs – either edited or images taken from real life – where the words “swimming pool” had been edited to read “swim in poo”. This image from Margate in Kent was shared by a Facebook group member on the Hastings Paddle-out event page.

Raw sewage memes - swim in poo

Edited swimming pool sign in Margate, Kent

The impact of memes

While memes are usually seen as lighthearted, their impact on serious issues like the sewage crisis can be profound. They democratise information, making it accessible and engaging to a broader audience. Memes also serve as a form of digital protest, rallying public opinion and raising awareness. They can encourage dialogue and also provide light relief, helping people deal with frustration and despair through shared humour.

The UK’s raw sewage crisis is a sobering environmental disaster, but the memes it has generated show how humour and social media can play a critical role in public debate. By transforming outrage and concern into shareable content, these memes ensure that the crisis remains visible and help calls for change to continue to resonate. In a world where serious issues are often overwhelming, a good meme can be a powerful tool for advocacy.

Join me for the paddle-out in Hastings on 18 May