Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after her.
In 1989, Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the world wide web. As we now know, it opened channels of international commerce and communication to everyone, with no strings attached. Despite having the opportunity to make billions from his work, Berners Lee made it openly accessible as a gift to humanity. This should open us to new ideas and new ways of thinking but it has instead solidified our pre-held convictions. One’s ability to customise the content we see, although convenient, has created echo chambers which are having drastic effects on politics, especially the EU referendum.
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow its users to streamline their content. This has the power to one sided accounts of stories and creates hive minds in communities of likeminded followers. It’s a fact that, when given options on news sources, we are more likely to select those which reflect our own ideology. This is especially damaging when considering that, according to a Pew poll, 63% of people said that Twitter and Facebook are their main sources of news as it allows ideologically homogeneous bubbles to be made on these sites. This does not open up debate but instead locks away supporters of different ideas and different candidates into clean and separate columns. Needless to say, when people of opposing views meet on these platforms, the outcome is rarely constructive. Taking part in debate, in recent times, appears to merely serve the purpose of reassuring oneself that they are right.
The effects of this can be found in the BrExit debate, especially when discussing immigration. According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, the British public believes that 31% of the British population is made up of foreign nationals. The estimated figure is 13%. When asked their reasons, 19% said their estimate was based upon information they had seen on TV and 16% claimed their estimate was based upon newspapers. 56% of people believed that some immigrants come into the country illegally and so they aren’t counted but even estimates that account for illegal immigration are only around 15%. These narratives, despite ‘old’ media always being influential, have been amplified by the internet. The Daily Mail is one of the most successful news sites in the world (based on traffic, not content) and they continually run damning stories about Britain’s border controls, which allows these beliefs to be cemented. This problem is of course not limited just to conservatives, the difference in perceptions also exists on the left. In the week of the referendum, Laurence Taylor put a full page ad in the Metro about immigration. The title was ‘Why can’t we cope with a 0.5%/yr rise in population’ and it was swiftly refuted by Population Matters. Despite half of a percent not sounding large, 330,000 new citizens a year is equivalent to a city the size of Cardiff.
These misconceptions were able to dominate the EU referendum debate, as misinformation was rampant throughout. False quotes, made up statistics and half-truths can be quickly shared to thousands of people before it can be challenged. The best example of this was the percentage of laws enforced in the UK that were made in Brussels. Estimates range from 13% to 65% and the campaigns could rally their support around either of these figures. Also, the £350 million figure, for example, was repeated enough among Leave campaigners so much that it was accepted as a fact by millions of voters, despite it being entirely fraudulent. Every credible financial organisation said that it was not true, yet it was still thrown around carelessly by the likes of Johnson, Stuart and Farage. Furthermore, when the Leave campaign publish misleading material implying that Turkey’s membership of the EU was imminent and all 75 million citizens would flock our shores, it solidified their support and tried to scare undecided voters. This went as far as the Minister for the Armed Forces, Penny Mordaunt, going on The Andrew Marr Show and blatantly lying about the veto process in the European Parliament. Experts and senior politicians tried to explain that Turkey had only agreed on one of the thirty five requirements for full membership but the message didn’t reach voters for a number of reasons. First, the ‘don’t think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’ problem where, when hearing Turkey’s membership of the EU being mentioned, it validates the claim as an area for debate and some get sold on the factless arguments that Vote Leave were peddling and secondly, the Eurosceptic press didn’t care about the response to Turkey’s membership because messages of fear and panic will always get more clicks than down to earth reporting. Until moderates can find a way to combat the primal and emotion led strategies that these campaigners employ, they will continue to be successful. There is little accountability on these sites and so when prominent Leave campaigners publicise all these false claims, they know that their posts are mostly read by supporters of the author, meaning that they will be accepted it as fact.
In many ways, this makes the modern form of campaigning redundant. In referenda, there are only two options. Unlike general elections where parties can win votes from parties close to them on the spectrum, direct democracy presents an all or nothing choice. The polls gave a pretty consistent answer through the campaign, the leave and remain camps always had somewhere between 40% and 50% of the vote with respondents saying they didn’t know almost always having getting between 10% and 20%. Graphs should have shown a negative correlation between time and undecided voters but they never did. The internet’s ability to deliver unaccountable Eurosceptic propaganda 24/7 without consequences meant that many voters had had their gut feeling entrenched by false information and that speeches and articles that could change their mind were filtered out of their timelines. Arguably, it shows that the two camps failed to make any substantial gains during the referendum trail. Polls the night before the vote showed remain had the lead, which could have led to many undecided voters turning out to vote Leave to give the government a kick, assuming that fellow undecided voters would go for the safer option.
The internet and social media has allowed for small hive minds to be created. These echo chambers are feeding misinformation and creating deep ruptures in the political system. Voters being close minded is nothing new, but the internet has allowed them to effectively lock themselves away from alternate views. It is disappointing to see a medium which should amplify and make the political discourse of this country more accessible being used instead to knowingly mislead people. Campaigning, both at home and abroad, needs to adapt to combat these populist and fear mongering leaders and burst their bubble.