An encounter with a leave-supporting protester outside Parliament this week led me, as an information scientist, to look again at the role of social media and the Internet in the Brexit debate.
I asked this person, who I call X here, what I thought was a simple question. The conversation went like this
Me: “Why do you want to leave the EU?”
X: “We voted out”
X: “We voted out”
Me: “Why did you vote out?”
X: “It’s the Lisbon Treaty”
Me: “What’s the issue with the Lisbon Treaty?”
There were some rather vague responses to this which seemed to me to have come directly from a post which circulated widely earlier this year on leave supporting social media. Comments on this post by Steve Peers, Professor of EU Law at Essex University, have identified several items of seriously misleading information in the post. Peers cited the actual treaty legislation in his response. Nothing can be nearer the truth than that.
X: “They are the Fourth Reich”
X repeated this several times and so I asked X what the evidence was for this.
X: “A youtube video”
A person standing next to X whom I call Y, then informed me that the published EU referendum result was a fraud and that the real number of people who voted remain was 6 million. I asked Y what the evidence was. Y had read it on the Internet.
I have read plenty of misleading and incorrect information about the UK’s membership of the EU online but this contact with real people who believe these things gave me a big jolt. Just how many voters have been influenced by misinformation peddled by those who have ulterior motives?
I felt both sad and angry. Sad that people can be so easily influenced by such misleading information. Angry that this had led them to support an extreme right-wing view which is at odds with the tolerant and fair society which the UK used to be, and which, in my view, is being driven by wealthy hedge fund owners trying to escape the EU’s clampdown on offshore tax avoidance and by wealthy business owners who want to get rid of the EU’s regulations which protection workers’ rights and the environment.
I have been in computing long enough to have witnessed the beginning of the Internet and have participated in meetings which have discussed the likely impact of a free for all information platform. Overall the Internet has been a force for the good, but early on there was concern that it would be used to disseminate misinformation and influence people in this way. This is clearly now happening in a big way.
The onus is placed firmly on the user to evaluate what they see and read, but there do seem to be serious concerns about people’s ability to do this. I think the problem is compounded because the Internet encourages people to gravitate to sites which support their views. This reinforces their views rather than encouraging them to examine alternative approaches.
The seeds of this have been around for a long time, but they were exploited mercilessly by Dominic Cummings, the architect of the leave campaign. Cummings now appears to be running the country as Johnson’s senior adviser and using similar tools again to influence voters as the Brexit debacle continues.
The two messages Cummings concentrated on in 2016 were (1) that we send £350 million per week to the EU, implying that this money could be spent on the NHS, and (2) that Turkey would be joining the EU.
A little research shows that the annual contribution from the UK to the EU is £9-10 billion per year – the amount varies slightly each year because of the way this figure is calculated. The actual weekly contribution is therefore around half of £350 million.
The implication that this money could be spent on the NHS is misleading because (1) it implies that the UK would save the EU contribution to spend on other things; it does not allow for the fact that the UK gets back about 5 times what it contributes to the EU in benefits and cost savings and (2) it was not known how much Brexit would cost – it turns out that this is billions already.
There is an excellent wikipedia article on Turkey’s application to join the EU. It is clear from this that Turkey, especially with its current government, has a long way to go to meet membership requirements. More than likely this was Cummings’ second message because Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country and he was inflaming concerns about immigration which people may remember was the focus of much of the debate in 2016.
This morning (29 September) I have seen that there are thousands of comments on an article on the Mail Online using the emotive words which have been so roundly condemned this week. I’m waiting for a response other than a down arrow to my simple question asking why the so-called Benn bill is a “surrender”.
Where to go now? I do think that our education system has plenty to answer for. It is perhaps no coincidence that the demographics of leave voters show a majority of older people and of people who have not had so much education as they could have had. Many of them may have come into computing later in their lives once they acquired a smart phone.
It is understandable that they feel disaffected but it makes me angry that the Internet and social media, aided by the press, have focussed this disaffection on the UK’s membership of the EU rather than the policies and failings of successive UK governments. People who are studying the rise of populism can legitimately ask why state education funding has been cut so much.
I won’t dwell on specific Internet tools but I have worked with many computer programs over the last 50 years and am no fan of Facebook. It is designed for a rapid response to any post in the form of the like button which just promotes and builds up support for that post. It does not encourage much reasoned discussion on any topic. I think Facebook has a lot to answer for in the current political debate in the UK and elsewhere.
Just I was about to post this I found two replies to my post on the Mail Online asking about the use of “surrender” for the Benn bill. Both replies attempted to argue that it is surrender because it removes the negotiating position of No Deal. But No Deal cannot be a sensible negotiating position. It will harm the UK far more than it will harm the EU because they are so much bigger and can spread the harm across 27 countries. It seems like saying “if you don’t do what I want, I will shoot myself in the head”.
This is yet more of Dominic Cummings’ brainwashing. As also is “Get Brexit Done by 31 October”. If we leave without a deal, which is what the plan appears to be as there has been little sign of any new serious proposals from the UK, there will be years of wrangling over trade deals when the UK is in a much weaker position. If we leave with a deal there will still be wrangling over details and what to do about the trade deals with about 70 other countries with which the EU has a deal.