Yesterday when I heard the EU Referendum result, my feelings moved from dread to grief, and I am hopeful that writing this post will be therapeutic for me. I’d be delighted if anyone wants to respond. Part of my philosophy is that we can learn from mistakes so surely there is something to be learned from what I see as a colossal mistake, and is already seen as a mistake by some who voted for it . My social media streams have also contained expressions of despair and anger. Whilst feelings of anger are part of the grief process, when they turn to blame that reifies complex explanations as simple binary truths, they can get in the way of progress. For me, it’s reasonable to question the Tory party’s decision to campaign a General Election on a platform that promised a referendum but when I hear the “old people did this to us” explanation, I worry that view will, in the long run, get in the way of making things better in future. Michael Rosen has a wry response to the old people issue.
I am a lifelong socialist and voted remain. I am sad, disappointed and concerned that my view did not prevail. I am also sad, disappointed and concerned that the vitriolic bigotry on both sides of the referendum campaign, which was a significant factor in the outcome, continues today. We have Nigel Farage triumphalism , xenophobia and prejudice; but we also see some of my fellow Labour Party members, pouring shame and self righteous abuse on the entire group of their neighbours who voted to leave. The oxygen of media and social media fans the flames of intolerance, inequality , fear and hatred. To combat these we need education, empathy and dialogue, not bullying, misinformation and self appointed guardians of ‘the truth’. Now is the time for reflection and analysis. With recognition of the reasons for the EU exit , we can form the basis for a convincing strategy to create a fair, inclusive , prosperous and peaceful world – we have more things in common than divide us .
by email from my dear friend and sister-in-law Patricia Whaley
Pat’s email was so welcome to let me know that someone else was concerned about how we can learn and make change, without despising those who voted Brexit. Understanding why they did would be a good start. I was partially disconnected from the EU Referendum campaign because we were on a month long trip in our motorhome and so I missed much the UK media coverage of the campaign. The day before we returned home, we heard the shocking news of Jo Cox’s murder, and learned more about how inspirational she was a human being and as a politician. Some of the most touching tributes were from constituents who gave testament to how she listened to them and did her best to solve their problems. If some of those constituents voted Brexit, I think she would have listened to them and talked to them, rather than condemning them.
My reflections started with trying to think what was good about the referendum, a thought experiment:
- It’s good that there was a high turnout whether or not we like the outcome. My idea (pipedream) of a functioning democracy is one where voters have access to a range of views supported by accurate information, vote for politicians who have integrity, and then we all abide by the will of the majority, whilst working honestly to change that will if we think it is wrong. I hope that the Labour Party will focus effort on finding out why some of their traditional vote turned out for Brexit, rather than blaming its leader. I found these views from Hartlepool, where there was a 70% vote for Brexit, were painful to watch but enlightening.
Rather than decrying areas of the country or age groups as ignorant and racist, let’s listen to people and find out why they fear immigration and feel so let down by the establishment. I have heard often this week that not all Brexit voters are racist but all racists would vote Brexit, aimed at those considering voting Brexit – but now a majority has voted Brexit so what can we learn from that? Spoiler: don’t blame the voters.
- It seems likely that more young people are voting than a few years ago and also that more young people voted Remain. That is great but the whole picture is unclear and more complex than it may at first appear. This article makes use of a comparison of Census and EU Referendum data (interesting but not definitive) and a widely circulated Lord Ashcroft Poll. It’s wise to treat the latter source with caution I think, since its funder has his own agenda. Newspaper articles (quietly) acknowledged the Lord Ashcroft Poll source (how could they resist it?) but the path from this dodgy poll to the ‘truth’ of ‘older people denied younger people their wishes’ ran across those newspaper articles and then across social media with disconnection from the sources. I enjoyed this widely circulated comment from the Financial Times but wondered what was the source of this articulate commenter’s assertion
Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors
The commenter pointed out that we live in a post-factual democracy and that’s a matter of concern. I don’t know if there is reliable data on if and how people voted by age group but we do know turnout and outcome by area, and that can give us food for thought.
I am thrilled by the thought of young people becoming more politically active and want all of us to be able to access reliable information.
In a phone call this morning, Pat Whaley (who lives in Middlesbrough where there was a high Brexit vote) reminded me that Cameron inaccurately blamed the EU for UK government inaction to save the Redcar steelworks. People can only make their minds up on the information available to them, and in a confusing situation will go with their gut feelings, voting Brexit against the government or because they have been fed propaganda about immigration or for other reasons.
Mariana Funes shared a 15 minute video aimed at US viewers that managed to convey the contradictions and misinformation of the Brexit case in a humorous #NSFW fashion.
That’s an interesting intersection of traditional media (TV programme) and social media (Youtube channel shared via Twitter/Facebook) but the complexities of social media bear closer inspection.
Facebook’s algorithms tend towards reinforcing certain themes within a social group.
Just like its government equivalent, voting on social networks is also a nice way to give the illusion that anything and anyone can succeed on merit while actually maintaining the status quo through sociotechnical structures. Tech entrepreneurs deploy voting to show allegiance to their fantasy of a color-blind and genderless meritocracy, predicated on what PJ Rey has shown to be an outdated and debunked notion that the Internet allows us to transcend race, class, and gender by entering a space of pure information. Popular posts are good, the logic goes, because only the best makes it to the front page.
But on social media, the manipulation of what we see is not only determined by our up/down voting, liking or favouriting but also by the hidden algorithms (aimed at maximising social networking systems’ revenue) as they shape what we see and from whom, based on their advertisers interests.
Not surprisingly, social and traditional media are commercial activities, and this can present conflicts for their consumers and producers, not just in terms of what they contain/ share but also how that content is presented. I think that means we need to hold them to account.
So what about the Brexit voters? My social media filter bubble doesn’t contain many who argued for leaving the EU. Some them will have turned to the Sun and the Daily Mail and what did they find? Exaggerations and lies – epitomised by the slogan encapsulated on the Brexit Bus neatly retracted on the day after polling to save excessive spending in a new government perhaps.
At this point, it’s a struggle not to dash my head against the kitchen table, so let’s try to think of how things might be different. The people of Liverpool, sometimes decried, set us a great example of how to deal with media lies over the Hillsborough football stadium disaster. When confronted with the lies propagated by the Sun and other newspapers, many of the people of Liverpool campaigned for justice, only exposed 27 years later, and they boycotted the Sun. So ordinary people can challenge the establishment and the media and get some sort of justice, eventually by working relentlessly and defying establishment and media lies. Let’s challenge traditional and social media to be the media that we want and resist them being immovable objects that manipulate what we can learn from other people.
My hopes for the future:
- That within and without political parties, we can achieve a healthy democracy where people are politically active across the spectrum of listening, learning, organising, campaigning, challenging government and politicians, and of course voting.
- That traditional and social media wield their great power with integrity and respect, and that we are knowledgeable and aware enough to challenge them when they fall short of this, and to appreciate how our own views may be shaped by media, overtly and covertly.
- That we question the emerging binary culture that seems to be partially fuelled by media and tackle complex issues with provisional solutions. Let’s resist polarisation, and find our way forward with “education, empathy and dialogue, not bullying, misinformation and self appointed guardians of ‘the truth’” as Pat Whaley says.
At the time I wrote this post, I had done a little research on Lord Ashcroft Polls but I am slightly embarrassed to say that I took the yougov poll at face value – yougov sounds so official. Yougov use Active Sampling from their pool of responders and claim that even though the polling is online, it’s not biased. See what you think. They seem to have a good track rate of predicting election results but I still have a little prickle at the back of my neck.