“It’s The Sun Wot Won It”

The EU referendum campaign wasn’t a festival of democracy. Instead, many of us absorbed only the most high level messaging before voting. Understanding this matters when it comes to future campaigns

(Note to non UK readers, the headline of this post refers to this)

On 21 June, two days before the European Referendum, a leading pro-Brexit organisation ran an ad which appeared at 30,000 poster sites around the UK.

The ad was a follow-up to an earlier one, which had caused considerable controversy and had fallen foul of the industry regulator.

Did you see it? You almost certainly did, on your way to work, on your way home, at the train station, and in the supermarket.

I’m talking of course about the second of the two front Sun front pages. Both were designed to give the impression that the Queen was pro-Brexit.

The 30,000 ‘poster sites’ I talk about are the UK’s newsagents. Through attention grabbing front pages that were especially misleading if you didn’t read the full story, The Sun, Mail and Express ran what were basically print ads on behalf of Vote Leave.

Thinking about the popular press in these terms matters for a few reasons. As I hope to show below, many voters absorbed only the most top line messages in the EU referendum campaign. And that in turn has implications for how future campaigns should be run.

The ‘Festival of democracy’ that wasn’t

If you listen to leading Leave campaigners, the vote on 23 June was a joyous festival of democracy with more people voting for something than ever before. While it’s true that a lot of people turned out to vote, that’s all that some ended up doing.

Consider the following:

At the end of last month, the Electoral Reform Society produced its report saying that people had felt “ill-informed” by the “dire” debate in the EU referendum.

Supporting the Leave narrative of a stitch-up by the establishment, the report shows that every intervention by a political figure made people more inclined to vote leave.

The only politicians who had any net positive impact for their own side were three who were for Brexit: Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Pro Leave campaigners were up in arms about the Govt booklet sent to all UK homes in March, but they needn’t have worried, the Electoral Reform Society shows it had little impact. I suspect the facts and stats included in the mailer simply added to the confusion.

Turning to the TV debates aired during the campaign, most people didn’t watch them.

The Nigel Farage / David Cameron ITV debate on Tuesday 8th June may have been the most watched current affairs programme of the year, but it still only got four million viewers. In other words around 12% of those who eventually voted.

By comparison, the 2015 ITV General Election debate had seven million viewers (equivalent to 23% of those who voted) and the 2010 one got 9.4 million tuning in (equivalent to 32% of people who voted).

The second ITV debate on June 10th featured Boris Jonson and Nicola Sturgeon, both entertaining politicians and crowd-pullers. Yet it was beaten by ‘DIY SOS’ on BBC 1.

Meanwhile the BBC “Great Debate” at Wembley had a lot of fanfare behind it with politicians worrying about it becoming a ‘rowdy circus.’ In fact only 3.8 million tuned in.

To put it another way, political pundits all agreed that the EU referendum was more important than a General Election, and voters recognised this. After all, turnout was 72% compared to 66% and 65% at the last two general elections.

Yet the TV debates at the 2015 general election got almost 2x as many voters tuning in, measured as a proportion of those who ended up voting. So the Electoral Reform Society was right — the arguments and the debates left most people cold.

Social media and confirmation bias

But with millions of us on social media don’t Tony Gallagher and Paul Dacre matter much less than they used to?

Speaking as someone who makes his living on social media, I obviously believe that social networks are good for many things. But organic posts that we share with each other don’t often change minds on major political issues (NB, I do believe in targeted Facebook advertising, which is a different subject altogether).

That’s because we tend to follow people who agree with our world view, resulting in confirmation bias.

A 2014 Bloomberg article, ‘How Facebook Makes us Dumber’, goes over research conducted by Michela Del Vicario from Italy’s Laboratory of Computational Social Science, which looked at Facebook users from 2010–2014.

The study found that we share information we already agree with and ignore info we don’t. Meanwhile, communities are made up of “homogeneous, polarized clusters” leading to the proliferation of “biased narratives.”

The Bloomberg article adds an extra point, that of ‘group polarisation’, “which means that when like-minded people speak with one another, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they originally believed.”

Hence if you look at the Brexit debate, the Leave and Remain sides on social media are essentially two self enclosed echo chambers with (trolls aside) little interaction between them. And the more information is recycled around and around, the more it encourages fundamentalism as opposed to compromise.

You might not believe everything you read, but you still believe some of it

So back to the impact of the popular press. “Don’t believe everything you read” is something drummed into most of us from a young age. And people do have a general sense that the newspaper they read is pushing a particular agenda.

Yet at the same time, many people also believe there is at least a small element of truth in what newspapers print. Indeed, in Europe ‘editorial content’ is seen to be somewhat persuasive (by 52% according to Nielsen), with ‘recommendations from people I know’ (e.g. word of mouth) being the one thing people trust the most.

Then there is the theory of ‘effective frequency’, that if people see a message enough times it starts to take hold. Back in February, Roy Greenslade called this the effect of the ‘Brexit drippers’, where anti-EU messages were being repeated over and over in a drip-drip effect.

Hence a constant barrage of headlines greeting you as you wait for your train like this:

Has resulted in this:

On average, the British public thinks there are 3x as many EU residents living here than there actually are. According to Ipsos MORI 4/10 of us also over-estimate the amount of child benefit paid to EU migrants by a factor of 40.

So the popular press has created a mood music that is not only actively hostile to the EU, but has also resulted in large numbers of people being woefully misinformed about the facts of hot button issues such as immigration.

And the impact of this misinformation campaign continues.

Right now you hear a lot of clamour about the public supposedly having insisted on large scale EU immigration curbs, yet how many people realise that we’d only be talking about the equivalent of 0.14% of the population every year?

The death of political advertising meant surrendering the ‘air war’ to Leave

You used to be able to counter the ‘poster advertising’ effect of the tabloids through political advertising of your own.

General Elections all the way up to 2010 featured highly visible ad campaigns. That’s now largely vanished as a feature of UK political life.

As a BBC Online piece published before the 2015 election put it, “The parties keep launching election posters but when was the last time you actually saw one in the street?”

The article points out that what now happens is that political campaigns will unveil a big ad with great fanfare to the press, but not actually pay for it to be displayed up and down the country.

Instead, there is a reliance on free PR gained via news coverage. And the assumption that the ad will get lots of extra exposure via social media shares.

The problem with those two points has already been made — a lot of people blank out the news, and with those social media shares you are preaching to the converted.

So in the EU referendum campaign, high level messaging was dominated by Leave via their friends in the tabloids. And you also had that £350 million bus, which was actually a little bit like an advertising campaign of previous general elections.

Meanwhile, Remain sat on their most effective campaigns and instead ran a textbook vanilla political campaign that ended up being an ‘epic fail.’

The lesson for future campaigns

So, in summary we now know

  • Word of mouth is of course key. When it came to the EU referendum, many voters will have discussed the issues with people who had a similar world view, and looked at things from personal observation (‘why can’t I get a Drs appointment?’)
  • They would have shared that information on social media which would again have validated that world view
  • As little as 1/8 tuned into the TV debates to hear the arguments for themselves
  • They didn’t care what politicians said, though supposed ‘mavericks’ like Johnson and Farage had some impact for Leave
  • Some did and do of course read newspapers, with the largest circulation papers, the Sun and Mail being pro-Leave. How many read politics articles though is open to question (NB, look at that Sun front page from 21/6 again — The Sun ran six pages of anti-EU coverage that day. Pretty difficult for any reader to miss)
  • But finally and most importantly they will have been exposed to very top level messages. Snippets picked up here and there on the radio / Telly, and via those newspaper headlines screaming at them while they were doing their weekly shop in Tesco.

What does this mean for any future pro-EU campaigns?

As my previous post said, I’ve been thinking about a post referendum campaign focusing on the ‘freedoms’ we get from our relationship with Europe where we no longer talk about EU membership.

Originally I imagined that this campaign could be a grass-roots led, but I no longer believe this is the case.

Tabloid hostility, the fact that most voters have now switched off as the sky hasn’t yet fallen in and the legacy of a badly run remain campaign leads me to believe that any future effort has to have a certain amount of visibility beyond Twitter which also means funding.

These are all points I’ll expand upon in my next piece, where I’ll talk more about what I think a post referendum campaign needs to do.