This really should be easy, shouldn’t it?
We face the single biggest imaginable act of self harm. Something we could happily avoid. We face shortages and job losses and increasing costs of living, something that will affect every household in this funny little land. We face social divisions, the worsening of poverty and inequality and the increasing ghoulish racism of the far right. It should be easy for “Remain” to fight this.
Instead, we have an incoherent, fragmented, largely social network that can be broadly split in to two camps: those who have relative expertise, and the grassroots. The former usually get a fraction of the following they deserve; the latter far more than is often merited.
We have Femi; a young, talented and erudite young man who has put himself in ostensibly hostile situations to counter some of the Brexit falsehoods. We have Madeleina Kay, an artist and singer who is attempting to use the emotional aspect of Brexit to communicate a positive pro-EU message. And we have thousands of committed focus groups and streetstall activists who get up, go out and litmus test the public mood through brexomiters and good, old fashioned chat. On top, we have a passionate online community. In theory, this is all good stuff. In practice, it has not been.
“Remain” has a problem with discipline. This is easily explained by the lack of leadership; a disparate group of hundreds of thousands of activists with no co-ordination, each with their own reasons to stay in the EU, each with their own drivers to rise and fight the incoming bullshit. Brexit is personal, we are so often reminded.
But to simply say “we don’t have a leader” resolutely dismisses the individual accountability which we naturally demand from anyone in a day to day context. We expect responsibility at work, from those who serve us, from those we interact with daily. We expect it as part of society’s unspoken code of ethics and etiquette and are offended by its absence. So, why are we so quick to abandon these principles with regard this brexit fight?
Think of it as what it is: a PR campaign. When you wish to sell something to people who will naturally be resistant, you do a comms analysis. You frame your arguments with counterarguments. You anticipate reaction and plan accordingly. This happens in every walk of life and it’s surprising how little is known about it. It’s not a dark art, it’s basic, fundamental communications and strategy. And it’s what the pro-EU side is sorely lacking.
The other side wants to sell you radioactive shampoo. They promised the shampoo would make your hair intelligent, witty and voluminous. These claims are rapidly unravelling yet, here we are, placing a bulk order of the radioactive Pantene for every man woman and child in the country.
The shampoo guys have a PR machine. They put young people — with a whole life of hair ahead of them, and therefore with the most to lose — in suits on TV with a single coherent message about how the Bad Shampoo will benefit us all. They recycle tested lines about how not using the shampoo will lead to rickets and acid rain. They have convinced a legion of every day citizens that we coped fine without shampoo in the war and we can definitely cope with Bad Shampoo.
On our side, everyday folk are endlessly pointing out the dangers. Using facts. We know the majority is on our side. We know businesses and the public and yes, even our own MPs don’t want the Bad, Radioactive Shampoo. But these voices are small. And, heard together, the message is garbled. It’s a noise, which the Bad Shampoo PR slices right through, pointing instead to the occasional innacuracies and seeming arrogance of the anti-shampoo brigade, all songs and little diversity. These people don’t care about you, they say, they only care for themselves. Listen to our singular message.
When you adopt a hashtag, you are self-identifying with a movement. It’s not who you are, or an inherent part of your physiology or history — it’s a conscious decision to align yourself with the beliefs of a group. It marks you out. FBPE started off with good intentions. It did an excellent job of connecting people and, in the UK, being a tool for spreading anti-brexit content.
However, it’s also a brilliant opportunity to tar people with a massive, nation-sized brush. Just as one bad experience with sushi could put you off it for life, so does a bad encounter with a hashtag-bearer skew your feelings of the movement and override any message they may be trying to convey. Wether it be #FBPE, #GTTO #WATON, a colander on your head or any other voluntary identifier — a few random outliers can squash the message flat by not conducting themselves accordingly. By very virtue of their existence, hashtags also make this behaviour easy to find, easy to group and easy to judge. If “remain” were a business, these people would be sacked.
In broader terms, off social networks, the lack of discipline is even more evident. At the top, People’s Vote can’t even agree what they want to vote for. Remain parties are bickering over alliances. And our self-styled leaders seem to think notoriety and viral content is akin to spreading a message. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of communications. It’s so basic I’ve rubbed a dent in my temples. To take an oft-cited example; setting fire to the withdrawal agreement in a residential street in Brussels before smashing it with a sledgehammer is about as far from productive as it’s possible to be. It looked like a bunch of teenagers smashing up a Lidl on a Friday night because they didn’t get served those cheap Belgian stubbies. I got a text from a Westminster contact, brexit-supporting, who saw the clip on Sky News. “You’re doing our job for us”, he said. Meanwhile, Chloe Westley gets booked on Question Time.
When you voluntarily put yourself front and centre, sadly, you need to take it upon yourself to lead by example. None of us in this fight is beyond personal accountability. If you have anything beyond 10k followers it’s time to reassess how you disseminate information. At 30k, you are classed as a 'celebrity' in certain legal instances. Your message goes far. Think about what you want it to be.
This week, a large twitter account tweeted an outdated, hugely offensive racial term. I’ve no doubt this was down to ignorance rather than racist intent. Yet, because of the way Twitter works, many people saw it due to the first replies being, amongst others, a Vice journalist and a Mail-contributing freelance. To say this is damaging is an understatement, but could have been easily and emphatically apologised for.
Instead, we saw hundreds upon hundreds of self-identifying FBPE leap to the account’s defence, saying they too used the word unwittingly and no one was “really offended”. Viewed outside the prism of Remain, this was a viral twitterstorm of supposedly pro-european, pro-diversity and pro-inclusivity people vosciferously defending a racist term. The optics? Horrifying.
Between this, the daft “me too” jokes, the use of terms such as “retard” from a coordinator for Inspire.Eu, the sledgehammer, the offensive memes, the artworks with the “p” word in them, the endless cries of FAKE REMAINER, the bad facts, the awful, shameful and borderline xenophobic non-eu migration takes and the overt bullying of anyone who doesn’t support these voluntary idols it’s evident Remain has a massive, massive PR problem. It is absolutely clear why many MPs have vocally said they won’t visibly involve themselves with an increasingly toxic brand. Don’t forget: all of this is a branding game.
We are failing as a diverse movement. We should be reaching out to people of all walks of life. In many ways, we are. But the overwhelming picture is one of a white, middleclass congregation — however unfair or incorrect that might sound — happy to point to “increasing migration from Muslim countries!” as a gotcha stick to beat brexiters with. One tested line from the leave camp, which eagle-eyed remainers will have spotted is being run again, is that Remain is a group that prefers overwhelmingly white EU migrants to “welcoming the potential from all over the world”. We should be fighting this dreadful narrative with every fibre of our collective being, not adding fuel to the binfire.
Remain has a problem with bullying. It has chased away more than a few supporters, and gives people second thought about joining in the conversation for fear of falling out with one of many tribal camps or receiving an unsolicited DM urging you to block someone off the back of a personal gripe. It’s intimidation tactics. In recent days, a list has been compiled of the multiple “sock-puppet” accounts that a select few are using to relentlessly troll anyone who dare criticise a remain figurehead, using threats of doxxing, mental health slurs and outright lies to push a narrative that has precisely nothing to do with Brexit. These people are quite literally the enemy of the cause.
I’m not a public person or an expert, yet my account had a large following. With that came detractors as you’d expect. First step: mute certain words if you don’t want to read how ugly you are 18 times a day. Second step: limit notifications to only those with confirmed accounts. It weeds out a lot of the Twitter negativity and does wonders for your use of the site.
However, as my voice and views on - amongst other things — the personal ethics of crowdfunding got beamed further and further across the web, so did the relentlessness of certain disturbing behaviour. This culminated in a days-long publicly viewable assault on my mental health, marriage, career and childhood from three accounts, all of whom were cheered on from the sidelines by large FBPE voices. It’s frightening stuff and still ongoing. Solution number 3: pay for a service that deletes all of your tweets every seven days. The content is still there for a week if you wish to screenshot something crass or nasty I’ve said, but it’s time-limited. I’m not permitting people who have expressed public interest in my very private life the ability to search for years-old information to “expose” me off the back of a Twitter-spat. Such spilling over from social media to real life is utterly wrong.
It has no simple fix. The mantle has been seized by those with the time and ability to put themselves front and centre, and loyalty is demanded by many. This is not to say that people in difficulty or with mental health problems aren’t also campaigning; they are, in droves. But each person’s individual circumstances affect them differently; not everyone can pay to attend every march, or can interact easily with strangers on street stalls. If you can, great! That’s testament to your strength. Not everyone is the same. The frequency of seeing people demand “well what are YOU doing?” is an ablist retort that makes people feel small, insignificant and useless. What have we become, when that’s our battlecry? Not everyone publicises their remain activity — I don’t, nor do the people I am working evenings and weekends with. Any other human being’s mental health or personal life is not something anyone should be speculating about on the web in the name of Remain. And if a remain “leader” is not conducting themselves in a way that helps us, then we have a collective duty to say so. None of us signed up to blind loyalty.
It all comes down to discipline. Digital literacy is so often lost on those who didn’t grow up in a connected world, and it’s why some of the wisest, calmest voices in this debate are those in their teens. Listen to them.
If a pro-european movement can emerge that holds its own to account, calling out those who broadcast bad messaging, has integrity and ethics and speaks with a stronger, more coherent voice we have a shot at this. It’s a long shot, but we are in with a chance. See a bad take? Dunk it. See a racist or ablist slur? Denounce it. See a bad fact? Correct it. Don’t spend your days defending to the death voluntary voices whose actions may, at this stage, not be helping us at all. Remember how focussed the other side are, how professional and slick their campaign is. All they want to sell us is Bad Shampoo. We need to loudly and firmly, without sacrificing our own values, tell them we don’t want it.