It does not matter if you believe in the case for Britain’s departure from the European Union or not.
While the consequences of the referendum remain to be seen at the time of writing — less than a month away from the date set for the severing of ties between the UK and the EU — what is clear is that there has been a huge shift in public opinion as the realities of Brexit became clear.
This swing is now so widespread that there is a name for voters who once wished to leave, but now prefer to remain — the so-called “Regrexit” phenomenon.
This feeling of regret is so widespread it is worth examining — how were these people deceived, if in fact they were deceived at all. Why has a group who were once so in favour of Brexit now rejected the arguments of the leave campaign.
What was the anatomy of this deception?
The leave campaign can be broken down into a few areas:
- Simple messaging that appealed to a wide range of values and emotions repeated often.
- An unprecedented social media campaign making use of microtargeting.
- Controlling the debate’s framing through weaponised falsehoods and outright lies.
Simple Messages and Basic Values
The Leave campaign’s public messaging was incredibly simple, emotive, and consistent.
Slogans were simple and spoke to vague feelings of autonomy such as “Take Back Control” and “Reclaim Our Sovereignty” and Jacob Rees-Mogg even described Britain as a “vassal state” in interviews.
This broad approach meant the campaign became an all-purpose bucket into which members of the public poured their misgivings and frustrations.
As described by the University of Birmingham’s Dr Tim Haughton;
Leave’s slogan was vague and often masked an inaccurate description of decision-making in the EU. But in political campaigns what matters is not what is accurate, but what works.
‘Take back control’ effectively combined not just a sense of a positive future albeit never defined or elaborated, but also suggested a sense of rightful ownership. Moreover, it helped to mobilize the anti-establishment support of voters who felt let down by their politicians.
The Brexit referendum, as referendums are so often, was only driven in part by the question on the ballot paper. Frustrated by the sense that the political class had failed them, many ordinary citizens took the opportunity to vent their fury.
This harnessing of frustration was also evident during Donald Trump’s US electoral campaign.
Team Leave were also disciplined in this approach and repeated their messaging constantly.
While the Remain campaign had difficulty trying to explain the nuances of economics and the benefits of EU membership Leave hammered home the simple message of taking back control and fight rising costs of living.
There were plenty of times when the messaging conflicted with facts, but this was either ignored, or made the other side’s problem.
The claim printed on the side of the Brexit “battle bus” that £350 million was sent out of the UK each week is a now infamous example.
Remain found themselves trying to correct the record on a large number of issues without realising that they were playing into their opponent’s framing. I’ll expand more on this below.
Their efforts were futile a lot of the time anyway — it is well known in communications circles that facts themselves are often not enough to convince people.
This approach was simple but effective:
- Create tight messaging that appeals to values
- Make this messaging broad but catchy and appeal
- Repeat it until your eyes are bleeding
Big Social Was Almost Half The Campaign Spend
Something that still isn’t widely understood was how well the Leave campaign used social media, personal data, and microtargeting.
While many people are now familiar with Cambridge Analytica after revelations about “fake news” and microtargeting during the Trump campaign few understand how this sleight of hand was accomplished.
In the lead up to the referendum Vote Leave spent more than 40 percent of their campaign budget with a single technology firm — AggregateIQ.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that there is a complicated web linking Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ. These ties are so pervasive that Cambridge Analytica staff are known to refer to AggregateIQ as a “department” within the company.
The Leave.EU campaign, home to prominent leave-er Nigel Farage, used both Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ. The British Electoral Commission last year fined Vote Leave for breaching electoral laws around this co-ordinated use of technology, and exceeding their spending cap in the process.
Through their use of this technology Vote Leave were able to target millions of voters who were not registered and active. This means they were able to woo people the Remain team didn’t even know existed, and couldn’t access even if they did.
What this looked like was that more than £2.7m was spent on specific but incredibly diverse targeted ads again designed to appeal to people’s values.
Under pressure from a committee of MPs conducting an investigation into fake digital news content Facebook recently released the ads.
What it shows is that they were at times as fanciful as they were mixed with examples including:
- The EU blocks our ability to speak out and protect polar bears.
- The EU wanted to “ban tea kettles” and “kill our cuppa”.
- The UK pays £350 million to the EU each week. (Note: This has repeatedly been proven false, including by the UK’s statistic watchdog.)
- Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are joining the EU. Seriously.
- We’re paying Turkey £1 billion to join the EU.
- For a full list released to UK Parliament by Facebook click this link.
Estimates put the penetration of these adverts as high as a billion views by voters in the lead up to the Brexit referendum.
Despite the public face of the Leave campaign being focused on general issues of “costs and control” the ads show a willingness to make use of nationalistic and xenophobic sentiment to win over voters.
In fact any sentiment of all was used.
This is something that is still not understood or appreciated as deeply as it could be — Vote Leave was able to target people and values that were not only diverse, but in some cases opposed and antithetical.
Imagine putting some of the people microtargeted by these ads in the same room — there would be a potential for verbal if not outright physical fights to break out.
But they were all targeted effectively due to the conditions created by modern digital consumption bubbles.
This is one of the things that really took the Remain team by surprise.
The ads also spread a staggering bulk of misinformation which Remainers spent far too much time attempting to correct.
Weaponised lies and ‘Valuejacking’
Vote Leave also made extensive use of blatant lies and mistruths in a systematic and intelligent way.
These deliberate lies and mistruths were spread in mainstream media and by microtargeted social media posts.
The Remain side were left attempting to correct the record without realising a lot of the time they were helping their opponents as they are fighting a new type of lie — one where being believed is a bonus, rather than the point.
This approach is spreading around the world and can be seen in the US with Donald Trump’s use of “alternative facts” as well as in my home country of Australia where politicians warp the public debate with deliberate mistruths as a communications tactic.
It didn’t matter that claims about the £350 million the UK were sending abroad each week, Turkey joining the EU, mysterious non-existent laws being imposed on Britain by Brussels, and a myriad of other nonsensical rubbish were untrue.
The most insidious effect of campaigns like this is that even obvious untruths can shape public opinion, even if the audience know their falsehood.
Professional communicators know this. Which is why they continue to repeat even obviously false claims.
Some unscrupulous communicators are now doing this deliberately — targeting an audience who value truth to spread their misinformation for them — in a tactic I have named “Valuejacking”.
There are a number of effects of this deliberate use of lies :
- Correcting a lie does not correct the framing — the underlying assumptions and values behind the lie — for example if Remain corrected the battle bus figure of £350 million they were still talking about money sent overseas and a lack of money for health care. These are productive areas Vote Leave wanted to talk about.
- Even clear falsehoods that are repeated widely and frequently enough can shift public opinion, particularly if they are repeated by trusted figures.
- Interventions, or “correcting the record”, will often strengthen belief in those lies and falsehoods.
- These lies shift the “Overton Window” which is the idea that forcing people to consider an unthinkable idea, even if they reject it, makes all less extreme ideas seem acceptable by comparison.
- Reaching people with false ideas first can cement false impressions that are unable to be unseated by nuanced debate.
- A recent Vox video has described the way Russia is using a “Firehose of Falsehood” as an instrument of power rather than as an attempt to convince people in any traditional way.
The deliberate use of weaponised falsehoods is something that is growing in professional communications and deserves to be expanded into its own separate article.
But for now the point is worth making again — Vote Leave told lies that were not intended to be believed, they were intended to frame and warp the debate.
For these lies being believed was a bonus, not the point.
These lies cannot be countered in traditional ways and require a similarly systematic approach with messaging experts recommending “a ‘stream’ of pro-active, accurate messaging at the targeted audience” and reframing to undermine the opposition’s frame.
This was not the first time any of the techniques used in the Brexit vote were employed on a mass scale with values-based messaging in particular being incredibly common and well known.
But the scale of use of social media microtargeting and deliberate falsehoods combined with how effective this approach was is a clear warning of the fragility of our public debate.
Inquiries in both the UK and US attempting to catch up with the growing power of social media — a medium on which we spend an average of one eight of our waking lives.
Lies and their deliberate employment however is still not fully understood. The Brexit debate showed us we still have a lot to learn about public communication and how quickly things are changing.