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Brexit: whose will, which public?

Taking part in public life is a deeply affective process, at once personal and collective, and social media might just help us bridge the gap between the two.

lead Hundreds of Londoners gather in Parliament square for the One Day Without us Campaign, to highlight the contribution that immigrants bring to the UK, February 20, 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.One of the most interesting developments to come out of the Brexit referendum was that, far from being demotivated and resigned, many of those who voted to remain in the European Union began organising to reaffirm internationalist values in the UK, pushing back against the populist, anti-immigration dog-whistle politics that came to dominate so much of the debate around the EU.

Indeed, one of the greatest (and still unresolved) issues raised by Brexit concerns the status of immigrants in the UK. Even after almost two years, the British government has still failed to give any definitive guarantee that EU migrants would be allowed to stay post-Brexit, despite the fact that the EU has stated multiple times that free movement of people is a non-negotiable issue for any post-Brexit deal.

On February 17, 2018, the campaigning organisation One Day Without Us held its second day of action, in which thousands of people across the UK came together to celebrate the contributions of European migrants in the UK. The first event was held in February 2017, as a direct response to the scapegoating of migrants and foreigners, and the “shameful willingness of Theresa May’s government to pander to these sentiments,” as the organisers write in a blog post.

Shortly after the first day of action, one of the organisers, Sheffield-based writer Matt Carr, explained the background of the campaign to me during a phone interview:

“It began with a Facebook post that I made back in October 2016, and that was just after the 2016 Tory Party conference in Birmingham. Like many people, I was really pretty shocked, I had been quite alarmed by the kind of rise in street-level racism and xenophobia that had been going on since the June referendum.

“When you saw this kind of stuff happening, you began to realise that something new was going on, something we hadn’t seen before in the sense that the referendum seemed to be interpreted by the people who were carrying out these physical or verbal attacks on migrants – it seems they had a new sense of entitlement that they hadn’t had before.

“But the 2016 Tory party conference in particular seemed to crystallise this rhetoric, this willingness of politicians to pander to these developments rather than actually combat them.”

Hard Brexit and affective contagion

The 2016 Tory party conference saw the official beginning of the Conservatives’ Hard Brexit narrative, in which Home Secretary Amber Rudd called for registries of foreign workers and for a cap on the number of foreign students allowed in the UK, and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested new measures to exclude foreign-born medical students from training in the UK.

A number of other stories in the news further signalled a reactionary shift towards the right, including notably a spike in hate crime following the referendum that was epitomised by the case of a group of teenagers in Essex, who murdered a man and critically injured another after hearing them speak Polish.

For the organisers, One Day Without Us would only make sense if European migrants took ownership of it, and created their own events in their local communities. On a national level, social media became the main vector for getting people involved, both in the run-up, as a tool for organising activists, and on the day itself, with a dedicated hashtag trending on Twitter, showcasing photos and videos of people taking part in the “unifying action” at 1 pm.

Accounting for the role of social media in politics is always a challenge: whilst there is a distinct impression that social media tends to create ideological echo chambers that reinforce previously-held positions, in practice it is becoming tremendously effective in mobilising large numbers of people around specific issues. Most recently, the student-led campaign to ban assault weapons in America has shown how powerful social media can be in rallying support to a highly contentious position.

There’s a reason why we talk about online trends as “viral” phenomena, and that’s because they’re essentially based on a process that some have called “affective contagion:” to go viral, any message has to have a strong and compelling emotional content, one that can resonate deeply with people who may be otherwise completely unaffected by the issue itself. Philosophers dating back to Spinoza thought of affect as a raw intensity, one that is prepersonal and that simply involves one’s ability to affect and be affected.

These affective processes are deeply relational, in the sense that it’s not an individual feeling or an emotion, but instead it’s something that comes from an encounter, and that can only be felt by being affected by something, which can be a person, a story, an image, or anything else. It’s no surprise then that social media would lend itself so well to this kind of affective contagion: an individual story can move us and affect us very deeply, and if this happens to a large enough number of people, the story simply takes off and gains a life of its own.

The #1DayWithoutUs tag was used tens of thousands of times on Twitter over the whole day. Many of these tweets were pictures, videos, cartoons, all aiming for joyous representations of the diversity in our communities, celebrating the contributions of migrants in the UK. What would otherwise be a local story found itself amplified in this way, becoming part of a sustained public representation of solidarity and belonging.

But would this have happened, had it not been for the Brexit referendum? For Carr, the “sense of alarm and despair” that was felt after the Brexit referendum was a major catalyst for organising the day of action: “If I had put out a proposal like that – or if anybody had put out a proposal like that in 2015,” he speculated, “it probably would have just died a peaceful death on Facebook, and would have never come off. Given that particular context it just struck a nerve.”

Messy publics

Screen shot: Ort Gallery, ‎One Day Without Us Birmingham, January, 2018.“The public” in the everyday sense of the word is a messy entity. On the one hand, it’s the collective subject of democracy, the “we” that makes decisions. Elections offer periodic glimpses into “the will of the people,” and referenda offer an exceptional look at what the public might think about any given issue. But on the other hand, there is never only one public, as the Brexit debacle shows.

Democratic theorist John Dewey argued that publics coalesce and organise in response to experiences of harm: in this sense, the people who took part in One Day Without Us formed a public in its own right, a diffuse, collective social formation that used social media as a means of coming together and enacting a meaningful horizon of public intervention.

However, much of the commentary around Brexit seems to take for granted the fact that there is only one public to speak of, and only one will of the people as such. But the public is never fully knowable: it’s never self-evident, and it always needs to be conjured, mediated and represented through specific technologies in order to become a meaningful thing.

This is just another of way saying that there is no straightforward definition of the public, and that a lot of this comes down to what kind of public we’re aiming to represent or conjure.

For example, every polling day, at around ten o’clock at night, the BBC publishes its exit poll, the result of hours of arduous guesswork by its small army of pollsters. The BBC election set-up at Broadcasting House is basically a big data machine dedicated to the task of conjuring a decidedly abstract public on the basis of polls, localised statistics and interactive maps. The amount of detail keeps getting more and more complex with every election, but all it ever boils down to is a snapshot of political participation, and the message is: “this is the only public that counts.”

Or take another big data machine, the core of our favourite social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. A few months after the Brexit referendum, reports began to emerge that the Leave campaign was leveraging the big data infrastructure of social media platforms in order to create what Carole Cadwalladr called, in a series of features for The Observer, a “propaganda machine” fit for the twenty-first century. According to Cadwalladr, the two major pro-Brexit campaigns put considerable amounts of money (98% of Vote Leave’s budget, to be precise) into building psychometric profiles of swing voters, so that they could be directly reached with micro-targeted ads and political propaganda.

The way this marketing model worked, in a nutshell, was on the basis of computer-based models, which in recent years have become able to automatically predict people’s personalities without using human social-cognitive skills, simply by aggregating data from individuals’ social media activity. For years now, these mechanisms have been part and parcel of online marketing practices, but the Brexit referendum was an exceptional case because it was the first time that these marketing dynamics were redeployed as part of a major political campaign.

Here, again, the public is conjured, albeit in a different way. It’s no longer something to be read in order to understand an electoral outcome, like in the case of the BBC, but a malleable material that can be worked with and controlled.

The public is caught in a feedback loop, and it can be recursively measured and influenced on a scale that was unimaginable until very recently. Cadwalladr’s investigation sparked a bit of a dystopian panic when it first came out. Taken to its logical conclusion, anyone with enough money and an agenda can essentially exert an enormous amount of psychological control over whole populations, just by manipulating the kind of content that shows up on their newsfeeds.

Digital “guerrilla” tactics

However, this is only one specific way of conjuring the public, and it’s by no means the most powerful, or the most effective. It’s just the most expensive, and therefore, the tool of choice for wealthy campaigners. But for grassroots movements such as One Day Without Us and countless others, the same technological environment can be reconfigured to create radically different publics.

During the 2017 general election, Momentum rallied a groundswell of support among young people for socialist candidate Jeremy Corbyn, leading to the most significant result for Labour at least since Tony Blair’s victory in the 1997 general election. Just like the pro-Brexit campaigns, Momentum understood the potential of complementing standard, ‘physical’ campaigning strategies with digital, social media campaigns. Over the course of seven weeks, it managed to reach one quarter of all Facebook users in the UK by relentlessly pushing pro-Labour content, livestreaming campaign events, rallying support from celebrities, and ensuring that the #RegistertoVote tag went viral as many times as possible as the voter registration deadline approached.

In particular, an online organisation called Labour’s Digital Army developed a methodology of sorts to help Labour members reach as many people as possible with pro-Labour content. In a video posted on Facebook, founder Adam Knight explains that “there is something we can all do at any time and pretty much anywhere:

“Facebook and Twitter show posts to a bigger group of people the more Likes, Comments and Shares it gets. The quicker this happens, the bigger the group that it will be shown to. We’re going to make the echo chamber exponentially bigger, so that all our friends and our family get to see our messages.”

We’re still very much in the social media environment, but the situation is completely different: the public is no longer an algorithmic construct that is conjured by aggregating millions of individual psychometric profiles. Here, the public is much more embodied, employing a kind of digital “guerrilla” tactics in order to reach as many people as possible, doing exactly what social media was meant to do but with a sense of purpose that just makes the effects bigger.

And there is also something else that sets Labour’s Digital Army and One Day Without Us apart from the Leave campaign’s rather sinister strategy for leveraging user data: instead of the top-down micromanagement of a marketing campaign, the way in which these grassroots publics use social media is firmly embedded in collective expressions of citizenship: Labour voters were told to include an “I’m Voting Labour” banner in their profile pictures, and participants of One Day Without Us uploaded their own positive messages and stories about immigration.

These are all very significant parts of any campaign today, because they turn social media into a space of belonging and solidarity, in which it becomes possible to imagine and enact different political alternatives.

At their core, these campaigns show a completely different side of civic participation: taking part in public life is not just about being a citizen, like a formal tag that marks you as “one of us.” It’s also a deeply affective process, at once personal and collective, and social media might just help us bridge the gap between the two.

About the author

Gabriel Popham studied cultural anthropology at the University of Utrecht, He graduated in 2017 with a project on citizenship engagement and political participation among Remainers in Brexit Britain. He is a member of Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 and conducted research with the DiEM25 London DSC.


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