October 14, 2016

In June 2016, the result of the U.K.’s referendum on membership of the European Union brings down the Prime Minister, cripples Parliament and divides a nation in acrimonious back-biting. Why did the ‘Brexit’ vote cause such surprise and disruption, and can you be sure this turmoil won’t happen in the upcoming presidential election?

On the face of it, there was nothing particularly unusual about the Brexit campaigns. Political leaders battled on every point, attempting to build an enticing vision of the future for their respective Remain and Leave camps. Fact, fiction, spin and confusion reigned. So what? We’ve been living with spin – creative presentation of the facts – since the dawn of democracy. One of the pithiest observations on political ethics, made by Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes around 400 BCE, is that “under every stone lurks a politician.” Fast forward to modern times, when Paul Ryan was caught taking ’factual shortcuts’ in his speech at last year’s Republication National Convention, drawing attention to spin.  Historically, we have been skeptical of politicians and their promises. Now, we face a paradigm shift with serious consequences.

Online sentiment contradicts traditional polling

Why has spin spun out of control in the last decade? The problem is rooted in our digital environment, and it’s here to stay.  One of the key features of ‘Brexit’ was that traditional debates indicated the Remain campaign would win, if only narrowly. All the predictions and all the expectations were based on feedback from face-to-face human interaction. A leading Leave campaigner actually conceded defeat during the results, only to retract when the final tally turned out to be in his favor. Nobody took into account the strong Leave sentiment online, and winners and losers alike were caught by surprise. The classic ”Downfall” internet meme, a film clip that is regularly subtitled by YouTube users to reflect current events with comedic effect, was re-subtitled, purportedly showing the Leave leaders’ shock at actually winning (advisory: explicit content). It’s ironic that not only was the result of the referendum skewed by social media, but that one of the most comprehensive explanations of the facts post-vote was presented as a publicly generated YouTube classic. What are the new factors that have caused this shift away from easily measurable public opinion?

Consensus, shallow learning and mind change characterize society

First, we’ve gone beyond indulgently accepting the lies told by our favored candidate or trusted news outlet. Although plenty of evidence shows that we have always been too trusting of politicians (Riggio, 2011, and Ropiek, 2015), sweeping statements were previously tempered by arguments of equal prominence, enabling some semblance of sensible decision making. The rapid rise of social media as a key communication channel, and the human tendency to cluster and form consensus with like-minded people, has distorted the political message. Voters now find themselves enclosed within a digital boundary where the spin comes from friends, family and groups based upon shared interests, often in the form of catchy, uncorroborated memes and opinionated posts. Once, savvy voters treated political rhetoric with the skepticism it warrants and looked at both sides of the coin.

Now, campaign rhetoric is skewed by closed communities giving credence to statements that match their beliefs. When this effect is magnified and reinforced by sharing on social channels, the online consensus diverges rapidly from the consensus that exists in the real world.  This is in line with the classic example where a closed group of non-mathematicians can come to the conclusion that 2+2=5, despite the fact it’s patently incorrect. It is a flawed consensus reality.

Second, people don’t listen to experts. We tend to engage in ‘shallow learning’ in our absorption of online knowledge. In his book, “The Dumbest Generation,” Mark Bauerlein points out that the message will always be affected by the medium and suggests that the internet has produced a generation of “well-informed and media-hyperactive ignoramuses.” We skim through the headlines, learning a little about a lot; we don’t check the detail. Fact takes a back seat, and rhetoric comes to the forefront in this environment. You only have to follow comments on a climate change discussion or a vaccine debate to see polarization and strong opinion with very little basis in fact. People don’t search for the truth: They take what is spoon-fed to them.

One of the classic promises of the Leave campaign was that 350 million pounds a week would be saved and spent instead on the provision of health care. As early as April, two months before the vote, Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority made it very clear this was not true. Despite widespread coverage of Sir Andrew’s statement, a leading politician and Leave campaigner dismissed the criticism, saying “Britain has had enough of experts.” The false claim was widely shared on traditional and social media until the day of the referendum – and even painted on the side of the campaign bus. However, within an hour of the result being announced, the Leave camp’s Nigel Farage told ITV news that this pledge was “a mistake.” The experts were right all along.

Finally, there is the very real possibility that our digital habits are actually changing the way our brains are wired. British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield suggests that “Mind Change” could be an unprecedented development of the 21st Century. “Today’s screen technologies create environments that could alter how we process information, the degree to which we take risks, how we socialise and empathise with others and even, how we view our own identity,” Greenfield’s website says. The need for positive affirmation in social media interactions backfired on those in the Remain campaign, whose predominantly negative messages were mocked by the Leavers as “Project Fear.”

The vision painted by the Leaverstherefore, made more headway online. In a talk last year about the “Plastic Mind,” Baroness Greenfield warned that “it’s critical to challenge the mind to understand and query rather than to simply accept an internet’s worth of facts.” Social media interactions remove most of the cues we take for granted in face-to-face communication.  Emoticons, images and live video posts attempt to remedy this; however, words alone account for just 10 percent of a message. If the other 90 percent – the subtle body language – isn’t getting through, how can any politician be sure that the feedback from a live audience is accurately reflected in an online group? How can politicians be comfortable with the thought that their wildest rhetoric is being taken as gospel truth?

We need a code of campaign ethics

Campaigning is a political fight outside the normal arena of government. As it is neither process nor policy, it is not subject to the principles or the enforcement of active political ethics.  In the U.K., the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner enforces the Code of Conduct. (For example, “Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its members generally.”) In the United States, the House Ethics Committee holds sway. However, neither body addresses the ethics of campaigning.

Given the challenges of educating the electorate in the digital age, political campaigners should be subject to the same ethical constraints and sanctions as elected representatives. Bruce Weinstein, the Ethics Guy, proposed a 10-point Campaign Code of Ethics for candidates back in 2008. To me, the key elements of his proposal are these: Tell the truth, don’t make promises you can’t keep, and listen – to all the channels of communication. It’s time to adopt Weinstein’s Code of Ethics. In the eleventh hour of the presidential race, the United States has the chance to take an ethical stand.

Kate Baucherel
BA(Hons) FCMA is a digital strategist specialising in emerging tech, particularly blockchain and distributed ledger technology. She is COO of City Web Consultants, working on the application of blockchain, AR/VR and machine learning, for blue chip clients in the UK and overseas. Kate’s first job was with an IBM business partner in Denver, back when the AS/400 was a really cool piece of hardware, and the World Wide Web didn’t exist. She has held senior technical and financial roles in businesses across multiple sectors and is a published author of non-fiction and sci-fi. Find out more at katebaucherel.com