Boris, Brexit or bust

While social media’s influence upon voting trends remains unclear, their impact upon public debate among a growing demographic (that millennial generation whose political discourse is increasingly enacted online) – and among media elites who interpret Twitter as what Anstead calls “a proxy for public opinion” – seems evident. Through interviews with bloggers on either side (Nick Cohen and Paul Staines), this report explores how one tabloid column sparked controversy online.

social media’s speed of response “allows you to counter-spin. Anything that’s bullshit gets taken apart pretty quickly

On 22 April, as Barack Obama predicted a Brexited Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for American deals, Boris Johnson referred in The Sun to “the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire” as evidenced by his removal from the Oval Office of a bust of Churchill. The following day that paper defended Johnson against the disapprobation of “virtue-signalling Twitter morons” (though Johnson had himself, according to the Mail on 19 February, been recruited to the cause by “a social media campaign”).

This skirmish, in what The Guardian had (on 20 February) called the referendum’s “social media war”, was fuelled by traditional news institutions. On 22 April Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian of Johnson’s “elastic relationship with principle”; on 1 May Stewart Lee in The Observer noted Johnson had “changed from being merely a twat, into a full-blown c**t.” Both columns appeared in The Guardian’s blogging forum and were widely shared online. On 22 April Nick Cohen’s Spectator blog described that publication’s former editor as “a braying charlatan, who […] uses the tactics of the coward and the tricks of the fraudster to advance his worthless career.” Cohen’s blog proved popular on social media: Cohen tweeted on 22 April that it was “trending in United Kingdom.”

The blogosphere was not entirely antagonistic towards Johnson. Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) defended the accuracy of Johnson’s Churchill bust remarks (against claims to the contrary by The Guardian): “Boris is proven right”. Staines argues that social media’s speed of response “allows you to counter-spin. Anything that’s bullshit gets taken apart pretty quickly – for example the ‘back of the queue’ thing in Obama’s speech. You have an iterative process that constantly and quickly pulls apart inaccuracies – but you’ve got to separate that from the 90 per cent of noise.”

Cohen similarly notes that social media generates “a vast amount” of misinformation and that, by contrast, the trustedness of broadcast media underpins their influence: “in this referendum, the most important thing will be television coverage.”

Staines, however, repeatedly challenged the “diplomatic” tone of broadcasters’ scrutiny of the Remain campaign in such outputs as the BBC’s online EU Referendum Reality Check, criticizing its “mysterious” toning down of its critique of Remain campaign claims. The Independent noted on 28 February that the BBC would “not be able to avoid social-media accusations of bias” and Staines admits that “a common theme on our side of the argument is that the BBC is biased. There’s a world view at the BBC that people who want to leave the EU are lunatics.”

Staines does not claim objectivity: “We are partisan. We deconstruct the Remain side more than the Leave side. I wouldn’t pretend to be the BBC and impartial – though I’m not sure the BBC is impartial!” In this sense, Staines echoes John Fiske’s 1987 argument against journalism’s claim to objectivity as a means to “increase its control”.

Cohen argues that old and new media outputs reach “different audiences” – and that online readers come “with fewer preconceptions.” The Independent asked on 17 February whether social media have “made us crude and dismissive in our judgements.” The Telegraph argued on 29 February that “social media have eroded the noble art of taking your time to think it through” and spoke on 27 April of the “corrosive influence of social media.”But in contrast to what Leveson described as the “ethical vacuum” of the internet, Cohen sees value online in being associated with a trusted organization: “people want the assurance that this is coming from a reputable news organization. That’s why personal blogs are dying out.”

Cohen suggests that “all journalists are essentially online journalists. The main way people read you is via Facebook or Twitter links.” But institutional anchoring allows both bloggers to gain audience trust.

Yet did the phenomenon of ‘Bregret’ reported in the wake of the vote suggest the electorate were swayed by a rhetoric unprecedentedly economical with objectivity? Did the discursive bias of broadcast coverage of the loveable underdog (“Boris”) against a distant authority (“Mr Cameron”) – trending even after the murder of Jo Cox to normalize xenophobia (as Cohen suggested on 26 June, a prioritising of entertainment over expertise) – favour the odds of Brexit? Was this because no one could see the result coming? Or did that outcome represent a fundamental rejection of that institutional attempt to foster balance?