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Why was the referendum campaign so confusing?

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to lots of people who said they were quite confused about the referendum. Many people (on both sides) have bemoaned the fact that many other people don’t seem to understand what they consider to be the real facts of the matter.

Many of these people have (quite rightly) identified that newspapers and particularly TV reporting has been very confusing and lacking in concrete detail. Some people I have spoken to have said they really wanted to make a positive decision one way or the other and watched and engaged with debates on TV and other coverage but just couldn’t decide what the was the best choice  to make.

Both sides claimed that the other was lying or at least obscuring the truth. The most extreme example of this was Michael Gove’s assertion that we should stop listening to experts (comparing economists to Nazis and then retracting this). One implication of this is effectively that we discard evidence and expertise. If his logic is to be followed then we can’t trust anything and everyone is lying. This seems to be particularly cynical claim to make from someone who is by all accounts intellectual and academic in his thinking and approach to politics. To me the implication of this seems to be that if we can’t trust anyone based on their experience, intellectual insights or evidence they have gathered from research then what do we have to fall back on other than status?

Many people have berated politicians for their conduct during the referendum, for their extremity of their claims and cynicism of their tactics but it seems to me this is merely a high water mark of contemporary political strategies. Their tactics are perhaps a form of what the philosopher Bernard Stiegler called “psychopolitics“. That is, the manipulation of structures of thought rather than discursive persuasion. There was more than enough information available to most people for them to make an informed decision but they did not know who or what they could trust. This is reminiscent of a political strategy implemented by Vladimir Putin’s government.

The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has described how Vladislov Surkov orchestrated  Putin’s media and political strategy through applying the methods of conceptual art to deliberately confuse the population. He funded different activist groups who opposed one another, and even groups who oppose Putin. What’s more Surkov made people aware of his manipulation so that it was impossible to know what was real and fake. In this kind of scenario no-one knows quite who is their enemy or their friend or what to think about almost any situation. Some people have suggested that when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 they were engaging in what Surkov called “non-linear war” in which a variety of seemingly disconnected factions are spurred into action (and perhaps supported) but it is always unclear as to who is fighting for whom and what are their intentions. This is part of a strategy Surkov referred to as “managed democracy” with the real intention being to destablise perception in order to exert control through force as ‘democracy is impossible in a country of angry, poor people

As Curtis puts it:

“… nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories which makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge because they can’t counter it with a coherent narrative of their own. And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty”

Something similar has happened in Britain but this is not through conspiratorial attempts to control the population. Rather politicians and parties, as well as other interest groups, have sought to privilege their position in a political battlefield. In order to do so they accuse their enemies and media outlets of lying and misrepresentation. It is these kinds of accusations which have pushed the BBC into ridiculous contorted positions trying to present a semblance of balance. This can be observed in the consistent pairing of climate change scientists with climate change deniers and the privileging of neither position (despite one being almost devoid of scientific backing). In combination with the almost total reduction of mainstream political communication to spin and soundbites this makes it difficult for many people to conclusively decide or choose between competing positions.

The EU referendum campaigns made the political situation even more confusing. MPs lined up with their political enemies in order to implore people to vote one way or the other. Over-blown claims were made by the leaders of the campaigns as to the consequences of leaving or staying and within days (or even hours) these were retracted. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are allies one day and enemies the next. Their own party colleagues publicly state that they don’t believe in the cause which they are backing. Nigel Farage repeatedly states that there are elitist conspiracies between cabals of journalists, politicians from across the spectrum and business leaders but himself fraternizes with Rupert Murdoch and Evgeny Lebedev.

It seems that Surkov sought to create confusion in order to encourage people to retreat into a nationalistic, authoritarian, patriarchal comfort zone. In Britain there is no consistent political narrative, no clear party lines and for many people no way to see what is truth, lie, conspiracy or paranoia. There are just squabbling factions and confusion. While in Russia this situation was (at least partially) orchestrated, in Britain this has occurred through groups and individuals manoeuvring for power and their own interests but the results are the same: confusion and the potential for manipulation. Politicians and public relations officers no doubt thought they were in control of this situation and that they could spin the narrative in their favour but the EU referendum seems to have shown that this was always out of their control.

It is this kind of situation which makes projects such as InformED and the SSC Manchester’s free Brexit Course so vital. While the old ideological fault lines of social class or left and right might not seem of much use there is evidence which can be used to construct narratives that can help us to understand a confusing situation.