It’s Facebook and YouTube wot won it

16 June 2017

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IN A really bewildering election week, I want to think about the power of the press, and what has happened to it. Jeremy Corbyn did not win the election, even though Theresa May lost it; but both performed in a way that none of the newspapers thought possible two months ago.

This would be less interesting if the papers were simply dispassionate observers, but they are not. The Guardian was in favour of Mr Corbyn in the editorial columns, although the selection of news was meant to be even-handed. The FT also attempted even-handed news, but came out reluctantly for Mrs May in its editorial columns.

In both papers, there was considerable disquiet about the prospects of Brexit. But for The Guardian it seemed ultimately a choice between the malevolent incompetence of the Conservatives and the benevolent shambles of the Labour movement, a choice that the FT could not quite bring itself to make, since it rated the malevolence of the Labour leadership more highly.

The Daily Mirror was a Labour paper both in its editorials and its coverage. The Times attempted balance in coverage, though I can’t say I thought it achieved it. As for the rest — the hysteria that infected every part of their coverage would not be credible were it not a matter of record.

The day before the election, the Daily Mail, which had earlier brought us “Crush the saboteurs” as its headline, devoted 13 pages to the past attachment of Mr Corbyn and his circle to various unsavoury foreigners. But the Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph were no more balanced, if less monomaniacal.

Looking through the front pages of the Mail, Express, and Telegraph, for three days towards the end of the campaign — before it began to seem that Labour might not be completely annihilated, but before the London terror attack — I found: “UK faces wave of Libyan terror”; “Corbyn accused of honouring Palestinian terror chief”; and “Corbyn ducks terror challenge”; then, all on the same day: “Migrant summer chaos”; “Labour’s plan to open doors to Britain even wider”; “Labour’s secret plan to increase migration”; “Corbyn doesn’t believe in Britain”; “Corbyn’s sly death tax trap”; and — more imaginatively — “Fake web accounts boosting Labour vote”.

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At this point, I made my excuses and left the web page where all these things are archived. The second most obvious thing about this torrent of propaganda was that it didn’t work. It may have had some effect in mobilising supporters: the Conservatives slightly increased their share of the vote; but it seems to have done nothing to persuade people who were not already believers.

What worked there was the internet, and, in particular, Facebook and YouTube. The Mail Online, incidentally, took very little part in the paper paper’s campaign. A bot (internet software) that counts the references to female chests and members of the Kardashian family on that site every four hours very seldom recorded more party leaders than Kardashians. I don’t think it ever recorded more Brexits than breasts.

But on YouTube and Facebook there was propaganda that seems to have been really effective. The Conservatives spent £1.3 million on Facebook ads, which can be precisely targeted at both constituencies and demographic slices, such as middle-aged white homeowners — or, for that matter, young BME women living in rented accommodation.

The Labour Party spent much less, and some people complained that it had been undemocratically outbid in its efforts to reach particular constituencies. None of these ads would be seen by anyone outside the target audience: that is why Facebook and Google make all their money. None the less, one grass-roots initiative, “Who targets me”, distributed a browser extension that logged Facebook ads to 11,000 people, and, in this way, collected 3000 distinct political ads that were used on Facebook during the campaign.

For some campaigners, this is not merely worrying, but immensely sinister. It feeds a narrative that the twin disasters of the Brexit referendum and then the Trump campaign were brought to us by American billionaires, using sinister techniques of persuasion to undermine democracy — an idea that has a certain plausibility and is, in any case, one that many people would like to believe.

But I think that the real message of this campaign is different. The videos that really cut through to undecided voters did not come as advertisements. They were shared along social networks by people who found them funny as well as enlightening, and thought their friends would, too. There was one video produced by Momentum, the grass-roots movement supportive of Mr Corbyn, contrasting the fortunes of a banker and a nurse under the Conservatives. It was shared more than ten million times without, so far as I know, being paid for once. A Conservative Party clip of Mr Corbyn’s remarks about the IRA, by contrast, may have been seen by as many as three million people, but it started as a paid advertisement.

None of this is good news for the newspaper industry, but neither is it such dreadful news as one might fear for democracy. It looks as if, in this instance, people are at least reluctant to believe lies that they have no reason to want to be true. That might sound cynical, but it is surely better than absolute gullibility.

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