With Brexit in the box, many have started to reflect on what has happened. Looking back is always a bit like George Bush – or perhaps Karl Rove(he is certainly smart enough) – once said, We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
In a similar vein, German anarchists used to say, die regieren und wir protestieren – they govern while we protest against their government. In any case, with Brexit, British conservatives have created their reality. We are left to analyse it (Rove) and to protest against it. Looking back, there is a clear reason why Brexit won. Brexiters had three ingredients that assure that right-wing populism wins. It wins from Brexit to BoJo (Boris de Pfeffel Johnson), from Modi to Duterte, from Orban to Bolsonaro – the list goes on. What makes them and Brexit win are three things:
- Politicians: right-wing politicians and their henchmen produce lies, falsehoods, disinformation, myths, conspiracy fantasies, etc.
- Platforms: online platform providers transmit right-wing propaganda to millions fast and very cost-effectively while eliminating editors, journalists, facts, and truth.
- Money: well-financed – often through dark money – lobbying institutions, euphemistically labelled think tanks, institutes, agencies, astroturf organisations, etc., lobby governments and the public for right-wing causes.
Brexit had plenty of all three. It had right-wing politicians like David Cameron promising a Brexit referendum, Theresa May pushing Brexit, and BoJo’s Getting Brexit done! Pro-Brexiters also created a strong, highly targeted and very strategic campaign using social media rather aggressively. Finally, pro-Brexit lobbyists ran a sophisticated campaign featuring the accidental misinformation but mostly focusing on deliberate disinformation, outright lies, fibs and falsehood. In short, the Brexit campaign had almost everything the right-wing propaganda playbook offers.
With Dark Money coming in by the truckload, the demagogues of Brexit were able to overspend on their campaign significantly exceeding the legal limit. For the Brexiters, it was simply an All Out War against their perceived enemies – Britain’s quality press, the Labour Party, most economists, the EU, the remainder campaign – and most of all it was a campaign against facts and figures as well as the truth.
Yet, the Brexit campaign never focused on converting the British public. Too many people favoured remaining inside the EU. Targeting the entire UK would have been a hopeless operation. Consequently, Brexiters focused on those they thought can be persuaded to leave the EU – those that could be easily manipulated and persuaded. They are called persuadables – a marketing term that has entered political campaigning.
In the case of Brexit, BoJo’s right-wing and right-hand man – David Cummings – identified Brexit’s persuadables early on. BoJo’s mastermind saw these as a group of about nine million people being between 25 and 55 years of age and living mostly outside of London and Scotland. In other words, BoJo’s clique knew that people in the city of London would not support Brexit and neither would the people of Scotland where 62% voted to remain inside the EU. This meant that the Brexit campaign could not focus on them. They were seen as unpersuadable.
Instead, the Brexit campaign would focus on two things: the persuadable and onboarding – another marketing term. Onboarding seeks to convert sympathisers into committed supporters, financial contributors, and – preferably – into active Brexit campaigners. The onboarding strategy of the Brexit campaign consisted of three steps:
1) People were enticed to click online advertising placed on Facebook, for example. The idea was that such clicks would automatically direct them to a pro-Brexit website, the Vote Leave website, for example.
2) Once on a pro-Brexit website, visitors were tempted to leave their personal details which were to be used for further campaign planning and micro-targeting.
3) In a final step, people were invited to donate to the Brexit campaign and/or become a volunteer supporting Brexit through real political action.
The tripod of right-wing politicians, the willing executioners of the Internet, and Dark Money handlers allowed the pro-Brexit team to engineer a very strategic campaign. As a consequence, each step of their onboarding campaign was planned, tested, and checked. Nothing was left to chance. Messages that went out and onto Facebook were tested beforehand. Those messages that failed to achieve a set target were reformulated or discarded. Often, pro-Brexit messages were re-worked until they converted enough people to the cause of Brexit. The measure used is called the conversion rate.
In one plan, the Brexit campaign even offered $50 to anyone correctly predicting the winner of a soccer tournament. The marketing plan was to entice seemingly unpolitical soccer fans into the manipulative orbit of Brexit rather successfully. To enter the $50 competition, people had to leave their data on the Brexit website. The soccer competition data was fed into Brexit’s ever-growing database, creating a welcome supply of personal data that was instrumental in campaign planning and targeted messaging.
Overall, the Brexit campaign collected data of about 120,000 individuals. Brexit’s “Vote Leave” campaign also started an App for smartphones reminding their friends to vote in the Brexit referendum. By the Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016, roughly seventy thousand messages were sent via this App, contributing to the victory of the Brexit campaign.
Thirdly, there also was David Cummings infamous Waterloo Strategy. The Waterloo campaign delivered a pro-Brexit advertising Blitz during the last days of the referendum. It was designed to collect undecided swing voters. Someone in the Brexit campaign nailed it by saying, we spent a shitload of money right at the end.
Indeed, the Brexit campaign was spending about $2 million in the last week before the referendum on Facebook advertisements and videos. By US standards, $2 million isn’t much money. But for rigidly controlled non-money-based election campaigns held in Europe, this is a rather significant sum of money – mostly dark money.
Like many other political advertising campaigns, the Brexit campaign knew that ads work best the closer they are launched to an election day or in the case of Brexit, to the day of the referendum. It hits voters almost on the way to the voting booth, and it targets the unsuspecting voter who had not spent time much thinking about the issue of the day. Besides such media strategies, the subject and content of the Brexit campaign focused on three overarching messages:
The Political Lie: the falsehood that the UK was spending £350 million ($480 million) per week on the EU and that this money could be better spend on health and education once the UK left the EU.
The Fear: fear was created by telling the British people – falsely – that soon Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania would join the EU, bringing a wave of migration to the UK. One of BoJo’s ministers even claimed that the UK could not stop Turkey from joining the EU. It was plain wrong, but it was good propaganda, and it worked.
The Nationalism: the final propaganda item came as Take Back Control. It falsely promised to take back control from the EU. Once this was done, the UK could reduce migration.
All three were targeted disinformation. They were all false, but they were good propaganda or public relations as it is called nowadays. This is the PR side of the Brexit referendum. On the lobbying side, the following happen as perfectly outlined in Howard’s Lie Machines,
The UK Electoral Commission found that pro-Brexit – Vote Leave and BeLeave – had breached the UK’s campaign finance law. Vote Leave spent £449,079 ($620,000) in excess of the statutory limit, and BeLeave knowingly spent £666,016 ($920,000) more than the legal limit. The commission fined both organizations.
In other words, playing by the book doesn’t pay. Pro-Brexiters did not play by the book, exceeded the limit on what they could legally spend and won the Brexit campaign. Years after the Brexit campaign won, they received a slap on the wrist. That was it. Just as Karl Rove said, we make history, and all you can do is, analyse it. The pro-Brexit campaign made history, and years later, we can analyse what was done.
Just as Rove implied, years later we can even speculate that hypothetically that if the Brexit campaign stuck to the legal limit, it would have stopped campaigning in the dying days of the Brexit referendum. Perhaps this might have changed the outcome of the Brexit referendum. On the other side of the Brexit referendum was the Remain campaign. The Remain campaign stuck to the legal limit on campaign financing – and lost.
At the end of the successful Brexit campaign consisting of right-wing politicians, online platforms, and dark money, the referendum’s result was surprisingly narrow. Pro-Brexit received 51.89% and Remain got 48.11%. Despite all the (dark) money spent and all the lies told, the Brexit campaign just scraped in by a relatively slim 1.89% margin. In other words, Cummings managed to convert roughly 1.2 million – many came from the targeted group of 9 million. If slightly more than 600,000 or about 6.7% would have voted against Brexit, Brexit would have been dead. But Cummings, dark money, and clever online marketing won the day.
This gave the UK the pro-Brexit referendum British conservatives had been craving. In the subsequent “Get Brexit Done!” election of 2019, BoJo only managed to get yet another narrow election victory. If 51,000 voters shifted their votes across forty seats, Boris Johnson’s victory probably would have been destroyed.
In short, Brexit is the outcome of two narrow victories for the Brexit campaign in which right-wing politicians were seeking de-regulation through the backdoor by eliminating the EU. The Brexit team successfully used compliant online platforms that transmitted the three great lies of Brexit: a) £350 million per week goes to the EU; b) the conjured-up fear of migration; and c) nationalism’s take back control – control that after Brexit has moved from the EU to BoJo – but not to the British people.
All this came with a strategic, well-choreographed, and generously financed Brexit campaign of mis- and more importantly, disinformation that reached and manipulated millions of voters. In the end, the Brexit campaign was effective in four ways:
1) The pro-Brexit campaign was highly targeted persuading – not the British people as a whole – but a selected group of persuadables. It also targeted voters in the final days of the Brexit referendum.
2) Using the newest advertising tools, better data, and online platforms allowed the Brexit campaign to engineer enough impact that shifted a few voters needed into their favour.
3) Carefully fine-tuned messaging based on sophisticated testing delivered a high success rated for the Brexit campaign.
4) The carefully formulated and texted messages of the Brexit campaign hit a group that it needed to hit: the persuadables. That is how Brexit was done.
In short, right-wing politicians, willing online platforms, and plenty of dark money had set a ruthless right-wing propaganda machine of mass deception in motion that delivered Brexit.