Did Brexaustion kill Corbyn’s media strategy?

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Jan Blommaert

The outcome of the UK elections of December 2019 led some observers to state that social media campaigns are not really decisive. Sure! But that doesn’t mean that more traditional forms of campaigning and media coverage are decisive either. Something else is going on: we should look carefully at the interaction of mainstream and social media in contemporary political campaigns if we want to figure that out.

Brexaustion & Corbyn’s defeat

The UK elections of 12 December 2019 were, to say the least, hard-fought. Unprecedented levels of agression and hyperbole were displayed by all parties during the entire campaign, which ultimately ran on two sets of issues: the Brexit issue with its polarized camps on the one hand, and the end to austerity and the comeback of an equitable welfare state in Britain on the other. While Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour focused on the second issue – a new post-Tory Britain – Boris Johnson’s Tories exclusively addressed the first one. And the Tories won, they won big. For Corbyn, a disastrous defeat concluded an intensive campaign.

This campaign “won the argument but not the battle” according to Corbyn. It was a big gamble for Labour to try and develop a campaign agenda in which Brexit only played a secondary role – Labour, if returned to power, would roll back the Tory austerity policies of the past decade, and then submit Brexit to a second referendum.

But Brexit, obviously, was the dominant theme. Or rather “Brexaustion”, the widespread sense that the Brexit discussion had been dragging on, annoyingly, for far too long and needed to be concluded here and now. It was Brexaustion that informed and triggered the Tories’ central slogan in their campaign: “Get Brexit Done”.

The fact that the themes brought forward by Labour were of minor importance to Johnson’s party is illustrated by the numerous misrepresentations, lies and manipulations produced by Tory campaigners on such topics. Publicly displayed awkwardness or embarrassment, as when Johnson snatched a reporter’s phone when a picture of a sick child was shown to him, did not matter as long as the central topic – Brexaustion – remained safe and solid.

Occasionally, and in the last days of the campaign, Johnson would adopt some key demands from his opponents in his own campaign rhetoric – investments in the NHS’s public health provision, for instance – so as to infuse his Brexit message with a message projecting a better future after Brexit. The campaign was great in its simplicity (or simplism, some would argue). And it won the day for Boris Johnson.

Superficial analyses

Of course, there was no shortage of interpretations and analyses of the Labour defeat in the hours and days following the dramatic election night. Several such analyses articulated a sense of betrayal by Corbyn and put the blame for Labour’s catastrophic result squarely on him, his leadership style, his lack of clarity on Brexit, and his stubborn insistence on different campaign themes.

Others argued that the defeat of Corbyn’s electoral program heralded the end of ‘the Left’ in its current form in Britain. And of course, all observers agreed that Corbyn had to step down as party leader, and that Labour would have to change its ‘Left’ direction to a more ‘centrist’ one or vice versa.

In the same breath, these observers claimed that Johnson’s Brexit agenda had commanded overwhelming support in Britain and that opponents of Brexit needed to come to terms with that fact. Note in passing that, while such demolition jobs of the Corbyn campaign were plenty, lionized film-script like accounts of Johnson’s victorious campaign also flourished.

Analyses so shortly after a political drama of historic proportions are evidently prone to overgeneralization, partiality and simplification. It’s a genre of political commentary which we should approach with much reserve. The clarity of the Brexit issue, for instance, and the fact that it’s Johnson’s understanding of what Brexit meant in the elections that now defines the parameters of the debate – both these points are deeply flawed. For the SNP (Scottish National Party) also ran on the theme of Brexit but blended it with several other themes.

The point made here is: Scotland doesn’t want Brexit, and certainly not on the terms defined by the Tories. Scotland needs an end to austerity and demands protection of the NHS (here are the key campaign points of Labour). If Tories wish to push their agenda through, Scotland will demand independence. The SNP was able, by means of this blended and more complex platform, to carry Scotland in a landslide victory. We see here how the Labour pro-welfare state agenda points did work electorally, when blended with a strong regionalism and a clear anti-Brexit (and anti-Johnson) stance. Boris Johnson won Westminster, but the SNP won Scotland.

The social media issue

One of the issues emerging in reactions to the election results was, unsurprisingly, the role of the media. During the campaign, Labour supporters very frequently complained about the mainstream media bias in favor of the Tories.

Corbyn himself had repeatedly insisted on the perverse role of “billionaire media tycoons” in the public campaigns against him and his party. And when the results of the election became clear, the UK’s mass media – and not just its tabloid section, as we saw above – were blamed for their contribution to the outcome. In the same breath, it was said that social media campaigns had failed.

Let me start by noting that Labour ran an amazing, intense social media campaign in which nearly all platforms were saturated with high-quality messages, and which drew large audiences towards Labour’s social media channels. Judged from social media only, Labour had succeeded at re-setting the agenda and direction of the election campaign, and polls suggested that Labour had managed to seriously narrow the lead of the Conservatives in the polls. Clearly and convincingly, Labour had won the elections on social media.

Of course, all of that proved to be pointless on December 12. Labour’s dominance and brilliance on social media may have “won the argument” as Corbyn said, but not the election. It succeeded in a few things – winning hearts and minds, and more votes than Blair’s Labour in 2005 – but not in winning seats.  So fingers were pointed at Britain’s mainstream media and their anti-Corbyn bias.

Some Corbyn supporters concluded from this that the massive investments made in social media campaigning had been futile, given the substantial predominance of traditional media in the UK.

A weaponized hybrid media system

We are stuck in an either-or argument here: one has to choose between either mainstream media or social media. And superficial analyses add to this: it’s Johnson’s mainstream media dominance that defeated Corbyn’s social media dominance. Obviously, such an either-or argument does not hold water. Here are some points to consider.

One: most of what can be read in the way of analyses focuses exclusively on the campaigns, i.e. the messages directly emerging from the political actors themselves during the relatively short period leading up to the elections. Seen from that perspective, things are clear: the quality and intensity of Corbyn’s social media campaign were unmatched by that of any of his competitors. Yet he lost.

Looking at the campaigns alone, however, reduces contemporary political discourse to discourse produced by professional politicians and party staff alone. While we know that most political discourse today is produced and circulated by a multitude of actors – people like us. So rather than just looking at campaigns, one should look at the totality of exposure in contemporary mass-communication.

Two: that is where mainstream media come in. As observed by BBC’s Amol Rajan (in an exceptionally perceptive post-election analysis), “It is very interesting that many of the most viral clips on social media from the past few weeks were initially broadcast on traditional media.” Such mainstream media materials, in other words, became crucial objects in the social media campaigns. This effectively sinks the either-or imagery of mainstream versus social media: we see a hybrid media system at work in which (a) the different media types coexist and sometimes coincide while they diverge on other moments; and (b) a very broad range of actors ensures the production, circulation and uptake of political messages, most of whom are just rank-and-file citizens.

Three: contemporary advanced political campaigning involves the coordination of actions on very different media, not a properly segmented specialized division between social media work and mainstream media. One needs to generate precisely the kinds of intense interactions between different parts of the media system described by Amol Rajan in which elements from mainstream media are integrated in social media strategies and vice versa, creating a totalized ‘bubble’ of well-organized messages. We can call this the weaponization of the hybrid media systemthe creation, planning and coordination of a ‘total’ media strategy aimed at saturating the entire media system and exploiting the algorithmic environment in which the media system operates. And let it be the case that Boris Johnson’s campaign was run by the undisputed master of this game, Dominic Cummings (one of the architects of the successful pro-Brexit campaign in 2016).

Four: such advanced political campaigns are not aimed at converting ‘the public’ (i.e. the so-called ‘masses’) but at converting specific publics, usually the voters in ‘swing constituencies’. It’s micromarketing targeting specific groups with specific messages so as to create the ‘bubble’ mentioned above, not mass marketing targeting everyone with generic messages. The ultimate objective of such campaigns is not the population but the electoral system: it’s okay if the opponent gets more votes, as long as s/he loses the battle for elected representatives, and a series of small but significant victories is to be preferred over a bigger but ineffective one. This explains why Corbyn’s Labour obtained more votes than Blair’s team in 2005 but significantly less seats (and why Hilary Clinton won the popular vote while Trump won the White House in 2016). We should look at total exposure, as said above, but also at distribution when examining communication strategies.

Five: analyses based on the campaign alone are also restricted in time and tend to address just what went on from the moment a campaign officially starts until the moment of the elections. While in the weaponization strategy just mentioned, infrastructures, messages and target audiences need to be identified and prepared long before such campaigns start, and algorithms need to be made sensitive to items deployed en masse much later.

There is ample evidence that the Tories have been doing just that: creating social media and algorithmic infrastructures in which anti-Corbyn and anti-Labour campaign messages could be tested and disseminated long before elections came in sight, and in which specific target audiences could be identified and ‘bubbled’. This might explain the rather lacklustre social media performance of Johnson and the Tories during the campaign: most of the work had already been done long before the campaign had started.

It also shows how wrong it is to suggest that Boris Johnson only benefited from his support in the mainstream media. While there is no doubt that some “billionaire media tycoons” clearly preferred a Conservative victory over a Labour one, support structures had been installed across the entire media system before things really took off. When Jeremy Corbyn tried to insert a different line of arguments into the campaign, most of the space there had already been taken by the “Get Brexit Done” of the Tories, certainly in the ‘swing constituencies’ that were sensed to determine the result.

Johnson, or Cummings behind him, may not have designed a specialized social media campaign (while Labour clearly did). But they designed a hybrid media weaponization campaign in which the entire field of media exposure was attacked and in which specific game-changing audiences were relentlessly addressed. So while Corbyn won the battle on social media, he lost the war on this broader media exposure front.

How to analyze this?

The point is that most of this weaponization strategy remains invisible during a campaign. Like in war, one thinks of guns only when they start firing; the question of how such weapons got into place and were supplied with ammunition, personnel and directions of fire is usually a matter only addressed by military historians. By the time the campaign really starts, the weaponization strategy has shaped its ‘structure’, its ecosystem. And this means that analyses of the communication effects in elections now need to be longitudinal, pay attention to events in the background as well as to those in the spotlights, that they need to address the entire media system rather than segments of it, and look carefully at the distribution of communicative actions over specific audiences.

This approach has implications: three very widespread assumptions need to be critically reassessed.

One, the idea of ‘campaigns’ as self-standing and all-decisive periods of communication has become an anachronism. Campaigns are permanent these days and accurate analysis of the political process will need to be able to spot the seemingly unrelated and innocuous little signs, the significance of which can now only be judged in retrospect. This significance is, note, electoral rather than related to, say, popularity or legitimacy in the eyes of ‘the people’.

Two, the idea of the individual politician or party as the core actor in political communication is equally an anachronism. We need to address and identify the various specific collectivities that ensure production, circulation and uptake of political messages, as well as the algorithmic infrastructures used in the process.

Three: the idea of political communication as a process evolving between politicians and ‘the people’ (in clear and stable relationships) equally needs to be revisited. Sophisticated campaigners appear not to worry too much about what ‘the people’ think and how they react, and they have no difficulties explicitly antagonizing segments of ‘the people’. They are targeting specific segments of the population and keep electoral effects in mind, rather the thing we like to call ‘public opinion’. In addition, the uptake expected of specific audiences is active and productive – commenting, reposting, liking, and so forth, creating new political messages within and beyond the bubble – and not just ‘listening’ or other forms of passive uptake. Audience selection, audience design and active audience involvement are crucial in any analysis.

Apart from offering obvious analytical benefits these points will, incidentally, help overcome one of the nastiest aspects of current poor campaign-focused analysis: the (often heard) claim that people ‘out there’ – usually those belonging to the working class or otherwise stigmatized groups – are passive receivers of messages and just ‘believe’ the rubbish they are being fed by the tabloids. Much more complex things are going on, and it is high time for us to start getting our heads around them.

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Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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