How they influence democracy by shaping public opinion.
One of the main arguments for Brexit put forward by Brexiteers is that we must respect the will of the people. What exactly is the will of the people?
The will of the people is an expression of our public opinion. Whoever controls public opinion holds the real power in our democracy.
Brexit is an amazing roller-coaster ride that shows who influences and shapes public opinion:
- Social background: friends and family have a strong influence on each one of us. What we discuss over dinner, in the pub and at home strongly influences our view of the world. Ask yourself: are you a conservative, liberal or socialist out of conviction? Or are you following family tradition?
- Level of education: our ability to distinguish fact from fiction, hate speech from a real political campaign depends on critical thinking. Can you assess arguments put forward by politicians and critically assess all the pros and cons?
- The Media: what we see and hear directly influences the way we understand the world we live in. How many hours a day are you online and watch TV? What kind of media are you exposed to?
- State-owned media like the BBC in the UK, ARD in Germany or NOS in have a mandate is to educate, inform and serve the public and provide a more objective perspective. But state-owned media is not always objective.
- For example, propaganda via state-owned media during times of war is a historical fact. The BBC was censored during the Gulf war and depicted the violence of war in a limited way to avoid a change in public opinion. Propaganda today is hard to spot. TV broadcaster Russia Today is a more obvious propaganda news service. The recent revelations on Cambridge Analytics and how social media influenced public opinion during Brexit shows how effective this kind of propaganda in the form of ‘fake news’ can be.
- Privately owned media only answer to stakeholders of the company. They can deliver a more objective view of the world, but more often than not they present a very subjective perspective. Their goal is to attract as many viewers as possible to make money.
Media influences all of us. Friends, family, colleagues. We cannot escape media: we read, watch and listen to news on our smartwatch, mobile phones, pads, laptops, desktop computer and TV. Our public opinion is directly influenced by media.
The only defence we have against fake news and propaganda is our ability to critically examine what we are exposed to every minute of the day. For most of us, this is a challenge. How often do you have the time to do a little research on a news report you just saw on the BBC?
Media floods our brain every day out and most of us just absorb it without thinking too much about it. Too often we neglect how we are influenced in this way and how this shapes our opinion. Especially when content is emotional and provocative.
Foreigners are taking away our jobs! Refugees are flooding our countries like rats! The Daily Mail is a strong media force in the UK public xenophobic content to make money. Like this cartoon published during the refugee crisis in 2015:
Note the rats in the cartoon. Refugees compared to rats clearly dehumanizes them. It makes it ok to treat refugees like vermin.
But who owns the Daily Mail? Who is allowed to have this kind of power to manipulate public opinion? Are they elected? How are they accountable?
It is the 4th Viscount of Rothermere, Jonathan Harmsworth who holds controlling shares of the Daily Mail and General Trust. If Harmsworth wants to campaign against foreigners, for Brexit, or initiate a witch hunt against a political opponent – he can. But he is not elected. Yet his media empire influences the opinion of millions.
Billionaire Richard Desmond owns The Daily Express which has published a number of misleading anti-EU slogans like ‘75% of new jobs go to EU migrants’. The Express later corrected this, but the Pressgazette considers the Daily Express as ‘very misleading’ and so does the independent Press Standard Organisation (IPSO). More than 25 misleading anti-EU headlines resulted in a complaint to IPSO.
The Daily Telegraph is owned by the billionaire Barclay brothers. It is another UK tabloid which spews out xenophobic propaganda. For example, the paper claimed that “More than 700 offences are being committed by EU migrants every week, official figures suggest”. According to the Pressgazette the story and others like it “were misleading because they did not make clear that they were not based on conviction data, but were ‘convictions and ‘updates’ to convictions such as appeals and breaches of court orders’.” The Telegraph later corrected these lies.
The Sunday Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. If Rupert Murdoch wants to push a political agenda to influence public opinion he can, via the Sunday Times and Fox News. Rupert Murdoch is not elected but his media empire influences public opinion around the world. While Sky news reports more friendly on the EU, Murdoch is an example of how media can be used to manipulate public opinion.
Our politicians understand the power of the media. And they fear it. Instead of working to restrict the power of unelected media moguls, politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson rely on them for the political campaign.
Politicians who do not want to be Rothermere’s and Murdoch’s bedfellows are left out. The way labour leader Corbyn has been ignored on key issues by the mainstream media is a prime example.
Tabloids and TV are not the only media platform used to manipulate public opinion. Billionaire Robert Mercer was the owner of now dissolved Cambridge Analytica. Social media helped get Donald Trump become president and strongly influenced the Brexit outcome.
It is reasonable to argue that without tabloids like the Mail and without social media manipulation by Cambridge Analytica the Brexit referendum would have had a different outcome. The vote was already very narrow in favour of leave – and I am convinced that without unelected billionaires and media moguls influencing the referendum the outcome would have been to remain in the European Union.
The irony is that it is precisely the Brexiteers who argued against the ‘unelected Brussels bureaucrats’, yet the EU council consists of our elected heads of states, the EU commission is appointed by our governments and we elect our MEP’s. Brexiteers heavily relied on unelected media moguls to spread their fake news and win the Brexit referendum.
But the consequences are dire for the UK. Not just economically. Britain is seen differently already by the other 27: a less reliable and unpredictable partner. And even if Brexit was cancelled tomorrow – the cost to the other 27 is already mounting up:
The EU is preparing for a hard Brexit by seeking emergency powers. For example, UK qualifications are no longer recognised in Europe after Brexit and the EU is seeking to “give a grace period for lawyers or professionals based in Europe who rely on UK qualifications“.
The Netherlands is in the process of recruiting 930 additional customs officials needed to deal with Brexit after March 2019. German banks are preparing “for hard Brexit, in ‘advanced’ stages of relocating from London“. And “France’s northern ports fight to stop hard Brexit” because the president of the northern Hauts-de-France region understands the cost of Brexit to his region.
Unlike the UK, it seems, the EU is getting ready for the real possibility of a hard Brexit, while May’s government continues to sleepwalk towards leaving the union.
I have a great deal more confidence in the democratic process of the EU compared to what Mercer, Rothermere and Murdoch cook up behind closed doors.
The only defence we have against unelected media moguls and their all-to-willing crony-politicians is our ability to think critically about what we have been exposed to before we cast our vote during an election.
Doing this requires training in evaluating the short and long-term consequences when voting for a party during an election. What are the pros and cons? What does the party stand for? What are the goals of that party and how will that change the way we live?
But education is becoming more expensive in the UK. My first degree in the UK had a fee of 2,300 BPS. This has now soared to 9,250 BPS. Students end up with more debts after their studies – if they even go and study.
Fewer citizens trained in the art of critical thinking are more prone to be influenced by tabloids like the Daily Mail and social media propaganda a la Cambridge Analytics.
All of this combined presents a real risk to our democracy. Our democracy depends on public opinion rooted more on critical thinking and less on peer pressure, tabloids and fake news. If the will of the people is shaped by xenophobia and isolationist policies then our democracy is at a real risk.
As citizens, we need to fight back. We need to stand up for quality education – and we need to demand from our politicians to hold unelected media moguls responsible for their corrupt use of media.
Unelected billionaires and media moguls cannot be allowed to abuse the privilege of free speech and destroy our democracies as a consequence.