One of the things we are doing in the Health Governance after Brexit project is engaging honestly with people with a range of views on Brexit. I thought I had found a place to do this on social media. Turns out I was mistaken. Here’s the story.
On 11 May 2019, I noticed that a Facebook closed group (UK in the EU referendum, originally set up by Prof Eleanor Spaventa) that I followed closely in the run up to the referendum, and for some time thereafter, renamed itself ‘Brexit without Tears’ and began posting comments again.
Like ‘Labour Leave’, which I also follow on Facebook, the group had been dominated by Leave voters, but Dr Aris Georgopoulos, a public procurement lawyer at the University of Nottingham (whom I know a bit) often commented with corrections of misinformation and to put Remain views. I would sometimes add something to back him up, but mainly just ‘like’ his posts, as I felt that was all I had capacity to do.
I decided to engage with the group, thinking that it would be a space in which to discuss how Brexit might be managed ‘without tears’ – ie recognising that it will be harmful and even emotionally draining for some (many) people, but thinking about how we can nonetheless work towards a legitimate future for the UK. This is consistent with the underlying aim of Health Governance after Brexit: to think about what legitimate post-Brexit governance would mean for health and the NHS.
The group’s rules of engagement seemed promising, as they talked of civility.
And it would seem that I wasn’t the only person who was looking for this kind of discussion, as someone asked ‘it is actually possible to have Brexit without tears’?
However, I was very quickly disillusioned. The first thing I noticed was that pro-Remain academic commentators were first personally insulted, and then blocked. There was a comment to the effect that ‘a Greek guy’ (Aris) used to post lots – he has now been blocked. During the first days of ‘Brexit without Tears’, this also happened to Professor Dagmar Schiek, a Professor of EU law at QUB. She offered factual examples of what’s good about EU membership. She cites free movement and the EU moving against large corporations like Apple (the EU’s capacity to ‘tame global capitalism’). She shares an official source (admittedly an EU one rather than an ‘independent’ one) for her point. She’s accused of ‘fighting for her job’ by one of the admins. She calls the admin on reverting to personal insults. When she is accused of being anti-democratic for not respecting the referendum result, she points out that around 37% of the eligible electorate voted Leave. She leaves the group.
There is no respect for evidenced claims of expertise. In fact, they are treated as being suspect. Dagmar’s comments are explained by her ‘fighting for her job’. When I point out that this is hardly fair, as Dagmar will have a job whatever happens, this comment is ignored.
Any questions about the claims being made are rejected, or met with irrelevant or down-right misleading sources or responses. In one example specifically about health, someone shares a WHO source as evidence that we should leave the EU as immigration is bad for public health. I read the source, and point out that it actually praises the EU as the only international entity that is really tackling communicable diseases as effectively as WHO would like. This statement – including direct quotations from the WHO report – is contradicted as inaccurate, with no justification.
One of the things I engaged with was the terms of the debate. I asked whether the group was a place for having civilised discussions. And I explained that I perceived a significant difference between people saying ‘there is nothing good about the EU’, and people recognising that the EU is not perfect, but still wanting to discuss how to compensate the detriments that come from leaving the EU. Pretty soon, one of the admins was telling me that I don’t get to ‘set the terms of the debate’. I pointed out that I wasn’t trying to set them, only commenting on what I see.
At least one Leaver posting also (at least arguably) tries to ‘set the terms of the debate’, by saying ‘don’t use the words free and EU in the same sentence’. I (slightly tongue in cheek) point out the admins’ inconsistency of approach here, and am chastised for making ‘snide remarks’. The admin then turns off all comments for that post.
Then there was a long thread about a racist/anti-Semitic comment, in which it is denied that the comment is at all offensive. Here we have the ‘snowflake’ trope: the idea that people are far too sensitive and should realise that what amounts to deeply offensive and racist/anti-Semitic/Islamaphobic language is ‘just a joke’. We have the trope of ‘black people call themselves niggas, so it’s ok for white people to do so too’. The person who suggests that the post is anti-Semitic is blocked or leaves the group.
The discussion also fails (despite the title of the group being ‘Brexit without Tears’) to acknowledge negative emotional responses to leaving the EU. A comment to the effect that I feel ‘tearful’ and I do regard leaving the EU as a loss is totally ignored.
In fact, the idea that leaving the EU will affect people’s lives in any way is disputed.
And the personal insults follow, including the ‘snowflake’ comment when I object.
Before too long, any semblance of rational debate had totally disappeared.
I’m not the only person I know having this experience this week.
I suggest that no one I know thinks that the EU is perfect, but that it has contributed to peace and security in Europe, given individuals rights (eg workers rights), and given free movement. All of these comments (which are demonstrable facts) are rejected. The free movement one is met by the assertion that people will be able to move post-EU membership, they will just need visas etc, and my reply to the effect that this makes free movement much harder than with the protection of EU law is ignored. The workers’ rights comment is met by the statement that we had workers rights before EU membership, and I concede that but point out that they are enhanced by EU membership and enforceable despite the whim of any particular UK government. That point is also ignored. The peace and security claim is met by the assertion that the EU is a Nazi conspiracy theory – the so-called von Ribbentrope project. I have seen this theory before, and it has been totally debunked. When I draw the distinction between facts and a (conspiracy) theory, I’m accused of not being interested in facts. There appears to be an inability of the person posting to distinguish between facts and theory.
The whole tenor of the discussion prompted the following reflections.
I am engaging with the group (and with social media generally) on the basis that I am engaging with human beings who are genuinely posting their views. I recognise that this may not be the case, and that Facebook or Twitter profiles may be fake ones, set up to perpetuate these kinds of views and tropes, irrespective of the person who is actually doing the posting who may be being paid to do it. Indeed, while I was writing this note, I discovered that ‘Brexit without Tears’ had already been exposed by Aris Georgeopoulos as taken over by the troll account ‘Tamarisk Tolcarne’. And the Guardian reported on this kind of unaccountable infiltration of Brexit discussion spaces on social media a while ago. I reported the group to Facebook but they found no infringement of their policies.
I don’t know what to do about this. Social media exists: we cannot un-invent it. There are at least some – if not many – real people who want to discuss Brexit on Facebook, and presumably some in the ‘Brexit without Tears’ group. Some are personally known to me (indeed some dozen of my IRL friends are listed as group members at the time of writing). So even if the people who are engaging are not representing real views, others may be reading them and having their views informed by them. If we give up on the idea that we can have rational debates, and that this is the way to run a country, then we really are in a time of despair.
I am seeing many recurring tropes of discussion, to which I really don’t know how to respond. These are, not exclusively, the idea that the UK was fine before we joined the EU and therefore leaving won’t make things worse (a logical fallacy); the idea that the UK can be global outside the EU (logically correct, but ignores ‘the law of gravity’ and actual patterns of UK trade); the idea that migrants ‘take jobs, take up capacity in the NHS/schools etc’ (not true across the board, in fact an EU national in a hospital is more likely to be giving treatment than receiving it, but of course felt reality in some parts of the country); the idea that ‘the EU needs us more than we need them’ (it is true that the EU and especially some parts of it will suffer from Brexit, but by far the worst effects will fall in the UK); the idea that things haven’t fallen apart so it must have been ‘project fear’ (er, we haven’t left the EU yet); the idea that Brexit will be good for the UK economy as a whole (really not, no serious economist believes this and the government’s own analysis admits that it won’t, but a few maverick economists’ views are re-circulated over and over again on this one); the idea that objecting to personal abuse is a sign of weakness and ‘all that is wrong with this country’.
Thinking about my engagement, and writing this blog, prompted me to wonder whether there is academic literature analysing these tropes. Michael Dougan and Charlotte O’Brien have written in The Law Teacher about the campaigning tactics of Leave: tell lies (big lies); sell fantasies; suppress and abuse opposition; blame scapegoats. They explain how these impact on people in law schools who engage with the Brexit debate. I found this article, analysing the ‘Twitter mood’ in the run up to the referendum. But I’m sure there is more literature that I need to read, as I reflect further.
But for now, I have removed myself from the group, first posting about what I’ve found.
And this is what happened when I did – my post was removed and I was prevented from making further comments anywhere in the group.
A version of this blog with screenshots illustrating all my points is here: Fieldwork notes Brexit without Tears Facebook Group week beginning 13 May 2019 TKH
I’ve now joined this group, which looks much more promising, If you’d like an invitation, just message me.