Craig Dillon: The C4 Brexit drama shows us how social media rules

Written by Craig Dillon on 8 January 2019 in Opinion

James Graham's TV film starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Vote Leave strategy chief Dominic Cummings.

James Graham’s new Channel 4 movie taps into a rare area in which both sides, Remain and Leave, tend to agree. It is that digital is power - and the pro-Brexit campaign wielded it to devastating effect.

How did a campaign that was fighting almost every establishment institution and power in history win? By questionable means, but by understanding people and social media, they targeted people digitally, and tailored bespoke messages to each voter. If you believed something, the chances are that the next day, logging on, you would see an ad from Vote Leave answering the questions you wanted answered but hadn't actually asked.

The campaign now played directly to you. If you were wondering something like "Couldn't the money we spent on the EU be spent elsewhere...?" Vote Leave knew from the digital data they’d collected that you were likely to think these things. Hence why you would've likely seen an advert telling you exactly where it could be spent. Maybe 350 million a week on the NHS...? 

When we put the allegations of so called lies and who-did-what-to-whom aside, Brexit must not distract us, more importantly Parliament, from the dominance of digital in the political world. Anyone unwilling to confront it will lose. We live now in an age of survival by social media-savviest. So MPs who fear sliding down their greasy poles, must take note, and start learning fast.

I can understand why our public servants have been apprehensive to become digital natives. For starters, the obvious. They don’t understand it. See the US senators who asked Mark Zuckerberg, “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” and “How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?”, among other silly, blindingly easy questions.

To paraphrase an American news pundit commenting on Sarah Palin, when it comes to social media it's not just that our politicians don’t know the answer, it’s that they clearly don’t understand the question. Not just their own questions and those from the media, but all the questions we need to ask of social media, to understand it. Not only did Congress humiliate itself, showing the public how little their representatives actually know, it also revealed the state’s inability to regulate and actually create effective policy. In the UK, we can do better than Congress.

Other reasons? Abuse. To many, social media is just mob rule. Where members of the public, and of course the US President, can throw verbal tomatoes, and worse. There's no doubting it's a serious problem. But it's made worse by a politician’s retreat. MPs mustn’t generalise and see social media as an anarchic threat, but instead as an opportunity to take on their critics and shape public discourse. But not like keen Lord Adonis. After all, tone is everything when it comes to social media.

Another more critical reason is front and centre in the film. Social media and the digital sphere is dark and mysterious. So naturally it is governed by dark and mysterious figures. Phantom campaigners like Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Dominic Cummings. Who ever heard of Dominic Cummings outside of the Westminster bubble?! Who is he and what does he do? Why does he know stuff that others don't? Who was his doppelganger on the other side? Did they have one? 

Rather pertinently, I'm sure the same sentiment exists for these hidden figures as did for the EU. I don't know them, can't relate to them, don't know what they do, or why they have such control over me. AlI know is I don't like it, and it’s going to stop. That's why MPs must take control of the mantel and embrace social media, as some are thankfully beginning to do.

The opportunity is huge. It can be something as simple as tweeting or clipping up your latest speeches and posting them for all to see. That way they have permanence and a larger audience. It’s a great way to personalize yourself. The ironic thing about social media is it can be incredibly dehumanising - the abuse, the avatars, the unnaturalness of it all. But used correctly it can simply mean followers seeing you're not a lizard alien in disguised in human flesh, and that you have, say, a social life?! God forbid. 

The film’s Dominic Cummings character, arguable architect of the successful Brexit campaign, declares “Everyone knows who won, but not everyone knows how”. The mastery of digital is how. If MPs want not just to survive, but conquer, they must finally acquiesce like the rest of us to the digitisation of the world, and turn themselves and Westminster online.




Craig Dillon is CEO of Westminster Digital

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