Brexit: Why We Didn’t See It Coming

Brexit: Why We Didn’t See It Coming

On the 22nd June 2016 the British public voted on whether or not we wished to remain part of the European Union. I woke up that fateful morning bleary-eyed from my failed attempt to stay up for the result. Ticker-tape was still running across my television screen as I slowly tried to piece together fragments of news reports and hints from the sallow expressions on the newscasters faces. I started to understand that millions of people had voted ‘Leave’, and they had won. As reality came into focus, I felt distant and alienated, as if I suddenly no longer belonged here. I had awoken in a strange new world which I did not understand, could not relate to and had not by any stretch of the imagination predicted could be possible. I had naively believed that the referendum was a farce, a make-believe vote, which had been offered to pacify those silly ‘Leavers’. I hadn’t for a moment considered that there might be enough of them to win. I was to discover that my reaction was typical of most ‘Remainers’, who were generally bewildered.

Why was it such a surprise? I had spoken with many people about the vote. I read, watch and listen to an array of media, I consider myself reasonably politically engaged, and yet I had no idea that the British public felt so strongly about leaving the EU that they could vote us out without a clue what they were really voting for. As this drama continues to unfold, we learn that there was no plan, no clear strategy, and that the result may end up being an economic and legal disaster as each industry and sector tries to forecast what the changes will mean for them. So how is it that the ‘Remainers’, generally speaking, did not see this coming?

Part of the answer for this lies in the way that social media operates. Social media platforms have been dubbed an ‘echo chamber’ for the user’s own views and values about the world. What this means is that as you engage with a social media platform, you express political leanings, attitudes and views through your ‘likes’, ‘shares’ ‘retweets’ and the posts you write. As you do so, social media platforms learn more about you and respond by providing material that you are expected to like. This keeps you engaged with the platform, which ultimately keeps you using it for longer and making the platform more money.

The consequence of this ‘echo chamber’ effect is that an app or website which you have come to trust as a portal to the ‘public sphere’, the views of the world around you, is in fact more of a mirror which reflects back only those views which interest you most. This strange hall of mirrors serves to reinforce your views, leading to further division, but also means that you are engaging in a world in which generally speaking, most people seem to agree with you.

The Brexit referendum example highlights how powerful this effect can be. From my own engagement with social media, I genuinely had no idea that so many ‘real people’ out there intended to vote ‘Leave’. It turns out that my experience on social media was in fact shielding me from the millions of people who held an opposing view. I found this experience disorientating. It is easy to see how views can become exaggerated and polarised by social media engagement. We are used to bias in newspapers and news channels on television, those who are politically engaged will know very well which media sources are considered to be more right wing or left wing. Somehow the bias that occurs through social media is more insidious.

Our psychological engagement with the world around us is informed to some extent by the media sources we engage with and we all need to start being more aware of how the newer media forms operate. As we engage increasingly with views which mirror our own, this leads to greater and greater division and we lose touch with views and lives that differ from us. Social media is changing the psychological landscape as we increasingly rely on social media for our engagement with the world around us. We cannot underestimate the effect this is having on the political and emotional climate of the country and it would be helpful to begin to consider the implications of this on our mental health.