Look at the Vote Leave Facebook adverts alongside their more public propaganda, and you see quite how much it promoted racist ideas.
Boris Johnson’s weaponisation of the burqa came on the heels of new revelations about the propaganda strategy of the Vote Leave campaign which he fronted in the 2016 referendum. I argued here at the time that Vote Leave’s official television advertisement, the most high-profile item of Leave propaganda, was a skillful racist amalgam.
During the referendum, we knew that Vote Leave was sending a huge number of targeted social media messages. Its strategist Dominic Cummings now says there were 1.5 billion, with a large number directed at just 7 million voters in the final days of the campaign, but these were under the radar for pro-EU observers in 2016.
However, following the twin scandals around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ, and Vote Leave’s breaches of election spending laws, Facebook supplied Vote Leave’s advertisements to Westminster’s Media, Culture and Sport committee. It is now possible to see that the TV ad was the centrepiece of a vast multimedia effort centred on a nuanced orchestration of racism to swing the Brexit vote.
How racism in the Leave campaign has been misunderstood
This third scandal is possibly the most serious of all for British democracy, yet to appreciate it we must revise our ideas on the role of racism in Brexit. During and after the referendum, pro-EU politicians and commentators largely identified racism with the UKIP-linked Leave.EU, which was responsible for what became an emblematic moment, the unveiling by Nigel Farage – just after the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox – of the notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster which used a photograph of Syrian refugees to represent migration into Britain. Vote Leave distanced itself from the poster: the co-convenor of its campaign committee, Michael Gove (then as now a cabinet minister), said that he ‘shuddered’ when he saw it.
Moreover, Leave.EU attacked Vote Leave for giving insufficient priority to immigration and critics have largely taken their attacks at face value, accepting the idea that Leave.EU was racist, Vote Leave not. When a wave of physical and verbal aggression erupted, political blame focused on the secondary campaign fronted by Farage and funded by Arron Banks. Indeed Tim Shipman recounts that Leave.EU advertisements were ‘deliberately sent to supporters of the British National Party and Britain First’, the racist group to which Thomas Mair, Cox’s murderer, was linked because he cried ‘Britain first’ as he killed her (All Out War, p.408).
However the focus on Leave.EU, the extreme right and hate crimes misses the role of the campaign which was officially recognised by the Electoral Commission and led by Conservative ministers and Labour MPs: Vote Leave. In the biggest TV debate on 20 June 2016, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, accused Vote Leave leaders of ‘Project Hate’, a rare calling-out of their campaign at the time. We can now see how right he was.
How Vote Leave’s TV and Facebook propaganda combined
By then Vote Leave had shown its TV election broadcast repeatedly on different channels over four weeks, starting on 23 May. Beginning with lurid graphics representing the immigration threat of Turkey and Balkan countries joining the EU and the £350 million the UK allegedly paid the EU each week, it climaxed with split screen film showing (staying within the EU) a surly foreign man elbowing a tearful elderly white woman out of the queue in an Accident and Emergency department, while (leaving the EU) the woman is contentedly treated without having to wait. This film was on YouTube as recently as the spring of this year, but appears to have been removed since the scandals of the Vote Leave campaign were exposed. The importance of this broadcast is that it was shown, as law required, on all terrestrial public channels and therefore accessible to almost all the electorate, including older voters, a major target audience many of whom did not use social media.