Echo Chambers and Exit Polls

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May 8, 2015 by Andrew W M Smith

I’m still stumped, I suppose. It’s tough for me to get my head round what happened, and so I’m writing this partly as a way of digesting the events of Thursday night and Friday morning.

Polling stayed locked in a dance of minute intricacy, a slow suite building towards crescendo. Steady numbers, fluctuating almost imperceptibly, seemed to establish a digestible narrative that convinced us all we knew what was happening. So little changed in those polls that pretending to be Nate Silver stopped being any fun. We’d all brushed up on the Fixed Term Parliament Act, we’d gamed our fantasy coalitions, and, we thought, Thursday night would be nothing more than the opening salvo in a frenzied negotiation that would last until next week at the very least. And then, the polls closed. Eyes all over the country waited for Dimbleby to fire the starting pistol on an evening of interest for statos and geeks until the very last moment that it wasn’t. The shock of the exit poll was, I think, seismic.

I’d entered into a little game of forecasting seats with colleagues at UCL, and I don’t mind saying I was wrong. Dead wrong. Way out. Further out, it seems, than George Galloway’s tenuous grip on reality. In the cold light of the morning, his nonsense about dancing hyenas almost makes as much sense as the confident prognostications I laid out for a ‘shy unionist’ vote in Scotland.

And so, as the night bore on, and the smattering of early seats seemed to confirm that surely aberrant exit poll, its steely logic grew ever more irresistible. This was something new. Eventually, I called it a night about 3am. By that point, I’d satisfied myself that things were all but settled, and Alex Salmond had just appeared on television bleating about lions. As I awoke this morning I was disappointed, disheartened and more than a little done in. What do these results mean for the UK? More than that, what do they mean for the Union itself? It is difficult to really reconcile.

Yet, at the same time, these are the results as they stand. They are the democratic will of the country, and my own personal dissatisfaction is just partisan squabbling. I’m struck also by something I saw Professor Jim Livesey (@jimlivesey1) mention a few weeks ago on Twitter. Ian Martin had written an article talking about the SNP’s surge as a form of collective madness, a fever that gripped a nation in the throes of irrationality. I’ll admit, I read it and was both troubled and given pause. It seemed in part to guiltily salve my own incomprehension. And then I saw it described as ‘the Unionists going all GDR’. Livesey cited Brecht’s poem The Solution, written in response to the 1953 Uprisings that took place in East Berlin after the death of Stalin:

After the uprising of the 17th of June

The Secretary of the Writers Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

The irony of this is that it has been reflected in many of the reactions to the eventual election outcome that I’ve seen on Twitter and on the forums that I read. This result was not mine, and so it is incomprehensible. Suddenly a quote from the comedy Peep Show sprang to mind, as well: “People listen to Coldplay and voted for the Nazis, Jeremy. You can’t trust people.” There’s a bit of comfort there, I think, though it is cold comfort indeed. I’ll admit, I felt a twang of this myself: ‘what’s happened? What’s wrong with people? Why?’ Ultimately, this attitude serves democracy poorly. Millions of people cast a ballot, as I did, and millions disagreed with my choice.

I think even more jarring than the election result has been the realisation that I operate in a series of overlapping echo chambers, in which I find myself speaking and listening to those with similar opinions. They don’t neatly align, and there’s variance there from different social circles, and different interests. I told myself that I was seeing a good sample, a range of voices. I’m certain that my seat forecasts that I’d worked out were the most susceptible to this zeitgeist (and I do shudder to use the word, apologies). There is comfort in this too, though there is also complacency. We always knew that academics, comedians, media commentators and Guardianistas leant the same way in the prevailing political headwinds. Yet the moment that exit poll was announced, we saw just how bowed those branches had become.

Suddenly, it was the GDR all over again. ‘People are mad, the nationalists have brainwashed people. Scotland is lost. What’s wrong with people?’ Between ‘shy tories’, and the erosion of the Lib Dems in England, we can just about bungle together an understanding of the blue wash in the South. Add in the effective scare tactics about the ‘chaos coalition’ and an underwhelming leader, and we can also almost explain Labour’s tiny gains. Up north is more difficult. Here, Scottish Labour imploded. This was huge, and historic. Yet it also seemed to catch many people by surprise.

The SNP have been running an effective campaign that (it seems to me) relies on Polly-anna promises of jam tomorrow, anchored in tokenistic opposition to Trident. Broad soundbite politics painted a picture of progressive ideals that I feel is belied by their record in government, and will be further masked by their newly visible, yet disempowered, role in opposition. Yet, I know fine well why I don’t support them, and, to be frank, that really doesn’t matter. For me, it is fundamentally important to consider what people found in this narrative and what lessons can be learned. Criticisms of the Scottish Nationalists seeming insular, cultish or blinkered are, I think, partly valid, but the accusations are often hypocritical as well. Constructing communities of like-minded fellow travellers is not the preserve of minorities, nor a minority pursuit.

I saw Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) compare the shock of the result to one of the many juddering upheavals in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones (or, indeed, A Song of Ice and Fire). I think there is something in this. The reason we are so shocked by the books (or the TV show), is that we understand the narratives. We feel ownership of the archetypes that govern these fictions: ‘Come on, he’s the hero, of course he’s struggling now, but he’ll utlimately come out alright. That’s how these things work. See, he’s fighting back, the music’s swelling. Oh, he’s dead? Crumbs.’ Our familiarity with the flow of the narrative amplifies the shock when we are denied its resolution. This seems a lot to me like last night’s election coverage.

What next? In part I’m struck by a speech by Edward Tangye Lean, the one-time Deputy Director of the BBC External Service, in February 1967:

“It is, of course, the audience, in a competitive system, that selects the broadcaster: not the other way round. Paradoxically radio, a means of mass communication, addresses the individual but an undifferentiated individual. He is one of tens, or hundreds, of thousands of unknown, solitary or familial human beings sitting at home, on benches, in cafes listening. Clearly in broadcasting to these unselected individuals neither technique nor objectives can exactly co-incide with those, say, of diplomacy.”[1]

Lean was considering the role of the External Services in a changing political climate, questioning the ambition of the country to have a role overseas just as it seemed also to be retreating into itself. I think political parties need to consider these ideas, especially in Scotland in the light of the election results. Scottish Labour is not communicating its message effectively. It is not dealing in the identity politics that the SNP has managed to win round: into the former homes of ‘labour men’, and working class families that want to kick on. In part this is contextual – Scotland is changing demographically and economically  – though it is also to do with message.

Who do we address when we broadcast? Who do we address when we campaign? I listened to students interviewed on BBC news expressing frustration that politicians only spoke to them about tuition fees and apprenticeships: ‘what about foreign policy, what about policing?’ In the context of this campaign, speaking only to individuals that are narrowly defined has not worked. Speaking broadly to a nation has not worked. Instead, what has worked, is creating and addressing nested echo chambers.

For Scotland, there is an uncertain future. Fewer people voted for this SNP landslide than voted ‘yes’ in the referendum. Yet, that is the system in which we operate. I’m heartened by talk of reform towards federal structures, and also by the mention of voting reform. When we think about who to address in the context of these structural reforms, I’m reminded of the words of that famous federalist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:

“Solicit men’s view in the mass, and they will return stupid, fickle and violent answers; solicit their views as members of definite groups with real solidarity and a distinctive character, and their answers will be responsible and wise. Expose them to the political ‘language’ of mass democracy, which represents ‘the people’ as unitary and undivided and minorities as traitors, and they will give birth to tyranny; expose them to the political language of federalism, in which the people figures as a diversified aggregate of real associations, and they will resist tyranny to the end.”

For me, this notion of a federal settlement is positive, but it cannot come without broader action to address the audiences of political parties in Scotland. If the Union is to survive, it cannot do so by dissolving the people, it cannot do so by dismissing the views of those who kicked it in the ballot box. It must be tackled with an understanding of changing political realities, of the fact that echo chambers are now much easier to construct in an age of mass media and, crucially, social media. Identity politics is an important facet of constructing and binding these echo chambers. And so, in the light of the day, and still in shock at the exit poll, it falls to each and every one of us to look beyond our own echo chambers, and to engage meaningfully in a process of reform that begins with the civic institutions that surround us.

[1] E. Tangye-Lean, ‘Information After Imperialism’. BBCWAC E2/655/1

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