At the international Celebrity Studies Journal conference in Amsterdam Brexit dominated conversations with British colleagues as we struggled to come to terms with the rise and increased visibility of the far-right at home.
Most delegates were shocked. “No one on my Facebook on Twitter timeline was voting out”, they said, “I never see any of the stuff about immigration. I honestly vote it would be a Remain landslide.”
The insinuation was clear. The people who voted out are simply not who we, in the Ivory Towers of academia, would associate.
This has been very different to my own experience over the past few years, where I’ve watched far-right rhetoric about immigrants increase on the Facebook pages of people I know.
Shortly after Brexit I wrote about the rise of the right in my hometown Sunderland – the first place to announce for Brexit.
I argued that when Labour stopped speaking for the people of the post-industrial North and seized the neo-liberal middle ground, they left a vacuum into which stepped first the BNP and later UKIP.
They poured poison into a people who felt abandoned and were looking for someone to blame for social and economic insecurity.
As I was due to present an analysis of party leader’s social network accounts during 2015 GE election campaign, I decided to refocus the work to try and make some sense of the Brexit vote, with particular focus on Farage’s successful use of Facebook.
My research explores how the conventions of the news industry – alongside the techniques of online ‘micro celebrities’ and celebrity marketing – have influenced digital electioneering.
Farage and the UKIP team were particularly adept at adapting familiar cultural discourses and images for their own ends, such as this play on the famous ‘Labour Isn’t working’ poster.
On Facebook, Farage won the day, with more people ‘talking about him’ and ‘liking’ his page than Labour, The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and The Green Party combined.
His church, like Facebook users, was broad. Young and old, from the Northern unemployed to Middle Englanders, shared his messages about the dangers of immigration and the abandonment of ordinary people by the establishment.
Many of their methods, for any one who studies journalism, are all too familiar. In the late 1970s, Stuart Hall discussed attacks on young black Britons by the National Front in 1975 as a direct result of tabloid newspaper’s portrayal of them as muggers and benefit “scroungers”. He concluded that behind the attacks were white fears about the decline of Britain as an economic power and the ‘othering’ of groups by the press.
The similarities between this kind of news discourse and the way Farage and other right-wing groups such as Britain First construct their own content are clear. But rather than it being engaged with once and then cast aside, like a newspaper, it has tentacles which grow as it is shared again and again.
Often framed as a conversation between ‘Me’ and”You’ against the dangerous ‘them’, content created for social media can suddenly reappear after several weeks or months, finding new currency on new timelines.
And the popularity of the far-right on the site can not be ignored. Britain First, Farage and the UKIP’s Facebook pages boast a combined total of more than 2.7 million ‘likes’ – a million more than Cameron and the Conservatives. Farage’s post-brexit video alone racked up 1.45m views in three weeks.
So, the question becomes, what is our role, as educators and researchers, in challenging this rhetoric?
I’d argue that it is a significant – and it is time for us to focus.
First, we need to understand it better and to do so we must emerge from our social media echo chambers and actively engage with people whose views we might find unpalatable. The limited audience and lofty language of media research means that those who it could benefit most, rarely engage with it.
Secondly, and for post 1992 institutions particularly, we must do more to ensure that young working class people are both politicised and educated during their time with us.
The Miners’ Halls and picket lines of my childhood – where I was politically educated – are gone. Surely we are better placed than the far-right to try and fill these kinds of spaces? I am often surprised that there is so little political debate or demonstration on our campus and know I should do more to help instigate it.
Our students need to understand how both neo-liberal and far right ideologies are constructed, maintained and impact on them. When they do it can be a fulfilling experience for them. On the morning after Brexit I watched with pride as one graduate picked apart Nigel Farage’s statement using ideas discussed in seminars.
She also told a friend who complained that her Facebook was “too political” “that she should “look up Habermas so they could understand was social media was really all about.”
These kinds of discussions on social networks are important because they too can be shared, giving our teaching extended life.
Across England, voting Brexit meant many working class people felt they have a voice and their anger has been focused directly on people they perceive as different.
It’s up to professions like ours to convince them there is another way for them to feel politically empowered. Surely we are capable of being better communicators than the likes of Nigel Farage and Britain First? We have the skills to unpick this rhetoric and we must work harder to do so.
The right are on the rise and we have an important role in the fight back.