Experts, framing & communication

“Not only were we facing the British establishment in the government, we also, in some ways, took on the world establishment because all these heads of government [including Obama] were coming out to say that Britain should remain in the E.U.,” he said. “It was quite a challenge to actually win this campaign with all the forces arrayed against us. At the end of the day, this was a people-versus-the-elite referendum. And the people were on our side.” – Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Leave

Given this blog’s focus on campaigning and framing, there is one aspect of the Brexit fallout that  was especially interesting. There has been a considerable amount of wailing over how the Remain campaign was too elitist and failed to address the concerns of Leave voters, who were older, less educated and poorer. Despite this, it was intriguing that areas that benefitted the most from EU subsidies voted for the leave campaign. A case of voters acting against their own self-interests or a failure in political communication?

Brexit demographic
Brexit demographics source: https://next.ft.com/content/1ce1a720-ce94-3c32-a689-8d2356388a1f

There is a phrase by a UK politician that has had a considerable amount of coverage in the media – “The British people are sick of experts”.  I agree and think that the prescriptive framing of issues through experts is now a flawed political communication tactic. There is a strong sentiment against top down pronouncements that tell voters to trust in the opinions of experts irrespective of either their own experiences or the frame in which they process the issues.

Ads like this will no longer resonate with voters who feel betrayed by “experts” or “elites”.

In addition to the disconnect between the cultural and economic elites in life experiences, there is another reason for this development. Disintermediation means that issues are no longer exclusively framed by experts or the mainstream media. People now have access to multiple sources of information that independently either reinforce their existing cognitive framework or influences them to adopt a new one.

The implication are significant. If an issue (such as free trade or mass migration) is being processed through one frame, a parade of experts offering counter arguments will not change that. Top down and prescriptive communication tactics are becoming less effective. Campaigners need to re-evaluate what constitutes effective content and the channels through which it is communicated.

Media disintermediation and priming in politics.

Having posted earlier on the way agenda setting and priming have functioned in the US Presidential Primaries, I thought it useful to take a look at how social media affects this process, focusing on the impact of owned media. My interest in this was also stimulated by listening to a number of podcasts and having read articles that seemed bemused about why the largely negative press coverage of Donald Trump has not affected his success.

By making some issues more salient in people’s mind (agenda setting), mass media can also shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgments about political candidates or issues (priming).

Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models / Dietram A. Scheufele & David Tewksbury

In a traditional model involving agenda setting / priming, the media’s impact extends through the entire lifecycle of the process. Not only does the media’s content set the agenda in the public’s mind, it exerts an ongoing priming influence. This is due to the fact that the “mainstream” media used to be a primary source of content about the issue. As I’ve touched upon previously, the media played an important role in the agenda setting process that made Trump a viable candidate.

 However, the disintermediation effect that social media has had on news means that priming (and possibly agenda setting) now occurs from a wider variety of sources.

In this election cycle, the “traditional entities” – the political parties, the media and the donor class – have been “cut out” as middlemen, said Gibbs. Outsider candidates have been able to “build an audience, deliver a message, and create a platform, all of their own construction.” Candidates can speak directly to voters through social media; Bernie Sanders in particular, despite a lack of media coverage compared to Donald Trump, was able to raise millions, said Gibbs. And although he has made extensive use of media coverage, Trump has circumvented both the Republican Party and the donor class.

– TIME’s Nancy Gibbs: The Disintermediation of Media and Politics

Essentially, this means that the media mix available to campaigns has changed dramatically. Most importantly, they can:

  • Become their own content creators on social media and push this content to the audience.
  • Leverage independent new media entities (especially those that favour the campaign) to push out content.

As a result, the weightage given to the traditional mainstream media is less, while that of the campaign’s owned content has increased. While this process has taken place over a number of years, the gap between the tone of the mainstream media’s campaign of the Trump campaign and the connection that campaign has built with voters is its most dramatic incarnation.

The very simplified diagrams below illustrate the change.

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