Most mainstream British media outlets are calling for the UK to leave the EU, and its single most potent media entity, the BBC, has to remain on the fence somewhat given that it is publicly funded. As things stand, just about as many Brits would like to leave the EU as favour remaining.

In the US, other than a couple of New York tabloids, mainstream media describes Trump as an inept, vile and dangerous charlatan. Yet a majority of Republican primary voters across every demographic would be comfortable having him as their President.

Clearly, we’re not comparing like for like. Referendum polls comprise every UK demographic, while Republican primary voters represent a very small proportion of all Americans. If the entire US were polled, support for Trump would be lower than support for Brexit in the UK. And while Trump and Brexit are both populist-driven phenomena that portray a paranoid worldview in which elites and foreigners are ganging up on the common man, non-swivelling Brexit types do have some intellectually legitimate claims, although they’re largely crowded out by vitriolic, tabloid inspired foreigner-bashing, while Trump is pure populism.

But the paradox of simultaneous, populist spectacles occurring within such wildly contrasting media realities does raise interesting questions about media influence.

Does the volume of pro-Brexit press simply imply that British mainstream media is more influential than its American counterpart? Quite likely. The US media landscape is far more fragmented, comprising highly partisan radio stations and blogs that constitute the only source of news for many people. Despite dwindling readership figures, mainstream media remains quite dominant in the UK.

A more interesting nuance is the notion that media influence can work back to front. Media opposition in the US is inverse to Trump’s popularity, given that his entire campaign narrative is that out-of-touch elites, including mainstream media, are the enemy of the common man. So the theory reads that US media remains influential amongst Trump’s constituencies, but in persuading them to take the furthest contrasting view possible.

Another theory suggests that the Republican establishment and conservative media – Fox News in particular – have been instrumental in creating an environment in which Trump is an acceptable candidate. David Remnick of the New Yorker has written that the Republican establishment has exploited the “darkest American undercurrents” from Nixon’s Southern Strategy of attracting voters opposed to civil rights through to the birther movement. Their perpetual hostility and intransigence, with the likes of Fox as their mouthpiece, have gradually changed the nature of what is tolerable in American political discourse, and Trump is its ultimate consequence. Although Trump is too extreme now even for Fox News, media has arguably been highly influential in paving the way for his ascendance.

A further interesting area worth exploring is media influence vs. personal salience. Supporting Trump often represents a response to personal grievances, while Brexit remains a fairly distant and abstract political matter. Trump supporters grew up in a world of simple certainties: America was the greatest nation on earth, the American dream was alive and well, and Americans could look forward to a life of prosperity and happiness. That’s not entirely the case anymore, and however misguided, they believe in the simple and brutal solutions Trump espouses, and think that he will turn the clock back. Brexit is about the EU. No one cares that much about the EU. For all the jingoistic talk of taking power back and controlling borders, most Brexit supporters do not think quitting the EU is a last resort to making their deteriorating lives better. They support Brexit because it is broadly in line with their worldview, as represented by the media they consume. I suspect there is near perfect alignment between papers people read and how they will vote in the referendum. In summary: most Brexit supporters don’t know or care all that much about Brexit, however excitable they get in the run-up to the referendum, and choose to adhere to the views of their favoured news source, while Trump supporters care very much about their livelihoods and fervently believe in Trump, but are more likely to have relied on gut instinct and their peers to decide he’s their man, rather than some newspaper.

So what do Brexit and Trump tell us about media influence? All wild conjecture on my part, but probably the following: that it still matters greatly, but in a more fluid and complex way than ever; and that its influence is greater on matters that people are less committed to, as they require the media outlet that represents their world view to define their position.

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Does media matter?

December 20, 2014

Of course it does, but in terms of influencing public opinion or the extent to which it dictates decision-making, probably less than we think.

In his book about Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003-04, Joe Trippi recounts how he felt following a car crash interview by Dean on Meet the Press: demoralised and sure their campaign was over. It was the first major political campaign to truly harness online grassroots mobilisation and fundraising, yet at that moment, Trippi, who managed the campaign, was guided by an outmoded paradigm: one in which blowing it on Meet the Press meant you’d get lampooned in every other media outlet and you could no longer possibly win an election.

What actually happened? Dean supporters were enraged: they thought the Republican interviewer had been unduly tough and proceeded to increase activity in support of their candidate. Result? Poll numbers and donations went up the week following the interview. Apparently this was the moment in which Trippi realised beyond any doubt that real people could trump traditional networks of influence.

What’s more, this took place more than 10 years ago, before the advent of social networks or ubiquitous and speedy internet access.

What are, still now, the lessons for communicators or campaigners? Not that we should ignore traditional media, but rather, that:

  • We should be channel agnostic.
  • We should be more meticulous in our study of opinion formation. Influence is infinitely more diluted than it was when everyone followed the lead set by parents or neighbours. What really makes people tick?
  • Obviously, we should re-assess influencers. Network analysis done properly can help us define who really carries clout within a constituency or other community.
  • We should measure impact, not reach. Dean’s Meet the Press interview probably reached far more people than any other single piece of content that week, but its impact on poll numbers was the opposite of what most people would have deducted from mere reach.