Right-wing populism, visual disinformation, and Brexit: from the UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ poster to the aftermath of the London Westminster bridge attack
Simon Faulkner, Hannah Guy, and Farida Vis
The United Kingdom (UK) experienced significant political turmoil over its relationship with Europe between early 2016 and 2017. This period opened on 22 February 2016, with then— Prime Minister David Cameron calling for a European Union (EU) membership referendum and came to some degree of resolution when the subsequent prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 (the first step to start the so-called Brexit process) on 29 March 2017. The EU referendum itself was held on 23 June 2016, in which British citizens were asked to answer the following question: ‘should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The referendum resulted in a narrow majority vote to leave the EU. The successful Leave campaign involved a number of organisations. The official campaign, as defined by the electoral commission, was Vote Leave, while their rival organisation was Leave. EU. The latter had links to the longer-standing Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), which also ran a campaign. The Leave.EU and UKIP campaigns were both overtly focused on the issue of immigration and mobilised a racialised politics of fear consistent with broader European and international right-wing populist ideas concerning race and nationhood. Our chapter involves two case studies that each analyse a photojournalistic image that gained significant visibility in mainstream and social media during this period. The first image was distributed a week before the EU referendum was held and on the same day that a right-wing extremist murdered British Labour MP Jo Cox (apparently for her pro-EU position and sympathy for migrants). The second was distributed a week before the triggering of Article 50. These images were chosen because they offer rich opportunities to explore the ways in which media manipulation in the UK context has been — in these instances — strongly shaped by populist, racist, anti-immigration, and Islamophobic sentiments.
The first case study examines UKIP’s so-called ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which used a photojournalistic image deriving from the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015. This poster was made public on 16 June 2016 at a press conference featuring UKIP leader Nigel Farage, outside the European
Commissions London base in Westminster, as part of the party’s campaign for a Leave vote. The poster was also distributed via UKIP’s social media accounts and published in a different version in the Daily Express newspaper. Photographs and video of the press conference, showing Farage in front of the poster displayed on a mobile billboard, were widely distributed through mainstream and social media (Figure 19.1).
The second case study relates to a terrorist attack that occurred on Westminster Bridge in London on 22 March 2017. This attack involved a single attacker, British Muslim Khalid Masood, who drove a car onto the pavement on Westminster Bridge with the aim of killing pedestrians and then fatally stabbed an unarmed police officer in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster before being shot dead. The attack resulted in the deaths of five other people and the injury of fifty. The case study focuses on how a specific photograph taken of the aftermath of the attack (Figure 19.2) was moved from the mainstream media to social media and then reported as news itself in the mainstream media. It is this journey taken by the image and the multiple reframings and interpretations that took place that are of particular interest here.
The role of news images and images more generally, as a way to better understand mis- and disinformation, has not received the attention it deserves, given how much social media content as well as manipulated content is visual. More than that, when images and photographs are considered, this is often through a journalistic lens, with a focus on verification practices that are essentially aimed at establishing if an image is ‘true’ or ‘false’. Within academic research, work on such images tends to rely on content analysis in order to identify key themes. Our concerns in this chapter go beyond both the verification of photographic images and the identification of themes in order to consider how the examination of socio-political context is fundamental to
Pigtire 19.1 UK Independence Party Leader (UKIP) Nigel Farage addresses the media during a national poster launch campaign ahead of the EU referendum in London on 16 June 2016
Source: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images.
Figure 19.2 Sequence frame showing a woman visibly distressed passing the scene of the terrorist incident on Westminster Bridge, London, 22 March 2017
Source: Jamie Lorriman/Shutterstock.
understanding how images are used for mis- and disinformation purposes. This is particularly true for those images that receive significant coverage and play a key role in shaping public opinion. Thinking about context is particularly important when images are used in ways that reproduce or innovate racial ideas. Examples of mis- and disinformation that mobilise such ideas can be approached through practices of verification, but in the end the racist beliefs that inform such representations cannot be understood in terms of simplistic notions of ‘true’ or ‘false’. Rather, they need to be examined in terms of their ideological content and effects. The overarching goal of this chapter is to help shape this agenda for scholars who are interested in studying these topics and particularly where they intersect. We use these two case studies to start to show how this can be done and why it matters. The focus of the chapter is disinformation. Recognising that there are many competing definitions of disinformation, we define it as follows: ‘combinations of images and texts, drawing on elements of truthful representations, used to spread misleading, inaccurate or false information designed to cause harm’. In the following sections, we review the existing literature relevant to our subject before discussing the case studies in more detail.