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A matter of facts: The EU referendum and the power of mistruths

Louise Sheeran

“Any time you are interviewed, regardless of the line of questioning, you must, must, must say: ‘the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU’.’”

Diktat delivered, the martinet then added, conspiratorially sotto voce, behind a pantomime hand raised to the mouth: “Try to ignore the fact that we absolutely do not send that much and that every time you repeat this line you are lying.”

Some version of this scenario must have happened, at least. Because it seems that barely a day goes by without a prominent “Brexiteer” crowbarring the refrain into an opaque “let-me-be-clear” answer. It is the statistical hook on which their entire campaign has been based. It is the most prominent figure in Vote Leave’s “Get the Facts” PDF. It is so important to them and their hell-bent quest for headlines that the message shouts with bold-lettered brio from their scarlet campaign bus.

The claim is a hollow one, based on pretty muddy thinking. This is not the platform for a full rebuttal of the £350 million figure, but here are three pretty good reasons to question it:

So we can be fairly sure that the £350 million is sub-veracious. Even the de facto leader of Vote Leave, Boris Johnson, admitted in an ITV interview that “if you take out the abatement and the money that comes back via Brussels the figure is obviously lower”. Most authorities agree that the true per-week figure is appreciably lower than £350 million and probably somewhere nearer to £150 million.

But the real point is that whether it’s £350 million a week or £150 million a week, or somewhere in between, the true amount simply does not matter. What is true does not matter. Not one jot. This is worth restating. The authenticity of the most important stat in the agenda-setting campaign of the most important vote in generations does not matter.

The bottom-line, brass-tacks truth of a political claim pales in insignificance to how well that claim plays in the mind of the target audience. How much of an emotional connection it makes. How deep the pithy little stat-parasite burrows its way into the minds of the masses.

Polls show that the £350 million stat has performed well on these bases, that it has resonated well with the public at large. It is entrenched. It is there. And even if enough voices of authority persuade the majority of the public that the £350 million figure is wrong, the debate will have been won and lost. Because by the time the sums have been done, the parasite may be forced from the frontal lobe, but it will have left behind an indelible thought-scar: “We spend millions every week on EU membership”. The enduring message, the gist, the strapline is that our subscription to the club is costly – and it’s an outlay we could do with cutting from the family budget.

None of this is unique to the Leave campaign. The independent fact-checking charity Full Fact has criticised the “Remain” campaign’s bombast – particularly on the calculations used to describe the potential economic impact of a Brexit – almost as much as Vote Leave’s.

And since the dawn of the age of spin (one of the grand ironies is that the age of misinformation has coincided with the age of information), politicians of every creed have simply stopped caring if the figures they tweet and retweet are nonsense, if the claims and counterclaims they make are baseless, if the quotes and soundbites they pump out are false: if they can get a line, or a stat that sticks, one that, glory of glories, becomes a meme, then who cares if it’s wrong? They’ll keep saying it and hang the consequences. The former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, looked upon the statistical paint splatter of the 2015 general election campaign and described it as: “yah-boo with numerical knobs on”. The current campaign is even worse.

We now have a more connected world than ever. We have supercomputers that can crunch numbers and artificial intelligence that can simulate possibilities and predict likely eventualities. We have instruments and gauges that track every social and fiscal transaction. Through technology, we are able to scrutinise and investigate claims like never before.

Commercial brands need to be aware of this and tread carefully when using figures and claims as part of a marketing strategy. Every one must be watertight and backed by evidence, otherwise sanctions will follow. Skechers (whose "calorie-burning" shoes were proven to be no different from regular shoes), Listerine (whose claim that mouthwash was as effective as flossing in combating tooth decay was ruled by a judge to be misleading) and Naked Juice (whose “all-natural” tagline was undermined by the synthetic vitamins added to every bottle) are among three companies to have been stung by big-money lawsuits in the past.

But how much do these mistruths matter? Consumers still associate Skechers with calorie burning, they still think of Listerine as an effective mouthwash – and they’ll still turn to Naked Juice when they’re on a detox. But brands overlook trust, clarity and truthfulness at their peril. They must stand by – and stand up to – the claims they make and the communications they put out. And this is particularly important in sensitive and regulated industries like healthcare. The Frameworks is currently working on a B2B content project in this very industry – and when you’re dealing with people’s health, there’s no room for error. Stringent fact checking – and even legal approval – are required when creating healthcare communications. And it should be the same in any industry.

Somehow, however, politicians and political parties are immune to the pressures faced by brands. Despite all the fact-checks and balances we’ve created, many politicians do not defer to the authority of hard evidence. If they did, then we might enjoy a world where policies are designed based on how the evidence indicates the greater good might be achieved. Instead, it is the reverse: demagogic appeals and ideology come first, then stats and facts are sprayed on later for a bit of post-hoc PR burnish.

Whether we wake up on Friday “in” or “out” – don’t you think we deserve better?