So now we know. After three years of investigation at huge expense to the taxpayer, the Information Commissioner has found no evidence that Cambridge Analytica and its phantom Russian backers had any significant influence on the Brexit referendum. Now the natural question is how such an obvious conspiracy theory came to be taken seriously by a supposedly well-informed political class in the first place.
In truth, it’s not especially hard to explain the establishment’s irrational behaviour since the Brexit referendum. The endless search for scapegoats and shadowy international players is a helpful distraction from any meaningful introspection.
Whether it’s Russian trolls, social media manipulation or adverts on buses, the search for some explanatory Brexit aberration continues unabated.
While this sudden diversion down Conspiracy Cul-de-sac is a mystery to the average Brexit voter, it makes perfect sense to a large class of people who’ve spent their whole lives exercising political and cultural authority. How else can they explain that authority being rejected in the most spectacular fashion at the very moment it mattered most?
The Cambridge Analytica and Boris Bus controversies are proof positive that our cultural and political establishment have been living in a self-reinforcing bubble for many decades now. As a result of this detachment from our shared reality, a large chunk of the political class remains psychologically unable to grasp that the majority of the electorate sees a very different world to the one they inhabit. After all, if most voters believed the European Union was a net benefit, Britain would simply have voted Remain.
Not only that, but the media’s hysterical reaction to Cambridge Analytica and the Boris Bus also confirms what Brexiteers have suspected for some years now…yes, the Remain establishment really does believe the electorate is irretrievably stupid. I can now make this claim with confidence because the groundless conspiracy theories surrounding the referendum are dependent upon the gullibility of the electorate; they simply won’t work without that vital component.
Consider the case of Cambridge Analytica. For the conspiracy theory to work, it’s necessary to believe that online political ads possess an almost magical power to influence opinions. This fanciful idea also serves to bolster the already inflated self-image of the Remainer elite. After all, they are not influenced by Facebook ads, therefore it follows that only the ill-informed or less capable would be susceptible to such pernicious and dishonest propaganda.
The ludicrous overreaction to the Boris Bus is another version of the same mass hysteria. In order to take it seriously, one must believe that a slogan painted on public transport possesses some mystical power to influence the minds of the electorate. Not the sensible people who voted to remain, mind you, just the ones who disobeyed the establishment.
As with all conspiracy theories, the problem is that there’s no evidence to support any of these ideas. Have you ever met anyone who’s changed their mind after seeing a Facebook ad or the Boris Bus? Sure, there may be a handful, but attributing a majority of over 1.3 million to a statement on the side of a bus is simply beyond the pale. If a single bus was such a powerful tool, why didn’t the Remain campaign just get two buses, or even a fleet? Job done, surely.
This is why the Brexit (and Trump) conspiracy theories will continue indefinitely. They allow our cultural and political elites to avoid facing the difficult truth that their reign has not been nearly as benign as they think.
Everyone likes to be a hero, and to suddenly find out you’re really a villain is very hard to deal with, so the conspiracy fantasists are here to stay.