This is the second in a series of articles about political messaging in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica controversy. The first part discussed the messaging of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and how it works: I strongly encourage you to read that part first, if you haven’t already. Here, I look at Irish politics.

While most of the attention in the Cambridge Analytica controversy has focused on Trump and Brexit, it’s important to remember that Ireland is not immune.

I’m not just talking about micro-targeting of voters. If the data is obtained in an ethical manner, that’s not problematic. All parties are doing this to some extent; more efficient use of keyword-based advertising targeted more efficiently at specific demographics lets parties reach an audience more receptive to their message. I never used analytics and microtargeting per se, but for sure the ads for campaigns I ran used keywords which were chosen to target particular demographics and interests – not just candidate names and policy issues.

The problematic part is the use of deception and manipulation, either to build trust as a messenger, once that trust has been gained, or to resonate with existing fears.

Worryingly, these techniques are being used in Ireland right now.

The referendum campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment is ripe for this style of manipulative messaging. It’s an emotionally charged issue already – unlike Trump and Brexit, no priming was required. The association with the Catholic Church, the previous referenda going back decades, the natural emotions surrounding pregnancy, the harrowing stories of women like Savita Halappanavar and Ann Lovett, the stories of all the women who have had to travel to the UK, and more. Emotions are running high, and can be abused.

So, here’s how it works. A claim is made which emotionally resonates with previously held opinions or beliefs. It can come from a source of news which has previously gained trust (which could be anything from a media outlet, to a Facebook group, or a particular person), or if it resonates enough, it can come from a new source. It doesn’t matter if the claim is true or not; usually, it’s at least twisting the facts, if not an outright lie. That doesn’t matter, because people don’t have time to fact-check, and have been conditioned to believe without evidence (as I said in the first post on this subject, religion and faith plays a big part in this, and there’s still a lot of religion in Irish schools). The emotional resonance is what’s important. The claim will be challenged by the opposition; that challenge, rather than changing mind, reinforces the belief of the claim, even if there is incontrovertible evidence against the claim. Debate and confusion works in favour of the claim. Opinions and emotions become stronger, divisiveness increases. If the claim came from a new source, that source becomes trusted. Future messages are more likely to emotionally resonate. A new claim is made; the cycle continues.


We have seen a couple of examples of this from the campaign against Repeal. I’ll mention two.

A claim was made that Repeal, and a 12 week limit without restriction, would lead to termination of most pregnancies with Down Syndrome and other disabilities. This has big potential to emotionally resonate, especially because it’s alleging active discrimination against disabilities, or eugenics – so it’s combining emotions from a couple of different areas. The Repeal campaign, medical professionals, and Down Syndrome Ireland all came out critical of the claim, for different reasons. We heard that it’s nonsense, it doesn’t happen in other countries so why should it here; we were told that you can’t diagnose Down Syndrome within the 12-week limit, so it’s not actually possible; and we had a request to stop using Down Syndrome as a political football. Rationally, that should have ended that discussion and reduced trust in the anti-Repeal campaign. Instead, they stuck to the story, dismissed the opposing evidence, and repeated the claim. It was debated in the media. The debate and confusion worked in favour of the claim.

The anti-Repeal campaign also produced a man who claimed to have worked as a nurse in a British hospital for years, and claimed that he had assisted with many terminations. Repeal activist @NursepollyRgn fact-checked and found no record of him being registered as a nurse; the hospital also had no record of him being employed during the period he claimed, but only a couple of months work as a porter. That should have been enough to disregard anything he said, and show that the anti-Repeal campaign couldn’t be trusted. Instead, they denied that they had lied, insisted it was true, accused the hospital of misleading, and stuck to the story. What he said had emotionally resonated; that it wasn’t true didn’t matter, the damage was done.

The anti-Repeal campaign are doing micro-targeting as well. They’ve hired a British company, Kanto, to run analytics for them. Kanto is linked to Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL, and was part of the Brexit campaign. According to the Transparent Referendum Initiative (which you should all check out @TransparentRef, and download their plugin to see who is targeting you with ads), a range of ads are already being micro-targeted at Irish voters in specific demographics.

Worried? You should be.

Net effect:

A ten point swing in two months: it’s working for them.

The influence that emotions have on voting can also be seen in the turnout figures for some previous referenda. For some, like the proposal to abolish the Seanad, or the fiscal Treaty vote, it’s hard to generate or resonate with emotions. The marriage equality referendum, on the other hand, was full of emotion. Compare these turnout numbers for past referenda:


By the way, if those numbers seem low across the board, bear in mind that turnout figures are given in the basis of the entire electoral register. There’s a lot of duplicate entries on the register, as well as the recently deceased; it’s estimated that the register overestimates the voting population by 5-10%. For referenda, the overestimation is even greater, as the register also includes British citizens entitled to vote in Dáil elections, EU citizens entitled to vote in European Parliament elections, and non-EU citizens entitled to vote in local elections – none of whom are entitled to vote in constitutional referenda.

It’s not just in referenda that emotions, and the Brexit/Trump type of manipulative messaging, are relevant in Irish politics. I’ve previously shared this graphic from the brilliant Kerry artist @Ciaraioch:

The Healy-Rae cycle is exactly this type of manipulative messaging. Danny says something idiotic, like denying climate change, or that driving after a big meal is equivalent to drink driving. Everyone, for good reason, calls him an idiot. The Healy-Raes use this as an example of the rest of the country looking down on Kerry people, resonating with emotions of county loyalty – which predates them – and a persecution complex – which they helped create. Note also here the Healy-Rae branding: Michael, like the late Jackie, is rarely seen without the flat cap, and they all have strong Kerry accents. An attack on them is an attack on Kerry, especially rural Kerry.

A key step: never back down. Danny never retracts anything, he sticks to his story, and doubles down. This prolongs the criticism, and adds a layer of confusion. His voters trust him as a messenger, so they side with him; attacks on him increase their support for him. Net result: strengthening of his support, and increasing the persecution complex, ready for emotional resonance the next time he says something idiotic. It’s a classic example.

The Healy-Raes are also masters of local clientelism, so this isn’t the only thing they have going for them; but the clientelism is a big part of how they become trusted messengers in the first place. When someone has helped you out with a problem, you feel a loyalty to them, and will tend to side with them when they’re criticised.

That’s why clientelism works so well in Irish politics. It’s also why we tend to know our politicians by their first names. How many Taoisigh have you heard called anything but their first name? Leo, Enda, Bertie, Charlie. It’s folksy, and leads to a sense of familiarity, which comes with a side of emotional connection for at least some.

Electoral inertia comes from the same concept. How many people vote Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael because that’s the way their parents vote? I quickly lost count, when starting canvassing when I first got involved in electoral politics, how many times I’d knock on a door only to be told “Sorry, this is a Fianna Fáil household”.

Voting for someone even once builds an emotional connection with them. You are naturally inclined to defend your support for them if they are criticised: criticism of them is criticism of you. That provokes an emotional fight response, not a critical appraisal of the facts. It takes something big to change that. Once you’ve voted for someone once, you’re likely to do so again; once you’ve voted for them again, you’re likely to keep voting for them. I call this political inertia.

That’s why we have some Independent TDs who are fixtures. Michael Lowry, who repeatedly tops the polls despite past corruption. Mattie McGrath. Noel Grealish, who survived the PD collapse.

It doesn’t work the same way for all independents – those elected on single issues tend not to be around longer than the issue is in public consciousness. If the issue goes away before they can benefit from inertia, so will they.

Then, there’s the smaller parties. Labour have gone from the third party to a measly 6% in the polls, because many of their previous supporters felt betrayed during their time in Government. The only thing that can overcome emotion is stronger emotion, and that’s exactly what happened to them. Betrayal produces an emotional response that’s hard to overcome, so they’ll probably be waiting a while for that support to return.

The alphabet alliance now known as Solidarity-PBP emotionally resonated with many over the water charges issue – they helped to generate and then capitalised on feelings that the charges were unfair. Unfairness produces a strong emotional response. Now that issue is gone, they’re struggling to make waves. They haven’t been big players long enough to benefit from political inertia.

The Greens have the reverse issue, with many of their core policies based around facts and science – climate change, planning, transport. For a lot of people, those issues don’t emotionally resonate with them. That might change a bit now that we’re seeing more extreme climate events, but they haven’t found a way to do it yet.

A curious one is Sinn Féin, for whom emotional resonance both works and hurts. It works because of the emotional appeal of history, nostaligia, nationalism, and independence; it hurts because of the association with the IRA and the violence of the Troubles.

So, emotional resonance and political inertia are not just relevant abroad, for Trump and Brexit: they are they key to politics in Ireland. The danger is when manipulative campaigning becomes more prominent – and we’re seeing it now in the 8th amendment Repeal referendum campaign, where it’s working for the anti-Repeal side.

Undecided voters in a referendum nearly always go for the status quo. If Repeal is to win, the Together for Yes campaign will have to find a way to emotionally resonate with undecided voters. If they don’t, this will go right down to the wire.

The only way to combat emotion is stronger emotion. The anti-Repeal campaign is rapidly becoming a trusted messenger; the only thing that can counter that is a more trusted messenger. So, if the Repeal campaign @Together4Yes is to win, this is what they have to do:

  1. Try to avoid extended debate. When you’re debating, you’re losing. If the anti-campaign comes up with another nonsense claim, their aim should be to dismiss it, don’t engage, and change the conversation as quickly as possible.
  2. Keep the messages simple, and relatable.
  3. The only messengers who will be more trusted than the anti campaign, to undecided or no voters, are their friends and family. Everyone needs to have those tough conversations. I know it’s going to be awkward bringing it up with Gran, and with your aunt and uncle who are involved in the church group; but the alternative is losing. Don’t rely just on facts and figures. Make it personal.

Finally, a massive role in the referendum, and in politics in future, will be played by the media. They are bound to impartiality by the McKenna judgement, and so it should be. But the appearance of impartiality is not enough. Debate and discussion of disingenuous claims favours the side making the claim. True impartiality means not engaging in those debates. I hope the media will consider this.

So, we should absolutely be concerned about the rise of manipulative messaging in Irish politics. It’s not new; it can and does work. It’s time for a discussion about political messaging, impartiality, and regulation. Above all, it’s long past time for critical thinking and seeking evidence to replace unquestioning faith in our school system. We’ve brainwashed generations to be open to belief without evidence. If we’re lucky, we can change things before it’s too late.

Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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