Did the UK Independence Party’s local election gains really take anyone by surprise? Maybe it would, if you’ve never looked at a comment box under pretty much any article on pretty much any news site over the last 18 months. There is a certain tone that one finds in many online comments that is perfectly represented in the proposition put forward by UKIP. It is paradoxically at once fiercely anti-establishment and deeply conservative, most of all it believes itself to be the voice of sanity in a world gone mad. Look at the BBC’s Have Your Say pages and you will find many vocal contributors with usernames like “Truth Teller”, “Voice of Reason” or “Common Sense”. Many of these people now identify as UKIP voters. Like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, they deal in a kind of golf club utopianism: they know how the wonderful the world would be if Eurocrats / socialists / Muslims / ethnic minorities etc would get off their backs. It is easy for people of left, liberal or even a true blue Conservative persuasion to mock these people. Indeed, there is a trend to label such people as “trolls” to diminish their opinions, to cast them aside as ridiculous.
In a piece called “Who Makes the Haters” last year I tried to tie together some of the disparate discourses which had developed around the use of the word “troll” in the British media. One of the pieces I discussed was Zoe William’s Guardian article “What is an internet troll? whilst the article does make some interesting points about the way the word “troll” has been co-opted as a catch all for anyone behaving out of line with presumed norms online it falls foul of the same tendency itself. In one section Williams states:
“Of course it’s possible to troll at a much less violent level, simply by stalking through internet communities where people might be expected to think in a particular way, and saying things that will wind them up.”
She then goes on to list a number of views that might conceivably annoy someone who comments on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site. It makes the mistake of assuming bad-faith on the part of those making such comments. These people did not simply come into existence with the creation of comment forums; their views were not formed simply to annoy Guardian columnists. This attitude feels a little like many people’s reactions to UKIP, it’s not like the people voting for them were born yesterday, in the past they may have voted Tory, BNP or not at all and they probably felt much the same way about the world.
Whilst the local election results have been hailed as major breakthrough for UKIP it is worth noting that in terms of the overall result they came 5th and didn’t gain control of any councils. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the majority of the elections had turnouts of around 30%. There is something reminiscent here of what is known as the “1 per cent” or “1-9-90” rule. Basically stated the rule puts forward the proposition that in an online community 1% of users will actively create content, 9% will comment or otherwise modify content whilst the remaining 90% will simply consume without getting involved. UKIP won 147 of the 2362 councillors elected: around 6% of the vote. If we take that as 6% of the 30% who voted, then take into account that these elections did not take place over the whole country, the percentage would perhaps be a bit closer to 1%. And whilst the the 1% may appear to make the most noise they don’t actually define the discourse.
Whilst the political issues here are too complex for me to confidently comment on I’d hazard a guess that the way issues around Europe, immigration and taxation are reported on in the popular press have laid the groundwork, whilst political stasis and European economic uncertainty have lit the touch paper for the surge in UKIP support. Like the “trolls” hiding under online articles UKIP are at present a minority of a minority, but they are loud, certain in their views and hard to ignore. It is worth remembering though that like so called “trolls” UKIPs supporters haven’t just appeared from nowhere, if you’d been reading below the line you’d have noticed they’ve been here all the time.
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