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How To Tell When a Politics Meme Is Bullshit

There's a lot of confusing stuff filling our social media feeds.
May 10, 2016, 11:00am

Last week's local government elections were a pretty stodgy mess of conflicting data. So much that even a pro like Nick Robinson was reaching for the ancient cliché about "The people have spoken, we just haven't figured out what they said yet."

With a third of council seats up for grabs, with Scotland being a wildly erratic combination of transferable votes and proportional representation, the cacophony of facts begged out for someone to scythe through it, make a point.

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As any fule kno, the easiest way to get data to make a point nowadays, is the easily shareable Facebook infographic.

Unfortunately, easily shareable FB infographics tend to decrease in accuracy as they increase in shareability. A relationship that can be illustrated via the following graph:

So it proved when this started turning up in everyone's timelines:

It doesn't take a genius to work out that the basic premise behind this graphic from evolvepolitics.com is garbage. But it does take someone of plus-minus average intelligence with a high school grasp of statistics. Which, statistically-speaking, is more than most people.

The figures aren't comparable. Because of the three-stage staggering of council elections, the ones in 1995 were a set that will come up for election again in 2017 – the rural, hyper-Tory shires. In '95, Blair drove deep into the heart of Conservative England, and that made him electorally unassailable. Corbyn, by contrast, has been fighting a bunch of urban, Labour-heartlands seats. And credit to him – he collected almost 100 percent of those seats.

In raw numbers – Blair gained over 1800 councillors, Cameron over 300, while Corbyn lost 18. Which is manageable, but hardly the sound of the keys to Number 10 jangling.

All of which seemed to be reflected in the coverage of Corbyn's performance – measured in its praise, middling in its condemnation. Corbyn "avoided a predicted Waterloo", announced the Guardian. Friend of Corbs the Mirror suggested that Labour's London mayoral victory was "a great prize , but everybody knows the party should be doing better".

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Even the Times pointed out that the polls had produced "something for everyone" , while those stuffy adults in the room at the FT hedged their view as: "Bad enough to weaken Mr Corbyn but not enough of a calamity to provide Labour's rebels with enough ammunition to depose their leader".

Add these facts together, and evolvepolitics.com's shareable content spore was a masterwork of narrative over fact as much as the latest Britain First meme-sterpiece. Not only does it have comparing-apples-with-oranges data, it then swings its right hook at the hard left straw man that "the press are all against JC". The Mail is against him. And the Telegraph and the Sun. The Times probably patronises him. But none of these facts means that they won't report accurately on him screwing up.

But for some out there, the "press are all against JC" theme has long since solidified from hunch into dogma. As the triumph of humdrum results over hope continued, we had this meme:

True, Labour's candidate won the London Mayoralty. And handsomely. But much less handsomely, Labour lost 18 seats out of the total of 800 that pretty unsuccessful non-hopey-changey leader Ed Miliband added to the tally in 2011.

While we're here, let's just do a nice stats-y thing and point out the base line – in total, there are 18,100 councillors in England alone. Is seven percent really a big slice of whoopdidoo?

Never mind the fact that Corbyn's big sell to the electorate, the next day, as the smoke began to clear, was, quote: "We hung on". Or that he told the BBC in as many words that Labour "Is not yet doing enough" to win the 2020 election . That just means that Corbyn himself had clearly internalised the BBC bias against him by this point.

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Soon, the narrative seemed unassailable:

Poor Laura Kuenssberg, who regularly gets it in the neck from the right-wing Guido Fawkes comment goblins for being the patsy of Labour, found herself in the leftists's gunsights.

All of which needless bashing of an organ about to be dismantled brick by brick by John Whittingdale can be summarised in this priceless exchange:

In summary, then:

  1. No one on the internet can tell the difference between an absolute and a relative amount. The easiest way to trick people with statistics is always going to be with percentages, because hey don't take into account what the base line is.

  1. The second-easiest way is to use rates-of-change. To say "we are the fastest-growing Party" or something like that. Ignoring the fact that growing from 1 to 2 is "100 percent growth", even if your opponent has 5000 to your 2.

  1. The third easiest is the one Liberal Democrats are notorious for – bar graphs without proportion.

  1. No one on the internet has ever consciously checked a fact once it walked into their life. It is commonly understood that if it's on the internet, then a team of fact-elves have definitely weighed and measured it against their Encyclopaedia Britannicas.

Unfortunately, narrative trumping facts is the great curse of our otherwise excellent age. Social media has wrapped us in the cotton wool of our own asiktskorridor. Confirmation bias, silo-culture, from Fox News to SWP flag-waving, we might as well just give up on the post hoc attachment of fact to opinion and run with our own versions of this:

@gavhaynes

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