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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

"They were using creative methods with their propaganda and we have to fight them on their own playing field"

Updated: Apr 28

I decided to type up a transcript of (most of) my impromptu speech in Rome on 17th April, since many of the points I made are relevant to my research topic. Watching the video back - I'm genuinely surprised that I managed to come out with such coherent arguments when I hadn't prepared what I was going to say in advance (stupidly assuming that it was just going to be a "Q&A" style affair). I guess I'm either an extremely talented bullshitter or I have way too much experience of waffling on about myself and my work.

I edited all the Italian translation out of the original recording - if you'd rather listen than read.

‘I started campaigning in 2016 and it was really the referendum and specifically the kind of rhetoric, sloganeering and visual propaganda used by the leave campaign which incensed me and motivated me to start my campaigning against Brexit but more fundamentally what Brexit stands for and to promote a positive European identity within the UK… I think I kind of observed how the lack-lustre effort of the Remain campaign, like David Cameron and George Osborne talking about the economy was not inspiring to anybody. Yet the Leave campaign, who had Boris Johnson and his bus, you had Michael Gove and the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan and Nigel Farage and that horrendous poster on the side of an ad van demonising refugees. And I could see how they were manipulating people’s emotions and specifically fear – they were fear-mongering and using these propagandist tactics to touch people’s hearts to get them to vote for Leave. And I could see them doing that and it was awful to watch - but I could also see how the Remain campaign were not doing that. For me, there was a “gap in the market”, something needed to be done to bring that emotion, that creativity (because they were using creative methods with their propaganda) to mobilise the pro EU sentiment and to fight them on their own playing field. Because if they are playing football and they are appealing to a mass, populist audience – there’s no point us going off and playing cricket because we think it’s more “sophisticated”. We have to play them at their own game.’


‘So, I decided I was going to use the creative tools I had at my disposal to promote European identity, European values and a positive idea of the EU within the UK. I play guitar and I write songs, so I started writing protest songs about Brexit and Europe. I also a visual artists, so, one of the first things I did in 2016 in response to the spike in hate crime which we saw against refugees and migrants after Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster and campaign of intimidation and harassment, vilifying these individuals who are the most vulnerable members of our society. I decided I wanted to combat that narrative but taking an educational approach – I wrote a children’s book about refugees which was telling the story through animal characters. I crowdfunded this and we printed 1000 copies which were distributed to schools, I did book readings schools and we also sold the book in aid of my local refugee charity in Sheffield, ‘The City of Sanctuary’. Sheffield is very proud to be the first City of Sanctuary in the UK and to have a very positive and welcoming attitude to refugees – so, it was a small contribution to this effort of my city.’


‘I started getting involved with grassroots group across the UK, there was an explosion of pro-European sentiment amongst the grassroots groups who wanted to take a stand against Brexit. So, I would work with them, I would go their events, I would sing my songs and I discovered if I turned up wearing a costume – it would get a lot of attention. And I ended up wearing. A lot of different costumes – but the one that really stook was and became my identity was the EU supergirl costume. I think maybe because this had a very positive message, it was something everyone could relate to and identify with the narrative – needing a superhero to save the UK. But one of the reasons why it became my hashtag was because I attended a press conference in Brussels – I had won a competition could ‘EU in my Region’ and the prize was to go to Brussels for a week with an ’Independent Journalist’ pass and I managed to get into this press conference with this pass but before going on I put on my supergirl costume and the press conference could not start because instead of focussing on the negotiators – David Davis and Michel Barnier – all of the cameras were on me. In the end, the EU through me out of the press conference, even though I had the right to be there and I had the pass. And the headline on the TV – it was on the BBC, ITV, Sky News, the Guardian – everywhere – the headline was “the UK needs a super hero to save it from Brexit but unfortunately the EU threw her out of the press conference”.’


‘So, I gained a bit of a reputation as a trouble-maker. And I was very good at getting press coverage for the anti-Brexit campaign… The problem was that a lot of the campaigns which were against Brexit in the UK, they did not like me and they did not like my pro-EU narrative. And it may sound completely insane but these organisations thought they could stop Brexit without talking about the EU and why the EU was good. Instead, they focussed on why Brexit was bad and if I am an honest it didn’t reach people and they put all their effort into getting a second referendum which they called a “People’s Vote” (like people didn’t vote the first time) instead of putting any effort into changing people’s minds. And I always thought that was a stupid approach, because if you ask for a second vote and you don’t put any effort into changing people’s minds and their perceptions of the EU – then you are going to get the same answer. And also if you don’t get that vote – you have lost all that time, effort and resources which could have gone into changing public sentiment and understand – which to me was the fundamental problem.’


‘I found myself being drawn more to European organisations and part of that came through winning the ‘Young European of the Year’ award in 2018… After that I started getting more invitations to work with organisations based in Europe to perform at their events. I also got a ‘Democracy Needs Imagination’ grant from the European Cultural Foundation to do a tour of the EU in 2019 and honestly that came at really good time for me because as Roger was just commenting, the division within the Remain campaign and the toxicity was horrendous and particularly for a young woman, it was a horrible place to be. And I wasn’t just getting trolled on a daily basis by the Leave campaign and all of the bots which had been sponsored by Russia, but also by other Remainers. And they used very misogynistic slurs against me, they’d say things like she’s a “Prima Donna”, “A little Madam”, “A spoilt brat” and “an attention seeker”. This was coming from other Remainers who didn’t agree with my approach – this highly visual and emotional campaign which I was executing.’


‘I did this tour of the EU. I was filming interviews with activists to explore how people ij different countries were standing up for European values. But I was also making sketches, watercolour and ink drawings of every country with the aim of bringing them together in a collective artwork that would debunk one of the main narratives of the Leave Campaign which was that the Eu creates a “cultural monolith” that erodes that national identity and cultures of the member states. So, I was trying a more artistic and pan-European approach to my campaigning because I felt at a bit of a loss in the UK.’


‘I made a book and a documentary from this tour of the EU and this won the Charlemagne Youth Prize… I am now part of the alumni network of this prize and we received funding from the European Parliament to run a voter mobilisation campaign for the EU elections. So, I am travelling a lot to different events to mobilise young people to vote. And it’s been really important for me to be part of this community where I feel like I belong. Because often in the UK, I struggle to think where I actually belong. But when I go to these events with young people from across Europe, I feel like I belong with them. And many of them are not from EU member states. One of my dear friends is from Albania, another from Ukraine and I think the EU needs to take a broader attitude to European identity because there are many people in the UK and EU accession states who want to promote European identity and the values the EU stands for.’


‘The last thing I would like to say is, that what I have learnt from Brexit is you often don’t know what you’ve got until it’s taken away from you. And there is this level of complacency with people who have privilege and have rights, that they don’t appreciate them… So, this is why I am always keen to encourage EU citizens to stand up for democracy because there is a threat of the far-right across EU member states and to kind of brush them off and think that they are never going to substantiate themselves – just look at what happened in the UK – they won. And I have had my rights, my European identity and my EU citizenship taken away from – so please don’t be complacent and please vote in elections.’

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