According to some opinions I have read, the recent referendum in the UK was won by a small number of men in politics and media, who immediately after the result disowned some of the major claims and promises of the winning campaign. Potentially their campaign might have lost if they were not able to make those claims and promises.

N.B. I do not necessarily hold that opinion myself, but for the purposes of my question I would like to assume that it is correct...

I wonder what measures any country has put in place in the past to avoid that specific situation. In particular such that: -

  1. the system can still reasonably be called democratic.
  2. the media can still be described as "free" by some metric most reasonable people would agree on.

For example, are there any systems where politicians and/or editors are held accountable for claims and promises made during campaigns?

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    "For example, are there any systems where politicians and/or editors are held accountable for claims and promises made during campaigns?" In principle any system with repeated elections does this to some extent as regards politicians, in that people tend not to vote for a politician or party which is thought to breaks promises. – origimbo Jul 4 '16 at 16:15
  • @origimbo - yes, good point. I wonder if the resignations that followed brexit would weaken that effect? – Martin Jul 4 '16 at 16:19
  • As Heraclitus said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." One is almost never voting about "exactly the same questions" in the "exact copies of the elections or referendum". But there are still similarities and people may learn some lessons even if the names are changing. The departure of the U.K. from the EU is probably event that won't be repeated too many times in the 21st century. People have decided Leave. They could have decided Remain - and that could have been more catastrophic for them, too. – Luboš Motl Jul 4 '16 at 16:49
  • No silver bullet. Unfortunately, we do not have a trusted "oracle" that can validate the truth of a given statement, so there is no way to control mass media affirmations without (at the very, very, bery least) cause suspicion of partisanship. Only solution is to improve political education of the public so they can check the facts and form their own opinion, and brace for the fact that a fraction of it will always vote for irrational motives (peer presure, self-image of one social class, tradition, or the politician who shouts louder). – SJuan76 Jul 4 '16 at 19:48
  • And well... one can only hope that the number of irrational voters "for" equal the number of irrational voters "against" and that at the end both compensate :-D – SJuan76 Jul 4 '16 at 20:04

Every politician can be punished by the people in a democracy if he do not keep his promises. For example, they could deny to vote for him the next time. But one must always take into consideration that a politician cannot implement all it's promises or visions because other politicians have also something to say.

In a democracy everybody can vote and do something (say get political active). Even if an election is influenced by a minority it is still a democratic decision; the majority could have voted differently (or voted at all). But if the majority do nothing the minority will dominate the political process in a democracy. Additionally we are living in the world of the Internet. This is a huge, multilateral source of information that offers each and everyone a fantastic opportunity to become an educated or politicized citizen. It has never been easier to get a differentiated overview of the political situation.

The freedom of press will always be in discussion (more or less); an active discussion is a vital part of a democracy.

  • I suspect this is the best protection we have, but I can't help thinking that it is weaker with "once in a lifetime" decisions than it is with elections that are held every 4 or 5 years. Also I think it is weakened when prominent politicians (on both sides) resign following the vote. I think our collective memory is also quite short and recent promises can outweigh lies from the distant past. – Martin Jul 5 '16 at 7:25
  • I agree about the effect of the Internet, although some say social media amplifies the voice of extremists. – Martin Jul 5 '16 at 7:28
  • @Martin Social media is great for checking out how your aunt's cat is doing, but not for informing yourself about politics. Due to the filter bubble effect you will only get confronted with opinions you (and your peer group) agrees with while you are shielded from any contrary viewpoints. But that's a different topic. – Philipp Jul 5 '16 at 8:27
  • The problem here is that the two main responsible for Brexit are one maniac whose life goal was to remove the UK from the EU, and now he has stepped down. The other is a Donald Trump lookalike who never actually wanted to leave the UK but just score political points, and he has stepped back again, trying to create the impression that he was "stabbed in the back". Both cannot be punished by voters anymore. – gnasher729 Jul 5 '16 at 9:46
  • @Martin Unfortunately that's right. The Internet is both a blessing and a "threat" for democracies; a blessing because people are able to get more and wide ranging information; a threat because there is not only good journalism in the Internet - there are many ratcatchers. But I think this gives everyone a special responsibility; the responsibility to make a thorough research and eventually reveal the ratcatchers. It's just as with everything, there are always two sides. – BobbyPi Jul 5 '16 at 15:53

By definition, the referendum gives the power to all the voters and 52% of them said "Leave". So it's just self-evidently incorrect to say that the referendum was "won by a small number of men in politics". It was won by the 17.4 million voters who preferred "Leave", outnumbering the 16.1 million voters who picked "Remain".

The voters have lots of reasons to decide in one way or another. Aside from the voters' values and interests, many arguments matter, sometimes completely accurate arguments, sometimes less accurate ones. The British voters were bombarded by an incredible amount of pro-EU propaganda by the EU and even the British government itself but most of them were able to see through these tricks. The media simply aren't omnipresent.

Concerning the numbered items:

  1. A system is only called democratic when lame excuses and malicious insults of your kind are interpreted as an inconsequential whining of a sore loser – which is exactly how I interpret them. You are clearly singling out a side of the referendum that you disagree with while you would never dare to criticize the Europhiles for their lies, demagogy, fearmongering, threats, and downright blackmailing. A country where a referendum or elections could be questioned or annulled by the government's talking points similar to yours would be a dictatorship and indeed, the history has seen quite a few of examples.

  2. Democracy and freedom are somewhat independent things. A free society guarantees the freedom of press – both pro-EU and anti-EU press (and similarly for every other question). But in a democracy, the press doesn't have any direct control over the political decisions. Again, a system in which someone stands "above the system" and has the power to invalidate people's decisions by some universal insults cannot be called a democracy, by any stretch of imagination.

If people, e.g. campaigners or anyone else, make an incorrect or misleading statement, the people on the other side or in the other campaign may correct them and it's up to the voters to decide who is right. If people make a mistake or decide according to a criterion that is found untrue or at least inaccurate after they vote, the only "fix" compatible with democracy is that the people may learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating them or similar mistakes in the future.

The only exceptions are laws that regulate what kind of misconduct may invalidate elections and referendums. A campaigner's statement that is considered inaccurate a week after the referendum but couldn't have been disproven before the referendum cannot be counted as a factor that invalidates a referendum. And by the way, such inaccurate statements have almost certainly not played an important role, anyway.

To summarize, the "modifications" of the democratic system you propose are not really modifications. They would destroy the very essence of democracy.

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    I downvoted this because it reads things into the question that aren't there and doesn't really address what is there. – Bobson Jul 4 '16 at 17:27
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    I'd like to point out that I didn't propose anything. I was asking whether any countries have tried to implement measures to restrict the effect that some people say happened in the brexit referendum. – Martin Jul 4 '16 at 17:34
  • Martin, if you don't show us the source of the actual proposal that your "modified" system should be established and still called a democracy, then it is very obvious that it must be considered your invention and therefore your proposal. You're almost certainly not the only person in the world who proposes such things - but there are no people who believe in democracy and propose similar things. You and Bobson may punish me by a malicious dishonest downvote for saying the truth but fortunately you can't rewrite the results of referendums. – Luboš Motl Jul 4 '16 at 17:38
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    Luboš, with the utmost respect, I am proposing nothing. I am asking whether any country has tried, with or without success, to limit the possibility that a small number of people could win popular support with promises that they immediately walk away from. I am not saying that's what happened in this case, but as you clearly know, a lot of people are saying that is what happened. – Martin Jul 4 '16 at 17:41
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    You might dislike the EU, the British government and the Remain campaign (which certainly made doubtful statements) but in what alternative reality was the British media generally pro-EU? – Relaxed Jul 4 '16 at 20:11

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