In politics the worst ideas and most deceitful statements are often the most amplified, and therefore the most successful, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
Back in early 2016, as the UK hurtled towards the Brexit referendum, Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign – now special adviser to Boris Johnson and one of the architects of his electoral triumph – had a problem. Like most political operatives Cummings invested heavily in market research. Who were his available voters? What messages were most impactful at persuading them? His focus groups and online testing showed that when voters were informed that EU membership cost the UK about £150 million a week, most of them were shocked at the sum. “Why can’t we give that money to the NHS?” one focus group member demanded. Cummings tossed that question into his campaign’s next round of tests and found that this message was incredibly persuasive.
His problem was: how could he get that argument into the national media? A news story is, by definition, something new, and the UK had been paying EU membership fees since the 1980s. Nobody in the wider electorate knew about the EU fee, but everyone in the political and media class did. Cummings’ most powerful message had no news value. There was no story.
Until there was. It turned out that when Margaret Thatcher negotiated the UK’s membership fee in 1984 (the Conservatives under Thatcher were pro-Europe; in the previous election Labour campaigned to leave and were heavily defeated) she worked out a rebate. The reasons for this are rather technical, but basically there was a pre-rebate amount which was subjected to a complicated calculation that reduced it by about two thirds, and this reduced amount was the actual membership fee that the UK paid.
So Cummings launched a now infamous campaign arguing that the UK paid £350 million per week: the pre-rebate amount. This message was (a) extremely misleading and (b) extremely newsworthy. Remain campaigners fixated on the accuracy of the statistic – the Leave campaign was lying! – which was exactly what Cummings wanted them to do. By litigating its accuracy his opponents amplified his core message – his “deeper truth”, as he saw it – and the issue his Campaign Leave most wanted to talk about dominated the end weeks of the referendum. Which it won.
Twenty years ago access to media coverage was controlled via the notorious gatekeepers: editors and senior journalists who decided what the news was and who got included or excluded from it. And this system had plenty of downsides but did make it harder for transparently bad actors like Cummings to swing crucial elections in advanced democracies.
As the world keeps reminding us, that media model no longer exists: the news value of a story is no longer defined by its palatability to gatekeepers, or anyone else. Instead, in a world of basically infinite content, news value is created by the ability of a story to maximise audience attention as it competes against rival forms of content: every political story vies for attention against stories about wildfires, Trump, celebrity feuds, evil Daenerys, the relentless white noise of coups, protests, riots, counterrevolutions, along with video games, streaming content, group chats, infinite cats, infinite sports, infinite porn.
There’s a suite of very well known techniques that marketing experts and political propagandists use to capture our attention and win “cut-through”. One of the most powerful is to amplify our affiliation to some identity group under threat by a rival group. Is “OK Boomer” hate speech? Is “Me Too” going too far? Are millennials ruining everything? Is the white race being replaced? Is the toxic masculinity making the men manspread? This isn’t a new tool, but the terrible beauty of the modern internet is that it curates our media consumption so that all of us can feel like brave members of an oppressed in-group, punching up and fighting against injustice against our enemies, who all feel exactly the same way.
The essayist Jia Tolentino has a great metaphor to describe this phenomenon: looking at the internet is like looking into a trick mirror, one of those distorted mirrors you see at fairs or kids’ museums. The modern internet shows us a reflection of ourselves in which our group affiliation and sense of opposition and threat are grotesquely distended while our real-world relationships shrink away to nothing, because real world relationships are hard to commodify and transform into advertising revenue, but group affiliation and conflict is easy money. And the more we gaze at this distorted image of ourselves, our relationships and political affiliations, the easier it is to mistake it for reality.
Late in the 2017 New Zealand election campaign, National’s Finance Minister Steven Joyce alleged there was a “$11.7 billion dollar fiscal hole” in the Labour Party’s fiscal plan. This was an extremely doubtful assertion. Many commentators labelled it “fake news”. It became one of the decisive talking points of the campaign – “Was there a hole or wasn’t there?” – and some pollsters credited it with stopping the rise of Jacindamania, arresting Labour’s astonishing ascent in the polls after Jacinda Ardern became leader.
But National has attacked the credibility of Labour’s spending in every single election since the paleolithic era. Here, for example, is John Key in 2011 alleging that there is a $17 billion dollar “fiscal hole” in Labour’s books:
Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff have gone head-to-head in a town hall debate dominated by the economy and the Christchurch rebuild. The leaders then turned their attention to the economy, when Key pressed Goff on his spending promises, which he said adds up to a $17 billion hole.
Key told Goff: ”It ain’t there son, there is no tax revenue. Show me the money.” He told the audience Goff was going to borrow money ”from the Chinese”. Later he said: ”It’s not magic, if you spend it, you have to earn it.”
Goff rejected the figures Key had said Labour would spend, calling them “phoney accounting”. He criticised aspects of Key’s approach saying debating gimmicks were “all he’s got to go on”.
2011’s $17 billion fiscal hole didn’t blow up into a gigantic moral panic about “fake news” in the same way that Joyce’s 2017 allegation of a $10 billion hole did. It was just a claim in a debate, largely ignored in favour of Key’s “Show me the money”, line, which was regarded as a victory for him and a moment of personal humiliation for Goff. There certainly wasn’t any debate about fake news and the ultimate nature of truth, like we saw in 2017.
There was another extremely dubious political attack during the 2017 campaign: Labour accused the National government of cutting the health budget during its term in office. This was, National protested, completely false: they’d increased health funding every year of their term. Ah, Labour replied, but if we were the government we would have increased it even more. So by being in government instead of us you have, ipso facto, cut health funding.
The spat over health statistics died on the operating table; nobody remembers it except for the National MPs and operatives who still grumble about it. Why didn’t it explode into a massive media debate about the nature of truth and the fate of democracy? Or, just last week, the government announced that it was putting the House into urgency because it needed to rush through legislative changes “banning foreign donations”. The press gallery examined the legislation and revealed that it was not actually doing this at all: the entire exercise was a stunt. But nobody seemed to think that it heralded the end of democratic government, and it is already forgotten about.
The journalist Auberon Waugh often wrote dismissively of “the chattering class”: the upper middle-class cliques of journalists, academics, artists, intellectuals and activists (Thomas Piketty refers to it as “The Brahmin Left”, reflecting its 21st century transformation into a priestly caste primarily concerned with moral transgressions). They form the leadership and core constituency of leftwing political parties, and they still attempt to play a gatekeeper role around political debate. But instead of policing the window of debate – pretending to impartial objectivity while excluding what it feels should or cannot be said – it amplifies messages it believes lie outside the bounds of acceptability. The ruthless logic of the Attention Economy rules progressive online and media spaces; everyone competes for attention by demonstrating their moral and intellectual superiority, so any and every public statement that breaches progressive taboos or activates this class’s (very acute) sense of threat can easily earn massive media coverage.
The incentive structure here is terrible. The worst ideas and most deceitful statements are often the most amplified and therefore the most successful. The sustained moral panic about “fake news” (but only on the right), incentivises the manufacture of fake news. We can see this mechanism at work in almost everything the National Party has done this year: their policy work on criminal justice was a rather dry discussion document on how the party’s “social investment” model can apply to this sector, but it was launched with the announcement that “Strike Force Raptor”, would crack down on gangs, which are currently expanding due to Australia’s criminal deportation policy. This prompted the expected response from progressive commentators: that gangs aren’t a criminal problem, but rather a deeply fascinating and complicated epiphenomenon of colonialism and capitalism, a suite of arguments that sound deranged to most of the population who aren’t fortunate enough to reside in the leafy university-proximate suburbs that enjoy the lowest crime rates in the country.
This week’s National Party transport policy announcement is also pretty dry stuff: integrated ticketing; fuel efficiency; urban transport authorities. But the headline announcement was a plan to fine cyclists – cycling being a sacred activity among progressive elites – and this provoked the absolutely predictable response and led the web pages of all the media outlets. National has also taken to producing highly dubious graphs with deliberate errors like disproportionate bar widths, that it releases on Twitter – the heartland of progressive moral panic and intellectual contempt – that its opponents then compete against each other to amplify. Naturally these graphs don’t feature in its policy documents or press releases.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned this decade, I think, it’s that social media activism is not activism. Liking and sharing stuff; telling people with different value systems that they’re morons and you hate them is not politics. The endless torrents of call outs and sneering are not emotional labour. All you’re doing is producing free content for global tech companies. There’s an exception to that, though: if what you’re doing is amplifying your opponent’s worst messages, elevating them to the mainstream media where persuadable voters can see them, then congratulations. You’re an activist. For them.
So what do you do when you see your political adversaries telling lies? Just say nothing and let the erosion of truth win? If you really care about truth, ask yourself: what do you when you see the party you vote for telling monstrous lies? You probably do nothing. And that’s OK. There’s a very large “third person effect” around fake news: most people are worried that it will persuade other people but confident that they personally are immune to it. In reality the people most susceptible to political propaganda are educated and engaged political activists, while the majority of voters are extremely sceptical of claims made by politicians across the spectrum. The voters are fine working things out for themselves.
But if you’re really outraged or provoked by something, set up a direct debit to the party you support. In the case of Labour or the Greens, they want regular cash payments a lot more than they want scathing online takedowns of National’s inability to label a graph axis. Whatever you do, don’t boost deliberately provocative messages or arguments that are only being made out of a calculation that you’ll amplify them.