This piece first appeared in Pete’s personal blog and is reproduced with permission.
A fascinating aspect of Western political discourse in recent months has been the contortions and mental gymnastics performed by our governments to explain why the public keep voting for the wrong people. Americans voted for Trump and Brits voted for Brexit? What on earth is wrong with them?
This week we’ve been treated to a full spread by The Guardian detailing how big data analytics were used to brainwash the masses. This though is a conceit. There is no genuine attempt to establish whether such techniques actually work, rather it is a concerted effort by corporate media to question the legitimacy of democratic outcomes – and overturn them if they can get away with it.
If it isn’t “sophisticated targeting techniques” then it’s Twitter bots financed by the Russian mob. The various theories now flowing from the legacy media now look as absurd as any conspiracy theory once found written in block capitals and green text in the early days of internet.
The one truly unapproachable concept for our ruling class is that they might not be the virtuous people they imagine themselves to be and that the public rejection of them is a consequences of their failures over decades. They see themselves as entitled to power and believe it is for the greater good if the choices of the public are moderated by their betters.
We are routinely told that the public did not understand what they were voting for, that they were brainwashed by computer algorithms and that somehow we are too deficient intellectually to be able to choose our own destiny. The rejection of a supreme government for Europe is supposedly more to do with ignorant and racist northers and their dislike of foreigners than the fact that the EU is a remote technocratic bureaucracy that doesn’t respond to democratic inputs.
For those who lost the vote, this narrative is powerful. It’s useful for three reasons. Firstly it absolves them of any obligation to examine their own failings and secondly it allows them to believe that they are the victims despite them being the incumbent establishment with a near total control over the institutions.
The third reason is the most useful of all. All over the word the legacy media and governments alike are finding they are losing their monopoly over political discourse. They are used to controlling the flow of information and being able to transmit their own narratives without any serious challenge.
The internet, however has upset the balance whereby people can organise, communicate and disseminate alternative ideas – ideas which have toppled the Western post-war political order. It is, consequently, an existential threat to them, thus they need a pretext to regulate and censor it. What you and I would call “free speech” they call “fake news”. Fake news is just a euphemism for messages they do not control.
This is not to say that there are not malevolent forces out there producing fraudulent content and disinformation and it is worth the intellectual inquiry just to understand the nature of it, but when it comes to “fake news” the leading manufacturers of it are the legacy corporate media themselves. They are in the business of manufacturing controversy and have long dropped any pretence of impartiality.
What makes that a bigger threat to democracy is one element. Prestige. Our traditional media is comprise of trusted brands, some of which have existed for more than a hundred years. The BBC also enjoys the authority and gravitas of being an arm of the British state. Though its reputation is tarnished on the domestic front it still carries a great deal of inherited prestige abroad.
In the age of internet, reaching a mass audience is far easier than ever it was if you can afford it. But that does not necessarily mean your message will be believed. This is why I am not especially worried about big data analytics being used as the basis of targeted campaigning. There is scant proof that it works. What worried me is the traditional means of propaganda; the art of repeating and reinforcing that which your audience wants to hear under the banner of a trusted media brand.
This is especially prevalent in the UK where we have maybe half a dozen editors giving houseroom to a handful of select political wonks, MPs, and authorised opinion gatekeepers to push a number of bogus concepts into the debate where their institutional prestige gives them credibility they would otherwise not have. They engineer particular talking points leaden with plausible sounding jargon and consequently their notions spread through Twitter like a mutating virus.