This site’s most popular post (‘Donald Trump is going to snap, and here is how I know‘) was twenty times more popular than any other*. It was so widely shared and liked because it offered comfort at a particularly desperate moment. It was also published in various other more august locations and, bizarrely, led to several people googling “is Infinite Concidence reliable?”.
Well, the fact that I wrote it in less than an hour in my pyjamas might cast some doubt on its veracity. I think people found it so convincing because I used a number of powerful quotes from the fancypants psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan and also because the title expressed such conviction.
It stood out in the frenzied and permanently overheated market for positive or at least reassuring headlines. Some outlets cater specifically to such a demand. In this trenchant takedown of the pro-Corbyn website The Canary, Richard Seymour identifies what’s so worrying about this tendency for demand-driven news which sells itself to our emotions. Even when the writers and editors are on our side such sites’ purposeful misrepresentation of events should concern everyone.
My site (this one) doesn’t pretend to be a news site but some things I post here can be mistaken for news articles, particularly when I bang out a bad-mooded hot take satire. One recent piece that wasn’t satirical but was based around very recent events was this one. It originally had a poor choice of headline (‘Could the Tories throw the election to escape responsibility for Brexit?’, to which the obvious answer is, er, no), and once a couple of readers had drawn my attention to the fact that the title didn’t represent the content I changed it. However, it remains posted in various Facebook groups with the same irresponsible headline, and as such has proved consistently popular. The (risible) notion that the Tories might throw an election they’re almost bound to win gives people false hope.
So many headlines these days promise to provide false hope or assuage rational fears. The ‘content’ that they advertise may not qualify as ‘false news’ but they do present hearsay as fact in a way that any professional journalist would immediately recognise as wilfully misleading and irresponsible. Motivated entirely by commercial considerations in the frenetic attention-impulse economy of the internet, they play on feelings rather than any rational assessment of the facts, with no or very little empirical basis. They are Barnum-style headlines, confirming the truth of whatever you choose to believe. A journalist friend of mine is very entertaining on the subject of blogs like mine, with their (our) assemblage of guesswork presenting constant insult to basic journalistic standards and conventions.
Dealing with news media nowadays demands much more careful and critical reading. As I argued at length here in another piece of guesswork, we need news outlets we can broadly trust. For this reason I blanch whenever I see the term ‘MSM’ (‘mainstream media’). Clearly media literacy involves awareness of such issues as misrepresentation, bias and framing. But bracketing together the Mail and Sun with The Guardian and the NYT is not an example of media literacy, but rather an instance of credulity**. In trying to make sense of British society it’s essential to recognise Murdoch and Dacre are not dissimilar to Mugabe in their attempts to control the political agenda. However, to pretend that the Guardian – for all its growing submission to commercial constraints and its occasional perpetuation of churnalism – is engaged in the same task is puerile and self-defeating. Progressives have to have a much more sophisticated and critical understanding of the media and the role of journalists, ownership and so on than Donald Trump does. His attacks on the free press take advantage of a mood of cynicism which is partly inspired by a lazy misapplication of Chomsky’s work. There’s nothing sophisticated about avoiding news headlines. Anyone doubting the truth of this should consider when the last time they confronted recent facts relating to the earth’s climate. It is an increasingly scary world but hiding from the consequences of our actions is not an adult response and it particularly behoves those of us with children to at least inform ourselves as to what is going on.
In relation to the impending election (in the debate around which our overheating planet has once again barely been mentioned), there is a miniscule chance, were the apparent momentum to continue, that Labour could sneak a victory. It would nonetheless require monumental effort. They have won the campaign but from such a low base of both support and expectation that they are still extremely unlikely to win a majority of seats. Having just spent a week in the UK, I haven’t noticed anyone getting excited in a way that would suggest the tide has actually turned with sufficient force.
Facebook posts like the one above (from a pro-Corbyn group) make me think it isn’t going to happen. They suggest to me that the most excitable are also the least likely to be active offline talking to potential voters. Actual reports from actual doorsteps suggest that, like it or not, resistance to Corbyn himself is palpable. Then there are pieces like this from responsible commentators, acknowledging the shift in mood but recognising that it almosr certainly won’t be sufficient. Most responses to the above post expressed hope that it was the case, but actually what they were not hope but optimism, not on what is true but what should be. But crossed fingers and closed eyes do not win elections.
What online Labour groups should be doing right now is not encouraging unfounded optimism but sharing tales from the doorstep and tips for how to argue with racists and those who don’t trust men with beards. They should also – and this does happen, just not nearly enough in my view – be organising groups of people to go campaigning, with those who live in safe seats offering to go to nearby constituencies that could do with a hand. It seems depressing and significant that few mention where in the country they are.
Of course in many cases those desperate for any sign of hope are experiencing profound anxiety about the result and looking for reasons to get through another day. We are all vulnerable, but disabled people and pretty much all immigrants are right to be terrified. If the Tories win it is going to be absolutely horrible.
Voting in ten days’ time will not enough to stave off the most reactionary government of our lifetimes. Everyone who wants and needs Labour to win needs to get together with their local party and go canvassing. I myself am a partial hypocrite, in that I live in Italy so my involvement is by definition very limited. Knocking on the doors of my neighbours feels a bit moot. My Italian’s ok but wherever you live there is absolutely no point talking to anyone who doesn’t have a vote.
In any case, if I were in London I wouldn’t campaign for Labour in my constituency (Hackney South & Shoreditch). The result is always a foregone conclusion. I would find a constituency where they need help, volunteer, ask about local issues and then go banging on doors. Due to the iniquitous nature of the British Electoral System it may be the case that the candidate I’d be canvassing for wouldn’t be a Labour one, although given that the failure of the attempt to change that system can be laid squarely at the door of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats I’d be less likely to campaign for them than I would the Greens, Plaid or the SNP.
I suspect that a lot of recent Labour converts have little experience or knowledge of election campaigning. Some need to seek guidance. Sadly the current leadership doesn’t seem to be very adept at working the party machine, which does after all contain the odd Blairite gremlin. I’ve canvassed in several elections and I know that it requires humility and patience, things that do not abound in online politics. Engaging with often grumpy electors is painstaking and sometimes gruelling, but it does mean you’re actually participating in the election rather than just commenting from the digital fringes, where the only reason anyone might pay attention is if they already agree. Nevertheless, if Labour is to stand a chance of forming the next Government, lots of people who currently have no intention of voting will have to be persuaded to do so. That’s your job.
*That second post being a follow-up to the first one, and in turn twenty times more popular than the third most read article. Thankfully at that point the ‘rule of twenties’ breaks down.
** Certain individual BBC journalists, on the other hand, do see it as their responsibility to destroy the Labour Party’s chances of success. Emma Barnett in particular is a shining example of total unprofessionalism.