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Challenging Lies and Sleaze: The Echo Chamber Problem

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The Echo Chamber Comfort Zone – Source: Matthew Syed Consulting

There is a danger that the opposition narrative is stuck inside ‘Echo Chambers’ of like-mindedness which prevents our chatter, debate, research and critiques from reaching the ears of Tory supporters. Are we talking to ourselves? Can and should we escape these confines?

The UK electorate seems deeply perverse. Labour has bombed overall in last week’s elections and now sits even lower under the long shadow of the Tories. Blame for this lamentable situation is laid at many doors: Starmer’s centrism, Corbyn’s radicalism, right wing media, the vaccine bounce, Brexit, dumbing down, the cult of personality and a home owning working class duped by Tory spin. Probably these are all contributory factors. But what’s frustratingly clear is that there is little noise amongst the electorate about the Tories’ pandemic mismanagement, lies and sleaze. The message that our government is possibly corrupt is not cutting through. Until recently, a tiny handful of their misdemeanours would have forced swathes of ministerial resignations. But now it seems that the electorate doesn’t know or doesn’t care. They have lost sight of their old expectations.

Why?

Perhaps the explanation is British exceptionalism, apathy, selfishness. The idea that, for example, the thousands of avoidable Covid deaths were caused by government incompetence is, well, just too horrible to contemplate. Not us, not the Brits! We don’t make mistakes like that. So it can’t have happened. Or if it did, then it was outside our control (as Johnson is fond of telling us).

Also, the nation is itching to return to normal. People don’t want to reflect on where responsibility lies and prefer to forget the enormous suffering. The neatest solution is to do exactly what the government itself does – ignore the criminal behaviour, focus on the good (vaccine programme), whitewash the errors and crow about the UK’s recent superior performance. What we absolutely mustn’t do is hold our government to account.

Years of corruption in the left and right of UK politics have also taken a huge toll in spreading cynicism about politicians in general. Unfortunately, every new story of Johnson’s dishonesty is a further nail in the opposition’s coffin too because it merely reminds voters that, since politicians can’t be trusted, then they might as well stick with what they’ve got.

These attitudes are media nourished by the disempowerment of the opposition voice – the mainstream media presents the left narrative as, by definition, suspect/dangerous. Studies show that subjects switch from approval to disapproval if they subsequently learn that a policy was proposed by Labour. So when, for example, Lisa Nandy points out that Johnson has lied (again) about Covid or cronyism, the accusation falls on deaf ears. The right wing disregard it because, as ‘Leftie ranting’, it has zero credibility. In this respect, the opposition voice is stillborn – dead on arrival.

More broadly, the mainstream media is an obstructing wall preventing truths from reaching the electorate. Using diverse tactics such as showing repeated vox pops from the ‘I don’t care’ brigade and BBC presenters literally shouting down advocates of Stefanovic’s video on Johnson’s lies, the media message being projected daily is that “the lying and sleaze is ok”. The BBC patrols the airwaves, instructing voters “not to care”.

Most powerful of all are ‘England’s special values’. Actually, the UK is broadly united on policies such as partial nationalisation and the fairer redistribution of wealth. But crucially, as the latest elections testify, (Little) England has other values that kick back against these socialist leanings. As Adam Ramsay says:

The Tories are the party … of the ruling class. And the underlying message … is that posh people, and the monarchy first of all, ought to be in charge. That is, after all, who ran things when Britain was ‘great’”.

It is this deferential sentimentality that provides a coherent world view uniting the different perspectives of the upper, middle and lower class English electorate. In this landscape, lies and corruption don’t really matter because everyone knows where they belong in the order of things and, reassuringly, a posh person remains in charge. Perversely, ‘posh’, even ‘abusive posh’, equals ‘safe’.

So, what’s to be done?

The opposition narrative takes many forms. The various parties do their best to challenge this Tory government despite it frequently feeling like trying to stop a charging rhino by firing feathers at its hide. At the grass roots level, people are working their socks off campaigning to support the opposition parties. A few mainstream journalists put up a sterling fight and we also have the magnificent world of independent news media such as the Bylines Network and Double Down News.  Additionally, there are the outpourings of the social media political keyboard warriors (bless them all) and vital organisations like The Good Law Project. This is all brilliant and encouraging.

But a problem with these endeavours is that there’s a (naive?) complacency about reach – a wishful expectation that if you keep banging on for long enough the message will reach the parts it needs to reach. Somehow (magically) by persistent online or physical word of mouth, the wisdom of the opposition voice will gradually percolate out into the mainstream of public thinking. The ripples from the stone dropped in water will simply move outwards with inexorable reliability.

But do they? A political blogger once responded to this challenge by indignantly pointing to his large and growing online following. Great, but how do we know this expansion isn’t just ‘internal spread’, for example, diehard socialists simply adding the blogger to their Canary subscription? The opposition voice is large but also sealed in by mainstream media silence and political tribalism. So it’s reasonable to suspect that the spread of opposition information is largely internal, e.g. different networks (social media groups, news platforms etc) joining forces with each other but not reaching beyond to the Tory electorate. These echo chambers are like comfortable but iron clad honeycombs filled with busy political bees whose contents only spill into neighbouring compartments. People, reasonably enough, feel unwilling to venture into Tory online groups or knock on Tory doors because it can be unpleasant and so instead we gravitate towards communications with our own side. This is completely understandable. But you can see the problem. The danger is that politics becomes more of a lifestyle choice than the mission it needs to be – to reach the other side and persuade them why we need better governance. 

Cutting through

I’ll stick my neck out here and suggest that the opposition in all its forms needs the courage and the tactical skills to start reaching out further and more frequently beyond its comfort zones. A citizen think tank on how would be wonderful. In the meantime, here’s a few rough, very preliminary suggestions.

The opposition needs to adopt techniques of persuasion that go beyond simply pushing alarming facts out there and hoping they will cause voluntary epiphanies. The cult of celebrity could, for example, be exploited far more. A few big names, Hugh Grant, Stormzy, Miriam Margolyes, have come forward to support the opposition but they are fairly isolated voices. Yet there are many more celebrities who could be encouraged to speak out, and the more voices doing this, the more the dots join up and the greater the chance of a ‘sea change’ in the public’s thinking. Yes, this is ‘emotive stuff’ but it’s not unethical and it also works.

Useful spread of information outside of our echo chambers may be happening to a small degree. But this movement is also often hindered by the opposing tendency of groups to become hyper partisan. Online social media groups, for example, tend to gravitate inwards towards conformism with the group’s values. Social media technologies, particularly algorithms and filter bubbles, tend to increase tribal, inflexible thinking and hence isolation from other political views. See, for example, Pablo Barbera of the University of Southern California.

But this inward movement could be counteracted by encouraging many more open cross party online forums in which the left can actually communicate both with the right and the undecided. It is also possible to enter right wing groups not as trolls but in the spirit of debate. Yes, it’s tough and can get toxic, but not always. Some Tory admins are respectful of, and interested in, differing opinions. It depends. But it’s a form of dialogue that could be massively expanded.

The founding principle of many opposition groups, including of course our Bylines Network is to reach into the right wing domain. But perhaps more ‘science’ is needed? Perhaps we need to become more savvy (Machiavellian, even) about ‘target audiences’ and how to go about changing people’s views. To do this, it isn’t necessary to lie or seduce the electorate with false promises. There are dishonest and also honest ways of reaching out to other political groups. But we do need techniques, knowledge, data and practitioners. We rightly recoil at the idea of mining data on people as this smacks of Cambridge Analytica style tactics. But data is needed, for example on who the readership is for opposition material. This will allow us to expand into other political groups. Labour created a very successful social media election campaign in 2017 where opting for “positive posting” on social improvement, welfare and public services increased user engagement enormously (Paolo Gerbaudo et alia in Sage Journals). Also micro-targeting isn’t intrinsically unethical. It depends on how it is used. According to Dan Gizzi in Data Driven Investor, Barak Obama used it with the proper checks but successfully in his 2012 election campaign.

Hartlepool exemplifies the vital role of the opposition voice at grass roots level in ‘cutting through’. This region has suffered years both of abusive Tory austerity cuts (to their police, hospital services, magistrates’ courts, etc) and local neglect by Labour (see Ailbhe Rea in The New Statesman). The ensuing despair drives these red wall voters to believe anyone who says “you’ve been taken for granted for too long. We will improve your lot”. But the cynicism that politicians have generated over the years means that opposition politicians struggle to challenge such bogus promises. So, for now, we play a part in conveying the message that, despite the abuse and neglect, believing Tory promises  is not the way forward. It is at the grass roots level that we have to cut through the media wall, drip by info drip, and show that people are being lied to, that their interests won’t be served, that ‘posh’ does not equal ‘safe’, that they must ‘start caring’ because they are not ‘cared about’. We have to put our energy into ensuring these messages reach their destinations. Each individual successful communication is a tiny step but becomes compelling when linked with others because social attitudes have thresholds that, once reached, can ignite widespread, even sudden, change.

Conclusion

The right wing electorate is asleep in a media spun cocoon of ignorance and indifference. Government ideology, mainstream media and public sentiment are in a mutually reinforcing symbiotic relationship of denial which creeps forward from one pantomime of incompetence and deceit to the next. Meanwhile the grassroots opposition is so busy sitting in a circle discussing how right we are amongst ourselves that we don’t notice the encircling enemy. Yes, we are talking about it daily, but mainly to each other.

The opposition has to find ways to reach these sleepers by getting around the wall of mainstream media. We need more detailed exploration of how this can be done –  more tactics, co-operation and co-ordination, more positive messaging, more neutral, centre ground communications away from the toxic tribal extremities of left and right and, above all, more courage to try.


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