Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.
“Defoe says that there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether Popery was a man or a horse.” William Hazlitt, 1830
When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building last week, many people in Britain probably thought that it was just the latest manifestation of a special sort of craziness that has gripped America. That sort of thing surely couldn’t happen here. Or could it?
The same evening, to far less fanfare, the Metropolitan Police arrested 21 people outside Parliament. On new year’s day, doctors leaving St Thomas’s hospital were greeted by a large crowd of protestors chanting “Covid is a hoax”.
These things are connected. They show that the same forces at work in the US are in some ways, already at work here.
Let me wind back a bit. Obviously, I mainly blame Trump for what happened in Washington. He did everything he could to incite the riot, in a brazen attempt to reverse his election defeat.
But other people made this possible too. The ragtag army of wannabe revolutionaries smashing up the seat of Americas democracy were radicalised by a whole ecosystem of shock jocks, social media cranks and conspiracy theories.
They’ve ended up living in a world of alternative facts, in which Trump is the sole bulwark against diabolical global conspiracies, and the President is the victim of an election “stolen” by a shadowy “elite”. In a world of such illusions, almost anything can be justified.
None of this is new. Trump was in a sense following the playbook of Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 whipped up fears of shadowy Catholic conspiracies, sparking vicious riots that left hundreds dead or wounded.
New forms of media often fuel revolutions. The printing press led to the reformation and wars of religion. The Cahiers to the French Revolution. The “Big Character Posters” spread the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
New technology has again changed things. First, Twitter, Whatsapp and online news have simply made political organisation much easier. The ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and ‘Arab spring’ were early demonstrations of their viral power.
But now the second shoe is dropping. What we are seeing now is the power of these technologies to create communities of radicalisation. Islamism is the most obvious example. A constituent of mine who lives in a pretty, sleepy village (with a lovely tearoom) was recently charged with seven terrorism offences. More and more, attacks come from those who have radicalised themselves online.
But Islamists are just one community of radicalisation. I was chatting to an apparently normal man this summer, when conversation turned to the coronavirus. He told me, with a matter-of-fact air, that it was all a hoax, set up by the New World Order who were planning a Great Reset, in which Big Business would take over and we would all be microchipped. I’ve had several similarly alarming conversations.
When people got their news from mainstream TV and radio news with strong legal obligations to be neutral, people were exposed to both sides of most stories. As has often been pointed out, people can much more readily be wound into a frenzy if they get their information from Whatsapp groups, people they follow on twitter and from agenda-driven ‘news’ sites.
But the idea of “filter bubbles” doesn’t really do justice to what new media is enabling. People aren’t just passively consuming news they agree with. People are building communities. People they ‘know’ from chat and comment threads. Making likeminded friends on twitter.
Indeed, conspiracy theories like QAnon represent a kind of enjoyable ‘game’: crack the code to understand the shadowy conspiracy!
The US has gone further down the road of polarisation than other places. People increasingly live with in neighbourhoods with likeminded people. The national conversation has been curdling for decades into extreme left and extreme right bubbles, with disastrous effects on politics.
The same technologies are having similar effects here. If we had faced the current pandemic in, say, 1992, how would you have got news about it? Perhaps there would have been a “Covid-92” page on Ceefax.
But if you’d wanted to spread the idea that vaccines are poisons, dreamed up by Bill Gates, you had nowhere to go but Speakers Corner really. So the man I met this summer, who so readily absorbed all this nonsense, would simply have been unlikely to encounter such ideas. These days, someone like Toby Young can set up a website to give people a dose of covid-sceptic propaganda every day. Crank “scientists” can rapidly gain a huge following on twitter.
Social media has changed how we live. In my first job in politics, working for Business for Sterling in 2000, I used to fax a press summary each morning to about 20 people. At the time, there was a well-written Eurosceptic newsletter called Eurofacts, which was photocopied and posted around to about 1,000 people once a month.
Until the next month, that was your hit of single-currency-scepticism. You had to go off and think about something else. Sure, some newpapers campaigned hard on both sides of the euro question. But reading the papers, even daily, just couldn’t absorb your attention in the way social media does.
Looking back, those were the mild-ale days of political communication. These days, people can become hooked on the crack cocaine of issue-driven social media.
Take the SNP cybernats. They can read a daily newspaper promoting Scottish independence, then go on a website or twitter all day to chat with other cybernat friends and wind each other up.Did you hear the one about the “secret oilfields” the UK government is mysteriously covering up, to do down Scotland? When people form such intense groupthink bubbles, they can come to believe almost anything.
We can’t uninvent social media, which also has many benefits. But we do need to adapt to it. In the US, fringe ideas like the QAnon conspiracy theory built up online. But their spread has been accelerated by the willingness of broadcasters and politicians to flirt with them to gain clicks and exploit their energy.
If we are going to avoid our national conversation going the same toilet, we need strong mainstream media. But we also need those in positions of power in the media to behave responsibly.
For example, one of the best selling papers in the UK recently ran a piece promoting the views of an “NHS worker” who claimed hospitals were “empty” and Covid was a “hoax”. If it had taken a quick look at her Facebook page, they’d have seen her celebrating the burning down a Jewish-owned bank, as part of a “great awakening”.
We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting. Parts of Britain’s media have spent the Coronavirus pandemic doing everything they can to downplay the seriousness of it and set bogus stories running by publishing the claims of cranks. Professional contrarians have fed people misleading nonsense to get clicks: carrying on their business-as-usual, even in a life-or-death situation. As hospitals hit crisis point, they should reflect on their actions.
The attempted putsch in Washington didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been decades coming. It happened not just because of one man, but because people in positions of power made short-termist decisions to feed the beast, and play along. Don’t think it couldn’t happen here.