Neil O’Brien: Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists

11 Jan

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.

Matthew Elliott: Please apply to invest in Britain’s future and win £10,000

19 Oct

Matthew Elliott was Editor-at-Large of BrexitCentral

Coming from the world of think-tanks and campaign groups, I have a strong interest in the policy ecosystem that surrounds political parties.

Ahead of Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, think-tanks such as Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research were established. And in the 2000s,a plethora of think-tanks (Centre for Social Justice/Policy Exchange), campaign groups (Business for Sterling/Countryside Alliance) and websites (ConservativeHome/Guido Fawkes) were launched and play an influential role in political discourse.

As well as playing a role in two successful referendum campaigns (NOtoAV and Vote Leave), I helped set up the TaxPayers’ Alliance (2004), Big Brother Watch (2009), Million Jobs (2012), Business for Britain (2013) and BrexitCentral (2016), so policy entrepreneurship is one of my passions. And even though my focus is now more in the private sector, I still enjoy helping and mentoring new policy entrepreneurs who are setting up the next generation of campaign groups and think-tanks.

At the beginning of my career, I was helped by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Stuart Wheeler, who sadly passed away at the end of July. I was 25 when we launched the TaxPayers’Alliance. I didn’t know any potential financial supporters, so I wrote to the signatories of a Business for Sterling advertisement with my ‘Strategy Plan’.

I thought, if they like BfS, there’s a good chance they’ll like the TPA. Stuart was one of the people who very generously sent a contribution which, along with some other donations, gave us the resources to cover my salary for three months, giving me the confidence to leave my position as a researcher to the Conservative MEP (now Lord) Timothy Kirkhope, and go full-time with the TPA.

Seventeen years later, I now find myself in a different position. My most recent project – the news website BrexitCentral – sent out its 1,085th and final daily email bulletin to the tens of thousands of subscribers we had accrued on February 1, the day after the UK formally left the European Union.

Alongside those essential morning emails put together by the indefatigable Jonathan Isaby and his team, we had published more than 2000 articles by over 500 authors, including the current Prime Minister and many of his Cabinet, not to mention Erin O’Toole, the man who was elected leader of the Canadian Conservative Party over the summer.

We are now in the final stages of winding up the company – a task which has been somewhat delayed by babies and Covid-19 – so, along with Georgiana Bristol, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the show on the road, we are left with the issue of what to do with the last remaining funds.

When we were discussing the matter, I thought about the support that Stuart Wheeler and other donors had given me as we launched the TPA, and we decided that it would be very fitting to use those remaining funds to support the young policy and campaigning entrepreneurs of today – people with the ideas that will tackle the policy challenges of the coming years.

We have two cheques for £10,000, and we would like to hear from people under the age of 35 with an exciting idea or contribution to policy debate. It could be:

  • A campaign group or think-tank you have set up, or are hoping to set up;
  • A book proposal that you want to take a sabbatical from your current job to research and draft;
  • A think-tank report you want to take time off from your current position to write;
  • A website or podcast you want to establish, or a short film you wish to make.

That is not an exhaustive list – we are interested in all ideas, the more innovative and entrepreneurial the better. And because Brexit was supported by people from across the political spectrum, we are open to proposals from all policy positions.

To stress, we are not looking for proposals relating to Brexit or Britain’s future relationship with the European Union – we are looking for submissions on any issue, policy or subject that you feel passionate about.

Entries should be emailed to policyentrepreneurs@brexitcentral.com by midnight on Sunday 8th November 2020 and should cover (on no more than two sides of A4) an outline of your plan an dhow you hope to execute it. All submissions will then be sifted and judged by a panel comprising Jonathan and I, plus Kate Andrews, Peter Cruddas, Helena Morrissey, Jon Moynihan and Mark Wallace. And the two winners will be announced by the end of November.

Since I became active in politics, the barriers to entry for policy entrepreneurship have been massively reduced thanks to the Internet. When I interned at the European Foundation whilst at university, it had an office in Pall Mall, it had copies of its European Journal and European Digest professionally printed, which were then posted to subscribers and the opinion formers in Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street that it was trying to influence. It sent press releases out by fax, business was conducted on the telephone or by post, and all these costs were before the general overheads and payroll costs that also needed to be covered.

Fast forward twenty years, and the cost of campaigning has fallen significantly. From setting up a website to using social media, broadcasting ideas and opinions to the world is so much cheaper. But there are still financial barriers, so I hope that this small project will help two policy entrepreneurs of the future, just as Stuart Wheeler helped me with the creation of the TaxPayers’ Alliance all those years ago.

I look forward to reading your entries and announcing the recipients later this year.

This article was originally published on ConservativeHome on Monday October 19, and we are re-publishing it during each weekday this week in order to advertise this project.