“Oh for Tony Blair…” as I’ve heard people saying recently. I’ve even caught myself thinking it once or twice as the melodramatic mini-series of Brexit morphs into a late-night absurdist comedy marathon.
When Blair breaks his silence and offers comment or advice to current politicians, his charisma excites us with memories of his first six years in office when he enjoyed outrageous approval ratings and generally made politics cool again. And so, “Oh for a bit of Tony” is the cry as we look up to see our current affairs pages dominated by Rees-Mogg, Boris, and Gove, who are seemingly characters drawn from one of Quentin Blake’s nightmares.
We must try not to have such short memories. The thing that seems to make young people simultaneously most incredulous and apathetic in politics is the blatancy of the lies we are told. Slogans printed on a certain bus in 2016 and the twitter account of Mr Trump (another animation from one of Quentin’s darkest moments) spring to mind. Buzz words like “fake news” have been birthed out of the 40-character revolution that has condensed current affairs into repeatable sound bites, and it’s tempting to believe that the sort of dishonest behaviour we’ve seen from the likes of Trump and Boris is particularly indicative of our times.
There are many twitter accounts dedicated to exposing any lie posted online by Donald Trump. This mission is something along the lines of an attempt to purge misinformation from people’s news feeds before it has a chance to influence them. Several of these accounts offer psychological analyses of the reasons behind the President’s seemingly impulsive rush to fiction online. Trumpliesbot claims this barrage is a deliberate strategy to “exploit journalistic convention by providing rapid-fire news events for reporters to chase”. Could the endless false information be a purpose-built smoke screen of distraction? Potentially. Caroline Orr of The Independent has recently published an investigation into why Trump’s supporters so readily believe lazy, half-formed lies, suggesting Trump’s stream of misleading tweets to be an active move to influence his followers rather than a distraction to his opposition. It seems impossible that such an avalanche of misdirection and confusion could have been ejaculated from the White House in any decade other than this, with its advantages of instant communication into which we are all programmed through assaulting vibrations and updates on our smartphone millstones.
What tactics could have been at play when the Vote Leave campaign claimed “we will take back roughly £350 million per week” after Brexit? There’s not much evidence for this to say the least, and global markets are profoundly unpredictable. By posting the above figure on Facebook, Johnson endorsed a particularly internet-centric Vote Leave strategy. Johnson and his fellow campaign coordinators hoped people would go to the polls thinking about the memorable and juicy sum of money that had been carefully not-quite-promised back to our national heartthrob – the NHS. This lie seems to be further evidence that social media are finely-tuned vessels for far-reaching, contagious and reductive misinformation. Again, it seems convincing enough, doesn’t it? This couldn’t have happened before the internet, surely?
Granted, the internet makes it easier for these protagonists to repeat and spread misinformation, legitimising it through sheer weight of circulation, however, what I think we’ve forgotten is that this type of lying, this kind of bulldozering through truth like it’s not there, is something that has always existed at the top level of politics. The nostalgia I’ve noticed people are starting to feel for Blair and the New Labour project must be checked by memory of his suspected fabrication of evidence that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons –evidence that would lead us to war. This is something like proto-fake news: in the year before Facebook’s conception, Blair’s government managed to popularise the rumour of Iraq’s WMDs without the technology and social media we blame for the spread of lies like those of Johnson and Trump mentioned above.
Why stop there? Courts of law in USSR under Stalin, King Charles I’s insistence on the Divine Right of Kings, and perhaps even William the Conqueror’s claim that Harold II promised him the English throne are but a few examples of rulers putting the bulldozer to work to clear away the inconvenience of truth in order to attain power more absolutely.
Perhaps you’re interested in history and enjoy these comparisons. Perhaps you’re not and you don’t. Either way I think they are important and soberingly telling. It’s no secret that powerful people are prone to massive feats of dishonesty in order to achieve their aims, but we should not lay the blame at the door of the likes of the internet and our diminishing attention spans.
Our increasingly instantly gratified minds, on the dopamine drip of palliative scrolling, are most engaged by the cartoonish characters we see on our screens. Whether that gives them good or bad press, it popularises them enough to make their success inevitable. Brazen political dishonesty in our day may seem to be the unique product of these characters’ manipulation of and suitability for social media appeal, however it is chilling to discover that the leader more powerful than truth is a common feature of our history. I believe it speaks more of the nature of unchecked power in human hands than it does of our current Orwellian state of fast satisfaction and internet-assembled philosophy, disturbing though they may be.