By Sami McCabe
Does the truth matter any more?
Last month, 17.4 million people in the UK voted to leave the EU – a decision influenced, one assumes, by a succession of outright lies peddled by Brexit campaigners.
To the amazement of everyone who follows US politics, Donald Trump – an amusing rank outsider just 12 months ago – is the Republican Party candidate for the President of the United States, riding a wave of populism fuelled by a litany of untruths.
Of course history is littered with examples of politicians who’ve achieved their goals by entertaining a somewhat relaxed relationship with the truth. But it’s hard to recall a period of such intense and apparently unchecked political falsifying on both sides of the Atlantic.
This got me thinking. Is there something about the way we disseminate and consume information today that makes the propagation and acceptance of falsehoods so easy, and therefore so dangerous? What is it about modern media that results in the lie often achieving more credibility than the truth?
Here are some initial reflections on how and why truth is increasingly irrelevant:
Traditional media has been usurped
You can’t underestimate the power of Donald Trump’s Twitter account. On average, @realDonaldTrump tweets are retweeted 2,200 times. The immediate mass dissemination of his often-incendiary comments and opinions blows any other media channel out of the water.
The New York Times dutifully runs its fact check of Trump’s speeches, but no amount of fact-checking – however well-intentioned – is going to recalibrate the opinions of many millions of people exposed to Trump’s tweets, whether directly as are his 10.1 million followers, or indirectly via a retweet.
He can say pretty much anything he likes, and even if he subsequently retracts it (usually very quietly), the damage is done. There are literally hundreds of examples of Trump tweeting outright lies.
Perhaps the most distressing and damaging example of this was his tweet that 81 percent of murders of white people in the US were perpetrated by African Americans. The actual number is 15 percent. This is a big, important difference in an election in which race is a key issue.
Images matter more than ever
When I reflect on the Leave campaign, two images stand out in my mind more than anything: Nigel Farage’s appalling ‘Breaking Point’ poster, and Iain Duncan Smith smugly pontificating next to a bus emblazoned with the promise that a post-Brexit NHS would benefit from a £350m per week boost to its budget.
Strong images have long been a key weapon in the propagandist’s arsenal, but even Leni Riefenstahl would have been impressed by the sheer ballsiness of Farage and Smith’s efforts. And Riefenstahl would surely have been envious of the ease with which these images – and the messages they communicate – reached the right people, at the right time, in their millions.
Both images, of course, were based on total fabrications. Smith subsequently backtracked from the NHS funding promise post-win, and Farage robustly defended his poster despite it actually depicting refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, not immigrants entering Britain to put additional strain on public services / take all our jobs / whatever xenophobic nonsense he was peddling.
Fear is motivating
Farrage was simply playing the game, of course. What he knows, much like Donald Trump, is that fear is hugely motivating. And the best way to create fear is to exaggerate the truth of a situation to the point that it bears no resemblance to reality.
This is common to both Trump and the Leave campaign’s approach to communications: focus first on inciting fear – by means of hyperbole and lies – then position yourself as the savior.
I noticed this week that Trump’s playing this game perfectly. After his relentless lying about black people being mainly responsible for white murders, Mexicans being rapists and Muslims being terrorists, at the GOP convention his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan became, at times, ‘Make America Safe Again’.
People are terrified. Trump’s lies have fanned the flames of that fear. And now he’s telling frightened Americans that he’s the only man capable of making them secure again.
Ignorance is bliss
People don’t have the time or inclination to deeply consider anything today.
We live in a 140 character world in which immediately consumable information is thrown at us constantly. We therefore lap-up the sound bites, and remember the stuff that hits us hardest. And often the most startling pieces of information are those we find the most surprising – because they’re not true.
It seems to me that the information overload we’re all experiencing paradoxically makes us less well-informed. The more news we have, the less we question it. We believe and accept things on face value more readily than any population in history.
Depressingly, apparently millions of Britons who voted to leave the EU would now vote differently. Information they’ve processed in the past six weeks – probably just as immediately, and thus with just as little consideration – has persuaded them to completely change their minds.
Thanks to the way we share and consume information, honesty and integrity are qualities that simply aren’t successful in politics.
This shouldn’t mean we abandon integrity altogether. But what can we learn from Trump and the Leave campaign about how to successfully develop and share a message? In an age of information overload, how can brands communicate their value while being realistic about what they do?
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