THERE is hardly anything in the papers that is not to do with the election in the United States.
There was a snide little piece about Bishop Peter Broadbent in the Evening Standard, pointing out that he will not be Dean of the Chapel Royal when standing in for the Bishop of London after Bishop Chartres retires — as if he’d be worried.
There is also some comment (there will be more) on the defenestration of the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed. Only Steve Doughty, in the Daily Mail, noted it. I suppose he got the story in because it involved an opportunity to bash both the BBC and a Muslim. But it reminds me of the fact that there were, 30 years ago, about 15 full-time religious correspondents, and, at most, four people doing the press in Church House.
Now there are at least 12 people working for the Revd Arun Arora in the communications department at Church House, and just two full-time religious-affairs correspondents, at the BBC and The Guardian. What do all those people do? Many are digital.
THE answer brings us back to Facebook, and to the effectiveness of modern propaganda. All week, there has been a steady backwash of stories, and even, in the case of the German government, action against the use made of Facebook by the Trump campaign.
The most illuminating story, I thought, came from The Washington Post, because it showed how perversely apolitical the fake-news business is. The secret, it turns out, is to give the customers what they want.
Paris Wade and Ben Goldman, two young men who had been kicking around California for a while, both university graduates reduced to working as waiters in a Mexican restaurant, tried to start an advertising agency in 2015. When that failed, they found work from a client who ran numerous alt-right — as the American neo-Nazi movement is known — websites, and paid writers by the click. They learned to write stories that excited passion and, from the very beginning, to lie with extravagance, if hardly with style.
“The first story Wade did aggregated a South Korean news report that claimed an anonymous source had said that a North Korean scientist had defected with data from human experiments. . . He wrote the headline, ‘[PROOF] N. Korea Experiments on Humans’, published the story, and made $120 off ten minutes of work. It was, he says, a revelation: ‘You have to trick people into reading the news.’”
This is not very different in quality from what the Daily Express has been doing for years; but the speed, the ease, and the reach of a Facebook operation dwarfs anything that the traditional media can provide. “Between June and August, [Wade and Goldman] say, when they had fewer than 150,000 Facebook followers, they made between $10,000 and $40,000 every month running advertisements that, among other things, promised acne solutions, Viagra alternatives, ways to remove lip lines, cracked feet, ‘deep fat’, and ‘the 13 sexiest and most naked celebrity selfies’.
“Then the political drama deepened, and their audience expanded fivefold, and now Goldman sometimes thinks that what he made in the last six months would have taken him 20 years waiting tables at his old job.”
All you have to do is to churn out articles written from the headline down: “Right After LOSING The Election, Hillary Clinton Just Humiliated Herself In Worst Way Ever!!” Or “THE TRUTH IS OUT! The Media Doesn’t Want You To See What Hillary Did After Losing. . .” or even simply “CAN’T TRUST OBAMA”.
OVER in the rather different atmosphere of the New Statesman, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was apocalyptically despairing. There is no solution, he wrote “available within the politics of a market society, in which ideas are shaped by public demand.
“The problem is deeper. Trump’s campaign succeeded in spite of the cast-iron demonstrations of his total indifference to truth (not to mention decency).”
The story of Wade and Goldman makes it clear that there is a large element of truth to this. They didn’t fool all the people all of the time — Hillary Clinton still won a majority of the popular vote —– but in a thoroughly gerrymandered system, they did not need to do so either.
Lord Williams goes on: “The politics of mass democracy has failed. It has been narrowed down to a mechanism for managing large-scale interests in response to explicit and implicit lobbying by fabulously well-resourced commercial and financial concerns (ironically, one of the things that Trump has undertaken to change).”
The question becomes, then, what is to be done. At this point, Lord Williams becomes rather less sure-footed: “What will it take to reacquaint people with control over their communities, shared and realistic values, patience with difference and confidence in their capacity for intelligent negotiation?” he wonders.
I wonder when exactly American presidential politics showed these traits. The kind of dons who run the world today aren’t from Cambridge or even Oxford, but the Mafia.