As a journalist, one factor that you incorporate into the complex decision of who to vote for in an upcoming election is how the media will change under prospective governments. Everybody now recognises the influence of the media (in both its print and digital forms), but those with a Twitter tab on constant refresh and an inbox full of morning briefings are consistently greeted with the homogenised attack lines of the day from each party.
Such a routine leaves me bereft of hope, given the way in which the digital campaigns of Britain’s political party’s often veer between misleading to out-right lying. In particular, the voluminous catalogue of deceit emanating from Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) points to a narrative outlined by a German-American political theorist which needs to be acknowledged in mainstream discourse.
Hannah Arendt penned The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, which explored the roots of Nazism and Communism, arguing that ‘terror’ had become a new mode of governance, designed to mould citizens into subjects. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, her works have been flying off the bookshelves, as theoreticians attempt to use Arendt to explain the unfolding of contemporary politics.
The 2019 election campaign has vindicated much of Arendt’s analysis. CCHQ have pumped out a mirage of uncertainty, designed to confuse the electorate on all forms of policy except one: getting Brexit done. On the policy front, they acknowledge that they are lacking in fresh ideas, so disrupting the campaign at every possible moment with untruths helps to prevent Labour from gathering political momentum.
I am not the first to identify the relevance of Arendtian thought to modern politics. Paul Mason has skilfully outlined her summation of totalitarianism as the “alliance of the elite and mob”, whilst the philosopher Richard Bernstein’s carefully crafted “Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?” has also synthesised the era of “fake news” that we see today.
But the sheer force with which the Conservative Party are disseminating a powerful blend of fear and mistruths would have been a central case study for the writing of the Jewish Arendt, had she been alive today.
The production of multiple doctored videos, beginning with the Keir Starmer GMB interview and the more recent Laura Kuenessberg “pointless delay to Brexit” soundbite, are part of this concerted effort to mislead the public. In this world, a duty to truth has been left at the door. Deceit catalyses online engagement, which in turn drives home political messages.
Arendt spoke often of this kind of “image making”. In this paradigm, facts that do not line up with the cultivated worldview of the governing ideology are dismissed outright as false. This description of political discourse is eminent within discussions of a “post-truth world”.
Generating an arena of lies and misrepresentations enables power to operate more extensively. Arendt claimed that the “ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist”.
The FactCheck debacle represents this disregard for objective truth. By presenting themselves as the authoritative “voice of reason”, the Conservatives erode faith in actual fact checking sites. With a collapse of trust in these kinds of “checks and balances”, incumbent power is harder to question and corrode.
Number 10’s grip on power further tightens through their use of journalists to put out falsehoods that contradict the position of their political enemies. Peter Oborne wrote a masterful account of this in Open Democracy, where he notes that Conservative misinformation would be willingly reported by journalists without proper analysis.
The desire of the media to appear “plugged in” in an age of real-time journalism enables misinformation to be rife. A rapidly changing news cycle, coupled with the need for political commentators to post “breaking” or “exclusive” content, allows the machinery of government to postulate what is now called “fake news”. In the digital age, the space to carefully scrutinise those operating the levers of power can be hugely difficult to navigate.
When the chance to fully hold Boris Johnson’s feet to the fire pops up, the party runs scared. The Conservatives have refused to offer up the Prime Minister’s services for an interview with the ruthlessly forensic Andrew Neil, calculating that he would be woefully exposed for millions to see. The same can be said for his ducking of the seven way debates. Digital strategies will not hold up in the same way here.
In the aftermath of such debates, the Conservatives attempt to refashion the narrative to appear as victims, rather than the perpetrators of media hostility. Having announced that they would investigate Channel 4 for political bias, the Conservatives’ Michael Gove rocked up to their studios 10 minutes before the environment debate (that Johnson declined to take part in) was set to begin, with camera and microphone conveniently at the ready. The video he posted to Twitter positing that the Conservatives had somehow been no-platformed has now been seen by millions online.
Professor Matt McManus has characterised this recent form of “post-modern Conservatism” evident in the contemporary West. By shattering the truth-falsehood dichotomy, government operates under the ubiquitous presence of uncertainty.
Arendt documents the extreme consequences of these great unknowns in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the accounts of Nazi and Communist regimes, terror becomes an ideology itself; a mode of governance that permeates across all forms of the political and social. The reaction to the recent, tragic London terrorist attack highlights just this.
Before the dust has even settled on London Bridge, Johnson had ‘written’ an article deploring Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to terrorists, with Conservative Twitter going into overdrive by pushing out streams of deliberately poorly designed adverts that warn of a disaster-fuelled state run by Corbyn and Dianne Abbott.
Governance by fear appears to be the name of the game here. In his most recent blog post, Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings summarised his stream of thought with:
Tell your family and friends face-to-face: if Boris doesn’t get a majority, then Corbyn and Sturgeon will control the government, their official policy is to give the vote to millions of foreign citizens to cheat their second referendum, we’ll all get screwed on taxes, Parliament will drag the whole country into crisis, and immigration will return to being a central issue in politics instead of being marginalised by Brexit…
This is taken from the same “project fear” playbook that Cummings and the rest of the Vote Leave team (Johnson included) disavowed in 2016’s referendum. Arendt’s insight is pertinent here. Terror, rather than being an instrument, has become an end in itself.
In this mode of ruling, sections of the population are turned against one another. Microtargeting of adverts creates a relatively unique digital experience for everyone, obliterating the sense of a shared truth held amongst humanity, thus preventing the identification of a common enemy of progress. Limited universal understanding of the world lingers, but an acknowledgement of the fear pervasive amongst society is certainly one of them.
It seems such an irony that a party which wilfully posts misinformation, with a leader who dodges critical interviews and a digital strategy that exploits every political point-scoring opportunity possible, is able to position themselves as the last bastions of democracy. But the logic of CCHQ is paying off: manufacture mistruths in all pockets of policy discussion, leaving the notion of “Brexiting” or not as the only issue with any real clarity.
Arendt herself worked as a journalist, famously reporting on the trial of holocaust Alfred Eichmann in Israel. Her academic life was dedicated to defending liberal democracy against the tyranny of those in power. However, it shouldn’t just be journalists that understand the threat that our relatively free press faces. All around us, the banality of evil is becoming evident for us to see.