Category: Media and journalism

Deception, Deflection and Disruption: the new rules of political communication

This is a post I have been meaning to write for at least 18 months. When first conceived it was in part a prediction. Recent events have conspired to make that prediction a reality, which has encouraged me to get it out there. It is post about the three Ds of modern political communication: Deception, Deflection and Disruption.


It all started with Deception. Many people have accused UK Prime Minister Tony Blair of being a liar. In truth, he was far too clever to deserve this label. Calling Tony Blair a liar is a bit like calling a successful poker player a liar. What Tony Blair and a successful poker player have in common is that the practice of deceit is fundamental to their success. Indeed the whole New Labour project was built upon deception. There was, of course, the grand deception designed to create support or justification for the Iraq war but at a more prosaic level there was the deception that New Labour was a party that was going to deliver on any of its promises, when in fact all they were doing was kicking the can down the road – just another variant of TINA (There Is No Alternative) politics. Labour confused being a party of opposition with being a party in opposition, a problem which exists to this day – but that is another story.

The Conservative-lead government of David Cameron learned a lot from New Labour. They didn’t use deception to disguise a lack of any policies or principles, rather they used it to disguise the ideology underpinning their policies. The Big Society was a case in point. Many people see David Cameron’s Big Society as a muddle-headed failure and its subsequent dismissal from the ‘narrative’ shortly after coming into office as proof of that. On the contrary, the Big Society was a brilliant success. It was never intended to last, it was always just a piece of election stagecraft.

The Big Society was actually a cover story for the privatisation of the State, legitimising the idea that government can withdraw from its responsibilities to manage public services and instead turn these into profit-making opportunities and hand these over to private companies and the ‘free’ market. Of course you could never admit to this in public because if you did, you would never get elected, so an alterative (alt) narrative was required. Cameron and his team were well aware of the fact that the previous Tory government had foundered on being seen as the ‘nasty party’ that was all about selfish individualism. In particular, the idea expressed by Margaret Thatcher that there was no such thing as society had come to represent everything he knew he had to distance himself from. Voters realised there was such a thing as society, because they could see it starting to fray all around them. What better way to address this by stating that you not only believed in society, you wanted to create a Really Big One.

The Big Society had an additional benefit in that it sucked-in support from left-of-centre politics. Charities, third-sector organisations and NGOs all got excited by this idea, mostly because they could smell the money that this approach seemed to imply would flow to them. This excitement was short-lived. Once in power it was clear that the money was going to the big private sector contractors that have established an alternative (alt) Whitehall in Victoria Street, another road leading to the seat of government in Westminster. “The problem with charities is that they have become too dependent on the State” was the cold retort of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maud as he announced cuts, rather than more money, to those charities responsible for delivering state-funded projects. It wasn’t so much the Big Society as the Big Business Society.


Things then progressed to deflection. The global financial crash of 2008 was a rather inconvenient refutation to belief in economic neo-liberalism and the supremacy of the free market. Here was a catastrophic failure of that ideology, due in part to the fact that loosely regulated ‘free’ markets can very easily be manipulated and also the tendency such markets have to cultivate greed and become little more than frameworks to preserve and enhance the interests of the rich and powerful. There was also the slight problem that, after more than 20 years of pursuing this ideology by governments of both sides of the supposed political divide (ref. TINA politics), things were starting to get a little ragged. Increasing inequality was becoming obvious, public services were in a bad way, social care had become little more than a profit-making opportunity – as had tertiary education, the cherished National Health Service was heading the same way and manufacturing industry was in decline due to the long-absence of any sort of industrial strategy since the only strategy in town was to hand everything over to the market and let that work out what to do.

The blame needed to be shifted and the Cameron government decided to promote the idea that the state of the public finances bequeathed them by the previous Labour government was in fact the cause of problem. This not only shifted the blame, but also legitimised a renewed assault on public services and the State under the guise of an austerity programme. A double-win.

I don’t think the Tories initially believed they could get away with this, but due to the total aversion of the Labour Party in opposition to the concept of offering-up any opposition, they found this ‘narrative’ actually stuck. Thus emboldened, they began a programme of mass deflection – blaming the state of the NHS on doctors/nurses/management/bureaucracy, the state of education on poorly performing teachers or local authorities, the welfare bill on benefits cheats, immigrants or just poor people generally. Everyone was to blame, except government or the fundamentalist free-market ideology that underpinned everything that successive governments had been doing.


This brings us to Disruption, where things get much more prescient, not to say scary. The master of disruption is Vladimir Putin and in particular his orchestrator of confusion, Vladislav Surkov. Putin / Surkov realised that you don’t attack your opposition by trying to suppress it, what you do is deflate its ability to operate by undermining its attempts to create any solid foundations. Thus Putin will erode human rights in Russia, while funding the human rights organisations who then subsequently criticise him. The result is confusion: people just don’t know what to think or who to believe. There are thus no certainties upon which to build beliefs or ideas which might challenge the status quo. This is an approach used to great effect domestically, but it has also been extended into Russia’s foreign policy – which at times seems to have no agenda other than to be as disruptive as possible in order to confuse opponents and keep everyone on the back foot.

It is this which explains the apparently bizarre connection between Russia and Donald Trump. There is an enormous level of admiration held by the elements in the Trump administration lead by Steve Bannon (and probably by Trump himself) for how Vladimir Putin operates. Putin has been able to disable almost all the institutions of the state associated with the maintenance of democracy, turning Russia into a country that is primarily structured to preserve and enhance the interests of a super-rich elite (this is the bit that Bannon likes). Yet he has been able to do this while maintaining the fig leaf of democratic consent based upon creating genuine public support for a populist, strong, nationalistic leader (this is the bit that Trump likes). Russia is effectively Breitbart World made real. It also bears a chilling similarity to the world of George Orwell’s 1984 with its newspeak, revision and reversal of history and state of perpetual warfare against largely unseen enemies without and within.

I would venture to suggest that the Cameron government and its chief spin doctor Lynton Crosby, experimented with disruption politics in its latter days. Witness the last Conservative Party Conference before Cameron’s resignation. Here, while positioning the Conservative Party as the party of working people, the government announced the scrapping of working tax credits – an initiative that all the independent experts pronounced would have the greatest negative impact on precisely those people the government was pledging its support to. Words and actions in total contradiction – was this incompetence or calculated disruption? We shall never know. What we do know however, is that it didn’t work, since government as forced to withdraw its changes to working tax credits in the face of public opposition.

We also need to know that we are entering an age of politics characterised by the practice of deception, deflection and disruption. This is a world within which people like Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Wilders, Le Penn and Farage can flourish. It is not so much a world of fake news, as fake politics and fake democracy. Rather than get caught-up in, and thus fall victim to, its daily vortex of manufactured madness, it is important that those who study and report upon these things remain focused on exposing its highly organised, but often hidden, dynamics.


Gaming democracy

Not far short of three years-ago I published a piece on the Huffington Post which suggested that humans had moved from the age of the sword into the age of the printing press and were about to move into the age of the algorithm. The reason, I suggested, for why a particular form of technology came to shape an age was that each technology conferred an advantage upon an elite or institutionalised group, or at least facilitated the emergence of a such group which could control these technologies in order to achieve dominance.

This is why the algorithm will have its age. Algorithms are extraordinarily powerful but they are difficult things to create. They require highly paid geeks and therefore their competitive advantage will be conferred on those with the greatest personal or institutionalised resource – billionaires, the Russians, billionaire Russians, billionaire Presidents (Russian or otherwise). There is also a seductive attraction between algorithms and subterfuge: they work most effectively when they are invisible.

I have also long been an advocate of the idea that fundamental shift that follows from the social digital revolution is the shift of trust from institutions into processes. Now the problem with processes is that they can be ‘gamed’ – and there are no better tools for gaming processes than algorithms.

With this in mind I read this excellent piece by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer last Sunday. The article is an exposure of a billionaire called Robert Mercer and the activities of various organisations he funds. Carol (as a journalist) determines that these organisations have as their objective the disabling of mainstream media. In reality they go way beyond this: they are designed to ‘game’ democracy itself.

Robert Mercer is a computer scientist who made his money running a hedge fund that uses – surprise, surprise – algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets. He is also a far right neoliberal: one of the types who wishes to do away with or disable the institutions of government, except the military and police, and replace them with markets and profiteering. Markets, as he well knows from his hedge fund experience, can be manipulated and gamed even more readily than democracy.

Indeed it is almost inevitable that men like Mercer, with his type of unaccountable and un-transparent money, will tend to be the winners in the age of the algorithm. This kind of money just doesn’t reside anywhere else. One is hard pressed to find a secretive far left billionaire – and those billionaires of a more liberal (as distinct from neoliberal) bent tend naturally to give their money to organisations that fight poverty and disease, rather than create secretive networks designed to manipulate and control public opinion and undermine democracy.

This isn’t a question of left or right – it is a question of elite power versus the interest of the people. This is exactly the type of struggle that characterised the introduction of previous technological ages and a struggle which, until the introduction of universal suffrage and thus genuine democracy in the 20th century, has always favoured the elites. This also explains why Mercer is out to disable and distort democracy – genuine democracy will always act as a restriction on the wealthy to use their wealth to become even wealthier. Will Hutton put it somewhat better when he said “the point of democracy is to ensure that capitalism lives up to its promises.” The only way to re-establish democracy and create any sense of regulation or oversight over the activities of the Masters of the Algorithm is transparency. You cannot balance the influence of a Robert Mercer by outspending him in an algorithmic arms race – because even if the necessary money existed, it would almost certainly sit within a context that wouldn’t allow it to operate under-cover in a Mercer-type manner.

You can only counter a Mercer by exposing and explaining what he is doing, which is why Carole Cadwalladr’s article is so important. The sunlight of transparency is the only anti-dote to the abusive potential of the Masters of the Algorithm.

Why YouTube Red is the same as the 1559 Index of Banned Books

It may be difficult to see a connection between the launch of YouTube Red (a subscription paywall behind which its ‘content stars’ have now been imprisoned), the Council of Trent in 1545-63 and the Index of Banned Books (or indeed between the social media ‘Reformation’ and the Protestant Reformation). But there is a connection and it is to do with institutional reactions to new forms of disruptive technology and a desire to shore up established vested interests.

Looking first at the Council of Trent. This was one of a series of crisis meetings convened by the Catholic Church to try and deal with the pesky Protestant Reformation which was threatening its authority in large parts of Europe. An aspect of this that was especially irksome was the new-fangled technology of printing, which had allowed Martin Luther et al, as well as some other awkward geeks such as Galileo, to spread their ideas far more extensively that would have been possible in the good-old days of the Inquisition. In fact one of the most significant aspects behind the success of the Protestant Reformation was its adoption of this new communications technology and a recognition of its power to disrupt established institutionalised interests (i.e. the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church).

The Roman Catholic Church could not deny or seek to eradicate this new technology, but it could try to appropriate its power and control its output – hence the Index of Banned Books. This Index was an attempt to define and promote only content that supported institutionalised political vested interests (the Roman Catholic Church). YouTube Red, on the other hand, is an attempt to define and promote only content that supports institutionalised commercial vested interests (Google and the advertising industry). Continue reading

Twitter’s failure: a failure of management or expectation?

It has just been announced (in a Tweet of course) that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has stepped down, under pressure from investors, because of a perceived failure to either grow the user base or revenue sufficiently.

The real issue here is what is this a failure of.  Is it a failure of management to grow users and (advertising) revenues, or it is it a failure of expectation on the part of investors?  I tend to see it as the later.

Twitter has the same problem that Facebook has in that the ‘clever’ chaps on Wall Street who had to stick a number on it when it started to prospect for investment used the wrong model.  Continue reading

Podcasting: what goes around comes around

I am intrigued at the extent to which podcasts are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity because it was podcasts that first got me interested in social media all those years ago.  In the time before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, podcasts were the first vaguely commercial looking manifestation of the thing we now call social media.  Before podcasts there were only blogs – which at the time were simply (and incorrectly) seen as online personal diaries and personal diaries are not serious or sensible things.  Podcasts, however, looked a lot like radio shows – and radio shows are (sometimes) serious and sensible things.  The claim behind podcasts was that now everyone could make a radio show – which seemed highly intriguing, and potentially highly disruptive (at least to radio shows).

But two things happened which stopped podcasts delivering on their potential.  First was the assumption that now everyone could produce a radio show – because it very soon became apparent that the people who had always produced radio shows could do a much better job of it than couples in their kitchens.  This was a classic confusion of information and distribution.  A radio show is basically a form of distribution not a form of content.  The means (and expense) of radio distribution dictate and constrain what the content of a radio show can be – as with all forms of traditional media.  What the social media revolution has done is liberate information from restrictive means of distribution.  Content doesn’t have to conform to the rules of mass media.  Radio (form of distribution) becomes audio (form of content/information).

Audio producers (podcasters) therefore didn’t need to constrain themselves with the distribution restrictions associated with being radio producres – but no-one really realised this.  Instead everyone tried to replicate (and unsuccessfuly compete with) ‘old-fashioned’ radio shows.  Continue reading

Content marketing: reaching for the stars (but reach is yesterday’s game)

16245948997364302024I am content marketing’s biggest fan.  I am content marketing’s biggest sceptic.

As a fan …

In May 2011 I gave a presentation to finance directors from major communications agency groups for the EACA.  It was about how agencies could survive in the world of social media.  I concluded the presentation with six (slightly tongue in cheek) recommendations, one of which was “hire a bunch of journalists and get them to do outsourced content creation and editorial management”.*

Before that, my mantra was (and remains) that conversation, content and community are the three platforms of any social media strategy.

Looking back at my presentations from seven years ago I see I was encouraging brands to drive a network of content threads into their relevant digital space with the exhortation to “get it a link, get it out there, get it working for you”.

One would therefore have thought that on reading this cover story about the rise of content marketing from the Columbia Journalism Review, I would therefore feel vindicated.  (Incidentally, I was sent this piece by Stan Magniant, fellow social media traveller from way back, who now heads up Coca Cola’s digital and content operation for Northern Europe).  But I don’t feel vindicated, I feel disappointed. This isn’t the sort of content I was talking about.

But as a sceptic…

First there is the whole issue of ‘independent’ journalism being replaced by ‘sponsored’ journalism.  But I am not too worried about this because journalism was always sponsored and all that is happening is that the sponsor is becoming more apparent.

My main issue is with the concept (and value) of reaching consumers in comparison with the value of being reached by consumers.

The justification, and measurement, for most of these mega brand content operations is primarily reach.  As the CJR article highlights, some of the content that brands are producing is matching (sometimes exceeding) the reach achieved by traditional media channels.  But there are two issues here.  One is consistency.  A traditional media channel, generally speaking, guaranties a particular level of reach, whereas brand content is much more hit and miss.  But the bigger issue is that reaching someone is the lesser part of the game.  What really matters is what happens when you reach someone (or what happens when they reach you).

In ‘the old days’ we tended not to think about this too much because we knew we were putting messages in the channel that had been specifically designed to trigger a valuable response (i.e. advertising).  If we were reaching people, we were therefore creating value: reach was therefore a proxy for value creation.  Or alternatively, our PR messages had the benefit of carrying with them third-party endorsement conferred on them by the channels which adopted them.  But brand channels don’t carry this endorsement and their availability means brands can easily fill them up with huge amounts of stuff, in the quest to ratchet-up the reach score.  When it is easy and cheap to pour vast amounts of content into a space, it is not difficult to accumulate high aggregated levels of reach.  But should that not indicate to us that reach is becoming a devalued currency?  Reach is a function of distribution, and the social media revolution is all about the separation of information (content) from distribution.  Being a channel, being the distributor, creating reach, carries less and less value (as the traditional media is discovering).   Reach, in and of itself, is yesterday’s game.

Chasing reach is simply a new variant of the (now belatedly discredited) exercise of manufacturing Facebook likes and Twitter followers.  You may have reached a whole lot of people, but so what?  What does this actually mean for what these people think about your brand and how does this translate into improved sales or reputation scores?  How much credit is the brand actually getting for being seen as the supplier of this content?  Is supplying this sort of content what your consumers are saying they want you to do?

I keep coming back to the recent Edelman Brandshare report, which is a crystal clear manifesto for brands, presented to them by consumers.  There is no ambiguity here about what it is consumers want from brands.  In terms of content, they want answers to their questions.  And they also want brands to demonstrate that they stand for something in addition to the generation of profit.

It seems to me that brands are at a crossroads.  They can decide to jump on the content bandwagon and pour huge amounts of stuff into the ever-expanding content universe, collecting their ‘reach points’ as they go in the belief that they can redeem these for something worth having.  Or they can decide to give consumers what consumers are telling them they want – which is a content strategy which matches brand answers to consumers’ questions in real-time.  And a marketing strategy that is designed to convince consumers that they are a brand worth reaching.


* The other five were: fire all creatives over 30 and put a £45k salary cap on the creative department, fire all your planners and hire social data analysts (and sell social data analysis as a product), sell your independently branded digital and media businesses (while you can still get a premium price) but pull the function in-house so it becomes a facilitation function not a client facing specialism, buy a change management / innovation agency and get it to develop a brand socialisation product, recruit some “Baby Bells” (i.e. people like Tim (Lord) Bell who can act as CEO counsellors).  So, a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I would still stand by them.